The last time I saw Riz Ahmed on screen he was dressed up as the Honey Monster running around the streets of Sheffield with a bomb strapped to his belly. His role as a dim-witted UK jihadi in Chris Morris’s runaway 2010 satire comedy, Four Lions, was a memorable one that garnered him critical praise and commercial success.
A few months later in the spring of 2011 I get the opportunity to see him in the flesh, this time as his musical alter ego Riz MC, performing live in front of a trendy crowd in an east London bar. His switch from actor to serious musical artist is a double role that not many can carry off, but he does it with ease.
Tonight, one year on and exactly one day after the release of Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna, a daring adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles set in contemporary India, Riz is not at some glamorous party celebrating the film’s critical success. Instead, he is back on stage at XOYO, one of east London’s newest arts venues as part of the B-East bass music festival. Spitting lyrics and getting political, he impresses his urban followers with his feisty act, alongside an eclectic line up of musicians, DJs and MCs from the UK and India’s underground scene.
Riz’s fiery stage persona is a far cry from Jay Singh, the privileged British son of a wealthy Indian hotelier and his first romantic lead role opposite the glamorous Freida Pinto in Trishna. On screen he looks every inch the hero. Dressed in a kurta and jeans, wandering dreamy-eyed around a Rajasthani fort lusting after his pretty employee (Freida), one would forget he is the kind of young British actor who doesn’t shy away from politics and social activism.
From shooting guerilla documentaries about the Occupy Wall Street movement or joining demonstrators on the volatile streets of Cairo, wherever there are voices of protest, chances are you’ll find Riz there.
So I ponder on what made him want to be part of Indo-UK period movie with a modern Indian twist. “I want to be part of any film Michael Winterbottom makes. Quite simply he is one of the best directors out there working in the world today,” answers Riz when I catch up with him for a one to one.
“Michael’s style is very unsentimental, observational, documentary and realistic, which is what I like. Michael also has a really unusual way of working in that there is no script. It’s all completely improvised, so it’s always a challenging, fluid, learning experience that keeps you on your toes.”
So how convinced was Riz with his director’s idea of taking a well known, historical English novel and transferring it into a contemporary desi setting? “When you think about it, modern India is a perfect parallel for Hardy’s old England. One of the central themes in Tess of the d’Urbervilles is the contrast of new industrial modernity and the traditional rural way of living, and of course that contrast is very much alive in India today. Also central to the story is a big class divide between Alex and Tess and therefore mine and Freida’s characters Jay and Trishna. There is a big difference in the land owning class and the people who work on that land.”
Not one to shy away from touchy topics, Riz is refreshingly open and honest when it comes to his steamy love scenes with Ms Pinto. “It’s inevitable when you watch yourself back as an actor doing anything, be it kissing a pretty girl or having a cup of tea, there’s always an element of embarrassment. You cringe a little bit. But in this story, Trishna and Jay’s moments of intimacy are really central to the trajectory of their relationship”, he says.
He jokingly points out that Freida got the upper hand whilst acting out a climactic bedroom scene. “We did about three takes and in one of them Freida actually stabbed me in the ribs! She didn’t draw blood. Luckily I came out in one piece.”
It’s clear from Riz’s laid back tone that he is a glass half full kind of guy. Fortunately he has a lot to be enthusiastic about. 2012 is destined to be a big year for Riz. Besides Trishna, there will be the release of Black Gold, an epic US-French movie about the 1930s Arab oil boom in which he stars with heavyweights Antonio Banderas, Mark Strong and Freida once again.
There is also his appearance in hip hop musical Ill Manors alongside writer/director Ben Drew, aka Plan B, plus his coveted role alongside Kiefer Sutherland and Kate Hudson in Mira Nair’s adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s best seller The Reluctant Fundamentalist which comes out in 2013. In it he plays a young Pakistani man working on Wall Street who is deeply affected by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre.
However, the icing on the cake may be Riz’s recent crowning as one of the twelve Shooting Stars of European Cinema, an honour bestowed on gifted young things that have made a mark in their respective film industries. Not bad for a lad from Wembley. I ask him whether he is happy with what he has achieved so far.
“My work is absolutely central to who I am, what I want to achieve and what makes me happy, but I’m not caught up in it. I’m not that dude at industry parties,” he explains. “What I’m looking forward to is seeing how some of these films are received this year, and also how my new album is received when it comes out in March.
“But frankly I’m never really satisfied with my music and performances. I’m not beating myself up about it, but I’m not the kind of person who sits back and goes, you know what, I achieved a lot. My mind naturally drifts more towards what I could have done better, learned from and improved on. That’s just my own weirdo mentality.”
A confident, laid back guy, Riz doesn’t come across as the kind of artiste who would suffer insecurities. Does he genuinely worry about his work? He takes a moment before replying. “I think everyone is insecure about different things. Maybe one of the reason there is that cliché of actors being insecure is because it’s an unstable profession and they are prone to attention seeking and being self involved. But actually I don’t think that’s the reason why.
“Actors are forced to cultivate their neuroses. That’s how you give performances; by showing all those bits of you in normal life, socially, that we fight to hide from people. Those are the parts you have to get in touch with the most. That’s what makes interesting performances that connect with people most…when you see people’s vulnerabilities.”
I ask Riz how he manages to balance his music and acting career. “I want to make things count. I’m not just going to do a film for the sake of it or because I’m not doing anything,” he replies. “If it’s not something I really want to do then I can spend that time making music. Similarly I’m not going to sit around making tunes just because that’s what I think will be big. I have to love it otherwise I can go off and make a film. It just means you’re more selective about what you’re doing and why you are doing it, which creates a healthy tension.”
Tension or not, Riz has a career many of his peers would envy. Here’s hoping his golden run continues for years to come.