Riz Ahmed was the star of this summer’s HBO mega hit The Night Of, and he’ll soon join the Star Wars universe in Rogue One, but the path to Hollywood success has not been easy. In fact, the actor says, he’s spent much of his career – and life – pigeonholed into a narrow set of roles based on his Pakistani ethnicity.
In a candid new essay, excerpted in The Guardian from an upcoming anthology The Good Immigrant, the 33-year-old British actor says he’s been “typecast as a terrorist.”
“As a minority, no sooner do you learn to polish and cherish one chip on your shoulder than it’s taken off you and swapped for another,” he writes, adding, “You are intermittently handed a necklace of labels to hang around your neck, neither of your choosing nor making, both constricting and decorative.”
These labels, he says, come in stages for actors. The first stage ties to roles like “the minicab driver/terrorist/cornershop owner.” The second, a “subversive portrayal” – a role based on ” ‘ethnic’ terrain.”
The third, and final, Ahmed calls “the Promised Land.” It’s “where you play a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to his race,” he writes.
Yet, even as he surmounted the stages – like starring in the award-winning The Road to Guanténamo – Ahmed says he was still dealing with stereotyping in his everyday life. Much of that, he explains, happened at airports.
Returning from Road to Guanténamo‘s successful turn at the Berlin International Film Festival, Ahmed and his costars were detained at London’s Luton Airport.
“Intelligence officers frogmarched me to an unmarked room where they insulted, threatened, and then attacked me,” Ahmed details.
And although the incident made headlines in 2006, Ahmed’s struggles weren’t over. Filming in Iran and Afghanistan left stamps on his passport, and inadvertently lead to hours spent in airport back rooms.
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“You see, the pitfalls of the audition room and the airport interrogation room are the same,” he writes. “They are places where the threat of rejection is real. They are also places where you are reduced to your marketability or threat-level, where the length of your facial hair can be a deal-breaker, where you are seen, and hence see yourself, in reductive labels – never as ‘just a bloke called Dave.’ The post 9/11 Necklace tightens around your neck.”
While Ahmed says that these days he finds himself “on the right side of the same velvet rope by which I was once clothes-lined” – both in his career and life – the actor insists his tale is still not “a success story.”
“These days it’s likely that no one resembles me in the waiting room for an acting audition, and the same is true of everyone being waved through with me at U.S. immigration,” he says. “In both spaces, my exception proves the rule.”