Show almost anyone a picture of Riz Ahmed and they’ll be able to place him in something. It could be from Black
Take this week’s City of Tiny Lights, in which Ahmed plays a London private eye investigating the case of a missing sex worker. The film might drown in its own dimly lit gloom, but the fact you stick with it is down to another chameleonic performance from the young Brit. You can read our review here.
Born in Wembley, North London, to Pakistani parents, who’d moved to England in the 1970’s, Ahmed won a scholarship to a private school, before going on to Oxford to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics, and then the acting bug bit and he attended the Central School of Speech and Drama.
His CV is littered with left-field choices, amongst which is his continued career as a socially aware rapper with the Swet Shop Boys. Ahmed isn’t afraid to take chances. Some of them fail, such as Plan B misfire, Ill Manors, but you have to give him the utmost respect for refusing to be typecast, or to take the trail of dollar bills to the Hollywood Hills.
It was probably his appearance in Four Lions that put Riz Ahmed on the radar. As Omar, the level-headed, utterly likeable member of a group of idiot suicide bombers in the Chris Morris comedy, his character was at the heart of the dichotomy with that film. He received a British Independent Film Award nomination to add to the nods he’d already been given for his role in 2009’s Shifty, and the aforementioned Ill Manors.
The notoriety landed him the lead in the star-studded Mira Queen of Katwe Nair directed adaptation of best-selling book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The final film failed to make much of an impact, ambitious and well-meaning, but heavy handed. One thing was clear, and that was that once again, Riz Ahmed had delivered another indelible performance, one which we called ‘mesmerising’ back in 2013.
His next milestone would arrive in the form of Dan Gilroy’s stunning Nightcrawler. A film that scratched beneath the underbelly until it bled, and which had a reptilian, critically lauded turn from a bug-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal. However, those who’d seen it soon began talking about Ahmed as the real star.
Playing a character that we’d not seen him attempt before, as Rick, the right hand man to Lou Bloom’s anti-hero, who’s slowly seduced by the darkness that has consumed his ghoulish boss, Ahmed was a revelation, disappearing into Rick in the same way that his character does the LA shadows.
He re-emerged in 2016, which should possibly be renamed the Riz Ahmed year, because he was omnipresent, and in a good way. Kicking things off was the HBO drama, The Night Of. A nine-part mini-series of detailed characters, multiple plot-twists, a rescue cat, John Turturro’s feet, and a hypnotic central turn from the British actor.
In it he played Nasir Khan, a young Muslim who borrows his father’s taxi cab in order to go partying in New York. Due to a series of unfortunate events, he finds himself in the company of a beautiful young woman, with whom he shares some heartfelt exchanges, before waking the next morning to find her laying dead next to him.
The performance earned him Golden Globe and SAG nomination awards, and it’s easy to see why. Addressing questions of faith, class, and discrimination, Ahmed’s performance was a transformative one. From nervous waif, to hulked up master of his own fate, Ahmed makes such a compelling and complex victim. The Night Of is probably his most all-encompassing role, showcasing the very best of an actor who thrives on subtlety and minimalism.
TV was also kind to him with his minimal recurring role in Brit Marling’s Netflix stunner, The OA. As the FBI therapist in charge of handling the interviews with Marling’s escaped kidnap victim, he once again creates a character you’re unable to second guess, or read, playing an integral part in the final moments of that shows mystery. Hopefully he’ll be back for season 2.
After jumping aboard the Bourne franchise during the summer, the year was to end on a high for the Londoner. Not sky high, but stratospheric. As the pilot of the titular ship in Gareth Edwards Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One, he was afforded one of the most interesting arcs of the large ensemble, which meant that by-the-time that heartbreaking finale clicks into motion, his fate is one you’re invested in, and most of that is down to Ahmed himself.
Having crammed all that into twelve months, it’s no surprise to see that Ahmed has very little on the horizon after his appearance in the final season of Lena Dunham’s Girls for HBO. It goes without saying, that whatever this remarkable young actor decides to do next, it won’t be what you expect, but it’ll almost certainly be worth watching.