Riz Ahmed: How he reached the top doing things his own way

As part of transatlantic duo Swet Shop Boys, he’s released an album of Run The Jewels-level hip-hop called ‘Cashmere’. And speaking at Channel 4’s annual diversity lecture in Parliament on March 2, he addressed MPs about the huge importance of representation in the media, telling them, “People are looking for the message that they belong, that they are part of something, that they are seen and heard and that despite – or perhaps because of – their experience, they are valued. They want to feel represented.”

Put more simply, last year on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, he said of himself: “This is what British looks like.” New London film noir City Of Tiny Lights chimes with that message – in it, he plays the chain-smoking, bourbon-blooded spook Tommy Akhtar, trawling north-west London’s seedy hotels, clubs, and the Islamic Youth League for leads on a missing-person case. It’s a nuanced role for a nuanced actor, but that’s nothing new – as he says himself, “I’ve always been picky”.

Tell us about City Of Tiny Lights

“It’s like one of those classic private eye, private detective movies that we might have seen back in the day: LA Confidential, Chinatown, The Long Good Friday, updated to right here, right now. It’s a combination of that classic detective movie with a voiceover, a missing girl, and a lot of it’s shot at night – but there’s a lot about it that’s fresh. It’s set in London today, with what people in London today actually look like and sound like.”

What drew you to the role?

“I just loved the idea of chain-smoking and drinking fake whisky all day, stood under rain machines filming at night for six weeks…”

Did you really need rain machines?

“They thought it’d be raining because it’s London, but it was a beautiful summer, so we spent all our money on making it rain the whole time.”

Apart from the soggy cigarettes, what did you like about Tommy, your character?

“I think you grow up wanting to be a superhero and a private detective – at least I did, I thought they were the coolest characters. Tommy’s sarcastic and stuff, but actually he’s quite a vulnerable dude underneath all
that. I thought that was an interesting combination: that tough exterior, when there’s a lot of heartbreak underneath the surface.”

What will surprise people about it?

“Most classic noir films are a world without any morals – people without any scruples willing to do anything – but actually this is a noir that has the opposite starting point. Everyone’s trying to do the right thing, as they see it. It just drives some people crazy. Really it’s about friendship, family and romance. It’s about that as much as it’s about living in a shady world and crazy stuff happening.”

Are British roles important to you after all your work in America?

“Yeah – but it’s not like coming back and doing a bit of community service: this is where I want to be working. We’ve got some amazing talent here, we tell interesting stories: I believe that Britain is one of the most exciting countries in the world. Our multicultural mix means that we’ll always have exciting stories to tell, and if I can help tell those, I’d love to be involved.”

In your speech to Parliament about representation, you said you have to go to America to get interesting roles…

“To a large extent that’s still true. The stories we tend to tell are historical dramas that don’t engage with what the British population is really like today. And I think that’s a bit of a shame. A lot of the projects that could cast someone like me are in America, so we lose a lot of talent – I mean, forget about losing me, that’s no great loss – but there are so many amazing actors who are forced to go over to the States to work, because they can’t play ‘Lord Winthrop’. They’re not considered for those roles. But there’s a growing awareness that we’re missing a trick here. We’re sitting on some really exciting stories and we should tell them – I think the world’s ready to hear them.”

Would you ever start a production company to tell those stories – and not ones about ‘Lord Winthrop’?

“I wanna play Lord Winthrop! That’s my ambition! In a way, our history in this country has been really mixed up. Our first border patrol was a legion of North African troops fighting for the Italian/Roman army trying to keep out the Scots from Hadrian’s Wall – so even our anti-immigration movement has been really multicultural for thousands of years. We’ve got a very mixed-up history here. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be playing Lord Winthrop. Riz Winthrop. That’s my new tag. #Winthrop.”

Let’s discuss your recent American TV work: what was it like being in The OA and Girls?

“Working with [Girls creator] Lena [Dunham] was one of the most inspiring and hilarious things I’ve ever done in my life. She’s a genius and I love her. She’s writing, directing, producing and starring in something, improvising her lines totally fresh every take – and you’re trying to stop yourself from laughing – and between every take she’s giving you really sensitive, nuanced directions. I hope she continues to make more and more film and television and theatre – she’s a really valuable voice. Working on The OA was very different because obviously it’s not a semi-improvised comedy situation: it’s a very tightly crafted story, with two very intelligent, sensitive, cool people [Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij]. I would work with either of those teams again in a heartbeat.”

You had an amazing year last year – have you had to fight really hard to get to this point, or has it been a long time coming? 

“There are no overnight successes. I’ve been lucky to be a part of some really successful films, but I judge my success more on, ‘Have I done the best I could possibly do, and have I contributed something fresh?’ Sometimes yes and sometimes no.”

Are you now at the stage where you can be picky about what projects you pursue?

“Out of stupidity, I’ve always been picky. I’ve always felt if I’m going to take time out of doing music – which is an opportunity for me to say exactly what I want and for people hear it on my terms – then it needs to be for something I believe in and would stand by, just like I’d stand by my own voice when I write a song. I guess there’s just more stuff that comes my way now and so it’s more tempting to do it.”

Your 2006 song ‘The Post 9/11 Blues’ helped you get a role in 2010’s hilarious – but has your politics ever hindered you?

“I don’t see it as ‘my politics’. It’s just me trying to be creative and talk about my personal experiences. That’s what storytelling and art is about, right? My experience has involved some weird stuff you sometimes see in the headlines; that’s all I’m doing. Loads of people talk about their own experience but because they’re not the subject of news specials or big exclamatory tabloid headlines, they’re not seen as political. Really I’m just trying to tell my story. If it contributes to something fresh, then cool, if people are interested in it, cool. It’s hard to be seen as anything other than a political artist if you’re born into a certain body and a certain place and time. I don’t want to run from that. If you want to call me a political artist, cool – I’ll take it as a compliment – but that’s not the thought process in my head.”

You’ve been vocal about Trump on Twitter. How are you feeling about the next four years?

“I don’t think it matters how we feel. If you think there’s work to be done to change the situation and try and pull us back from the brink of conflict and division then there’s work to be done. Doesn’t matter if you feel good about yourself after going on a march. Doesn’t matter if you feel depressed watching the news. Are you doing the thing that needs to be done? That’s it, really.”

What’s next for you? 

“I’m going out to tour with the Swet Shop Boys to Coachella, LA and New York. We’re releasing an EP for Record Store Day, and recording the next album while we’re out there. A month of solid music – then releasing the album, touring, doing a play, writing a TV show and filming three or four things.”

Can I ask what any of those are?

“You can ask, I just can’t tell you…”