Actor/rapper Riz Ahmed (recent star of The Night Of, upcoming co-star of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and Riz MC when he’s rapping) has written an essay for the collection, The Good Immigrant, which “explores why immigrants come to the UK, why they stay and what it means to be ‘other’ in a country that doesn’t seem to want you.” His trenchant, must-read (really, do it) essay was published today in the Guardian, and is about living through people’s perceptions of British Pakistanis and Muslims. He discusses what this experience has meant for him as an actor, and how the types he’s been asked to play reflect his life outside of his profession — particularly at the airport. “Since I was a teenager I have had to play different characters,” he writes, “Negotiating the cultural expectations of a Pakistani family, Brit-Asian rudeboy culture, and a scholarship to private school. The fluidity of my own personal identity on any given day was further compounded by the changing labels assigned to Asians in general.”
He explains how, over the course of his life, the labels have changed to fit people’s/society’s desires. “You are intermittently handed a necklace of labels to hang around your neck, neither of your choosing nor making, both constricting and decorative.” He lists three possible “stages” for minority actors: 1. being cast in 2-dimensional stereotypical roles, 2. being cast in better roles that still hinge on explorations of race/ethnicity, and 3. being cast in roles where those things aren’t at the center of what the character or the story are about.
Ahmed speaks about how his first film role (in Road to Guantanamo) belonged in “stage 2,” but how, following the Berlin Film Festival, airport security brought him back to “stage 1” — where “ironically named British intelligence officers frogmarched [him] to an unmarked room where they insulted, threatened, and then attacked [him].” He wrote to journalists who ultimately published the story — about the absurdity of an actor being illegally detained while coming back from a film festival where his film about being illegally detained was screening — and then wrote a song about it:
He decided to try to make it as an actor in America because the American film industry and society, he says, are somewhat antithetical to the way it works in England. “America uses its stories to export a myth of itself, just like the UK,” he writes. “The reality of Britain is vibrant multiculturalism, but the myth we export is an all-white world of lords and ladies. Conversely, American society is pretty segregated, but the myth it exports is of a racial melting-pot, everyone solving crimes and fighting aliens side by side.” Within this second myth, he says he assumed he could find better roles.
When he came to America following the incident he explains that the shooting locations he’d been on for Road to Guantanamo made his passport an “Axis of Evil world tour,” and his suspicions that the same thing might happen again came true: when he got off his plane, he was once again pulled aside into a holding pen” with “20 slight variations of [his] own face, all staring at [him] – kind of like a Bollywood remake of Being John Malkovich.”
The actor explains the tactical acrobatics he had to perform in order to convince people that he was, in fact, not a potential terrorist: “These airport auditions were technically a success. But they involved the experience of being typecast, and when that happens enough, you internalise the role written for you by others,” he says.
The Good Immigrant will be released on September 22, 2016.