Actor, rapper and modern-day vigilante — Riz Ahmed is a truly talented man, finds ShortList’s Lee Coan
Riz Ahmed has just tweeted, “In between every moment of spiritual reflection and silent brotherhood in a mosque... there is a ringtone.” That ringtone may have been us.
“T’sup?” we ask him down the phone, trying and failing to seem cool. Ahmed, 29, is a serious man — a young actor with an impressive CV (Four Lions, Shifty, the forthcoming Arabian epic Black Gold). He’s also a respected MC — as at home in an east London rap battle as he is on stage at the Royal Festival Hall. If that wasn’t enough, like a British James Franco, he’s a scholar too, having studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford. All that and we’ve opened with “T’sup?” Sometimes it pains us to be that ringtone.
What was your favourite moment making Black Gold?
There are only a few places in the world where you have full-on sand dune deserts rolling directly into the sea, and one of those places is where we shot in Qatar. We were filming a scene where we were running down the dunes, and we just jumped straight into the sea. It was a standout moment. The scale of the shoot was so different to anything I’ve done before. It was huge. There were hundreds of camels, horses and people everywhere in these massive sweeping shots. Proper epic.
We’ve heard camels are difficult to work with…
Yeah. Actually, camels are a lot like cats.
What do you mean?
They’re like a dopey version of a big cat. You build this relationship with them, and you start to think they’re your mate, but secretly they’re just in it for the food and they don’t like you at all. When you realise that they’re not in it for the love, it’s depressing. They’ve been looking down at you the whole time. And, also, it’s mad how they sound — camels, not cats. They sound like you’d imagine a dinosaur would.
Raaaaarrrr. I think that’s actually how Steven Spielberg filmed Jurassic Park — he just dressed a bunch of camels up as dinosaurs.
Did you enjoy your camel scenes?
Once you get to grips with them, it’s fun. You’re high up, so you feel like you’re on top of things in this powerful position. Until your camel turns its big, long neck and burps in your face. Just to remind you that you’re not actually in control of the situation.
Did you hang out with Antonio Banderas, who plays Sheikh Nesib?
He’s a really cool, animated guy, full of experience. He’s one of those people who when he walks into a room it puts an extra spring in everyone’s step. I think it’s because he’s still passionate about what he does, which is cool to see. He’s still hungry for it.
Did you see much of Qatar?
A couple of short trips to the capital, Doha. The place is in an interesting time of transition, because it has all this oil money but only a small population. They’re trying to transform themselves into a cultural hub of the desert. There’s something alarming about the pace of development. You’re driving along and it’s desert, desert, desert, desert, five massive skyscrapers going up, and you’re suddenly in Blade Runner…
You’re also starring in Plan B’s forthcoming directorial debut Ill Manors. What was it like working with him?
One of the most important things on a film set is that the director has a clear vision of what he wants. Ben [Drew, AKA Plan B] had that. I’ve known him for a few years, and his thing is all about storytelling, no matter what format that is. I could tell that he would go towards directing. He’s an amazing talent. [With Ill Manors] Ben’s created a Stratford version of City Of God filmed on a micro budget. It’s an incredible achievement.
The location shooting must have been a contrast to Black Gold…
Yeah. We’d be shooting a scene and crackheads would be breaking into our van. One time, they stole our laptops, which had all the film footage on. Instead of breaking for lunch, we broke for ‘Find the crackheads’. We were all running around Forest Gate, people in cars tearing around everywhere.
Did you find the thieves?
Yeah, we found them, got the laptops back, and Ben was like, “Take three, let’s go again.” We also had problems with gangs. They’d be coming up and telling us we couldn’t film because it was their turf. The only way to move them on was to find the oldest guys in the gang. The older guys are always more reasonable, but it really is like the Wild West in east London.
Did it help that some of the kids knew who you were?
In one way that helped because it eased the tension, but it also brought new problems. You can lose the reality of the piece, because suddenly the people in the background of your scene are excitable. Someone in the background would shout [quote from Four Lions], “Rubber Dinghy Rapids!” When that happens you’re just like, “Oh sh*t. Cut, cut, cut.”
Are you proud of Four Lions?
Yeah, massively, and its popularity is still growing. It’s mad, because we struggled to get it shown in cinemas. Independent films don’t get much of a chance to make a smash in the box office these days, but once you hit DVD you can achieve a life of your own. Word spreads. It just shows that if you think outside the box office, you can still make a hugely original film, and it can be a success.
What’s Four Lions director Chris Morris like to work with?
He has this air about him. He’s a mixture of inspirational leader and mischievous school kid. He starts off taking everything seriously, but then everything becomes about making his actors laugh. He maximises the silliness in any situation.
Who coined the name Rizmeister General?
You, isn’t it?
Nah, I’ve never heard that before. Where did you get that from?
So it’s not your rap battle name?
Man, after this interview it is. I want it put on the credits. Black Gold... featuring Antonio Banderas... Rizmeister General. Actually it should be, “And introducing Rizmeister General.”
Have you ever fallen flat on your face in a rap battle?
Yeah, one really bad one comes straight to mind. I was in the semi-finals of a massive battle for Jump Off [a London-based rap battle event], and it all went badly, badly wrong. Basically, this rapper I was up against was being racist to me. It happens a lot. I turned to him and went, “You’re so ignorant, calling me an immigrant, you obviously haven’t noticed your own skin pigment,” but it just went straight over everyone’s heads. I was trying to say, “Look mate, you should be more self-aware, you’re being racist.” As a black man, why would he gun me for being Asian? It was a predominately black audience and I think they thought I was having a go at black people, which I wasn’t. Man, I died…
Black Gold is at cinemas nationwide from 24 February