Movie Interviews
3:49 pm
Fri May 3, 2013

Riz Ahmed: Shifting Across Identities And Roles

Originally published on Tue May 7, 2013 2:32 pm

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the story of one man's struggle with identity and loyalty after 9/11.

The film's title character, Changez, is an ambitious twenty-something who seems to have it all: A Princeton degree, a Wall Street career and a beautiful girlfriend (played by Kate Hudson). But after 9/11, Changez becomes conflicted about where he belongs.

"The Reluctant Fundamentalist has this scene which I guess will go down iconographically in cinema history with the first character to look at the 9/11 attacks," said film critic Jason Solomons. "There he is pictured looking at them ... kind of being on the side of the aggressor."

"In that moment, I should have felt sorrow or anger," Changez says in the movie. "But all I felt was awe — what audacity."

Solomons says this is a conflicted role for an actor to play. "I think the kind of skill that Riz [has] is to still make this character understandable even though he's doing something that many, many people would find inhumane."

And that's just the kind of acting challenge Riz Ahmed relishes. "I'm drawn to doing projects that are bold in some way," he said.

And it's no surprise that Ahmed is making his American debut with a film as bold as The Reluctant Fundamentalist. It's about the current fault lines between East and West, Muslim and American, 'us versus them.' Those deeper themes fueled director Mira Nair.

"Changez has to compel you with his idiosyncrasies, and with his desires and with his contradictions and with his complexity," Nair said. "How to make all these bigger issues resonate in one human being whose beating heart you can feel and touch and see yourself."

Ahmed says you should see yourself in Changez because at some level, each one of us is trying to navigate between worlds.

"Everyone can relate to the idea of having dual identities, feeling like an insider and an outsider. We live in a society and at a time now that's deeply aspirational. We're never, no one is content," he said. "We're always on our way to a destination from a point of origin. So we're always in transit and in that sense we're all perpetually insiders, outsiders."

As an artist, Ahmed seems drawn to characters on the move between inside and outside, between likeability and repulsion. He's played a shady investor, a bumbling terrorist and a shifty drug dealer.

"There's something about him as a character on screen that inspires debate," Solomons said. "He's got these tremendously darting eyes. They're full of inquisitive questioning to the audience."

The novelist Mohsin Hamid says what's remarkable about Ahmed's performance as the Reluctant Fundamentalist is how chameleon-like he can be.

"For a lot of people, they won't even realize how much acting went into Riz being a Pakistani-Pakistani. He's from Britain," Hamid said. "It's a bit like Robert Deniro playing an Italian mafioso in Godfather. He's an Italian-American. He's not Italian."

"If you cut Riz open, you'll find London inside," said Solomons, who is a fellow Londoner. "He really is kind of what young Britain is like. He's kind of spry, he's kind of sly, he's kind of moveable. He kind of adapts. He can kind of pass anywhere."

Ahmed is certainly adaptable: He records music as Riz MC. He studied politics and philosophy at Oxford. And just a few weeks ago he tweeted about visiting asylum seekers and the queen on the same day.

He's also fiercely reluctant about having his work defined by his South Asian, Muslim background.

"The idea of representing may be kind of like hip-hop vernacular, in terms of like 'representin' ' in a way that resonates with people who maybe aren't often represented," said Ahmed. "I think that's a great source of pride but I think that also it would be a great source of frustration or failure if that was the only people it resonated with."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid's 2007 novel, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," was an international best-seller.

Critics are mixed on the new film version, but they're raving about one thing: the film's central performance, by actor Riz Ahmed. He's a 30-year-old British actor of Pakistani descent. NPR's Bilal Qureshi has this profile.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" is the story of one man's struggle with identity and loyalty after 9/11.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST")

RIZ AHMED: (As Changez) Looks can be deceiving. I am a lover of America, although I was raised to feel very Pakistani.

QURESHI: The film's title character, Changez, is an ambitious 20-something who seems to have it all - a Princeton degree, a Wall Street career and a beautiful girlfriend, played by Kate Hudson. But after 9/11, Changez becomes conflicted about where he belongs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) ...I have to tell you that two planes...

QURESHI: I'll let film critic Jason Solomons explain.

JASON SOLOMONS: "Reluctant Fundamentalist" has this scene, which I guess will go down iconographically in cinema history, with the first character to look at the 9/11 attacks. There he is, pictured looking at them; and looking in awe at them, kind of being on the side of the aggressor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST")

AHMED: (As Changez) In that moment, I should have felt sorrow or anger, but all I felt was awe. What audacity!

SOLOMONS: It's a very conflicted role for the actor to play. And I think the kind of skill that Riz does is to still make this character understandable even though at some point, he's doing something that many, many people will find inhumane.

QURESHI: And that's just the kind of acting challenge Riz Ahmed relishes.

AHMED: I'm drawn to doing projects that are bold, in some way.

QURESHI: And it's no surprise that Ahmed is making his American debut with a film as bold as "The Reluctant Fundamentalist." It's about the current fault lines between East and West, Muslim and American - us versus them.

MIRA NAIR: Those deeper questions, that was what my fuel was.

QURESHI: And director Mira Nair says it's Ahmed's performance as Changez that fuels her film.

NAIR: Changez has to compel you with his idiosyncrasies, and with his desires, and with his contradictions, and with his complexity. That was the idea, how to make all these bigger issues resonate in one human being whose beating heart you can feel and touch, and see yourself in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Jim) So tell me, Changes, why did you want to come to America?

AHMED: (As Changez) For future reference, Jim, it's Changez. In America, I get an equal chance to win. And whether or not you hire me, Jim, I am going to win.

QURESHI: Riz Ahmed says you should see yourself in Changez because at some level, each one of us is trying to navigate between worlds.

AHMED: Everyone can relate to the idea of having dual identities, feeling like an insider and an outsider. You know, we live in a kind of society, in a time nowadays, that's deeply aspirational. We're never - no one's content. We're always on our way to a destination, from a point of origin. So we're always in transit and in that sense, I think we're all perpetually insiders and outsiders.

QURESHI: And as an artist, Ahmed seems drawn to work about transit, about characters on the move between inside and outside, between likeability and repulsion. He's played a shady investor, a bumbling terrorist and a shifty drug dealer. Jason Solomons is film critic for The Observer.

SOLOMONS: There's something about him as a character on screen that inspires debate. He's got these tremendously darting eyes. They're full of inquisitive questioning to the audience. They're kind of handsome and attractive, yet they're also slightly furtive and hidden, in some kind of way. And I think that's what comes across on the screen. He's always the cleverist one in the pack, if you like, onscreen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) (Speaking foreign language).

(As character) (Speaking foreign language)

QURESHI: The novelist Mohsin Hamid says what's remarkable about Ahmed's performance as the reluctant fundamentalist is how chameleon-like he can be.

MOHSIN HAMID: For a lot of people, they won't even realize how much acting went into Riz being a Pakistani-Pakistani. He's from Britain. It's a bit like Robert DeNiro playing an Italian mafioso in "Godfather." He's an Italian-American; he's not Italian.

SOLOMONS: If you cut Riz open, you'll find London inside.

QURESHI: Critic Jason Solomons is a fellow Londoner.

SOLOMONS: He really is kind of what young Britain is like. You know, he's kind of spry, he's kind of sly, he's kind of moveable. He kind of adapts. He can kind of pass anywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

AHMED: (As Riz MC) Riz MC! (Singing) It's changed 'round here, I haven't been back so long, but...

QURESHI: Riz Ahmed also records music as Riz MC. He studied politics and philosophy at Oxford. And just a few weeks ago, he tweeted about visiting asylum seekers and the queen, on the same day. And he's fiercely reluctant about having his work defined by his South Asian-Muslim background.

AHMED: The idea of representing, in maybe kind of like hip-hop vernacular - you know, in terms of like, representing in a way that resonates with people who maybe aren't often represented, I think that's a great source of pride. But I think also, it would be a great source of frustration - or at least, failure - if that was the only people it resonated with.

QURESHI: Later this year, Ahmed stars as a spy in the film "Closed Circuit." It's a legal thriller about divided loyalties, and another chance for Riz Ahmed to stretch beyond the push and pull of identity that's fueled his work. Bilal Qureshi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.