How Riz Ahmed is increasing Muslim representation in film
Riz Ahmed is running late. The London-based actor is in New York in mid-September for meetings, interviews, photo shoots, and fittings. He got stuck in traffic, and then he realized he forgot the key to his Airbnb. “This is what really productive people do,” he jokes as he settles behind a table for our chat via Zoom, about an hour after the appointed time. “That’s actually one of the secrets I want to share with your readers.”
Whatever system Ahmed has or doesn’t have in place, it’s working. Since his Oscar-nominated performance as a drummer who loses his hearing in the 2020 film Sound of Metal, Ahmed’s agenda has been packed with a dizzying array of projects. He released an album, The Long Goodbye, on his own imprint, Mongrel Records. He cowrote, produced, and starred in Mogul Mowgli, a film about a British Pakistani rapper who grapples with identity issues while confronting a debilitating illness. He’s tackling the role of Hamlet in a film adaptation written by an Oxford classmate. On December 3, he stars in the film Encounter as a Marine saving his family from an apparent alien threat. (It comes out on Prime Video December 10.)
He has also emerged as Hollywood’s busiest and most visible Muslim actor, and one of a small number of Muslim performers tapped to play characters whose ethnicity and faith aren’t even remarked on. He knows that he’s in a rare position within the entertainment business, and any business, for that matter, and he’s taking the responsibility seriously. Over the past year, Ahmed has become the industry’s leading advocate for expanding Muslim representation in media, both on and off the screen.
It is a daunting task. Twenty years after the September 11 attacks, bias and discrimination against Muslims persists. In the months following former president Donald Trump’s executive order banning travel from predominantly Muslim countries, nearly half of Muslims in the U.S. surveyed by the Pew Research Center said they’d experienced discrimination because of their religion. Pew research also shows that Americans consistently give negative “ratings” to Muslims (and atheists) when polled about their sentiments on faith.
Hollywood, which has been pushed over the past few years to reckon with sexism and racism, has been glaringly silent on the topic of its treatment of Muslims. A few years ago, Ahmed started speaking about how Muslims are portrayed in movies and television, sharing personal anecdotes and admonishing the industry for perpetuating stereotypes both innocuous (cab drivers, shopkeepers) and menacing (terrorists). He soon realized he needed data and concrete solutions to address this issue. He backed a major research report on Muslim representation in film that came out earlier this year, and then announced, in partnership with the nonprofit Pillars Fund, the Ford Foundation, and USC’s Annenberg Institute, a fellowship for emerging directors and screenwriters who identify as Muslim. Advisory committee members include actors Mahershala Ali, Hasan Minhaj, and Ramy Youssef, and directors Bassam Tariq, Jehane Noujaim, and Yann Demange.
Ahmed is well positioned to stoke change. He’s respected in filmmaking circles and the Muslim community alike, even when he’s skewering extremism in Islam. (He says he’s still most widely recognized in the U.K. for his role as Omar, a would-be jihadist in the satirical 2010 film Four Lions.) He has quietly mentored and supported young artists. And his three-year-old production company, Left Handed Films, secured a first-look television deal with Amazon Studios in January 2021, and has begun to pursue scripts that amplify Ahmed’s mission to expand representation while experimenting with different forms of storytelling. He calls it “stretching culture.” One such project—of the 16 that Left Handed currently has in development—is Exit West, based on the novel by Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid, about a young couple fleeing their unnamed home country when militants gain power. It tells “a refugee story, but it’s [also] a magical realist love story,” says Ahmed, who will star as Saeed, one of the protagonists. “That’s the kind of thing that I’m interested in, blending genres, confounding people’s expectations.”
Ahmed, who is left-handed, says the name of his production company captures his desire to upend a system that rejects or miscasts people who don’t fit in. “As a left-handed person, you kind of have to write in this strange, upside-down way,” he says. “You’re literally flipping the script.”
When Ahmed isn’t on set, he follows his own strict regimen. He’ll wake up in London by 7:30 a.m. and do a bit of breath work or meditation. He’ll then write until about noon—a screenplay or lyrics for an album. After a run or home workout with weights or resistance bands, he’ll eat lunch, then shift to calls and meetings, just as folks in New York are logging on for the day. “Working out, having a shower, cooking, that’s the transition” from writing to his business obligations, he says. “It burns off some of the frenetic energy.”
The routine not only enables Ahmed to balance the creative aspects of his work with the commercial, but it’s also essential to helping him combat insomnia. “There are certain things I need to do every day to feel balanced and good,” he says. When he has trouble sleeping, it’s clear that he hasn’t been doing them: “I didn’t exercise. I didn’t meditate. I didn’t [write in my] journal.” He has other tricks, too. During a recent stay in California, he tried going outside and getting natural light first thing in the morning and at sunset, a tip he picked up from neurologist Andrew Huberman’s podcast, Huberman Lab. “I gotta say, it worked for me,” Ahmed says, hinting that California weather helped encourage the routine. “That’s not a very enticing prospect most of the year in the U.K.”
Ahmed’s rituals extend to his team at Left Handed, which consists of Allie Moore, a former AMC executive who joined the company in January as senior vice president and head of television, and creative executive Megha Kohli. Throughout the week, they establish blocks of time for different types of work and meetings. Internal blocks are dedicated to brainstorming, reviewing current projects, and talking about prospective new endeavors. External blocks are for meetings with creative and business partners, including fellowship backer Pillars Fund, or his agents and public-relations teams. There also are individual blocks—ranging from 90 minutes to 3 hours—for reading and creative work. Moore credits Ahmed with establishing the block system. “I wish I’d done it my whole career,” she says. “It is really helpful because it is easy, especially in my position, to lose that creative time.”
Ahmed hopes to create blocks for the team to give him honest feedback—something many employees find intimidating. In the summer of 2021, Left Handed hired executive career coach Drew Kugler to help make sure the trio is having what Kugler calls “real conversations.” Kugler, whose clients include Microsoft and Warner Bros., says he was immediately struck by Ahmed’s receptiveness to the process. During an in-person meeting with Moore, Kohli, and Ahmed at a café in Brooklyn, Kugler noted that Ahmed made eye contact throughout the meeting, and shifted his entire body in his chair to face whoever was speaking. “Do you know how many CEOs of billion-dollar corporations do that? Zero,” Kugler says. “He was there for us.”
Ahmed, like so many people who grow up as “other,” is an expert at code switching, adjusting his speech or mannerisms to blend into different spaces. Born in England to parents from Pakistan, he grew up in Wembley, a diverse community in northwest London. He’d adopt one persona as a student at Merchant Taylors’ School, a highly competitive boys’ secondary school, another with his family, and still another with friends from home. At Oxford University, where he studied philosophy, politics, and economics, he honed his emcee skills—as Riz MC—at a club night he started partly as an antidote to the school’s traditional formal dinners.
For all his professional accomplishments—he won an Emmy for his breakout role as Nasir Khan in The Night Of and was nominated for another for his guest appearance as a surf instructor who gets Hannah pregnant on Girls—Ahmed says he still felt like the one character he hadn’t seen represented was a guy like Riz Ahmed, a layered, complicated individual who defies stereotypes and pigeonholes. That realization is part of what led him to form Left Handed, and it has informed his activism.
In 2019, the talent agency CAA invited Ahmed, then a client (he’s now represented by WME), to speak at its annual Amplify conference, a leadership summit focused on diversity. Hollywood was going through a reckoning around treatment of women and people of color on screen and behind it. Frances McDormand ended her Best Actress acceptance speech at the 2018 Oscars by calling for “inclusion riders” to ensure diversity in film—but no one was talking about Muslims, says Esme Peach, Ahmed’s social impact adviser, who has been working directly with him since 2017 when he launched a fundraiser for Syrian refugees. “An epidemic of Islamophobia was sweeping the globe, and yet the accountability moment that the film industry was having around representation didn’t seem to include any reflection on the tropes that were being perpetuated in relation to Muslims,” Peach says. Ahmed’s speech opened with an anecdote he has shared a few times about being detained at London’s Luton Airport after returning from the Berlin premiere of Road to Guantánamo, a docudrama that was Ahmed’s first feature film. One of the interrogators asked Ahmed: Did you become an actor to further the Muslim struggle? He went on to detail other examples of Islamophobia around the world and negative portrayals of Muslims in media. He concluded by asking attendees to help with research and funding to document the scope of the problem. “We need to be data-driven,” he said.
The results were almost immediate. The Ford Foundation agreed to fund “Missing and Maligned: The Reality of Muslims in Popular Global Movies,” a study conducted by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. The report, released in June 2021, validated Ahmed’s suspicions: Of the 200 films released in the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand between 2017 and 2019, only six featured a Muslim in a co-leading role, and only one of those was female. Of the nearly 9,000 total speaking parts, fewer than 2% were Muslim. Of 41 lead and secondary Muslim characters, nearly 90% spoke no English or did so with an accent. All this despite the fact that, according to the Pew Research Center, Muslims account for nearly a quarter of the world’s population.
Ahmed didn’t just promote the findings in media interviews, he made a 13-minute video—which he shared on Twitter—highlighting the study, praising nuanced performances such as Mahershala Ali’s work in Moonlight, and calling out examples of harmful portrayals. “You have The Boys on Amazon, a show which I loved and binged,” he said. “I can’t tell you how gutted I was when halfway through that show Muslims turn up . . . to hijack a plane.” In conjunction with the report’s backers and Pillars Fund, he unveiled the Pillars Artist Fellowship, which awards unrestricted $25,000 sums, plus mentorship and professional development, to Muslim screenwriters and directors. The first fellows will be announced in early 2022. “The speeches, the activism, the fellowship . . . they’re all authentic,” says Stacy L. Smith, founder of USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, of Ahmed’s efforts. “He’s in this to create change.”
The refugee experience is central to the plot of Exit West, a love story about a young couple fleeing their war-torn homeland. Filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo’s AGBO production company had secured the rights in 2018, and by 2020 they had brought Ahmed on to star in and executive produce. It didn’t take long for Ahmed to exert his influence. During script development, he asked key members of the team, including coproducers from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions (the former president put Exit West on his list of top books to read in 2017), to participate in a three-day workshop so that they could listen to firsthand accounts of refugees. “It’s one thing to suggest that you do that,” says Tonia Davis, Higher Ground’s head of television and film. “It’s another thing entirely to organize it, particularly for a bunch of busy Hollywood people. And then it’s another level to personally attend, and participate with vulnerability.”
Jennifer Salke, head of Amazon Studios, says she built a close relationship with Ahmed when her company was working to acquire Sound of Metal, which it distributed in 2020, and last year she signed a first-look TV deal with Left Handed, which means Amazon Studios gets rights of first refusal to anything Ahmed’s company produces. When Ahmed criticized The Boys, an Amazon Studios original, Salke wasn’t surprised. “We’re always happy to grow and learn,” she says. “I respect Riz’s point of view. The work he’s doing on behalf of Muslim representation is a game changer.” She says his biggest challenge as he moves deeper into production may be time management. “The hardest thing for him, given how deeply he dives into things that he cares about, is figuring out how he can do that when he’s only one physical Riz,” she says.
“I didn’t become an artist to enter business,” says Ahmed. He longs for the day when he can refocus his attention on acting, making music, maybe taking on another comedic role. “My fantasy career is to be a stand-up comedian—not that I have the talent for it.” (He says that much of the inspiration for his rap music comes from satirists such as Bill Hicks and Richard Pryor.) For now, though, he feels he must keep stretching culture, using his visibility and credibility to fight bias in the entertainment industry and beyond. In his 2019 speech at CAA, he reflected on the question the airport security agent asked him: “Did I become an actor to further the Muslim struggle? If you mean the struggle to be seen, heard, and afforded dignity? Then, yeah, I did.”