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Riz Ahmed

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As a young boy growing up in a working-class Pakistani community in northwest London, the only life Rizwan Ahmed knew was one of dual identity. He won scholarships to go to private schools and Oxford University while maintaining a strong connection with the Asian street, its trials and its codes. Later, it is this cultural crossover that would fuel his inner fire for the arts—and give him a powerful voice against xenophobia. 

2016 saw Riz releasing a music solo, a Swet Shop Boys album with Heems or Himanshu Suri [formerly of Das Racist], and a thought-provoking mixtape, Englistan. As an actor, he appeared in Jason Bourne and HBO's The Night Of, as well as indie films Una and City of Tiny Lights. As the world awaits the release of Star Wars: Rogue One this week, we speak to Riz who has by confession, never learned to slow down.

What is your first memory of acting? 
I was always messing around and play-acting as a child. My household was boisterous and playful and loud, and I loved impersonating Prince Charles. That's the kind of stuff I did at family gatherings. And then, I got used to acting in day to day life and switching roles from one context to another... if you see my short autobiographical film, Daytimer, you’ll see how I went from a traditional Pakistani household to a predominantly white upper class schooling… with that kind of Brit-Asian culture I was exposed to, I think acting came naturally.

And of rapping? 
I used to listen to my brother’s cassettes, he got me into rap. Then at a school trip to the science museum we got to go to the sound recording studio and I guess that’s where it started.

What inspires your art and choices?
My inspiration comes from trying to put myself out of my comfort zone, and trying to remain authentic.

Music, film, theatre and TV— you have engaged with all these mediums. What excites you about each of these?
All of these help me create something and give me an opportunity to express myself, so they’re all exciting. These are collaborative mediums, and I like solving the problems that come up in the creative process with each. For film, you need a lot of people; it's more expensive and the schedule takes more than a year. On the other hand, music is quicker… the Swet Shop Boys album just happened and it is out this summer; the kind of turnaround time involved in music is shorter. But then also the attention span for music these days is also less and it can sometimes feel more disposable. Something like a film has a publicity budget behind it and the promotional rollout helps them make a bigger splash in your consciousness. So there are differences in the way people see film or music. But from a creative perspective, they are all connected for me because they allow collaborative expression and are mediums through which I can connect with audiences.

How have you evolved as an actor over the years? 
When you start you don't have anything to work around except your instinct. Then as you work more and more, you have more experience…the challenge is to not lose that original instinct but use it to refine your craft. There's the confident of being naïve at the very start of your career. That’s why you sometimes see children giving such incredibly brilliant raw performances. But you can't go back to that childlike thing, you've got to look ahead. You've got to find something else; you've got to find new ways of working that inspire that same sense of novelty.


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