Riz Ahmed: 'If a reality TV star can be president,' why can't actors talk politics?
Riz Ahmed was all over the place in 2016. The British-Pakistani actor broke out on HBO’s The Night Of as a murder suspect, starred in supporting roles in tentpole thrillers Jason Bourne and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and even popped up as a shady FBI counselor in Netflix’s The OA. Fans heard him rap, too, as Riz MC, a member of the hip-hop group Swet Shop Boys, which in 2016 released songs tackling representation and racial profiling. Ahmed even scored a spot on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton Mixtape.
But there’s more to the actor than just his body of artistic work. Across social-media platforms, Ahmed has been touting his CrowdRise campaign to help Syrian refugees, which hit its goal of $150,000 on Friday. (His The Night Of costar John Turturro helped with a signal boost.) Before that, he wrote an essay for The Guardian in September about his experiences being typecast as a terrorist, voicing his concern for the way fiction can permeate a stereotype.
Now, after breaking out as an actor in the States, he has a larger platform than ever in his career — and he’s been joined by a tidal wave of actors speaking out in support of refugees and against the anti-immigrant rhetoric surrounding the executive order barring travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
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Yet, the more Hollywood stars use their profiles to protest (via awards speeches, appearances at marches, social-media posts, or other means), the more backlash there is against them taking a stand — from anonymous critics online, pundits on air, and even from the POTUS himself. So, in light of Hollywood’s new intersection with politics, when Ahmed hopped on the phone to speak with EW about his upcoming appearance on Girls (airing Sunday on HBO), he also took some time to discuss his activism. Read his thoughts below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let’s start with your CrowdRise campaign. It’s an obvious question, but why do you feel passionate about this cause?
RIZ AHMED: Because on some level we are all refugees. They’re people just like us who need to survive. That’s a very fundamental human behavior. We’re all trying to do exactly the same thing, trying to find a better life.
Now, having said that, I just want to say that less than 1 percent of the global refugee population resettle in another country. People want to lean on this idea that refugees are desperate to get into some rich country, but you can’t pay people, most of the time, to leave refugee camps. They want to stay in the region, they want to stay within a culture that they understand and speak the language that they understand and be close to networks and family and friends. The idea that if you suddenly have a reasonable refugee policy you’ll be inundated [with them] is ridiculous, because 99 percent of the time, people don’t even want to be resettled.
That’s one thing we need to understand. The scale of the issue is not what we think, and the motivations of these people are not what we think, and those people aren’t who we think they are. They’re people just like us.
What do you think about the official reasoning behind the travel ban, that it’s about keeping the U.S. safe and not about rejecting a certain race or religion?
I think it seems really clear from some of the actions of [judges around the U.S.] that there is a strong element of discrimination from this measure, that it’s actually very un-American and against the very values inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. So far be it for me to judge what an American president or government does, but I would just hold up the very values America itself is supposed to be founded on and say, why don’t we just check those measures against those values we all signed up for, you know?
Just to backtrack a bit, you’ve obviously talked about these topics before, through your music and your writing. When you began your career, did you always intend to speak out about political issues?
To be honest, I just want to talk about the world and my experience and tell my story. I think you only start thinking of those stories as political if they haven’t necessarily been heard before. I’m just talking about my day-to-day reality, about what happens when I go to the airport and try to get on a plane and go to another country. To me it’s not political, it’s just personal.
I’m talking about what it feels like and what it looks like to be me and the stories I see around me. People start saying that’s “political” because you’re not usedto seeing it. I would also say that any perspective is a political perspective. Any time you focus on one story over another that betrays a set of values that you think is important is political. It’s like, Downton Abbey is political. They’re focusing on these people. I guess the distinction between art that is seen as political and art that isn’t is actually quite paper-thin. I don’t think there really is one. We tend to label something as political when we’re not used to seeing it put out there.
So if you’re saying that political art is just art, what’s your take on the criticism actors face when they say something that’s construed as political? They’re told to go back to acting or whatever it is they do.
See, that I don’t understand, because if a reality TV star can be president, then why can’t an actor have an opinion on politics? I don’t get it.
Can you expand on what you mean?
Right, well, look, we’re all in this together. We’re all human beings on Spaceship Earth [laughs] keeping it up there instead of seeing it crash. Everyone has a role to play in talking about what they think is important, and through that debate, hopefully, we can come to some kind of consensus that, you know, destroys as little of this planet as possible. [Laughs.] I think the idea that people aren’t qualified to talk about what they care about just because they’re in the public eye is slightly perverse.
In fact, I would argue the opposite. Anyone who does have a platform and a voice in these times to speak up against what they perceive to be an injustice actually has a moral responsibility to do so. In this day and age, there are so few forums where global conversations take place between everyone. Everyone’s off in their own little bubbles, everyone’s following people on Twitter they already agree with, or reading news sites they already like, so there are very few areas where lots of different people who might disagree are paying attention. One of those areas is music, one of those is the arts, one of those is Hollywood.
But just to play devil’s advocate, isn’t Hollywood itself a bubble, a left-leaning one? There are barely any actors, it seems, who support the current administration.
Well, I don’t know what “Hollywood” means. I mean, if you’re saying that, like, if you happen to have worked on a film, that makes you a part of the bubble, I think that’s really weird. I think what’s really easy to do is generalize about people. We have too much of that right now, and to say that everyone in Hollywood is like this, or everyone in the Midwest is like this, or everyone in the Middle East is like this — that’s part of the problem. That’s an us-and-them perspective.
One of the foundations behind art and storytelling is that there is no us and them. That’s why you can relate to stories. That’s why when I watched The Crown, I can be moved, even though I’m not the Queen of England. [Laughs.] That’s why I like Girls. I’m not a 20-something white woman from a middle-class background, but I love the show. It’s got great acting.
What does it take to continue telling stories that make it harder to generalize? I’m asking for your take on keeping up this discussion about diversity in Hollywood, because that’s another issue tied to the industry.
I think it’s about empowering new voices and investing in them. It’s partly about eliminating the risks that lie behind backing a new voice. I think that in a really cluttered marketplace, what we’re starting to see is taking calculated risks can really pay off. Who doesn’t want to do Barry Jenkins’ next movie, you know what I mean? Who can say no to that? It’s a really good time to take calculated risks. People want something fresh.