"The Reluctant Fundamentalist has this scene which I guess will go down iconographically in cinema history with the first character to look at the 9/11 attacks," said film critic Jason Solomons. "There he is pictured looking at them ... kind of being on the side of the aggressor."
"In that moment, I should have felt sorrow or anger," Changez says in the movie. "But all I felt was awe — what audacity."
Solomons says this is a conflicted role for an actor to play. "I think the kind of skill that Riz [has] is to still make this character understandable even though he's doing something that many, many people would find inhumane."
And that's just the kind of acting challenge Riz Ahmed relishes. "I'm drawn to doing projects that are bold in some way," he said.
And it's no surprise that Ahmed is making his American debut with a film as bold as The Reluctant Fundamentalist. It's about the current fault lines between East and West, Muslim and American, 'us versus them.' Those deeper themes fueled director Mira Nair.
"Changez has to compel you with his idiosyncrasies, and with his desires and with his contradictions and with his complexity," Nair said. "How to make all these bigger issues resonate in one human being whose beating heart you can feel and touch and see yourself."
Ahmed says you should see yourself in Changez because at some level, each one of us is trying to navigate between worlds.
"Everyone can relate to the idea of having dual identities, feeling like an insider and an outsider. We live in a society and at a time now that's deeply aspirational. We're never, no one is content," he said. "We're always on our way to a destination from a point of origin. So we're always in transit and in that sense we're all perpetually insiders, outsiders."
As an artist, Ahmed seems drawn to characters on the move between inside and outside, between likeability and repulsion. He's played a shady investor, a bumbling terrorist and a shifty drug dealer.
"There's something about him as a character on screen that inspires debate," Solomons said. "He's got these tremendously darting eyes. They're full of inquisitive questioning to the audience."
The novelist Mohsin Hamid says what's remarkable about Ahmed's performance as the Reluctant Fundamentalist is how chameleon-like he can be.
"For a lot of people, they won't even realize how much acting went into Riz being a Pakistani-Pakistani. He's from Britain," Hamid said. "It's a bit like Robert Deniro playing an Italian mafioso in Godfather. He's an Italian-American. He's not Italian."
"If you cut Riz open, you'll find London inside," said Solomons, who is a fellow Londoner. "He really is kind of what young Britain is like. He's kind of spry, he's kind of sly, he's kind of moveable. He kind of adapts. He can kind of pass anywhere."
Ahmed is certainly adaptable: He records music as Riz MC. He studied politics and philosophy at Oxford. And just a few weeks ago he tweeted about visiting asylum seekers and the queen on the same day.
He's also fiercely reluctant about having his work defined by his South Asian, Muslim background.
"The idea of representing may be kind of like hip-hop vernacular, in terms of like 'representin' ' in a way that resonates with people who maybe aren't often represented," said Ahmed. "I think that's a great source of pride but I think that also it would be a great source of frustration or failure if that was the only people it resonated with."
Four Lions star Riz Ahmed tackles terrorism again in his latest film – just don’t call him British-Pakistani.
On the way to meet Riz Ahmed, I spot a Twitter exchange between the Four Lions star and Bafta over the correct way to introduce him for a lecture. ‘No need for “british-pakistani” thanks’ tweets @rizmc. ‘British is fine. Born & raised. Cheers.’
I ask him whether that kind of ethnic labelling bugs him.
‘I don’t think any of us like to be reduced to just one label,’ says the eager 30-year-old Muslim Oxbridge graduate, just to pigeonhole him that bit more.
‘That is something I have always been very restless about in life but also professionally as an actor. I’m always trying to slip out of those labels everyone tries to put round your neck. We all have multiple selves. And growing up between classes and cultures, kind of like Changez’s character, is something I can really relate to.’
He is referring to his new film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Ahmed’s performance has rightly been called ‘magnetic’ in Mira Nair’s big-screen adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s best-seller. He plays Changez, a smart, young Pakistani immigrant from Lahore keenly thrusting his way up Wall Street. Then 9/11 strikes and his American Dream shatters, forcing him to re-evaluate his identity and turn towards his homeland.
Ahmed was born in Wembley, north-west London, to ‘very much a normal, upper-working/middle-class family’ of first-wave immigrants from Karachi. It wasn’t so much being Pakistani that made him stand out in his community as getting a scholarship to a suburban private school, where he also felt unsettled.
‘I think that insider/outsider perspective is a really interesting one,’ Ahmed muses thoughtfully – if you can do so while speaking and thinking at double the normal speed. ‘Growing up in that kind of fault line is something you need to embrace. It made me want to cultivate my confusion as a creative person.’
And he’s done just that as an actor, aspiring film producer and rising rap star. As ‘Riz MC’ he’s currently working on his second album and it was Post 9/11 Blues, his track from 2006, that first caught the ears of writer/director Chris Morris, leading him to cast Ahmed as a bumbling suicide bomber in Four Lions.
But confusion came first. Ahmed threw a chair through a classroom window when he was 11 – an act triggered less by rebellion than undiagnosed ADHD. ‘I have always been restless, had a lot of energy,’ he says. ‘If I had a Coca-Cola now, it would be like I had just done pills.’
Intense and earnestly intelligent, with fine pointed features, large, gleaming woodland-creature eyes and, today, sporting a natty waistcoat, Ahmed could play Ratty in a Wind In The Willows reboot. It would be a change from being, some might suggest, typecast in ethnically specific roles – a practice Ahmed considers a younger generation of film-makers, such as his fellow actor/producer/rapper chum Plan B, are changing.
‘Ill Manors is a good example, as is Shifty,’ he says of the two urban indie films he’s starred in. ‘They are set in a specific geographical space but actually the ethnicity of the characters is kind of incidental.’
After studying philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, where he co-founded the Hit & Run underground music nights, Ahmed’s big-screen break came in The Road To Guantanamo, playing a member of the Tipton Three. Life imitated art when he was detained and searched at Luton airport on the way back from the Berlin Film Festival where the film won the Silver Bear.
In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Changez, a yuppie who seemingly turns into a radical Jihadist, is also targeted by airport security. But Ahmed is keen for the film to be viewed within a broader social and emotional context.
‘People might not know that much about post-9/11 politics or Wall Street finance but I think the movie’s central idea is really about shifting selves, multiple selves and how a person maintains a consistent sense of self,’ he says. ‘Today, we are all living more hectic, mobile lives than we ever did before. We are living like our iPods are on shuffle.’
Where will he shuffle off to next? ‘I think I am ready to try and cultivate stillness inside myself,’ says Ahmed. He’s got his work cut out there.
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