Meet the Membership: Riz Ahmed

Actor and rapper Riz Ahmed is a busy man. Aside from his successful musical work he has carved out a career in a series of indie hits such as Four Lions and Nightcrawler. He is soon to appear in the new Star Wars film: Rogue One

In terms of talent, do you think the UK punches above its weight on the international scene?

I think British or, say, American actors both have the capacity of being very professional or very unprofessional! It differs from person to person and even the same person from one project to the next. There can be such a weird alchemy that takes place with different personalities on set. One of the advantages that we probably have in the UK is our theatre tradition. Inheriting that mentality of craftsmanship, teamwork and rigour. That disciplined repetition. That kind of ensemble mentality lends itself well to the collaborative feeling of film.

You’ve just finished filming the indie movie City of Tiny Lights and are currently filming the new Bourne movie. Are there major difference between working on indies and studio films?

It’s interesting to see that as more Hollywood studio productions are being filmed in Britain there seems to be an overlap in the use of talent. For example, I have been bumping into familiar faces while filming Star Wars. There were camera operators that shot my short film for me and sound people that were on my first movie with Michael Winterbottom. Plus, you have Brit directors such as Gareth Edwards on Star Wars and Paul Greengrass with Bourne. So it’s probably more similar than you would imagine. One difference about the small indie films is that you’ve got to really plan everything meticulously and far in advance because there is not any leeway financially or time-wise. With the bigger productions there is the option to re-take and re-film if necessary.

Are you prepared for the attention being in a Star Wars film can bring?

  I wasn’t that teenager who was out buying lightsaber toys but I certainly saw the films and I went back and revisited them for the role. It’s been fascinating working in the environment and witnessing the scale of the production. It’s really inspiring across all departments from props to costume and set designs. It makes you raise your game. But I try to stay away from thinking about how it might be assessed or what the perception of the film may be.  

Have you witnessed a growth in the UK film industry?

I have. That may be because when I was starting out I was not getting a chance at big budget films and now I am, but from speaking to other actors and seeing the investment studios have made in the UK, plus the tax breaks on offer, it does feel like there has been a change.

You’ve written and directed a short film called Daytimer, about day-time raves in London. What was your biggest challenge in getting that made?

The most difficult, and newest, part of it for me was the edit. I was lucky enough to work with Dom Leung, who edited Catch Me Daddy and Son Of Rambow. It was a real learning experience and it helped me when I got back to acting on film. I realised that you don’t need to carry the whole story with you but can deliver those tiny moments of truth that shine through in the edit.

Does UK film need to catch up with America in terms of representing the diverse nature of society?

There’s a massive issue with... I don’t even like to call it diversity. I call it honesty, because you need to be honest about the society that these stories are coming from and where we’re creating the stories. Sadly, I do think we’re further behind here in the UK. I’m really proud to be a Londoner and very proud to be British but we can’t expect to continue to be a cultural powerhouse globally if we don’t update our national story.

I believe that the kind of multicultural reality of modern Britain is a goldmine that we are sitting on and that we have yet to tap into properly. Just look across all the other art forms, whether it’s music, where our Afro-Caribbean influence creates genres such as dubstep that then go on to take over the world. Or look at literature, with authors such as  Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie. We need to embrace the multicultural reality of our society in the stories we tell. It’s a trick that we’re missing and it’s something that I really hope changes. It’s strange because America seems far more segregated to me than British society. Both countries are buying into their myth rather than reflecting the reality. The myth of American society is that it’s this great melting pot and that is reflected in more diverse TV and films, but actually the reality is it’s really segregated in the US. Just look at the housing situation. In the UK the myth here is of a Downton Abbey and period drama society, so we invest in and portray that. But the reality here is that it’s really mixed and multicultural. Both societies seem to have a form of denial when it comes to the stories they are telling.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist director Mira Nair used music playlists to prepare you and the cast for their roles. Is this something you find useful?

I definitely do prepare music playlists for some characters. I think music can tap into emotions and memories in a very immediate way. It can really help to access experiences that you might have set up in your mind for a character. The music you listen to can reflect a world view and  tell the story of how you grew up, so I do really find it useful. However, I don’t do it all the time, sometimes it may be more appropriate to read certain books. It’s about cultivating a way of seeing things that is in line with the character’s views.