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?


Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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Pete Burns: too abrasive to be a national treasure, his talent made him immortal

The musician's vulnerability and acute individualism made him hard to pigeonhole but ensured endless media fascination.

When Dead Or Alive's “You Spin Me Round” was number one in 1985, the singer Pete Burns found himself trapped in a limousine by screaming schoolgirls. It's a common enough occurrence — overnight success, autograph hunters, fans wanting a piece of you — but in this case Burns was in his hometown of Liverpool and the schoolgirls were screaming “We’re going to kill you, you fat poof!” From the moment Burns hit the public eye, his untethered wit and unapologetic appearance had the ability to inspire, inflame, and get under society's skin.

In 1985, freshly famous, Burns was already a familiar face about town. Liverpool's centre is compact, and he traversed it every day in the early Eighties to work in Probe Records, the city's equivalent to Rough Trade. Behind the counter, working alongside possibly the most caustic shop assistants in the country, Burns was the most approachable. His demeanour was something quite different, though – hair teased up into a dark lion's mane, a cloak dragging behind him decorated with bells that jangled ominously whenever he moved (he could be audible streets away), and black contact lenses for added horror. 

He looked like a star in waiting, but was in the shadow of Liverpool's Crucial Three: Ian McCulloch, Julian Cope and Pete Wylie. The relentless electro pulse of “You Spin Me Round” was light years away from the first Dead Or Alive single in 1981, an extraordinary slice of neo-psychedelia called “Flowers”, on which Burns' booming, vibrato-loaded voice seemed to be urging us to travel on a gothic time-travelling galleon back to San Francisco: “What's wrong with this world?” he roared, over shrill organ and sheets of echoed guitar. Liverpool's brief but iridescent pop revival at the turn of the Eighties – a dark strain of melodicism that linked Echo & the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes, Wah! Heat and early Dead Or Alive — would later be succinctly demystified by Burns: everybody took acid, they all pretended they were living on the West Coast in 1967 rather than Toxteth in 1980, and they all listened to the Doors.

By the time “You Spin Me Round” hit number one in March '85, Burns' acid tongue and working class glamour were a necessary corrective to a year which would make stars of such catastrophically dull acts as the pop duo Go West. He was just what the media wanted after Boy George acquired a destructive heroin habit and fell from grace.

Neither was ever likely to happen to Pete Burns. He felt uncomfortable around anyone out of control on booze or drugs as it reminded him of his upbringing. His mother had escaped Nazi Germany, married a Scottish soldier, and settled in Liverpool. She became a depressive alcoholic after discovering what had happened to her Jewish family during the Holocaust in Germany. Burns made several suicide attempts, he said, to keep her focused and alive.

This vulnerability was combined in childhood with an acute individualism. He wore an American Indian headdress to primary school one day and refused to take it off. He fought compromise and conformity at every turn, and didn't care a hoot if schoolgirls called him a “fat poof”. He was never off, not even for a tea break; he was Pete Burns, full time. A friend of mine recalls being in the queue for a Liverpool club called the System in 1982 — Burns passed him, pulling full-on dance moves when he was only halfway down the steps, which led directly onto the dancefloor — he hadn't even paused to say hello to anyone.

As a pop star, Burns clearly couldn't give a shit, and wouldn't play ball with radio, record companies or the press. Fame didn't tighten his tongue, though it did allow him to be outrageous on a heightened level. After Haircut 100's Nick Heyward gave Dead Or Alive a pasting in a Melody Maker, the group burst into a toilet cubicle and sprayed Heyward with five fire extinguishers. On tour in America, Burns called his press officer's house at 3am in the morning, screaming “I need a plug! A rubber plug! For this fucking bath!” The upshot of the conversation was that Burns had never seen a bath plug operated by a plunger rod.

Pop stardom in Britain, then, was brief. The PWL team that gave him “You Spin Me Round” (their first number one, and unarguably their best) quickly cooled on him, following it with lukewarm soundalikes – only the luxuriant “In Too Deep” came close to matching its fire. Dead Or Alive's next truly great record wouldn't be until 1988 with “Turn Around And Count 2 Ten”, another poppers-at-the-ready electro-blitz which only reached number 70 in the UK but made him a superstar in Japan.

Burns' vulnerability later resurfaced in endless, much documented plastic surgery – he said that the only part of his body that hadn't had work were the soles of his feet. He was always too abrasive to become a national treasure, but he must have known that “You Spin Me Round” had effectively made him immortal — uncoverable, perfect, a saturated record on which it is impossible to add anything. It's so euphoric, so very full of life.


Reflections on Pete Burns:

Gary Kemp, musician and actor

"Pete was one of a triumvirate of cross-dressed boy stars, brought up on a diet of glam rock, who stormed the barricades of macho rock in the Eighties. He also created one of the best white dance records of all time."


Julian Cope, musician and author

"In a sense I’m relieved for him, he was in such pain and was never happy with how he looked… there was something so inevitable about his death, but it’s important that he’s remembered as a truly significant cross-cultural figure

I think the gender fluidity that exists today is really fucking useful — if Pete had become famous now he would have been fine… he was a pioneer. I think he had hero qualities.

He knew so much about music, especially underground stuff, but when other people were around he would revert to his thick babe persona. He wanted to appear superficial, but he was no more superficial than [Andy] Warhol. He was a deep mother fucker.

Pete was forced in a novelty direction by the time he lived in. He demanded that the rest of the world look at, not away from, people who were different.

Pete tried to live in freedom and at least where’s gone to he will find peace."


Bob Stanley is a writer and a member of the pop group Saint Etienne. His book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is published by Faber & Faber.