In Venom, Riz Ahmed plays the character of Carlton Drake who eventually becomes the symbiote villain Riot (not a spoiler, because it is in the trailer). In the Marvel comic, Drake is traditionally portrayed as a white man and, if you haven’t noticed, Ahmed is not. The British Pakistani actor (and rapper — which we will get more into later) has risen through the ranks in Hollywood taking on roles that where race is not the total embodiment of the character. However, he points out it’s not just about that.
“We’re not aiming to get to a point where I’m playing people whose race is never addressed,” Ahmed tells Deadline. “We want to be able to bring the specificity of identity to characters, but they still are universally relatable. We want to be able to own our identities without being shackled to our ethnicity.”
Ahmed continues, “The goal isn’t deracination, the goal is variety. We want to have the same variety of things open to us as other people. So sometimes that means playing someone called Carlton Drake. Sometimes that means someone playing Nasir Khan. The goal really is, that in either of those roles or in any role, I get to play a complex three-dimensional human being whose full of contradictions, humanity, and nuance. The thing we’re just trying to get away from is stereotypes and two-dimensional portrayals.”
For Ahmed, playing a character like Drake in Venom “feels good.” More than that, he says that it feels good to have a wider range of opportunities — and Ahmed’s recent credits are a testimony to that. He currently stars in the dark western comedy The Sisters Brothers and starred as Jake Gyllenhaal’s naive righthand man in Nightcrawler. To add to the array of credits, he played former Imperial cargo pilot Bodhi Rook in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and appeared as a surfer dude in HBO’s Girls. But it is his role in The Night Of where Ahmed broke through, earning an Emmy award for his portrayal of a Pakistani-American college student Nasir Khan who was accused of murdering a girl. The role could have easily fallen into a trap of South Asian stereotypes but Ahmed, along with show creators Richard Price and Steven Zaillian sculpted a focused and refined series about racial inequality and the justice system.
As Ahmed pointed out, his role as Nasir was nuanced and complex. He made history as the first male of Asian descent to win an acting award at the Emmys (The Good Wife‘s Archie Panjabi led the charge as first Asian ever to win an acting Emmy). With that and his diversified resume of roles that range from comedy to drama to sci-fi, Ahmed has been quietly beating a drum to champion inclusive roles for people of color, using his talent rather than a huge blaring megaphone as a form of awareness. He, in short, is just living his best life as a talented actor. All the while, he’s blazing a trail for others.
Ahmed and Panjabi’s Emmy wins, along with Sandra Oh’s recent nomination, were benchmarks in Hollywood history and it was a moment that meant something to people — and that was important for him. Although these wins and nominations are victories for the Asian community and inclusion, it’s about maintaining that momentum so that it is no longer an additive and more embedded in the industry. In other words, making it the new normal and “turning a moment into a movement” — a phrase he attributes to Lin-Manuel Miranda, who he collaborated with on the track “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” Hamilton mixtape as Riz MC — a hip-hop alias that has found him success as a rapper.
“I think it’s about structural change,” he says. “I think it’s about changing of the guard in terms of who some of the gatekeepers are.”
He points out that it’s about changing the decision makers as well as making broadcasters and film companies more in touch and representative of the audiences they are serving. Ahmed stays hopeful, saying “I think that’s something that is naturally evolving.”
He adds that the even though members of marginalized communities are slowly getting a seat at the table, once they get there, it’s important to “not close the door behind you.”
“I think if you’re being told that there isn’t that much space for people like you, it’s very easy to subconsciously get into a scarcity mentality and think, ‘You know what? There’s only that couple of brown spots up there, so I’m going to make sure they are for me’ as opposed to banding together with people,” he says. “I’m a real big believer in community and I try and link up with people as much as I can who are in a similar boat — and link them up with each other as well if I can. And I believe that if we all try and come through together, the doorway will be bigger next time around. So I think it’s actually about linkages, community, and working together so that you can make a bigger impact.”
For Ahmed, it isn’t just lip service when it comes to supporting his community, saying that there is a lot of exciting talented people of color coming out of the UK right now. He makes sure to give shine to his peers including Guz Kahn from the BBC series Man Like Mobeen as well as comedians Asim Chaudhry and Tez Ilyas. He also mentions talented playwrights including Iman Qureshi, theater director Nadia Fall, and Spun author Rabiah Hussain. He also recognizes the talent of filmmaker Aleem Khan and Sandhya Suri, who recently won Best International Short Film prize at the Toronto International Film Festival for her short The Field.
“The UK has been able to be its own insulated time-warp for a long time,” he says. “But now because the way the world is more joined up, I think it can’t be any more — so I think it’s seeing what’s going on in the US and I think it’s a time of transition in the UK as well, so I’m excited about all those people.”
As a South Asian and Muslim actor in the industry — one of the few in the spotlight — it may seem that Ahmed feels pressure to fulfill a responsibility to be a voice for his community, but that’s not the case. He says he feels privileged that there are people who connect to his work on multiple levels.
“It’s profoundly moving for some people to feel seen, to feel validated — I don’t really feel it as a pressure in that way, It’s a privilege,” he states. “I feel aware of a certain responsibility of the fact that sometimes you carry the expectations of people who have been holding their breath for a long time, and don’t want to feel portrayed or misrepresented but ultimately, I realized pretty early on in my career that you can’t please everyone. That you can’t represent everyone.”
Ahmed says that even trying to represent around a billion people around is crazy and patronizing. “What I can do is really be honest about the specificity of my experience and in me trying to be the fullest version of me out there, I hope that liberates other people to feel like they can be the fullest version of themselves,” he says. “You can’t represent other people as well as you can represent yourself — but sometimes, that’s the hardest sh*t to do. So you’ve got to really be f*cking ready to get naked and represent yourself. So that’s the thing that I’m trying to do.”