Twenty-sixteen has been a turning point in the careers of both Riz Ahmed, the star of HBO’s acclaimed miniseries The Night Of, and the underground rapper Riz MC—who happen to be the same person. This April, operating as his hip-hop alias, the British-Pakistani performer dropped the nine-track mixtape Englistan, a bass-heavy protest record that perfectly crystallizes Brexit-era U.K. jitters. Then, in October, Riz MC turned up again as half of the Swet Shop Boys (Ahmed’s “recorded on a whim” side project with Heems from Brooklyn rap trio Das Racist), subverting “brown stereotypes,” raising South Asian pop-cultural visibility, and bashing Islamophobia on the Boys’ debut LP, Cashmere.
But that isn’t to say his only focus is raging against the proverbial machine. “All art is political,” says Ahmed, 34, sipping a cup of tea on an empty street in an industrial stretch of downtown Los Angeles. “Downton Abbey is fucking political. Bling-bling hip-hop is political. You only get that ‘political’ label slung around your neck when you’re not coming from within the status quo.”
Ahmed, a South Asian actor in an #OscarsSoWhite industry, knows that his path through Hollywood has been different. But a slew of roles this year have primed him for a big breakthrough in 2017. First, in The Night Of (which aired this summer), Ahmed’s gut-wrenching performance as a sheltered Pakistani-American college student accused of murder arrived as a revelation, and has been generating major awards buzz. In July’s Jason Bourne, he portrayed a Mark Zuckerberg-like social media mogul who ends up in the crosshairs of a conspiracy involving America’s favorite amnesiac assassin. “Loads of my rap fans are like, ‘Dude, you’re in Bourne!’” Ahmed notes with a laugh.
And on December 16, Ahmed, who previously appeared in critically acclaimed but commercially tepid indie films like Four Lions and Nightcrawler, will star in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the prequel to 1977’s original Star Wars. He plays Bodhi Rook, an Imperial pilot-turned-Rebellion freedom fighter who’s in on a plot to steal blueprints of the Death Star. “There’s a lot of shit stacking up!” says Ahmed.
The youngest son of working-class Pakistani immigrants in London—his father was in the Pakistan Merchant Navy and his mother was a homemaker—Ahmed attended a posh private school, where he learned to code-switch at a young age: “I had some really supportive teachers there. But I had some teachers who didn’t understand [my background]. In a way, I’ve been acting since I was kid.”
Film became his escape early on. “My brother and I used to run around the house acting out films. We made this kung-fu motorcycle trilogy, Black Dragon,” he says with a laugh, citing blockbusters such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as early inspiration. “Seeing Indiana Jones in India and people speaking Hindi—I was super excited. I loved how [film] would transport you. Imaginative windows would open up.”
Ahmed began dabbling in stage acting, but at the same time he was running with a crew of “South Asian rude boys,” he says, and mainlining golden-era hip-hop by Nas, Gravediggaz, Hieroglyphics, and Wu-Tang Clan. After graduating from Oxford University with a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics, Ahmed turned to performing full-time. He wrote his first rap song, “Sour Times,” while in Iran filming his first movie, the 2006 docudrama The Road to Guantanamo. In the film, Ahmed plays a British citizen traveling in Afghanistan who is mistakenly accused of being an Al Qaeda terrorist and imprisoned by the U.S. military.
In an all-too-vivid case of life imitating art, Ahmed, who’s Muslim, says he has been detained by TSA security for a “random check” every time he has flown into the United States for the past 16 years. To critics, his art is “political,” but to Ahmed, it’s just real life.
“If you belong to certain groups, if you’re born into a certain body, you’re born into politics,” he says. “Because I hail from this starting point, it becomes a political agenda.”
By contrast, in Rogue One, Ahmed inhabits a “post-racial” role that never explicitly acknowledges his South Asian background. Ahmed applauds the casting decision, particularly for a legacy franchise that, in the past, has been more likely to feature a two-headed monster—or worse, Jar Jar Binks—than a person who looks like him.
“It’s time,” he says, “that someone went, ‘Hmm. Let’s reflect reality, and the times we’re in.’”
Ahmed plays a regular-schmo cargo pilot who must look inside himself to discover his inner galaxy-saving hero. “He’s just a dude trying to make a living. But he gets thrown into the middle of stuff, and he has to get involved,” he says. “I kind of like that he’s just a dude. I don’t think you have to be born into bravery or greatness. It’s a choice.”
Ahmed’s career—which will soon include a TV series he is currently writing for the BBC—can be seen as running parallel to a prodigious American whose work also straddles hip-hop, acting, Star Wars, and show-running an acclaimed series: Donald Glover, a.k.a. the rapper Childish Gambino, writer-producer of FX’s urban dramedy Atlanta, and Lando Calrissian in 2018’s Han Solo movie. “I recently hung out with him in London,” Ahmed says, brightening when the comparison is made. “I find him really inspiring. I admire how he’s a person who does all these different things—much like I do.”
Glover’s mission with Atlanta, a show that embraces black identity without being shoehorned into stereotypes, is easy for Ahmed to understand. He’s looking for similar creative freedoms in his fast-rising career. “For me to be seen as a person first, rather than as a collection of suspicious labels, is a pretty human agenda,” says Ahmed. “I just want to be seen as a person.”