Riz Ahmed on adapting Hamlet, why Shakespearean themes are 'more alive and urgent than ever'
To be or not to be?
For Riz Ahmed, that's no question. He'll suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as Hamlet in a new adaptation of the Shakespeare play for Netflix.
He developed this version, which is set in contemporary London, with writer Mike Lesslie. Ahmed tells EW he's still hard at work on the project.
"We've been doing it in our spare time, myself and an incredible writer Mike Lesslie," he says. "And we have a really fresh take, and we feel the story is as urgent now as it's ever been. It's a story about mental health. It's a story about privilege, and our complicity in inequality, and how do you put that right if you're part of the problem? As Hamlet clearly is in the Shakespeare play. And it's something that I think we're hoping to make sooner rather than later."
Ahmed trained extensively in Shakespeare at drama school, but says he initially struggled to relate or connect to the text until he dug deeper. "What I found was this lifelong friend, this crazy acid-trip artist that would take words and wield them in the most visceral way," he says of Shakespeare. "I find that the communities that are usually held at an arm's length from Shakespeare are the ones that keep those stories alive more than ever. If you want to talk about the elements in the supernatural, or the elements of family honor being preserved, or hereditary duty, those things are most alive in communities like mine that are often kept at a distance from Shakespeare."
"In the world that I've grown up in," he insists, "I feel the stories like Hamlet are more alive and urgent than ever. I want to take audiences on a similar journey to the one that I went on with Shakespeare, which is realizing how these are stories about right here, right now. And they're most alive in the parts of society where you'd least think to look."
Shakespeare is having a bit of a cinematic moment between this as well as the forthcoming The Tragedy of Macbeth, starring Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. Ahmed points to the comfort of the Bard in challenging times as an explanation for his resurgence. "When we're at a crossroads as a society we start looking back for the blueprint, right? For the owner's instruction manual," he notes. "And I think that's there with Shakespeare."
Ahmed's Left Handed Films is also partnering with AGBO and Higher Ground, the Obamas' production company, to bring award-winning novel Exit West by Mohsin Hamid to the screen. He counts Hamid as a longtime friend and sees the prize-winning novel — it was named EW's own top book of 2017 — about a young refugee couple from an unnamed war-torn nation who follow rumors of doors that offer portals to new places.
"It's a global story," Ahmed says of why it's a fit for Left Handed. "It's speaking to a global audience. And it's about right here, right now. It's a blend of genres. It's magical realism. It's an action thriller, and it's a romantic story, all blended together. It fits the mold of what we're trying to do at Left Handed, which is go left. Tell a fresh story that hasn't been told, and tell it in a fresh way that hasn't been seen before."
In this case, both the play — and the book — is the thing.
Additional reporting by Leah Greenblatt