Riz Ahmed knows about breaking barriers. For one, he was the first Muslim and the first South Asian actor to win a lead acting Emmy Award (in 2017 for “The Night Of ”). But the actor, producer and rapper has long followed a specific mantra when it comes to choosing his projects.
“I want to know, ‘Does it stretch me? Does it stretch culture?’” says Ahmed.
That’s what led him to his Oscar-nominated turn in last year’s “Sound of Metal,” in addition to creating tracks for his 2020 concept album “The Long Goodbye,” which takes a look at the U.K.’s historical and current relationship with South Asians and British Asians. It is also why he is receiving this year’s Variety Creative Change Award at Mipcom.
Later this year, Ahmed will be seen in director Michael Pearce’s “Encounter,” which has already premiered at festivals to strong praise for the actor. And he’s an executive producer on the animated documentary “Flee,” in which an Afghan refugee tells the story of leaving his country and life behind.
When Ahmed first read the script for “Encounter,” the lead role of Malik Khan wasn’t written with a person of color in mind. In Pearce’s script with Joe Barton, Malik is a former Marine who takes his two young sons from their home in an attempt to rescue them from an alien invasion. Ahmed admits he “chased” the role.
“I think his original preconception about the character was that in casting a white American, you could capture certain thematic resonances about America’s fear of immigration and invasion of aliens — that they are taking over and replacing us. And that’s valid,” Ahmed notes. “I just offered a different take on it.”
For example, a scene in which Malik is pulled over by a suspicious cop in the middle of the night takes on a different resonance. And the archetype of a returning military veteran has a new layer of specificity, too.
“He feels not only a sense of alienation, returning with PTSD, but then it’s compounded with a sense of racial alienation,” says Ahmed. He had spoken with many Muslim Marines for the role and discussed how they are rarely, if ever, portrayed on screen.
Ahmed’s interest in challenging perceptions doesn’t just stop with his acting. He came on to executive produce “Flee” because it “aligned with the stories I want to tell.” The doc will be released Dec. 3, one week before “Encounter” hits theaters on Dec. 10.
In addition, his production company, Left Handed Films, has a first-look deal with Amazon Studios and was already behind “Mogul Mowgli,” which Ahmed co-wrote, produced and starred in as a rapper felled by an autoimmune disease. The company has several other projects in the works, both with new and established talent.
“We’re talking about flipping the script,” Ahmed says. “When you’re left-handed, you have to write upside-down and backwards. So, you have to look at things differently. The whole mantra of the company is going left — go left field, stretch the field, stretch the culture. If it’s the kind of thing that’s already been made, we probably have no interest in remaking it.”