Riz Ahmed is an actor and MC, with roles in The Road to Guantánamo, Four Lions, Black Gold and Trishna, Michael Winterbottom’s Indian retelling of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. He talks to Georgie Hobbs about his acting career – from drama school and typecasting to the myth of overnight success...
I’d always been a class clown, a bit disruptive.
Teachers suggested I use that energy in a more positive direction so guided me towards the stage. I loved it. But never in my wildest dreams was an acting career a possibility. It wasn’t until the end of [Oxford] university, where I’d acted, that a mate, an acquaintance really, emailed me saying, “You’re going to keep up acting, right? You’ve got to!”
Everyone else was doing Milkround, but I didn’t see myself at those desk jobs. I applied for the scholarship at Central School of Speech and Drama’s Masters in Classical Acting. I was so shy about it, I only applied to one school. For my audition, I prepared Edgar’s speech from King Lear: “Why brand they us. With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?”
I didn’t have any family connections or know anyone in the industry, so the big thing was the end-of-year showcase. All the students perform a speech in front of casting directors and acting agents. An agent is your gateway to finding auditions and film work – your foot in the door. My performance was from Joe Penhall’s play Blue/Orange. It’s about a young black guy who’s schizophrenic. A maverick psychiatrist discovers that there’s a cultural skew to psychiatry and that because the guy comes from a minority he might not be as mentally ill as they think; he’s got good reason to feel ill-at-ease. I cobbled together three different dialogues.
It was a political play, but by taking parts out of context, I was able to make it about the showcase itself. I directly addressed the audience saying, about my fellow students, “They’re all mad, aren’t they? They’re all nuts, coming at you with their chat, chat, chat!” Before the year was up I landed my first role in The Road to Guantánamo, so I actually left drama school early.
What’s interesting about the UK is that it celebrates an alternative voice. It’s up for telling new stories. Within that fresh range of stories, there are quite a lot of interesting roles out there for young actors. When you start out, you will be cast on what you look like because people don’t know what you can do. Everyone has their cross to bear; the beautiful blonde is going to find it hard to be cast as a crackhead in a kitchen-sink drama.
You can never escape from who you are, but if you seize every opportunity to do the best you can then, just like any freelance profession, word can spread and you might get wider opportunities. I’m not in a “starry” position to be able to pick and choose, but I am interested in telling stories of substance with great directors – that’s my only guiding principle.
Part of the journey of being an actor is getting to a point where you can embrace who you are. Real “stars” often don’t transform themselves from one role to another; they bring their own presence.
I absolutely love Michael Fassbender’s work. He’s proof that there are no overnight successes. He’s been grafting for five to 10 years in supporting roles, but used the fame he got with Hunger to cement his credibility and make work of substance. It’s an amazing career trajectory.
Riz Ahmed was the UK’s Shooting Star at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival. He is currently in Black Gold and will next be seen in Michael Winterbottom’s TRISHNA, in cinemas 9th March.
Image courtesy of Markus Nass/Shooting Stars.