Riz Ahmed has been feeling inspired. “I hit a patch a few years ago where I started falling out of love with this and getting disillusioned,” the 35-year-old Emmy winner (HBO’s The Night Of) tells EW.
Now, he says, “I’ve rediscovered my passion.”
Between a Western jaunt, a comic-book blockbuster, and Shakespeare, the British-Pakistani actor is on a roll. His renewed creativity is at work in two major movies coming to the big screen this fall, the BBC TV drama Englistan in the works, and new music on the near horizon. First up: Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers, out in theaters this week, in which he plays a delightfully optimistic alchemist who is endlessly pursued by the Sisters Brothers (played by John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix) for his secret formula that exposes hidden gold. Ahmed’s character Hermann Kermit Warm sees California’s gold rush as a new utopia, a perspective the actor himself envies. “I do really love a character who’s sincere in his beliefs that people can be better and we can live in a better way,” Ahmed says.
He adds, “Maybe it was my own pessimism about humanity and the planet right now that I was like, yeah, I’d love to put myself in that headspace for a bit.”
Ahmed will also mine a more cynical side in dual projects that skew a bit darker: Sony’s Oct. 5 tent pole Venom, playing a billionaire entrepreneur who antagonizes Tom Hardy’s titular antihero, and Netflix’s upcoming adaptation of Hamlet, in which Ahmed ponders being (or not to being) as Shakespeare’s broody Danish prince.
“I feel like things are about to get really interesting creatively,” he teases. “I can’t tell you what that means in terms of my career and if it’ll completely tank or disappear, but creatively I’m excited to throw myself into my work.”
The actor talked to EW about the Reilly-Phoenix-Gyllenhaal set dynamics on The Sisters Brothers, his music, and those Carnage rumors.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you ever think you’d be doing a Western movie, especially as a South Asian actor and playing a character in that genre not confined by race?
RIZ AHMED: I feel lucky to be able to take on cool challenging roles with exciting, challenging directors and I think any actor wants to be able to not have certain doors automatically closed for them, any of us in any field or walk of life want to be able to live on the merits of our work, so it’s felt cool.
How was it working with John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix on The Sister Brothers and reuniting with Jake Gyllenhaal after Nightcrawler?
Jake and I were working separately from John and Joaquin, and I always think it’s interesting how on set and off set, dynamics can sometimes mirror each other so there was that element, I hope it added to the onscreen dynamic and relationships between the characters. It was kind of hilarious as well because John and Joaquin were like brothers, when we got lunch together, they’d be ripping each other with this whole sibling bickering, love-hate thing, I’m sure they were leaning into it and playing into it, so that was fun to be around.
With Jake, it’s really interesting to be reunited with him in a movie where we’re on the road together again but to have the power dynamics and relationship be so different to Nightcrawler. I think it’s always cool to go back to working with people time and time again, that’s how you develop a shorthand, that’s also how you learn more about yourself and your own craft and where you’re at as a person is by spending time with people you know a bit better and they know you a bit better, so I actually really welcome that, I welcome working with people multiple times, there’s something in that, being so professionally promiscuous.
What role is music playing for you in your career right now? (Ahmed is also a member of hip-hop collective Swet Shop Boys as Riz MC.)
I think Vincent Cassel said this once — as a younger actor, he was always trying to escape himself and then he grew up a bit and he had ideas about embracing himself, embracing his faith, embracing who he is, so I think it’s just like that — when you start to realize some of the biggest frontiers are internal rather than external, some of the biggest hurdles you have to overcome are the blocks and protections that you put on yourself, that’s all it is.
In terms of my music, that’s always been a part of how I express myself and I’ll keep doing that as long as I feel like I’ve got something to contribute that is different to what’s already out there. I feel like if someone else can take care of that, I’ll stop, but right now I feel like I have things to say that aren’t being said or that aren’t being said in the way that I can say them so I will, I’ll continue to explore that. I’m going to be putting out some new music, solo music pretty soon, in the next couple of months.
Given the recent successes of Crazy Rich Asians, Searching and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, there’s a moment, a shift, in Asian-American representation in Hollywood. Are you seeing movement toward more diverse portrayals of South Asians on screen?
Identity politics is about the search for dignity and it’s about the search for being seen, and it’s totally, totally correct that people rally their core identities and a sense of tribe to look for some of that self-respect, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t find dignity, we can’t rejoice in that ability — like, is Crazy Rich Asians just a win for Asians or is it a win for all of us? I think it’s a win for all of us. Is Black Panther just a win for African-Americans? No, I think it’s a win for all of us, because when we each open that often-closed door, then it just creates a bit more space for all of us, and not just that “oh, great, Crazy Rich Asians has been big so now there can be a Desi [Indian] version.” It’s not that. It’s just culture, in increasing the net amount of empathy in our society, it’s just bringing us all a little bit closer to each other man, it allows us to see each other a bit more, and I just genuinely believe man, that that’s what the point is, our purpose here on earth, to recognize ourselves in each other.
And so for me, Crazy Rich Asians is a win for all of us. In terms of do I see there a being a Desi version of Crazy Rich Asians? Why not man? I mean, I think there’s some really cool stuff already happening, we’ve seen some pretty big successes with Kumail’s [Nanjiani] film The Big Sick, Mindy Kaling doing her Four Weddings and a Funeral remake series, Ramy Youssef has a great new TV series coming out on Hulu — you’ve got so many talented people out there, I don’t see any reason why that couldn’t happen so I feel positive about this.
You have some really interesting roles coming up, such as playing Hamlet, but are there any offers that haven’t yet come your way that you’d love to get?
There’s a lot of people I’d like to work with and if I think off the top of my head and list one then I’d have to list a thousand. I feel like I learn from people when I work with them, I’m a bit of a sponge like that, that’s my kick. Even on The Sisters Brothers, you’ve got totally different actors and the approach as actors on set is totally different, it’s really fascinating and I learn a lot from that and I like asking people questions and stealing their genius and trying to learn from it. If I really think about some stuff I’d like to do, I would like to do some stage work, I haven’t done that since my very first job, and I think I’d like to do some work in Hindi or Urdu, and that’s an interesting thing about Englistan, is possibly being able to do some of that.
I know your name has been thrown around for Carnage and we, of course, know you’re in Venom, is there anything you can say about that?
I can confirm I’ll be acting in Venom [laughs].
Ah, cagey answer! Could we see you having a bigger role in the Marvel universe?
You’ll have to ask the guys at Marvel [laughs some more].