AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Riz Ahmed is everywhere. He's the co-star of the comic book blockbuster "Venom." He's in an indie Western "The Sisters Brothers." Meanwhile he's releasing music and selling out concerts. He's also a magazine covers and might even be your Internet bae. Now, the first time I heard Ahmed, he was doing something a lot of A-list celebrities don't do - spoken-word poetry on "The Tonight Show," of all places.
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RIZ AHMED: In these sour times, please allow me to vouch for mine. Bitter taste in my mouth - spit it out with a rhyme. Hey, yo, I'm losing my religion to tomorrow's headlines.
CORNISH: It was August of 2017 right after the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. He'd reworked a piece that he had written in the early years of the war on terror.
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AHMED: Terrorism ain't what you think it is. There ain't no super-villain planning these attacks from some base. The truth is so much scarier and harder to face. See; there's thousands of angry young men that are lost, sidelined in the economy, a marginal cost. They think there's no point in putting ballots up in the box. They got no place in the system and no faith in its cogs - easy targets to be getting brainwashed by these [expletive] who say that spilling innocent blood is pleasing a god.
CORNISH: It's called "Sour Times." When I spoke to Riz Ahmed in front of a live audience last week, I asked him about that piece and how his feelings about it have changed.
AHMED: I didn't perform that for about four years because I was terrified if anyone ever heard me say things like that, I might get locked up. I might get tarred as a terrorism apologist, as a radical. And it's really interesting the limitations that we place on ourselves. And when I did first rap it to someone, to my friend - and he was like, yo, that's the [expletive] you should be putting out. I was like, really, I've been scared to say that to people. So ever since then, I reminded myself it's never a good time. If you wait until there's a perfect time, there's a perfect atmosphere to say something's, you should just assume you're always going to piss someone off and then do it anyway.
CORNISH: Riz Ahmed is 35. He's British-Pakistani, Muslim, a graduate of Oxford. He's also the first South Asian man to win an acting Emmy for his role in the HBO drama "The Night Of." He says that show and its central character, a young man awaiting trial for murder in Rikers Island, are all about complexity and shades of grey.
AHMED: I think there's a kind of duality to it as well, to be honest. What it drew people in with for some people was it allowed them to indulge their fantasies of a dangerous Muslim. But I think what it slapped them in the face with was the realization of our common humanity. And I think that kind of bait-and-switch was actually quite effective.
CORNISH: I think you write about this really eloquently at the - 'cause at the time, you had this essay that appeared in The Guardian which was - the title was "Typecast As A Terrorist." And you talk about this idea of there being three stages for a brown actor in film. Do you mind just telling us what those three stages are?
AHMED: Basically I think when it starts out, you're asked to play the cab driver. You're asked to play the terrorist. It's the arranged marriage. It's the honor killing. It's that kind of thing. I kind of just made a decision right at the start I wasn't going to do that work. I just wasn't interested in it. That's not why I went into this. And sometimes that meant going without work, particularly when I joined the industry, which was peak post-9/11, you know, fear circus vibes.
And then the stage two after those stereotypical portrayals I think is stories that take place on explicitly ethnicized terrain but aims to subvert those. And that was work that started taking shape when I joined the industry. I was lucky that I was a part of those projects, like "Four Lions." It's about a group of terrorists, but they're just kind of these lovable dopes. They accidently blow up bin Laden in wherever. It just kind of makes you second-guess that maybe a more subversive thought than they're monsters is, [expletive], they're just like us.
And in stage three, our thought is this idea of the promise land, you know, where I'm not shackled to my ethnicity, or the roles I'm playing aren't only ones which are very, very culturally specific. And you could look at this as, like, playing roles where I could play a guy, you know, named Bob or Dave. But the promise land isn't just about deracination. It's about getting to this place where it's like, I could also play a character called Nazir (ph). It's not about leaving my identity behind. It's about not just being shackled to a two-dimensional idea of it.
CORNISH: So as your star is on the rise, you reach this new level of fame. And we'll call this level of fame the Hollywood sex symbol.
CORNISH: OK, listeners, what you can't see that the audience at this event can is a massive photo from a magazine spread projected on the screen behind us. It's Riz Ahmed lying on a leather couch oiled up with his shirt undone.
CORNISH: What's this like for you?
AHMED: Pretty awkward as you can see.
CORNISH: But it also means you're kind of put on a pedestal - right? - especially when somebody is, like, smart on current events and issues of the day. Then you are the kind of woke Internet boyfriend. And that is a pedestal you can be knocked off of. How precarious does it feel - that kind of popularity?
AHMED: OK, what is - I mean, two things I think to talk about what you said. First is this idea of kind of embracing your sexuality as a man, as a brown man in particular. That's something that sometimes I feel is, like, a little bit corny. Let's face it. You know, it can be. But I also think it's something that's kind of important to do because I think often brown men in our culture in diaspora are not allowed to be sexual, sensitive or sensual. They're, like, either terrorist barbarians that are going to come and eat your kids, or they're completely emasculated, and they're not objects of desire at all.
You know, I've internalized that dichotomy as well. And in my own mind, I never cast myself as, like, the leading guy or as someone who'd be, you know, desirable in that way. And so that's really a process of re-education and kind of re-examining your self-image to allow yourself to do that, to allow yourself to be that, particularly if you're from a sexually conservative culture. So it's actually something that it's - I think has been part of my journey of growth to allow myself to occupy that space. In terms of, like, being knocked off Internet pedestals, I mean, like, it happens every 10 seconds, doesn't it, you know?
CORNISH: And I ask because you do speak out on ideas, right? You're not afraid to go on some talk show and really say what you think about something. And do you get nervous?
AHMED: Yeah, I guess maybe on some level I do feel like, oh, man, maybe there aren't a lot of people like me doing this. So I do feel a certain responsibility to represent or whatever. But coming with that and speaking to your point of being knocked off of kind of pedestals and disappointing people, you can't ever represent everyone. You can't ever represent everyone's point of view. The idea that I can, like - you know, that any given film, whether it's, like, "Bend It Like Beckham" or "East Is East" or "The Big Sick" or "Goodness Gracious Me" or "The Night Of" can satisfy an experience of a billion Muslims around the world or however many South Asians there are in America - that in itself is patronizing. And it's an unfair burden to place.
But I think the one responsibility you do have is to try and be your full self. And that's going to disappoint certain people. I'm not religious enough for certain people. I'm too religious for other people. I'm going - taking my shirt off too much for some people. I'm not taking it off enough for others, you know?
CORNISH: No one in this room of course...
CORNISH: ...For that last one, yeah.
AHMED: So I think the main responsibility you have is, like, look; I'm going to do me, like, even when it's scary for me, even when I'm going out of my comfort zone and I feel exposed. I'm going to be my fullest, most complex self. And in doing that, hopefully you inspire other people, empower other people to go like, well, all right, you know, if he's going to look like a [expletive] with his shirt off in that, maybe I can, too. Thank you.
CORNISH: That's Riz Ahmed speaking before a live audience in Brooklyn for NPR Presents.
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