Rap & Role
Four major movie roles have recently seen him as a sultan’s son, an urban gangster, a reluctant fundamentalist and a Thomas Hardy hero…. It’s been a hectic schedule for 29-year-old Riz Ahmed aka Riz MC as he is more popularly known. The young actor is a versatile rapper too with a deft satirical touch and exposes his fun and funkier side in his debut album MICroscope that won the Shooting Stars Award at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival. To whichever artistic discipline or mode of expression he turns his hand to, Ahmed displays a level of skill, passion and originality for which he is getting widely known. Articulate and multi-talented, Ahmed brings a fresh perspective to song writing on an adventurous musical canvas whilst simultaneously continuing to intelligently choose a variety of film roles that keep him on the edge.
Excerpts from a conversation….
Given your Oxford education with a degree in politics, philosophy and economics, when did you first develop an interest in music?
In the early 90s, I was influenced by my brother who introduced me to hip hop. Bob Marley and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan were both strong influences and we often listened to their music at home. I started rapping at school and writing my own lyrics as a teenager and then started listening to pirate radio stations. My new album MICroscope is experimental, quite left-field electronic rap. It is steeped in UK club music and the involvement of remixes is special to me. My lyrics look at how we live life today, it’s a laconic and witty sidelong look at gentrification in a tongue in cheek style and how because of Facebook evolutionising our lives, people are often mistakenly called unfriendly. I like writing about social observations on a personal level and exposing cultural quirks through my lyrics – with sharp honesty and wry humour… asking people questions whilst taking them to the dance floor.
What were your first experiences as an actor? What navigates you when you accept a role?
I was the class clown in school and enjoyed acting in plays. I played the role of a kid in South Pacific and was a door mouse in Alice in Wonderland for my school productions. Whilst studying at Oxford I started a club night called Hit and Run, it went on to become one of the biggest hip hop drum and bass club nights in the city and was a fantastic opportunity for me to hone my skills. After Oxford I went on to Central School of Speech and Drama and from there, director Michael Winterbottom’s casting director took me on to play a role in the film, Road to Guantanamo. I like diversity. For me the guiding principle has been to see if there is something fresh about the character, something new that I may not have done before.
I have done four very different films. Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna, is an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles and is set in modern-day India; Jean-Jacques Annaud’s desert epic, Black Gold is about the birth of the Middle Eastern oil industry; Ill Manors is an interlinked story of six Londoners, struggling to survive the circles of violence that engulf them and is directed by musician Ben Drew (Plan B) and the Hollywood film, Mira Nair ‘s The Reluctant Fundamentalist which is based on the book by Mohsin Hamid.
As I am quite restless I like doing things in my own loose way and it has to excite me. Earlier, I have played a medieval cook in Neil Marshall’s violent action film Centurion and the head of a terrorist cell in Chris Morris’ satirical film Four Lions, a crack dealer in Eran Creevy’s much acclaimed Shifty. The camera or microphone is merciless. If you don’t believe what you are saying, it sees it in your eyes and hears it in your voice that there is no conviction. Playing different characters gives me a chance to explore and evaluate myself as an actor.
Describe your experiences working in India with Indian actors and with Michael Winterbottom and Freida Pinto.
It was both exciting and interesting to notice that there is so much growth that’s slowly unfolding in India. Rajasthan and Mumbai where Trishna was shot are both beautiful and diverse in their own way. India is changing at breakneck speed, there is modernisation, industrialisation and mass migration from the countryside into more urban centres as we explore how the Old World and New World are fusing together.
With Michael, there may be occasions when no one knows what’s going on except Michael. You don’t have to show the audience everything you are feeling, it’s the microscopic details that the camera can bring out while the onus is on you to push the story ahead. He has an observational style of filmmaking and that’s not about trying to mark out dramatic turns of emotion. It’s more about day-to-day low-key interaction. He then carves a story out of that. He is a very hands-off director and that’s often the best way for an actor to learn.
Freida is a lot of fun and cool. She is instinctive and self-sufficient whilst giving space with minimal fuss. Michael wanted everything to be natural.
What was it like working with Mira Nair in her new film The Reluctant Fundamentalist?
Amazing! Mohsin Hamid’s book is phenomenal and he drafted the script. He has an incredibly agile mind, like a genius wordsmith. I knew when I read the book that it was a role that I wanted to play. It was fascinating to watch and learn from Mira and notice her intense passion for the project. The film looks at the collapse of Wall Street and is a genuine dialogue with America, like an interesting duel, a collision of the personal and the political.
In your music, who are your favourite composers?
I have enjoyed working with Lazersonic, Plan B, Zed Bias and Nitin Sawhney amongst many others.