British Actors You Should Know: Riz Ahmed

Riz Ahmed in HBO's Emmy-winning drama "The Night Of" (Photo: HBO)
Riz Ahmed in HBO's Emmy-winning drama "The Night Of" (Photo: HBO)

As you may have figured out, I am a fan of the acting profession and firmly stand behind the belief that the UK produces some of the best actors in the world. Perhaps that’s the reason why I enjoy sharing the work of these talented artists with all of you.

So when I watched Riz Ahmed being recognized with an Emmy for his harrowing performance as Nasir Khan in the HBO drama The Night Of , I was rather chuffed.

 

If this London native, born to Pakistani immigrants, hasn’t been on your radar as long as he’s been on mine, let me tell you, he’s had quite a year. Before becoming the first man of Asian descent to win an acting award at the Emmys, Ahmed graced the cover of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People issue. He also made a guest (and Emmy nominated) appearance in Girls as Paul-Louis, Lena Dunham’s surfing instructor/baby daddy. Oh yeah, and he snagged supporting roles in two big Hollywood film franchises – Jason Bourne and Rogue One (part of the Star Wars standalone anthology) all in the past twelve months.

 

A graduate of Oxford University with a degree in PPE (philosophy, politics and economics), Ahmed switched gears by enrolling at London's Central School of Speech and Drama. He proceeded to hit the ground running in the mid-2000’s with a string of roles on British television and films.

I first saw him in Four Lions, a satirical dark comedy about a quartet of incompetent British jihadists who set out to train for and commit an act of terror. Ahmed played Omar, the most charismatic and relatively capable of the bunch with a pure commitment to his mission.

 

Also starring Kayvan Novak, Nigel Lindsay and Adeel Akhtar (and with a cameo by Benedict Cumberbatch), this 2010 comedy is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

In 2011 he appeared alongside Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) in Trishna, a story based on Thomas Hardy's novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles set in modern-day India. He played Jay Singh, the well-educated son and heir of a wealthy British-Indian property developer and hotel tycoon. Ahmed transforms as Jay  shifts from Trishna’s smitten suitor to a dominating manipulator.

 

If you are curious about this adaptation by writer/director Michael Winterbottom, you can view it on Hulu.

Ahmed was cast as the lead in 2012’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a political thriller based on the novel of the same name by Mohsin Hamid. He portrayed Changez Khan, a young Pakistani man who completely buys into the American Dream and a indulges in a shallow, materialistic lifestyle. Then 9/11 happens. Changez must face fear and bigotry from without and a struggle with his conscience from within.

 

Also starring Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber and Kiefer Sutherland, The Reluctant Fundamentalist can be streamed on Netflix.

For his first Hollywood feature, Nightcrawler, Ahmed spent the weeks ahead of shooting the film visiting homeless shelters. His character Rick is desperate for money when he encounters Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) an unethical news-chasing cameraman looking for a protégé.  Riz learned about the prevalence of abandonment issues among the homeless population and it informed the way he saw Rick’s relationship to Lou. It was like an addiction, very intense and often abusive.

 

This dark, psychological film which also features Rene Russo and the late Bill Paxton is currently available on Netflix.

Did I happen to mention Ahmed’s other career? He’s also a rapper who goes by the name Riz MC. As part of his dedication to social issues, he often airs his thoughts about racism and immigration in his music.

 

As for future projects, Riz will appear in next year’s Sisters Brothers with former castmate Jake Gyllenhaal and John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix in the title roles. He is also rumored to be joining Tom Hardy in the upcoming Marvel Universe film, Venom. Keep your eyes open for this actor, I predict there will be many more outstanding performances in his future and probably an Oscar as well.