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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If tattoos could talk: Glen Campbell's life in music

The late singer made a trade of music, and made it look easy.

There was a rudimentary tattoo on his left upper arm, which he’d given himself at the age of nine: a small cartoon dagger, scratched with a needle and filled with ink, 72 years ago, in the yard of the house he shared with 11 brothers and sisters in Bills­town, Arkansas. In his last years, doing interviews about Alzheimer’s in his final home of Nashville, he’d wear T-shirts and you could just make out the tip of the dagger emerging from his sleeve. But for decades you wouldn’t have seen it, beneath flower-power shirts on his late-1960s TV show, or the fitted tuxedos of the 1970s, as he played the “William Tell Overture” on his guitar with the philharmonics of the world.

His accent came and went, too, as he adapted his vowels and crossed his Ts for the sophisticated compositions of his regular musical partner Jimmy Webb, another southerner making his way in LA. Campbell was the son of a sharecropper but he didn’t like getting his hands dirty. When he left home at 14 to become a musician, it was a practical move for the family – the money was good, and without him there was more room in the house.

As the first-call guitarist in the elite LA session group the Wrecking Crew, he played on 500 tracks in one year. Carole Kaye, who later delivered the bass line on his most famous song, “Wichita Lineman”, told me they all went out to buy big diamond signet rings with their wages one day. Glen peered into his: “Hey, look, I can see Russia,” he said.

Dirt poor, down-home, authentic – he may have been those things, but it was not his business to claim to be. He wasn’t a songwriter; he was an interpreter of other people’s material – a concept almost alien in a modern musical climate that expects songs to be a reflection of an artist’s inner life. He would take the most urbane track and throw it back at his audience with an incandescent ordinariness. “It is like a bird flying, it’s like somebody breathing, it is easy for him,” his musical director TJ Kuenster said.

Exactly how he achieved it was more mysterious. He had a habit of speeding things up, injecting light and energy into songs and turning them into something kinetic and fresh. His vocal entries often lagged a fraction of a second behind the beat, making each one sound like a spontaneous thought.

On his prime-time TV show, with his hair sprayed into a high wave, he’d awkwardly navigate the light comedy of the day: the Smothers Brothers riding hippos through the studio, or the skits with Sonny and Cher. His talking voice was chirpy; then he’d sit down to play Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and it was as if a switch had been flicked. His face fell into a state of instant clarity, intense but faraway, with sometimes a hint of pain – though you knew the pain wasn’t his.

He never sang about himself, which made the private self a separate entity. There was the lost Glen of the late 1970s, blank of eye and huge of beard, free­basing cocaine in a Vegas hotel room, having fisticuffs with his girlfriend. There was the middle-aged golf-playing Republican, baptised in a freezing creek under the watch of his younger wife; then tanned and born again, happily doing his Donald Duck impressions on stage. There was the lapsed Glen who hit the whiskey again as a pensioner, drove drunk, attempted to knee a policeman in the genitals, ran down a freeway, got snapped for a famously bad mugshot and spent ten days in prison, where he still managed to perform an impromptu set on a couple of hay bales.

But at any point in the 55-year ride, amid the personal dramas and lapses of musical taste, he’d open his mouth and what came out was deeply serious. You couldn’t imagine him writing a shopping list but he had an ear for poetry – teeing up particular lines in Webb’s songs for his audience, asking how someone so young could write “Asleep on the Wind”, an impressionistic portrait of a legendary bird that spends its whole life in the air. He’d take Webb’s tracks away and arrange them for his guitar, playing them back at their composer in his trance-like state. When the song was over, he’d snap out of it and laugh. “Those chords! If I start thinkin’ about them I miss ’em! I love it! Write me another one like that!”

When I noticed the tattoo sticking out of his T-shirt, faded like a biro scrawl, it struck me as strange that the same piece of skin had passed through so much of 20th-century music, with its changing notions of what it means to be “authentic”. The arm had travelled from sacred harp singing in Steinbeck’s south to Bob Wills’s hayseed country shows in the golden age of 1950s TV; from Vietnam protest songs to the stifling world of residencies in Las Vegas – and finally to the life of a “country legend”, via the theatres of Missouri and the golf courses of Arizona. In middle age, he recorded religious albums that sounded as pure as “Wichita Lineman”. Once again, he was acting as a funnel, for a different kind of light.

He was the real deal not because he turned his personal experience into a marketable commodity but because he made a trade of music, and made it look easy. He followed the gold rush, sold himself, got himself back just in time – yet in his playing, and the very touch of his tongue on his teeth, he was astonishingly truthful. It was the ultimate life in music, and in that sense, too, he is a piece of time lost. 

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear