Monday, 27 April 2009

Interview with Riz Ahmed

New Brit flick Shifty - where a young crack cocaine dealer in London sees his life spiral out of control when his best friend returns home - is heading for the list of cult underworld classics. And It’s a sure bet that lead actor Riz Ahmed’s star will continue to rise as a result…

Was it always your plan to become an actor? Given you studied philosophy, economics and politics at Oxford it's not the most obvious career path...
It was always my hope to make music and films, and I was doing both before and throughout my time at Oxford. But this never seems like a realistic career path - wherever you're coming from. It's so competitive and getting the right breaks has a lot to do with luck. But I knew it'd be hard for me to be happy in a proper job, I'm quite restless. So going from project to project, changing modes and meeting new people suits me. Acting and music satisfy my inner hobo.

You've starred in a number of award winning projects - Michael Winterbottom's Road To Guantanamo, Britz and DeadSet (all for Channel 4) and now your first feature film, Shifty - what's been the high of your career to date?
There's been different highs in different ways. When we got a standing ovation at Berlin Film Festival with Road to Guantanamo, up there with the ex-detainees themselves, that was very emotional and felt very special, like an important thing to be a part of. I guess professionally, getting nominated for a Best Actor BIFA against Colin Farrell for Shifty felt great. I didn't win, and other things I've done like Britz have won loads of awards, but Shifty's a tiny little film and that was a real moment of recognition. I love the idea of making an unexpected impact, coming in from left field.
On the music side, supporting Massive Attack, Mos Def, and playing Fabric were very special, because I grew up listening to those acts and raving at Fabric.

And the low?
The lows I suffer are small and frequent - I beat myself up a lot when I think I could have done something better than I did - I'm a workaholic and a perfectionist so it happens a lot and it means I'll never be satisfied. But I don't mind. If you're not trying to improve, what's the point?

Shifty was shot on just £100,000 over a few weeks, it must have been a pretty intense way to work?
We were stupidly short on time, money, crew, and resources. I loved it. Everyone believed in the script and the director Eran, so it meant all hands on deck, it created a really unique vibe on set. The props guys would wade into sewage to retrieve a phone because we couldn't afford a replacement, Jason Flemyng was sweeping floors in between takes. It also created a massive sense of focus - you only have two takes at each scene when you're filming literally ten pages a day instead of the usual two pages, so you roll with the punches, and have to nail it. I like working under pressure. But I can't ride tricycle's under pressure. I came off that bike at a high speed.

When you first read the script did you think 'British cult classic', as it's now being tipped?
I thought it deserved to be - it's a universal story told in a refreshing way, and the dialogue was so natural and funny. But we were always up against it, and I knew we'd have to step up to the mark and pull it of, hope that people support it when it's made. I know people will relate to it - that thing of seeing your old friends from where you grew up and it making you revisit your old ghosts, and question your present and your future. The way Shifty tells that story is a breath of fresh air. No stereotypes, no glamorizing crime, and no depressing, worthy, docu-realism. This film treats the audience with respect and also let's then enjoy the ride.

Who gets more love from the girls, you or Daniel Mays?
Daniel's married so his loving is probably more regular, but also possibly less varied. Hahaha just joking. We're both in this to do solid interesting work, we're not really the type to have screaming fans or become poster boys, is the true and boring answer. Having said that, if you're interested, find me on myspace, haha.

You said in the past that it's hard playing more non-stereotypical roles, given your ethnicity, do you feel you're breaking that mould now?
I don't take roles that are stereotypes or stock characters. But that can leave a small amount of roles left for me to consider. I've been lucky to get the best of a small bunch of good roles. But now it's changing, with Dead Set, and Shifty, and I hope I'm breaking that mould, that's something I would be proud to do. The films I've done have found an audience and connected with people of all backgrounds, and the public want to see the reality of our diverse society on screen - it's more the decision makers who need to catch up. Shifty is another kick against that door. It's a challenge to the industry - it's a new way of making films in so many ways.

You were given the chance to visit the real Shifty in prison but turned it down. Why?
The starting point for Shifty is based on a real person, but the character I play is an every-man who has found himself on the wrong side of the tracks. The real guy is a great resource, I read his letters from prison and heard lots of stories about him, how intelligent, and focused he was. It all helped. But this isn't a bio-pic. The film is really about friendship, the paths we find ourselves and the people we care about taking - what we do to change their course - we can all relate to that from our own experiences.

The Shifty theme tune, which features yourself, Plan B and Sway, will be the first time a lot of people will have heard you waxing lyrical. How would you sum up Riz MC and how does he differ to Riz Ahmed?
Riz MC is my extremes, it's me at my most thoughtful or hyperactive, honest or sarcastic. As an MC lyrical content is important to me - songs that are about something more than word play or bragging. And musically it's about putting that lyricism on new backdrops you don't usually hear an MC on - I've done tracks with no beats and just strings, and topped the dubstep carts with Radar which was released under a techno label last year! (Damain Lazarus' Crosstown Rebels). I'm really proud of the Shifty track - it's on iTunes May 11th on True Tiger. It feels great to be on there with two of my favorite rappers and know they want to work with you too. We got more votes then the new Eminem track on Zane Lowe's BBC Radio1 show!

And why rap? Couldn't you sing?
Haha, I get to say more if I rap, and I can't shut up. But I wrote the hook on the Shifty tune, and am singing more on the album. People have prodded and poked me into doing it. Including you now. If it sounds rubbish it's your fault.

Tracks like 'Post 9/11 Blues' aren't going to get played on radio. Given your rising celebrity have you ever been tempted to take the commercial route as opposed to voicing views of a political (and often controversial) nature?
It's funny you should say that - only two of my songs are political! I'm more interested in social politics - the way we look at each other, or feel pressured to fit in, or the way we play power games when we're in a relationship. But after my debut track was banned it then got forced onto the radio by internet support. So I think even if the music you make, or the way you release it is not the commercial "industry" way, you can still have a career on your own terms now and it becomes hard for the establishment to ignore you. I've taken years to release my first album (hopefully this year!) because I juggle acting and other things, but because each release has had an impact or got someone's attention I've been championed by BBC Radio1, playing Glastonbury, BBC Electric Proms, and a Maida Vale session with the Ting Tings for them... Some of my stuff is more underground, like Radar, and some is more commercial like the Shifty track. It's about what suits the song. And whether that suits the mainstream or not, there's other ways to get your music to people who want to hear it. I'm in this for the long term, and the most important thing to me is bringing something fresh that has substance, not blowing up over night. But there'll be a mix of stuff on the album.

You've just completed a year as a music resident at the Southbank, whilst juggling your growing acting commitments. Do you ever feel the need to choose between your music and acting career?
I've always done both and each makes me better at the other. As an MC I've learned the importance of preparation and detail from acting, and MCing reminds me to stay loose and open to improvise as an actor. In terms of choices it just creates a healthy tension, every time I do a film I better believe in it, because that will stop me from touring or recording for that time. And vice versa.Things have a habit of lining up too. Britz was out the same week People Like People was all over radio, Shifty posters have gone up as the song's playlisted on MTV - and as an independent music artist and someone who is drawn towards acting work that isn't very Brady bunch, having the combined weight of both can help excite people and get exposure for projects that might otherwise get lost.

As a student you ran hip hop nights in Oxford, are you looking to get back into club promoting?
My Hit&Run club brand currently runs in Manchester. I'm putting on a really special night at the Southbank Centre on 18th July - United Underground - with fresh new music, artwork, big name speakers from politicians to actors, and a roof-top party. It's with British Underground and Ctr.Alt.Shift - a rave with nu skool activism thrown in.

Out of interest, what's the shiftiest thing you've ever done?
For every role I always end up having to do some shifty stuff. I pretended to be a law student and snuk into lectures to prepare as a spy for Britz, I did the rounds with some highly illegal types for Shifty, and once had to trade hash for an armed escort along the Afghan border during Road to Guantanamo. Can someone please offer me a nice rom-com?

Words: Chantelle Fiddy
A version of this article appeared in thelondonpaper
Shifty is in all good cinema's now
Get the Shifty mixtape for free. Download it HERE

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