Riz Ahmed is a multi-talented man. Alongside being a name actor on both sides of the pond – with recent credits including HBO’s The Night Of, Marvel movie Venom and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – Ahmed is also a successful rapper, as well as a vocal activist for race and cultural issues.
In new movie Mogul Mowgli, Ahmed has a chance to combine all of those endeavors. He plays Zed, a rapper on the cusp of fame who is suddenly struck down by a debilitating illness on the eve of his breakthrough tour. Haunted by religious iconography, he tries to come to terms with his heritage and his future.
Alongside starring, Ahmed came up with the idea with director Bassam Tariq and the pair co-wrote the screenplay after they met in New York. Ahmed also produces through his company Left Handed Films. The movie, produced with Thomas Benski at Pulse Films, Bennett McGhee’s Silvertown Films and BBC Films, premieres in Berlin Film Festival’s Panorama program on February 21. Paris-based Charades is handling sales.
We caught up with Ahmed before the Berlin screening to discuss how financiers are having their eyes opened to more diverse content, why he is looking to take bolder risks in his work, and how he underwent a significant weight loss for the part despite filming six-day weeks.
DEADLINE: How did your creative involvement in Mogul Mowgli come about?
RIZ AHMED: Bassam [Tariq, director] and I got to know each other in New York when I was making The Night Of. It was refreshing to spend time with someone who had had a similar experience – he’s from a working class Pakistani background and had grown up in diaspora. Like me, he was really interested in articulating a vision of what our stories could look like in the 21st century. We encouraged each other to be quite unapologetic about the language and specificity of the film.
DEADLINE: The movie certainly doesn’t dumb down its cultural and religious references.
AHMED: It isn’t about trying to explain things to people. We were searching for a grammar of our own. Our collaboration made it bolder, it took more risks. There’s so much content out there right now, so many stories. The stuff that stands out is really specific, it doesn’t just play to a niche audience, and it has an emotional honesty behind it. I can watch a film like The Farewell and be really taken in – it’s about family dynamics in a specific cultural setting but it’s very much universal. That’s something I’m really interested in.
DEADLINE: Take Parasite as well, it’s very Korean subject matter but again, its themes are universal. After the success of those movies, maybe we’ll see more regular, wider backing for these types of films?
AHMED: That’s something really exciting that’s happening right now. We’re seeing financiers, in the wake of those films, opening their eyes to the potential out there. To find and develop new audiences, and also to reach existing audiences with new stories.
DEADLINE: When you were putting this film together, how much support did you receive?
AHMED: BBC Films were brilliant. They were in there from the jump. They supported Bassam, they supported me, we were really grateful. Pulse also has a great reputation in making experimental films, music videos, documentaries, this has elements of all of those. It meant we had a team around us from the beginning that gave us space to articulate our voice.
DEADLINE: The film certainly has a distinctive cultural voice.
Often, people are making films thinking about finding audiences. But sometimes the strongest, most uncompromising stories are told without any of that in mind. They’re told because you have an artist at the center of it who has to tell the story, has to get something off their chest, that’s how this felt.
At a moment when there is so much attention being put on artists and creators of color, how many portraits of these artists have we really had? I feel like the time for asking people’s permission to tell our stories is over, it’s about stepping up and saying, as storytellers who are women or people of colour, “we have to do this ourselves”. We see the talent out there, we see the demand out there, it’s about creating a bridge.
DEADLINE: Is that why you wrote and produced Mogul too, because it is a more personal story for you?
AHMED: Yeah, it was the collaboration between our two experiences [me and Bassam Tariq], growing a fictional narrative from those. If we’d done it alone we might not have been as emboldened to take as many risks.
DEADLINE: The diversity of successful recent content wasn’t reflected at this year’s BAFTAs…
AHMED: I think it’s something for BAFTA to look at. I think the communities that find themselves with these issues need to address them. It’s their problem to fix and if they don’t fix it, they will find themselves left behind. I’m going to continue making work that I make, that’s what I’m focused on. In a way, having to comment and deal with this stuff is a distraction from what I want to do, which is to deepen my craft and explore that – that’s what I’m focused on. Change is coming, it’s just about whether people are divided about it.
DEADLINE: You’ve had a big few years with The Night Of, Venom, Star Wars… can you use your prominence in the industry to help get more of these diverse types of films made?
AHMED: At the end of the day, a project lives or dies on the quality of its script and team, that will never change. On one hand, you want to do some classic work that you’ve seen your peers do for years, like Hamlet [Ahmed is producing his own adaptation of the Shakespeare play], and go in and put your own spin on that, but on the other you always want to think about the stories you know that haven’t been told. It’s a creative urge, rather than leveraging that from a business point of view, but I’m sure your right, it makes financiers more likely to take risks on a project [when you have a star attached].
DEADLINE: Is it an ambition of yours to produce more, write more, maybe direct?
AHMED: Yeah, it’s one step at a time. I’m finding myself producing more because of the great material that is making its way to me, and talent that I’d love to see well taken care of. I’m developing a bunch of projects.
DEADLINE: Tell me about your slate.
AHMED: There’s Hamlet [reported to have been at Netflix, but Deadline understands that’s not the case]. I’m also doing an adaptation of Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant, as a comedy series. I have a couple of projects with Yann Demange. It’s a really fun slate with a range of genres.
DEADLINE: You’re best known as an actor, to me at least, but you’re also a successful rapper. Did you write the lyrics for the songs in the movie?
DEADLINE: What about ‘Pussy Fried Chicken’? I can’t get that video out of my head…
AHMED: I wish I had the skills to write that one. That was from the genius brain of Nabhaan Rizwan [who plays a rival rapper in the movie].
DEADLINE: It’s a very physical role, you look like you went through quite a transformation in it, did you have to lose weight?
AHMED: Yeah, I lost about 10kg. It was very f*cking difficult, very intense. Would not do that again in a rush. Usually when actors starve they have a bit of time off to do it, we were doing it during filming six day weeks. You’re rewriting scenes all day while you’re slashing calories. It was emotionally and physically intense. I went to places in this performance that I haven’t been to before.
DEADLINE: What’s coming up in 2020?
AHMED: I’m releasing an album next, it features some of the songs in the film, and I’ll be touring that as a music show that also has theatrical elements to it in April.