Q+A: Riz Ahmed

An interview with the star of Chris Morris’s new comedy, Four Lions.

You've worked with Chris Morris, the director of Four Lions, for a while. How did you meet?

Through Mat Whitecross, who co-directed The Road to Guantanamo [which Ahmed also starred in]. He was a mess of hair and luminous bicycle shorts with bright red socks. I was like, "Who is this guy?"

But you seem to have hit it off.

He turned out to be one of the most intelligent and fun people I had ever met. We spoke about everything and nothing every couple of months for about three years.

So it wasn't just about acting?

I didn't really think he had me in line for a role -- I mean, I kind of secretly hoped he did.

He is known for being quite an elusive character. How would you describe him?

He's just genuine. In an industry full of bullshitters, he's a bullshit detector. His approach is a combination of incredible intellectual hunger and "OK, let's throw our shit against the wall and have fun".

Morris's comedy, especially Brass Eye, has been controversial. Did you ever feel that, with a comic film about jihadis, he was pushing it too far?

He was never trying to be controversial. The subject of terrorism sets off alarm bells in all of us, but he was in it to make a funny film. The god of his church is: what's funniest, how do we make this funnier? We've done things that are provocative, but that's not the main aim.

Were you worried about what sort of impact the film would have?

I just want people to go and see it, and laugh and be blown away by it.

Is it a sign of a healthy society that we can laugh at things like terrorism?

Yeah, I guess. It's good when people can laugh at things that they feel uncomfortable about. But the source of the comedy here isn't suicide bombing or terrorism -- it's these four guys and their group dynamic. It's about the people in the room, not the furniture.

You dealt with similar themes in The Road to Guantanamo. Did you enjoy approaching them in a different way?

Yeah, it was fun to do comedy. It's a different kind of skill -- I think it's harder.

Do you worry about being typecast?

I started acting on post-September 11 terrain, when there were lots of those storylines around. But I'm lucky to have done films that deal with those issues, and add nuance or subvert assumptions. I'm not restricted -- my last few projects haven't been anything to do with that.

Do you feel like you're being held up as some kind of role model for young British Muslims?

I don't think I am, No. I mean there is a kind of journalistic obsession with that, but I'm never going to play buxom blondes, am I?

You're a musician as well as an actor.

Yeah, that's what I'm doing with most of my time. I'm releasing an album in September, and I've created a mad live show to coincide with it. It's a kind of interactive, narrative gig -- there's almost a kind of sci-fi concept to it.

So, is performance important to your music?

Live music is changing. Cinema is, too -- films are so easily available, you have to add value to the cinema experience. Live performance is just part of what I do, but it's the part that I enjoy most.

People tend to think of artists in terms of one medium. Do you think that's changing?

The ways we experience different things have all been muddled up now -- we watch stuff on our iPhones, and we go to the cinema to watch opera being screened. It's just about offering more creative, innovative experiences. Which is definitely something I'm trying to do with the album.

Are you a kind of polymath?

No, I think I've got attention deficit hyperactivity disorder -- in all seriousness. It's just never been diagnosed. I can't focus on things. I think it says more about my deficiencies than my skills.

Are you political?

Everything is political, but in the narrow sense of the word, I'm not that interested. Politics is a very wide concept, though.

Is there anything you regret?

I regret not giving more time to people. Sometimes. A lot of the time I don't care [gives an evil laugh].

Is there a plan?

I hope not.

Are we all doomed?

Obviously.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

Show Hide image

Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era