Riz Ahmed is an award-winning British-Pakistani actor and rapper.
Who Is Riz Ahmed?
Born in Wembley in northeastern London on December 1, 1982, Rizwan Ahmed is a British Pakistani actor and rapper, who started in independent films and later made a name for himself in blockbuster movies including Nightcrawler (2014), Jason Bourne (2016) and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). He was the first Muslim performer nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award with the Sound of Metal (2019) and won the Oscar for Best Live-Action Short The Long Goodbye in 2022. He was also the first Muslim man to win an acting Emmy, taking home the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie trophy for The Night Of (2016).
In addition to acting, Ahmed is part of the rap groups Swet Shop Boys and Halflife and goes by the alias Riz MC. He hit the Billboard charts with a 2017 video for “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” from the Hamilton Mixtape featuring Daveed Diggs and K’naan to raise awareness about U.S. immigration policy.
Ahmed has also advocated against perpetuating Muslim stereotypes in Hollywood through The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion.
Early Life and Education
The son of Pakistani parents, Ahmed grew up speaking Urdu and learned to speak English when he started going to school at the age of 6. He received a scholarship to a private school, Merchant Taylors’, at the age of 11.
He told The Guardian he was full of “volcanic energy” in school and even put a chair through a window one time. His teachers helped channel that energy into extracurricular activities, like debate and drama. “It was really, really, really genuinely just therapeutic for me,” he told the paper. “It was a space where anything’s possible.”
Ahmed later studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University, doing some acting along the way. Though he never thought he’d get in, he applied to London’s Central School of Speech and Drama for a yearlong masters of arts program in classical acting.
Lack of Representation and Moving to America
Ahmed never thought acting could be a viable career for him since there were so few roles for British South Asian men in the mid-2000s. When Slumdog Millionaire came up in 2007, he thought it was his one and only chance to make it, so when the title role went to Dev Patel, Ahmed considered all hope lost, The Guardian reported.
Up until then, he had been getting work in independent films such as The Road to Guantanamo (2006), Shifty (2008), Four Lions (2010), Trishna (2011) and Ill Manors (2012), but by 2013, he felt like things were slowing down for him in the UK. A fellow Brit encouraged him to try his hand in Hollywood.
“I remember having a chat with Idris Elba in London thinking, ‘Man, I’m not going to go to America. What are they going to do with someone like me over there?’ It was terrible, this idea of no clear example or something that’s been carved out before you,” he told Variety. But Elba said he had felt the same pang and told him not to categorize himself, adding “What have you got to lose?”
Mainstream Success and Emmy Win
Ahmed took the gamble, withdrawing all his savings and heading to Los Angeles. He quickly landed the role of Rick in 2014’s Nightcrawler starring Jake Gyllenhaal. But it was in 2016 that he truly put his name on the map with the blockbuster films Jason Bourne, as Aaron Kallor; and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, as Bodhi Rock; as well as the HBO crime mini-series The Night Of, in which he played Nasir Khan, a college student accused of murder. That performance put him on the awards circuit, and he scored the Emmy for Outstanding Actor in a Limited Series or Series in 2017. That award also made him the first Muslim and the first South Asian to win a lead acting honor. That same year, he also got an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series for his appearance on the Girls episode “All I Ever Wanted.”
“After The Night Of popped, I felt a sense of momentum,” he told Variety. “The roller-coaster nature of this business keeps you on your toes and stops you from getting complacent.”
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Soon the choice roles came Ahmed’s way, including a dual role as Carlton Drake and Riot in the Marvel Universe’s Venom in 2018, and a groundbreaking part as the lead of the drama Sound of Metal, in which he played a heavy metal drummer named Ruben who loses his hearing.
The film wasn’t an obvious Oscar darling since the script had been floating around Hollywood for more than a decade and had a first-time director Darius Marder. Plus, the role of Ruben had been hard to fill since it required rigorous learning of both sign language and the drums. But Ahmed committed whole-heartedly, spending two hours daily practicing for eight months.
“No one wanted to make this film,” Ahmed told The Guardian. “For whatever reason, it didn’t make sense to people.” But when it came out, it did, earning six Oscar nominations including a Best Actor nod for Ahmed, the first Muslim in the category.
Riz MC’s Music Career
Parallel to his acting career, Ahmed is also a rapper. After starting out at an open mic night, he won competitions like Oxford’s Hit & Run, which he co-founded, in 2005, and earned the Best MC title at the 2006 Asian Music Awards.
Under the rap name Riz MC, his debut album MICroscope came out in 2011. He was part of the group Swet Shop Boys, whose 2014 EP was influenced by Sufi poetry and the Hindi language, according to The Hollywood Reporter. He is also part of the dance-rap collaborative Halflife, which released its debut in 2015 called “Subtle.” He was also featured in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton Mixtape video for “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done),” a commentary on the state of immigration policy in the United States. The track, with Daveed Diggs, K’naan, Snow Tha Product and Residente, came out in 2016, notching No. 22 on Billboard’s Rap Digital Song Sales.
Music-Inspired Film and Oscar Win
His 2016 mixtape Englistan was turned into a BBC Two series in 2018. “Englistanis an untold British story with universal themes and resonance,” Ahmed said in a release. “It’s the story I always wanted to tell, and it’s a privilege to have the opportunity to do so.”
While that remained in development, Ahmed released a 2020 concept album called The Long Goodbye, sparked by anti-immigration sentiment from far-right groups post-Brexit. Using it as fodder, he collaborated with filmmaker Aneil Karia on a short film of the same name about a British South Asian family preparing for a celebration, when a white militia comes to their door. “It was through a series of quiet meandering and increasingly surreal conversations that we landed on this idea,” he told The Hollywood Reporter.
But the quiet meandering soon led to thunderous applause as it won the Best Live-Action Short at the 2022 Oscars. “This is for everyone who feels like they don’t belong,” Ahmed said during his acceptance speech. “Anyone who feels like they’re stuck in no man’s land. You’re not alone. We’ll meet you there. That’s where the future is. Peace.”
While Ahmed is now able to represent his roots, like playing a British-Pakistani rapper in 2021’s Mogul Mowgli, that wasn’t always the case. He’s used his voice to question Hollywood’s insistence on perpetuating Muslim stereotypes. through his production company Left Handed Films, which produced and published The Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion, a set of recommendations for the movie industry to follow, in conjunction with Pillars Fund, USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and the Ford Foundation. The study found that of the 200 top-grossing films examined, only 19 had just one Muslim character.
Two film fans took Ahmed’s 2017 speech on diversity in the House of Commons and extracted a five-prong “Riz Test” to determine how Muslims are portrayed in the media. Ahmed acknowledged the test named after him in a 2018 tweet.
“As a minority, no sooner do you learn to polish and cherish one chip on your shoulder than it’s taken off you and swapped for another,” he wrote for The Guardian in 2016 in a piece called “Typecast as a Terrorist.”