Riz Ahmed Doesn’t Want to Be ‘Post-Racial’

Riz Ahmed in Venom Photo: Jessica Miglio/Sony Pictures Entertainment

In the super-antihero/anti-superhero movie Venom (which arrives in theaters today and is expected to gross around $65 million over its debut weekend), the British-Pakistani rapper-actor Riz Ahmed plays a character named Carlton Drake. He’s a billionaire industrialist and head of a shadowy scientific organization who plumbs the depths of space to find alien life forms that will enhance humankind’s chances of survival at a time of widespread environmental disaster — accidentally importing the alien “symbiote” named Venom that overtakes Tom Hardy’s loser-journalist character Eddie Brock in the process. The shape-shifting creature imbues Eddie with indestructibility and superhuman strength; he’s a kind of living super-suit with rows of fang-like teeth and a murderous appetite for human heads.

In the Marvel Comics on which the film is based, of course, Drake is a 50-something white dude — Venom marks the second movie since September in which Ahmed portrays a character originally written as Caucasian. In director Jacques Audiard’s period Western The Sisters Brothers, Ahmed plays Hermann Kermit Warm, an idealistic chemist who may have concocted a scientific formula for discovering gold. Last year, the Oxford University grad and outspoken political activist — who has a sideline as a hip-hop performer, rapping under the moniker Riz MC and as one half the rap duo Swet Shop Boys — became the first actor of Muslim descent and first South Asian to win an Emmy, for his lead role as Nasir Khan, a college kid facing a murder rap, in the HBO limited series The Night Of.

In a wide-ranging and occasionally contentious telephone interview, he spoke to Vulture about disaster fatigue, Hardy’s habit of doing push-ups in between scenes during the British reality series on which they first met, and the “false dichotomy” between escapist entertainment and political discourse. [Some spoilers for Venom included below.]

What was it like playing your first supervillain?

It was pretty interesting because on the one hand, of course, Carlton Drake is a fantastical character from the graphic novels. But what we did was, we updated it for contemporary context, which is the environmental Armageddon. We preserved the spirit of the comic-book character, but we actually make it very contemporary and grounded in that he’s a billionaire industrialist who is feeling the worst about the Earth’s ecological future, so he’s exploring space in order to find another home for humanity. That’s actually something that’s very grounded and very current. Obviously you’ve got people like Elon Musk and Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos all exploring space as a new frontier as we exhaust the limits of what we can do here on Earth.

Your performance could have been a very much mustache-twirling villain. But instead, he’s just a murderous Elon Musk. He doesn’t think he’s evil or crazy but he is most definitely both of those things. It seemed like you tried to portray him as this guy who thinks he’s doing something good.

I guess that no one thinks they’re the bad guy. And that’s true in real life, that’s true in any character that you play. Everyone is doing what they think they have to do in the circumstances they find themselves in combined with their history and the way they’ve been conditioned in life up to that point. I guess it’s true in life as in movies.

Do I have this right — “Mogambo,” your new song that just came out this week, was inspired by a supervillain?

After I recorded the track, there’s an ad-lib where I say, “Mogambo Khush Hua” which is just a kind of catchphrase from a classic Bollywood movie that I dropped in. Then afterwards, I thought actually Mogambo would be a pretty cool name for the song. The track itself is inspired very much by reality I guess. But the supervillain I play in the film and the supervillain song I’ve made actually are inspired by very real life events.

The track, for me, is about the fact that a lot of people are feeling very unwanted and unheard and unseen right now. It’s a bit of a message to say, “Some people might not want us here, but we’re not going anywhere.” It’s really a bit of a rallying call and a bit of, I would say, a kind of a bit of an anthem to get us through these dark times. At least that’s what it was to me when I wrote it. A way of just standing tall and trying to find your defiance and your dignity in a moment where you’re not feeling stamped on.

Would you call it agitprop?

I’m not setting out to [say], “I want to do a bit of agitprop.” It’s very personal for me. There are women right now who are feeling like their voices aren’t being heard. Or there are people who are separated from their families now. Or there’s a Muslim ban that’s just come into place. On average, it takes 25 years to undo a legislation like that in the Supreme Court — and look at what’s happening in the Supreme Court.

Yes, I take to a point in that it’s a rallying call and it’s engaging in a political conversation. But for a lot of us, these political conversations are actually just personal conversations. Just like the stuff that will cross your mind on a day-to-day basis. This isn’t snatched from the headlines. This is snatched from Dear Diary. It’s just that some people’s diaries and headlines overlap in un-threatening ways because when you’re born into a certain body in a certain time and place, you don’t choose politics. Politics chooses you.

The last time you and I spoke you said something that stuck with me, “All art is political.” I guess I wonder, is playing Carlton Drake in Venom a political statement in some way?

We’re living in an age of disaster fatigue. I think we need to broaden the idea of what politics means. If you think of politics of being trying to put forward a point of view of the world, a point of view of how the world is or how it might be, then yeah, of course, all art is political.

In terms of Carlton Drake, yeah, he’s putting forward quite a nuanced position. He’s saying, “Listen, we’re all fucked. What are we gonna do about it? We have to make some tough choices.” Ultimately, people that march for equality need to realize that that’s going to involve them giving up some of their privilege. Economic or otherwise. Equality involves sacrifice. You might not think it, but Carlton Drake is quite a radical pragmatist in a way saying, “What are you gonna do? You gonna sit around and moan about it on Twitter? Or are you willing to give something up?” He’s certainly ready to give up his own agency. He’s ready to give up his own body for the symbiotes. He’s leading by example. As you can tell, I’ve really drank the Carlton Drake Kool-Aid and I am signed up to his cult.

Well, of course, by signing up to appear in a comic-book movie, you and I get to have this conversation about the Muslim ban or identity politics. In that regard, you get to broadcast these ideas just by being out there on the promotional circuit too.

It’s interesting you say that. There was a point in my career when I used to sometimes view it like that. “You can do the work, and that’s really creatively fulfilling.” That’s exciting in its own way. Now, we talk about the work we can get into politics. But I think even that is creating a false dichotomy. What that’s saying is that the work is a safe space. It’s a space where you can escape. That’s a space where you’re not challenged. I don’t want it to be that and I hope it isn’t that.

I hope that the work and the performances and stories themselves are spaces where people are challenged. Where their assumptions are challenged. Where their world view is challenged. It’s not, “Hey, listen. I’ll give you a little bit of escapist candy, but then you gotta listen to me tell you off.” It’s not that. It’s all one thing for me. Ultimately, I want to bring myself and my experiences to the performance and choose characters that allow me — allow us — to get into these conversations themselves.

But issues of racial identity and politics are clearly important to you. And career-wise, you find yourself in an interesting moment. You have two movies in a row with Venom and The Sisters Brothers, in which your characters are post-racial. From what I’d heard, your character in Sisters Brothers was written for a 50-year-old white guy, if I’m not mistaken. How are you getting your head around the fact that you’ve come to this point where your characters are not necessarily reflecting your Anglo-Pakistani cultural makeup?

As an actor, it’s really, really satisfying to be able to play lots of different kinds of roles from lots of different kinds of backgrounds. You don’t want to be told you’re inherently restricted in your choices, although there are always some limits placed on all of us. We’re all bringing what we’re bringing to the table. It’s exciting in that sense, but I don’t think that the goal here is to escape our ethnicity and to become this generic blank canvas. The specificity that you’re bringing to the table can be anything. That could be Hermann Kermit Warm or it could be Carlton Drake or it could be Nasir Khan.

I’m not interested in this idea of “post-racial.” I feel like your question suggests that progress is when I never play Pakistani people again. Or progress is when I never play Muslim people again. That may not be what you’re implying, but I think that might be subconscious in some people’s mind.

I don’t agree with that. Progress is when I can play a whole range of different people. I’m not so much interested in a post-racial world. I’m just interested in one where we’re not shackled to our race in a way that is restrictive. I’m really happy to play a characters [like] Nasir Khan or play a character called Rizwan Ahmed. Or any of these characters, as long as they are allowed to be complicated and complex and fully human and they’re not two-dimensional.

I wasn’t trying to imply progress is you never portraying a Pakistani person again. I remember when Will Smith reached a similar point in his career where certain characters weren’t written for a black actor. But by dint of him being a black actor, it just brought so much more to the portrayal. I’m not saying you’re just the diversity hire in any of these movies.  

I see what you’re saying. Right. I took a point you’re making slightly differently. In terms of that sense, it does feel like progress. Undeniably, it does feel like progress. What this stuff is all about for me isn’t so much a case of like, “Yo, this is a win for diversity. This is a win for my team.” Or a win for another person’s team. It’s really, I think, it’s a win for all of us. When Crazy Rich Asians does really well for example. When Black Panther does really well.

I think it’s a win and this idea that we’re all the same ultimately. Our experiences are universal. The emotion that we feel is interchangeable. It’s just that we find ourselves in different bodies in different circumstances. Anything that can wake people up with the jolt to that idea in a surprising way, which is like, “Oh, wow. I’ve watched that film Precious. I’ve realized that I really relate to this character even though my life is nothing like that.” Anything that brings us back to this idea that we’re ultimately all the same is a win for all of us.

As a person of color, who grew up never seeing people who looked like me on the screen, I wish I could have grown up and seen a guy like you portraying a character named Carlton Drake. I want to make that clear.

Thanks, man.

Let me just ask you a couple of quick technical Venom questions. I’ve read that you’d been on a reality-TV show with Tom Hardy at some point. Do I have that right?

Yeah. It was basically this show where they asked playwrights to put forward drafts of plays and see who gets a chance to be put on in the West End, which is London’s equivalent to Broadway. In episode three, they bring in actors to workshop the writers’ scenes. Myself, Rafe Spall, and Tom Hardy were brought in to workshop this play, a draft of a play, called Reykjavík. We did that. That’s where we met. Just doing this strange one day of filming on this show where it’s like, “Oh, we’re gonna bring in actors to workshop these drafts.” It was kind of surreal. But it was cool to meet him. We kept in touch.

What was the deal with him doing push-ups in between scenes?

He was preparing for Bronson at that time. I think he was pretty focused.

Oh, wow. He’d just hit the floor and do 20?

Yeah, yeah.

That’s funny.

We’ve all been there.

Gotta pump up! I was hoping you could tell me a little bit about filming that fight scene with him where the two of you keep on ripping your symbiotes off of one another. There must have been a ton of computer generated imagery required for that scene. I would imagine doing it in practical reality must have been weird. What was that like for you?

It actually wasn’t that weird because it’s like the computer graphics are so advanced at this point that they are their own thing. They almost paint them afterwards. Almost animation. They’re informed by our body movement and inspired by our gestures.

Oh, okay. I’d heard that a lot of these things require acting opposite tennis balls and performing wild interactions with things just aren’t there.

When we’re talking to the symbiotes, when the symbiotes’ heads are emerging from our body and we conversate with them, then you’re staring at a dot somewhere. That is strange.

One more question and I’m gonna let you go. For one of your next projects, you’re portraying Hamlet. What’s the Riz Ahmed spin on the character? What can we expect to see from that performance?

You know, I’m not sure. It’s still a minute away. It’s still in development. When developing these projects you’re never sure exactly how they’ll turn out. You have a good idea. I don’t want to give too much away, but I guess for me, it’s important to step inside the canon and to help stretch it and drag it kicking and screaming into our contemporary reality. To really just put out this idea that it belongs to all of us as our heritage as well. That’s true for the Marvel Cinematic universe. That’s also true for Shakespeare.

It doesn’t belong in some ivory tower.

Absolutely. These things will only survive with new blood. That’s what I guess is our job — to try and step up and inject it.

*This interview has been edited and condensed.

Riz Ahmed Doesn’t Want to Be ‘Post-Racial’