How Riz Ahmed Shattered Stereotypes to Become Hollywood’s Most Exciting New Leading Man

As Jennifer Aniston knows, a good haircut can make your career in Hollywood. But in Riz Ahmed’s case, so can a bad one.

At age 22, the actor-producer-rapper fell victim to a “horrific bowl cut,” he recalls to Variety. In his arts program at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, the students deconstructed Shakespeare by day and hustled for acting jobs at night.

“We were still doing headshots at drama school, so everyone was making sure they looked good,” he says. “I turn up with this hair and ended up looking like one of the Tipton Three. When Michael Winterbottom’s casting director saw my photo, I got a role.”

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Paola Kudacki for Variety

Ahmed is referring to his big break, Winterbottom’s 2006 film “The Road to Guantánamo,” in which he played Shafiq Rasul — one of three Muslim men from Tipton, England, who were detained at Guantánamo Bay in 2001. They endured two years of torture and interrogation at the American base in Cuba before being released with no charges, an example of the moral murk that accompanied the post-9/11 “war on terror.”

From that fateful coif grew an impressive screen career, one that has positioned Ahmed as one of the industry’s most compelling, blazingly modern performers. An Oscar nominee for 2019’s “Sound of Metal,” the 38-year-old represents a new class of leading man — one who showcases vulnerability, subverts traditional masculinity and ushers in a different type of Hollywood hero. Ahmed’s talent continues to unfold in fresh and exciting ways in two fall films: He plays an up-and-coming British Pakistani rapper in “Mogul Mowgli” and an ex-military officer grappling with a microorganism invasion in “Encounter.”

The two projects are perfect vehicles for Ahmed’s twitchy intensity and emotional daring, spanning genres in ways that highlight his versatility. At a time when one generation of actors seems to be falling over themselves to get into spandex and anchor a superhero movie, Ahmed is forging his own path, one that cuts through the world of streaming and indies while allowing him to create the kind of morally compromised, rough-edged characters that populated the greatest movies of the ’60s and ’70s.

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Ahmed grew up in North West London, the child of Pakistani immigrants. His older siblings learned English at primary school. Five years old and only able to speak Urdu, Ahmed says he searched for ways to be counted in a household caught between two cultures.

“At home with my mom, I would watch these Pakistani sketch shows. What I loved about it was the same actors playing these wildly different roles from sketch to sketch. As much as I enjoyed the skits, I realized that these actors could be all of these different people. So playful and silly,” Ahmed says.

It dawned on him that “playacting” was the best way to get noticed. After he busted out his own characters around the dinner table, filmed content — especially the lush movies of Bollywood and the action of martial arts — took on a new meaning as he came of age.

“The stuff I would really binge was Jackie Chan,” says Ahmed. “I loved this idea of blending genres of action and comedy. Bruce Lee, as well. These were leading men who were from a different part of the world. There was something very powerful about seeing Asian men that were slight and skinny, powerful and formidable. They were so embedded within their own culture, and what they were doing translated and spoke in such a universal way.”

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Paola Kudacki for Variety

In his teenage years, Ahmed became infatuated with other types of slight and formidable performers, like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.

“Pacino was someone who didn’t look that physically different from me, being able to play such a wide range of roles. As a young, testosterone’d-out teenager in love with ‘The Godfather,’ ‘Heat’ and ‘Scarface,’ he was the common denominator. I admired him, but I didn’t feel there was a clear blueprint or template to follow,” Ahmed says of the artistic inspiration he took from those performances.

With Hollywood seeming far out of reach, he threw himself into an academic career in philosophy, politics and economics, one that came with an unusual detour — hip-hop stardom. While attending Oxford University, a place Ahmed called “isolating” due to its overwhelming lack of diversity, he began convening groups of students from underrepresented communities so they could form bonds and find the support they needed on campus. This led to the formation of an underground band and, post-graduation, a career under the moniker Riz MC. Rapping became an outlet for his artistry, but also a vehicle for venting the frustration of being a young Muslim attempting to assimilate.

“Check your beard if you’re brown, and you best salute the crown / Or they’ll do you like Brazilians and shoot your ass down,” Ahmed rapped on his 2006 single, the name-making “Post 9/11 Blues.” The anxieties espoused in his music — over historical religious and racial discrimination exacerbated by the war on terror — would lay a foundation for his ongoing work advancing Muslim portrayals on-screen.

Ahmed’s rise to the top of his craft has meant more than magazine covers and awards — it has helped generate a long overdue conversation about Muslim representation in entertainment. Outspoken in his music and film work about damaging perceptions of Islamic and Black and brown people, Ahmed was the impetus for the Riz Test. Formulated in 2018 by British researchers Sadia Habib and Shaf Choudry, the test comprises a series of questions that examine the intentions and authenticity behind the depiction of Muslim characters. It has drawn comparisons to the Bechdel test, which applies similar metrics to Hollywood’s portrayals of female characters, asking for instance, “Does a film have at least two women in primary roles?” and “Do they talk about something other than a man?” The Riz Test asks, among other things, “Is the character talking about, the victim of, or the perpetrator of terrorism?” and “Is the character presented as a threat to a Western way of life?”

Statistics around Muslim representation in film are, to put it bluntly, abysmal. In June, research from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and Ahmed’s production company, Left Handed Films, found that only 1.9% of characters in the top 200 films released from 2017-19 were Muslim. While Muslims are considered the most racially and ethnically diverse religious group in the world, the study further found that films with primary and secondary Muslim characters portrayed them as immigrants or refugees who spoke no English or spoke with an accent, and wore religious garb. On the big screen, viewers didn’t see Muslims fall in love, raise families or come of age. And they certainly weren’t saving the world from giant asteroids or rampaging dinosaurs.

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Paola Kudacki for Variety

“This isn’t something that I’m going to solve on my own,” Ahmed says. “It’s going to take all of us to come together. It can sometimes be draining. I would much rather be discussing my creative craft and my artistic inspirations, but I feel a responsibility to speak out and to open the door for others, empower people to tell their own stories.”

To that end, Ahmed has established an artist’s fellowship with Pillars Fund, an organization that amplifies Muslim achievement and causes in the United States. The fellowship seeks emerging Muslim creatives and offers mentorship, development and a $25,000 award.

“He’s just mining for the truth at every turn. He’s interrogating everything, to see how it can resonate and feel true,” says “Mogul Mowgli” director Bassam Tariq of Ahmed. “He’s not afraid of confrontation. What I love about him is he’s able to bring up and have difficult conversations.”

Tariq, who will ascend from the indie world to the height of Hollywood as the director of Marvel’s upcoming franchise reboot “Blade,” says working with Ahmed was the training he needed for the big leagues.

“I learned so much on how to manage a set, work with actors. He was so damn kind and generous. He took the biggest risk, working with a first-time feature filmmaker,” Tariq says.

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Work came in dribs and drabs for Ahmed following “The Road to Guantánamo,” cresting in 2012 in the high-profile box office disappointment “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” from director Mira Nair. While Ahmed enjoyed recognition in his home country, it did not equate to more roles. He felt disillusioned, growing skeptical that he’d ever break through to mainstream success. He was advised to head west and try his hand in Los Angeles, an idea he flatly rejected at first.

“I remember having a chat with Idris Elba in London thinking, ‘Man, I’m not going to go to America. What are they going to do with someone like me over there?’ It was terrible, this idea of no clear example or something that’s been carved out before you,” he says.

Elba confided that he had been in a similar position as a man of color facing a dearth of opportunities in the U.K. “He said to me, ‘Don’t categorize yourself. What have you got to lose?’”

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Paola Kudacki for Variety

Ahmed emptied his bank account of its last bits and traveled to Southern California to audition for writer-director Dan Gilroy for 2014’s “Nightcrawler.” The part on the table was Rick, a soft-spoken wanderer looking for opportunity in the City of Angels. Rick is lured into exploitation and murder by a gaunt and scheming videographer played by Jake Gyllenhaal in the movie. Ahmed booked the role, and while that did not quite open the floodgates to acting gigs, his captivating turn landed him firmly on the radar of other filmmakers. Two years later, he would hit star status in the HBO original series “The Night Of.”

Playing Pakistani American student Nasir Khan in the drama, Ahmed gained critical and commercial acclaim for selling a stunning transformation — from mumbling cab driver to hardened drug lord inmate — over the show’s eight-episode run.

His performance earned him an Emmy for outstanding actor in a limited series, making him the first Muslim and the first South Asian to win a lead acting honor.

“I didn’t really think a career was viable for me until 10 years into it, so early on I felt like I had to work on developing a lot of range,” he says. “After ‘The Night Of’ popped, I felt a sense of momentum. It happens to a lot of people. The roller-coaster nature of this business keeps you on your toes and stops you from getting complacent.”

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In the six years since “The Night Of ” aired, Ahmed’s profile soared as he booked back-to-back supporting roles in intensely commercial projects: the Matt Damon sequel “Jason Bourne,” Disney’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and finally his archvillain moment in Sony’s “Venom.”

But something else was at work while Ahmed was building all that Hollywood momentum — he unwittingly became the darling of millions of social media users, an audience that still confounds studio marketers and cares little about box office performance. He is frequently described as an “internet boyfriend,” one whose off-screen persona dazzles the Instagram and Twitter crowds. It’s a phenomenon that has beset other actors of Ahmed’s ilk, including Donald Glover, Oscar Isaac and Rami Malek.

Overnight, his elevated sense of street style landed him in the front rows of Milan Fashion Week. A 2017 selfie with Glover and Malek at the Met Gala went viral. The same year, he appeared amid a laundry list of internet boyfriends in pop star Charli XCX’s music video for the song “Boys,” whispering in the ear of a fluffy stuffed bear. At the 2021 Oscars, he trended on Twitter thanks to a moment when he adjusted his wife’s hair on the red carpet, providing an optimal angle for photographers.

Ahmed blushes at the mention, saying, “From the outside, people project all kinds of stuff on me. But I’ll take it. It’s like, who has been allowed to be seen as a sexual being or a romantic interest? If myself and the others you mentioned can be part of changing that, then it’s all good.”

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Paola Kudacki for Variety

These off-duty moments have earned him deep status in the digital space, which in turn has exposed those millions of scrolling fans to his art. But as Ahmed was amassing this base and gracing the most exclusive sets in Hollywood, a crucial revelation came after “Venom” was released. While thrilling and welcoming, he says, the blockbuster grind uncovered something greater about his intentions as an actor.

“I’m not saying I don’t like those big movies. I’m saying I had not learned yet how to bring myself to those movies. Those films teach you stamina, technical craft, and it is a skill to be able to eke out your artistry in that setting. Look at Javier Bardem in ‘Skyfall.’ I just hadn’t developed the skill set at that point to do the technical thing and the emotional thing,” he says.

Ahmed has learned that his desire is to find — not lose — himself in his roles.

“The idea of making masks and wearing masks is something that came very naturally to me, as someone who grew up code-switching between different cultural environments and class environments,” he says. “Shape-shifting to fit into other molds. Acting became an extension of that, and more recently what I’ve thought about it is taking masks off. Of course, if you believe on some deep internal level that you aren’t the right type — the right color, shape, size, accent — then you will start instinctively wearing masks. So it’s been a shift in self-perception for me to say, ‘You know what? I am enough. We are all enough.’”

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In search of a post-“Venom” retreat, in 2018 Ahmed went back to England, where he was slated to write and direct the BBC series “Englistan.” That project fell apart, which Ahmed calls “a blessing, because it forced me to revisit some of these issues that had come up in my career.”

Shortly after, he received the script for “Sound of Metal” at the same time he was developing “Mogul Mowgli” with Tariq. In the latter, his English Pakistani rapper is diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that forces him to reconcile long-brewing issues within his family. The former would go on to earn Ahmed the best notices of his career and make him the first Muslim person ever nominated in the best actor Oscar category.

“These movies allowed me to push through what I had been struggling with,” Ahmed says.

“Mogul Mowgli” in particular finds Ahmed in a seat of pure authenticity as both a writer and an actor, according to his colleagues.

“He is the whole package. There’s nothing false about him,” says Jennifer Salke, head of Amazon Studios, which not only is releasing this month’s “Encounter” but also signed Ahmed’s Left Handed Films to a first-look content deal.

“He is so thoughtful and introspective and has this incredible range. You can’t take your eyes off him. Given the history of this business, to break the mold of what a leading man is supposed to be is really the most exciting opportunity,” Salke adds.

His next opportunity arrives on Dec. 3, when “Encounter” hits Prime Video. Upon the film’s Telluride Film Festival premiere in September, critics once again applauded Ahmed’s skill in carrying the genre-blender with emotion and intensity. He plays Malik, a former Marine and father of two preparing his boys for an imminent alien invasion. An early plot twist allows the audience to see what Malik can’t, as Ahmed spirals into fear and chaos while trying to ready his children for the battles ahead.

Ahmed worked with a military consultant to better understand the psyche of a serviceman, saying, “There are a lot of misconceptions about the type of people who protect and defend that flag. Often, they’re not afforded the same protections they provide.”

Janina Gavankar, star of “The Morning Show” and ABC’s “Big Sky,” plays Ahmed’s wife in the film (though they never share a scene). After reviewing an early version of the screenplay, Gavankar told director Michael Pearce that a couple played by Ahmed and herself would likely not name their children “Jack” and “Bobby,” as they were referred to in the draft.

“So I called [Ahmed] and asked him, ‘Do you want to name our kids?’” she says. Not only did Ahmed create a rich backstory for the couple, but Gavankar was struck by his interdisciplinary talent.

“As a lyricist, spoken word artist, actor, none of this is a hobby,” she says. “He’s been doing it all of his life, and let me tell you, he’s not going anywhere.”

Beyond what Ahmed means as an actor for Muslims and other marginalized communities, he is deeply committed to evolving perceptions and providing opportunities behind the scenes. Next up is a film adaptation of the smash book “Exit West,” an immigrant love story told with magical realism, one that lets its characters directly travel to new places through doorways. The project is set up with Netflix, AGBO and Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground.

Even at this point in his career, Ahmed has the hustle of a drama school student, good haircut or bad. When asked if he’s met the former president and first lady, he jokes: “They keep trying to meet up with me, but I’m busy, man. I’m about the work.”

Styling: Julie Ragolia; Grooming: Kristan Serafino/Walter Schupfer; Look 1 (turtleneck): Sweater: Tom Ford; Look 2 (black open weave shirt): Shirt: Tripp NYC; Look 3 (tan pants): Sweater and Pants: The Row; Look 4 (trench coat): Coat: The Row; Pants: Thom Browne; Shoes: Saint Laurent; Look 5 (black jacket with white tank): Jacket and top: Alexander McQueen