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

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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