Riz Ahmed had a huge 2020 with Sound of Metal, which earned him his first Oscar nomination—the first time a Muslim actor was nominated for Best Actor—and he’s back in 2021 for another potentially huge year. Thanks to pandemic delays, he has two movies doing the fall rounds, Mogul Mowgli, which he co-wrote and is now in limited release, and the sci-fi family drama Encounter, which got an awards-friendly debut at the Telluride Film Festival and is due in theaters on December 3 and on Amazon Prime on December 10. (Prime was behind Sound of Metal’s awards-season run.) To support his busy season, Ahmed covers Variety this week in a profile that emphasizes him as one of the new leading men, the type of actor who isn’t afraid to play emotional and vulnerable characters, the anti-tough guys, if you will. The profile, written by Matt Donnelly, charts Ahmed’s rise from Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo to his status as one of the busiest elder Millennials in Hollywood.
This is clearly geared toward getting people interested in another awards run for Ahmed—he got great reviews for Encounter out of Telluride, so it’s not impossible—but it’s also a solid look at everything Ahmed has had to deal with throughout his career as a British-Pakistani actor often thrust into the role of “first Muslim to X” and “first South Asian to Y”. You get a sense that being in that position both wears on and fuels him, as he says: “It can sometimes be draining. I would much rather be discussing my creative craft and my artistic inspirations, but I feel a responsibility to speak out and to open the door for others, empower people to tell their own stories.”
But what also comes through is Ahmed’s thoughtfulness. Some actors have the luxury of just taking the next role, and the next, and the next, without much rhyme or reason, but because Ahmed had to fight through stereotypes and limited opportunities—Idris Elba advised him to try Los Angeles when London wasn’t fruitful—he has had to consider so much more what each new role and every break has meant for his career and his ever-expanding cultural context. Even something as jokey and playful as being an “internet boyfriend” takes on a new dimension when Ahmed acknowledges what it means for a brown man to be objectified in that way:
“From the outside, people project all kinds of stuff on me. But I’ll take it. It’s like, who has been allowed to be seen as a sexual being or a romantic interest? If myself and the others you mentioned can be part of changing that, then it’s all good. It’s important to mention that I’m doing it for the greater good.”
I imagine that last bit was said at least a little bit tongue in cheek, but it is kind of true that “internet boyfriend” has been a delightfully flexible label and Ahmed has had that title since his Rogue One days, and things like adjusting his wife’s hair on the red carpet only makes him more endearing to the digital masses. (Speaking of, I would love to see a rom-com inspired by his real life meet-cute with his wife, novelist Fatima Farheen Mirza. They met in a coffee shop over their laptops. COME ON.) “Internet boyfriend” has been a big part of his growing appeal over the last several years, something he acknowledges with a sensibility that again, many of his (white) peers do not. Being the object of internet affection is often treated as an obnoxious byproduct of contemporary celebrity, at best, and downright revolting, at worst. But Ahmed is amazingly practical about this stuff in a way that many of his peers should be studying. You get the sense that Ahmed sees celebrity as a tool, not a hindrance or unwanted by-product.
2021 is a vastly more crowded and competitive awards year than 2020 was, and I don’t know if Encounter will be able to break through the already noisy Best Actor race, but I hope we get to see more of Riz Ahmed over the next couple months. I’d really like to see him interacting on that level with the other internet boyfriends in the trophy hunt, Benedict Cumberbatch and Adam Driver. I would pay $5 real dollars to hear their varying opinions on their digital sex appeal. I bet that would be a very revealing conversation.