The British actor, rapper and short filmmaker talks about his work on films including The Road to Guantanamo, Four Lions and Shifty, as well as his latest role in Ben Drew's iLL Manors.
Published 6 June 2012
Words by Quentin Falk
Thanks to the vagaries of film distribution, Riz Ahmed seems to be one of the busiest young British actors around.
Already this year he’s appeared in two films – Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Black Gold, while this month sees the release of Ben (Plan B) Drew’s much-awaited directing debut, Ill Manors, in which Ahmed plays one of the principal characters in a hard-hitting, sometimes shocking La Ronde-style glimpse inside the underbelly of East London.
“My guiding principle when deciding to do a film is whether there’s something fresh about the character, something I haven’t done before. I felt that very much with all these three films,” says Ahmed.
It says much for the versatility of Ahmed, not yet 30, that all three roles do indeed display an enviable range of his already considerable talents. In Trishna, he plays an amalgam of good and evil, the Angel and Alec roles, in Winterbottom’s ingenious adaptation of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles relocated to modern India.
For Annaud’s period epic set in the emerging oil rich Arab states, Ahmed lends solid support amid a gallery of billowing robes and lavish headdresses in a shamelessly melodramatic Middle East of the 1930s.
His collaboration, though, with Drew usefully draws together more than just one strand of Ahmed’s burgeoning career in what the actor has described helpfully as “a British social realist rap musical.” Based on Drew’s (as Plan B) new record of the same name, Ill Manors has echoes of the long-ago filmed versions of Tommy and The Wall in terms at least of being based on a concept album.
"With British independent film you tend to keep crossing paths with various people and it’s also interesting how music and film often seem to feed into each other here."
In actual content, with a rap narration by Drew, it emerges provocatively, often very violently, more as a sort of cross between Pulp Fiction and Last Exit to Brooklyn, except in this case Los Angeles and New York have been swapped for some of the grittier corners of Drew’s own home patch of Forest Gate, London E7, with Ahmed centre stage as the emotionally-conflicted Aaron, a haltingly heroic lowlife.
It turns out that North London-born Ahmed, an increasingly popular and influential hip-hop artist in his own right (as Riz MC), has been criss-crossing with Drew for a while now ever since the latter did a cameo in one of Ahmed’s music videos back in 2008. Since then, they’ve worked together on the soundtrack to Ahmed’s 2009 film Shifty as well as, more recently, in addition to Ill Manors, a music track called All of You.
“With British independent film,” says Ahmed, “you tend to keep crossing paths with various people and it’s also interesting how music and film often seem to feed into each other here.”
An Oxford graduate and the son of Pakistani parents, he received his formal training at the Central School of Speech and Drama, but he remains ambivalent on the true value of drama school.
“Yes, it can be an amazing experience, but like university, like anything, really, it’s about what you can bring to the table that decides what you are likely to get out of it. The final showcase is important for bringing in agents, so that can be practical from a career point of view. For an actor I’d say that it’s not especially a prerequisite, but it can be really focusing and useful. However, there is no substitute for learning on the job, as it were.”
That last thought was very much to the fore as he recalled his own “big break,” playing one of the ‘Tipton Three’- the trio of British Muslims who were detained for three years by the Americans in Winterbottom’s 2006 docu-drama, The Road to Guantanamo. “I wouldn’t be acting in films if it hadn’t been for him,” notes Ahmed of the maverick filmmaker, who recently returned the compliment when he cast him in Trishna, describing the actor as “very intelligent.”
His experience then and since with Winterbottom as well as subsequent roles in Peter Kosminsky’s TV drama Britz, and as one of the fated Four Lions, in Chris Morris’ eponymous black comedy film, has made him well-placed to pass on useful advice.
"Every director’s different. With Michael there are maybe occasions when nobody knows what’s going on except maybe Michael. With Ill Manors, Ben had a very clear sense of what he wanted, but had a very free and loose approach [for] how to achieve it."
“You don’t need to show the audience what you’re feeling, to signal or even convey emotion. It’s about that microscopic detail that the camera can bring out of a performance while the onus on you is to push the story forward. Working with someone like Michael is always a very refreshing experience and reconnects you to that.
“His is a very observational style of filmmaking and not about trying to mark out dramatic turns of emotion in a character. It’s about day-to-day, low-key, natural interaction. He’ll then carve a story out of that. He’s very hands-off as a director and that’s often the best way to learn. To run around on your own, fall over from time to time and then get back up again. I suppose,” laughs Ahmed, “you could call him my silent mentor.”
From Chris Morris to Eran Creevy (Shifty) and now Ben Drew, Ahmed has also worked regularly with first-time directors, all with a strong vision.
“Every director’s different. With Michael there are maybe occasions when nobody knows what’s going on except maybe Michael. With Ill Manors, Ben had a very clear sense of what he wanted, but had a very free and loose approach [for] how to achieve it. He knew the rough shape of each scene, as per the script, but was then very open [to] trying out things within that.
“He was also great about holding up his hand at some points and saying, ‘What do we do with this? What do you think?’” It was incredibly collaborative and had to be, being on a shoestring budget. It was all hands on deck; there were a lot of people involved above and beyond the call of duty. Yes, it was a labour of love, a real team effort.”
Drew also handed him what he regards as perhaps the hardest scene he’s ever had to do: opening and reacting to a life-changing letter we know he has been resisting almost the entire length of the film.
"From being a film in which it was just about reacting with actors and non-actors around me, it was suddenly about making a big emotional leap, one I wasn’t really prepared for at first.”
“I turned up on the set that morning and thought I’d just go into the room and open the letter. ‘Didn’t you get the script where it says, ‘He bursts into tears’’ Ben then told me. And I thought, ‘Oh God …’ I had just a moment to gather my thoughts. Ben went to his laptop to find me some beautiful moving music and then talked me through what the letter would say because with all the time pressures the art department had left the letter blank. From being a film in which it was just about reacting with actors and non-actors around me, it was suddenly about making a big emotional leap, one I wasn’t really prepared for at first.”
It was another slice of the unexpected that led to what Ahmed describes as his proudest scene. For Shifty in which he plays a ducking-and-diving smalltime drug dealer, he has to confront his brother (played by Nitin Ganatra) who’s flushing the younger sibling’s drugs down the toilet. “The scene just didn’t seem to be working. Though heavily scripted, Eran told us to ‘Get in there, don’t say anything and just see what happens.’ Nitin and I grabbed each other’s faces and, weirdly, it all kind of worked because it suddenly felt quite raw and real. I’m proud, of that to the extent that the director needed us to pull something out of the bag, and we gave him what he wanted.”
Seedy London, be it in Shifty or ill Manors couldn’t be further removed from Ahmed’s latest completed role as the titular lead opposite Kate Hudson, Liev Schrieber and Kiefer Sutherland in Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, based on Mohsin Hamid’s international bestseller, set in New York, Atlanta and Pakistan.
“It’s a phenomenal book,” Ahmed reflects, “and I was dying to be cast in it. I felt it was made for me, something I could really relate to. However, up to that point I hadn’t really been seen in anything and this was a romantic lead. In the end it turned out to be a very last minute thing. I think I was almost an afterthought.”
His rise and rise as an actor, together with a parallel career as a hip-hop artist doesn’t mean he hasn’t other ambitions, too. Principally, to direct.
“Very much so,” says Ahmed, enthusiastically. “I directed my first short film to go with my forthcoming debut album, MICroscope. We had no time and no money but it was still an amazing experience. It’s all a matter of timing, I guess. I need to make sure I can give it the attention it deserves.”
* Ill Manors is now on general release; The Reluctant Fundamentalist is due out early next year