Riz Ahmed – "You're literally flipping the script"
Fast Company|Winter 2021-2022
It takes some serious organizational skills to make a difference in Hollywood from the inside. Riz Ahmed shows how it’s done.
By Yasmin Gagne. Photographs by Christina Ebenezer

Riz Ahmed - Actor, producer, musician, and activist

Riz Ahmed is running late. The London-based actor is in New York in mid-September for meetings, interviews, photo shoots, and fittings. He got stuck in traffic, and then he realized he forgot the key to his Airbnb. “This is what really productive people do,” he jokes as he settles behind a table for our chat via Zoom, about an hour after the appointed time. “That’s actually one of the secrets I want to share with your readers.”

Whatever system Ahmed has or doesn’t have in place, it’s working. Since his Oscar-nominated performance as a drummer who loses his hearing in the 2020 film Sound of Metal, Ahmed’s agenda has been packed with a dizzying array of projects. He released an album, The Long Goodbye, on his own imprint, Mongrel Records. He co-wrote, produced, and starred in Mogul Mowgli, a film about a British Pakistani rapper who grapples with identity issues while confronting a debilitating illness. He’s tackling the role of Hamlet in a film adaptation written by an Oxford classmate. In December, he stars in the film Encounter as a Marine saving his family from an apparent alien threat.

He has also emerged as Hollywood’s busiest and most visible Muslim actor, and one of a small number of Muslim performers tapped to play characters whose ethnicity and faith aren’t even remarked on. He knows that he’s in a rare position within the entertainment business, and any business, for that matter, and he’s taking the responsibility seriously. Over the past year, Ahmed has become the industry’s leading advocate for expanding Muslim representation in media, both on and off the screen.

TO HIS OWN SELF BE TRUE

Riz Ahmed’s thoughtfully packed agenda

ACTING

Encounter A sci-fi film about a Marine protecting his sons from a mysterious force. (In theaters December 3)

Exit West An upcoming adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s bestseller.

Hamlet This modern-day version was written by his Oxford classmate Mike Lesslie.

PRODUCING

Left Handed Films Ahmed’s production company has 16 projects in development, including Flee, an animated doc about a refugee’s journey that’s executive produced by Nikolaj CosterWaldau. (In theaters December 3)

ACTIVISM

Pillars Artistic Fellowship Ahmed conceived of and helped launch the program, which awards financial sums to emerging Muslim film writers and directors.

It is a daunting task. Twenty years after the September 11 attacks, bias and discrimination against Muslims persists. In the months following former president Donald Trump’s executive order banning travel from predominantly Muslim countries, nearly half of Muslims in the U.S. surveyed by the Pew Research Center said they’d experienced discrimination because of their religion. Pew research also shows that Americans consistently give negative “ratings” to Muslims (and atheists) when polled about their sentiments on faith.

Hollywood, which has been pushed over the past few years to reckon with sexism and racism, has been glaringly silent on the topic of its treatment of Muslims. A few years ago, Ahmed started speaking about how Muslims are portrayed in movies and television, sharing personal anecdotes and admonishing the industry for perpetuating stereotypes both innocuous (cab drivers, shopkeepers) and menacing (terrorists). He soon realized he needed data and concrete solutions to address this issue. He backed a major research report on Muslim representation in film that came out earlier this year, and then announced, in partnership with the nonprofit Pillars Fund, the Ford Foundation, and USC’s Annenberg Institute, a fellowship for emerging directors and screenwriters who identify as Muslim. Advisory committee members include actors Mahershala Ali, Hasan Minhaj, and Ramy Youssef, and directors Bassam Tariq, Jehane Noujaim, and Yann Demange.

Ahmed is well-positioned to stoke change. He’s respected in filmmaking circles and the Muslim community alike, even when he’s skewering extremism in Islam. (He says he’s still most widely recognized in the U.K. for his role as Omar, a would-be jihadist in the satirical 2010 film Four Lions.) He has quietly mentored and supported young artists. And his three-year-old production company, Left-Handed Films, secured a first-look television deal with Amazon Studios in January 2021, and has begun to pursue scripts that amplify Ahmed’s mission to expand representation while experimenting with different forms of storytelling. He calls it “stretching culture.” One such project—of the 16 that Left-Handed currently has in development—is Exit West, based on the novel by Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid, about a young couple fleeing their unnamed home country when militants gain power. It tells “a refugee story, but it’s [also] a magical realist love story,” says Ahmed, who will star as Saeed, one of the protagonists. “That’s the kind of thing that I’m interested in, blending genres, confounding people’s expectations.”

Ahmed, who is left-handed, says the name of his production company captures his desire to upend a system that rejects or miscasts people who don’t fit in. “As a left-handed person, you kind of have to write in this strange, upside-down way,” he says. “You’re literally flipping the script.”

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