British actor Riz Ahmed is a compelling performer in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but his challenging of authority and close-mindedness doesn’t stop there, finds James Mottram
You can imagine a chill went down Riz Ahmed's spine when he read the script for Mira Nair's The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Based on the 2007 novel by Mohsin Hamid, it's the story of Pakistani-born, Ivy League-educated Changez, who takes a job as a financial analyst on Wall Street shortly before the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Centre. In the aftermath, his relationship with America is never the same – from the moment he's brutally strip-searched at airport security.
It's this scene that must have made Ahmed shudder. Like Changez, the North London-born Ahmed has Pakistani roots and an elite education – in his case at Oxford, where he read philosophy, politics and economics, before joining Central School of Speech and Drama to study acting. He also knows what it's like to suffer prejudice in the wake of 9/11. It came after he made his screen debut, in The Road To Guantanamo, Michael Winterbottom's powerful 2006 docu-drama about the British detainees, The Tipton Three.
On the way back from the film's Berlin world premiere, travelling with two of three, Ahmed was detained at Luton Airport – a frightening experience that saw him initially denied legal access as he was aggressively questioned, even asked if he became an actor "to publicise the struggles of Muslims".
Reluctantly, Ahmed's mind turns back to that day. "I wouldn't describe it as a detention, because it wasn't official," he tells me. "It wasn't officially logged. It wasn't procedurally legitimate. It was actually just an illegal abuse of power by a couple of guys."
However, as far as playing Changez is concerned, the 30-year-old Ahmed couldn't help but think of his time at Luton Airport.
"It was very relevant to draw on that experience," he says, quietly.
Sitting in a tranquil waterside café in Venice, where The Reluctant Fundamentalist has been unveiled at the city's film festival, Ahmed is not entirely comfortable with the subject. "I'm not sure how relevant it is to my life now," he says, playing with the sleeve of his white shirt, perhaps wary that he should keep his counsel.
After all, three weeks before the New York shoot, his US working visa was denied to him.
"It's very hard to overturn that," says director Mira Nair. "They don't ever tell you why. We had to go through a lot to make sure they looked at his application and allowed him in."
In truth, Nair ended up calling up a "powerful" friend she'd made in the White House, proof of how desperate she was to get Ahmed into the film. "I didn't want to open the file and look at the other possibilities. I wanted to will Riz into this film."
Curiously, Nair initially had no interest in casting Ahmed. She'd seen him in Chris Morris' suicide bomber satire Four Lions, but little else. "I couldn't get seen for it, because most of the stuff I've done has been left-field, independent British films," he says. "I hadn't done any romantic leads."
Indeed, Ahmed had made his name in grungy movies like Shifty, playing a south London drug-dealer, a role he repeated to lesser effect in last year's Plan B-directed drama Ill Manors.
Yet it'd be unfair to say Ahmed has been boxed in – as the radical Muslim or the urban youth. For Sally Potter, he was a pizza delivery lad in her experimental to-camera piece Rage.
In oil epic Black Gold, he was a quack doctor (offering some light relief in an otherwise po-faced piece). And in Trishna, his reunion with Winterbottom, he walked a knife-edge in the sexually explicit lead. "I feel like I've been very lucky to play an incredible diversity of roles," he nods.
Still, it was The Reluctant Fundamentalist that Ahmed wanted. It was a lead, and a powerful one. "I stalked this project like a sad case.
"I loved the book. I don't often have the attention span to finish books – I get to page 120 and I find something else. But this is a book that you read in one day. Actually, like a silly little boy, as soon as I finished it, I phoned up the publishers and I was like 'Has anyone got the film rights?' And they were like 'Go away!'"
Fortunately, Nair did eventually come back to him with the offer to play Changez, in a story that asks us to consider, as the title suggests, whether its protagonist takes on more extremist views upon his post-9/11 return to Pakistan. According to Ahmed, whether its capitalism or radicalism, such concepts are forever swirling around us.
"They always threaten to pull us into their vortex. I think the main theme of the film is about Changez's attempt to negotiate his way around these obstacles."
Ahmed's own parents moved to Britain from Pakistan during the mid-1970s – though ask him if he feels in touch with his Pakistani origins and he bristles at the question.
"I'm not sure how you measure that. I don't go back there every year. I speak Urdu at home. I also speak fluent Hindi. My Urdu was not at the level of the son of a poet [like Changez], so I had to get it up to that level.
"And that was a real gift, a real joy, to be able to connect with that aspect of my heritage. Because some of these things you do lose."
Raised in Wembley, London, Ahmed was always interested in performance. "I was always the over-energetic kid in the classroom. I used to get in trouble because of that.
"A teacher said 'Why don't you get up on stage? You can fool around there and get clapped for it instead of getting attention.'"
It was a gradual process, however, that came to a head when a friend suggested he apply for drama school after university.
"I couldn't see myself doing a desk job," he says, so he did – applying for one course and one grant. He got them both.
Acting is just one part of his creative output, however. Known as Riz MC, Ahmed's debut album MICroscope came out in 2011, the year he also signed to Brighton-based independent label Tru Thoughts – but he'd already been making waves on the music scene.
In 2006, year of The Road to Guantanamo, he saw his track Post 9/11 Blues banned from the airwaves for its "politically sensitive" lyrics ("Post 9/11 getting around can be expensive, Cost ya 12 dead Iraqis for a litre of unleaded").
Ahmed denies he's out to cause trouble. "I don't see myself as a political rapper," he says, believing his lyrics owe more to the observational comedy of stand-ups like Bill Hicks.
Then again, his definition of 'trouble' is rather loose. When he was 11, he was on a school trip at the Science Museum. The task was to use a recording booth, which he did – rapping the Wu-Tang Clan lyrics "I'm going to give it to ya, I like cocaine straight from Bolivia."
Last year, he got to live out his dream, supporting the Wu-Tang Clan on tour; he's also the man behind Hit & Run, which has gone from its Oxford origins to become one of Manchester's biggest underground music nights.
Now putting the finishing touches to his second album, he's just wrapped Closed Circuit, with Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall, the new film from Irish director John Crowley (Intermission).
It's another tale of international terrorism – perfect for a performer as provocative as Ahmed.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist opens on May 10