Riz Ahmed (left) with Mira Nair, Kiefer Sutherland and Kate Hudson
He is more at home being a musician. But that doesn’t mean Riz Ahmed doesn’t love acting. The Brit-Pakistani — more popular by his rapper name Riz MC — plays a man chasing the Great American Dream who hits the crossroads in post-9/11 USA in Mira Nair’s political thriller The Reluctant Fundamentalist. A t2 chat with Riz on his ‘dream role’ and working with Mira Nair.
Had you read Mohsin Hamid’s book on which The Reluctant Fundamentalist is based before the film was offered to you?
When I first read the book, I loved it! I thought it absolutely must be made into a film. I even called the publisher, asking if I could have the film rights!
And how did the film happen?
It wasn’t easy to get an audition. After I read the book, I heard Mira (Nair) was directing a version and the combo of one of my favourite books and favourite directors was very exciting. So I really pursued it. I sent tape after tape. She wasn’t convinced till we met in person. It was a lot of holding my breath and waiting. I had given up all hope until I got the last-minute call to go and see her and we clicked.
Changez is described as a chameleonic character, difficult to figure out and not easy to like or admire. What were the biggest challenges of playing him?
I think he is easy to relate to and empathise with because we all go through a time of trying to work out who we are when we are young. Then when we are older, I think we respect those who live according to some sense of principle, which he does... so I think he is likeable. I think he is complex, like real people are, and maybe that means more uncomfortable moments than some audiences are used to in a so-called ‘hero’.... It’s a dream role. It’s a very complex character that’s very layered. You get to play a young man and then a slightly older man. There’s that amazing element to him. That was a great acting challenge and a big stretch.
You have lived in London all your life. How far did you have to stretch yourself to play a man from Pakistan in pursuit of the Great American Dream?
I had to do lots of homework to play a Pakistani. Get my Urdu level up, my Pakistani political and poetic knowledge up. But I could also relate to someone grappling with a complex identity. I think that’s a very modern condition that many people can relate to, he feels more immersed with his Pakistani roots. Having been raised in Britain with a family that speaks Urdu at home, I never really felt out of touch culturally. However, the homework I did for the role of Changez allowed me to explore my potential.
Is there a part of Changez that stayed with you after pack-up?
Yes, the lesson that you don’t have to fit into a box!
You have been a self-confessed Mira Nair fan. What’s the one facet of her filmmaking that’s made the maximum impression on you?
The experience of working with Mira Nair gave me a sense of home. She is a unique talent. She is the best at telling stories spread across different worlds and cultures, and that’s because she combines intellect and aesthetics like no one else. She also leads (a film) in a very all-round way, emotionally as well as professionally.
Sharing screen space with the likes of Kiefer Sutherland, Liev Schreiber and Kate Hudson must have been a special experience. What did you take back from each of these actors in the way they approach their craft?
They are all at the top of their game. I learnt different things. Kiefer taught me the benefits of technical awareness and understanding on a set, Kate taught me not to overthink things, and Liev taught me to never compromise.
You were also recently seen alongside Freida Pinto in Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna. How was that experience?
It was great. Michael is who started me in this business (with the 2006 film The Road to Guantanamo) and it was like a lovely homecoming. I love working with him. And Freida is so easy to work with, a very chilled out and cool lady.
What is the way forward for you in films?
I don’t know. I just want to keep improving. I’ve played lots of different roles and they’ve connected with lots of different people. In the next few years I want to move into directing, first by making a short film then developing it into a feature.
Finally, what defines Riz better — the actor or the rapper?
My music is what’s on my mind; in my films I am other people.
The 2007 book written by Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid is set during a single evening in an outdoor Lahore cafe, where a Pakistani man called Changez tells an American stranger about his love affair with an American woman and his eventual abandonment of the US in the post-9/11 scenario.
Shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize, the best-seller won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and the South Bank Show Annual Award for Literature, among others. The Guardian hailed it as one of the books that defined the decade with Fundamentalist reaching no. 4 on The New York Times best-seller list.