Every once in a while, an actor comes on the scene and their personality, professional work and general persona is so unique it feels like spotting a unicorn. This time around, we’ve found it in Riz Ahmed.
The 34-year-old star has been in the business for years, but it wasn’t really until last year when he blew up on the scene with blockbuster movies and hit TV shows. It’s also worth noting he’s British Pakistani, so it goes without saying: #RepresentationIsImportant. And those are just a couple of reasons why Time magazine just named him one of the 100 most influential people of the year, with a love letter written by his American twin, Lin-Manuel Miranda. His side hustle as a rapper and activism for those without voices are the cherries on top of this perfect Riz Ahmed sundae, but let’s go back a little and see how he climbed his way to the top and into our hearts.
The son of immigrants, Riz grew up in London and started acting in high school literally to stay out of trouble. There was a prominent racist problem that coincided with Asian gang culture, and he became v unruly and disruptive in class. it wasn’t until a teacher told him, “If you can muck about on stage, you get a clap for it, not a suspension.” And that’s what started it.
He went on to Oxford University, where he graduated with a degree in PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics). He’s said the dramatics scene in Oxford was very white and classical, which was totally what he was used to.
“I felt massively like a fish out of water. First person I met there, they laughed in my face and told me I reminded them of Ali G. So I kind of stuck out there, in terms of where I was coming from, the way that I spoke, the way I dressed. The place that you feel like you stick out the most is the place where you should stick it out and stay. Because that’s where you can contrubute somethingnew and fresh. it’s going to be hard and sometimes really lonely. and it was. but i was able to offer something different.”
However, he did continue to pursue his acting career by attending the Central School of Speech and Drama and he eventually got a break with his first film called The Road to Guantanamo. The docudrama told the true story of three British men who were detained in Guantanamo as enemy combatants, and they were kept there for two years before they were eventually released.
Riz played one of the young men, and ironically, four of the actors from the movie were detained in London’s Luton Airport after they returned from the film’s premiere in Berlin. Riz alleged that during questioning, police asked him pointed questions, inquiring if he had become an actor to further the Islamic cause, what he thought about the Iraq war, verbally abused him and denied him access to a phone. The police maintain that none of the actors were arrested, and just detained under the Terrorism Act (which lets them question people that are acting suspicious). Basically, Riz had practice for The Night Of.
At the same time, he was also working on his music career as Riz MC, and released his first single, Post 9/11 Blues, which was controversial, as the title can suggest. But even though his intentions were more satirical than anything, the track was banned from the airwaves by the British government.
“It is about how the contours of our society have been distorted since 9/11, and how that affects every area of our lives,” Riz told The Guardian at the time. “But it’s not a rant from an angry young Muslim, it’s funny, and the music is quite poppy and radio-friendly. It’s a shame that a satirical song like this is seen as a threat.”
Like an arguably better Will Smith, Riz carried on with both his acting and music careers concurrently, and receiving acclaim for both. Most of his screen work was British-based on TV and on the big screen, earning multiple British Film Independent Award nominations. And as a rapper, he released EPs and performed at Glastonbury, and with his hip-hop duo Swet Shop Boys, most recently took the stage at Coachella. Did we mention he’s even on The Hamilton Mixtape??
By 2014, he had enough cred to break out of the British cinema bubble, garnering even more acclaim for his role opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler. He served as Jake’s right hand camera man and his performance caught the eyes of several decisionmakers in Hollywood. In 2016, he had four movies come out, including Jason Bourne and Rogue One, two non-blockbusters, obviously.
On TV, he appeared in Netflix’s OA, had a short yet v important recurring role in Girls, and of course, maybe his career defining role in The Night Of. True story, I just finished watching this – seven episodes in one day and I could’ve gone on to watch the finale, but I decided it was better to not be a crazy person and saved the eighth and final episode for the next day. But that’s a testament to not only how powerful the performances are, but that the story itself is one that needs to be told.
For those who don’t know, Riz stars as Nasir Kahn, a Pakistani-American college student who couldn’t be more of an average guy. He’s pretty timid, family oriented and even tutors basketball players so they can stay on the team. One night, he takes his dad’s taxi to go to a party in downtown New York City, but a girl gets in the cab thinking he’s a real taxi driver. He agrees to drive her, but that decision changed his entire life. He goes back to her place, she offers him drugs, they have sex, and in the morning, he wakes up and finds her dead after being stabbed multiple times. But he didn’t do it. Or at least he didn’t remember what happened.
The miniseries follows Nas’ journey in prison, and how race and economic status play into the criminal justice system. Riz in particular plays Nas in a way that you are rooting for him, and left in awe of the transformation – including a maj physical one – throughout the eight episodes. And again, critics seemed to take notice, as Riz was nominated for both a Golden Globe and SAG Award this year. You’ll get ’em next time, kid.
And to top it all off and becoming the ultimate dream man, he’s continued to have that interest in social issues and politics (putting that Oxford degree to good use), and using his platform as a celebrity to bring attention to various issues, like the Syrian refugee crisis. He even teamed up with his The Night Of co-star John Tuturro to raise money for the Karam Foundation, which provides families with basic needs and delivers education programs for refugee youth. The crowdfunding campaign was a direct response to Trump’s executive order banning the entry of Syrian refugees & immigrants into the U.S. He’s raised over $178,000 and you can still donate here.
So while he’s a relative newcomer to the scene, Riz’s professional and personal work over the past year alone is more than enough reason for him to be named one of the most influential people in the world. Perhaps most importantly, it’s refreshing to see someone have such a positive influence on this generation and generations to come, all because he speaks candidly and openly about things he’s passionate about, and not in a media trained sort of way.
For example, Riz isn’t afraid to break the fourth wall and remind people that fame and celebrity doesn’t make you immune to the harsh reality of the world we live in today.
“It’s been a weird year. I’ve been enjoying the access, but, on the other hand, America and England both shot themselves in the face,” Riz noted at the Elle Style Awards earlier this year. “It was a year where I was getting searched like three time instead of two before I got on a plane, but, when I got on the plane, I was on the cover of the inflight magazine. Weird.”
He’s honest, yet professional. An activist, but not in your face. An undeniable star, but no ego. In short: Riz Ahmed is a unicorn.