Rising star always stopped by airport security

Riz Ahmed in The Night Of.
Riz Ahmed in The Night Of.PHOTO: HBO

British actor and rapper Riz Ahmed is releasing a new album this year with American rapper Heems. Their collaboration is borne out of Ahmed's latest acting project, The Night Of, which is playing on HBO.

He takes the lead role of an American-Pakistani who is imprisoned in the Rikers Island jail in New York while awaiting trial for murder.

"When I was researching this role, I did a lot of research in Queens," says Ahmed, 33, a graduate of Oxford University and the prestigious Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. "I went to Jackson Heights and colleges, high schools in the Bronx, and spoke to people that had visited Rikers.

"I spoke to people who had come out of prison. I also wanted to get to know Queens and New York well, so I reached out to this rapper called Heems and he showed me around."

Ahmed's meticulous research has resulted not only in a new music project, but also much praise for The Night Of's central performances from him and John Turturro, who plays his character's lawyer.

These are exciting times for Ahmed. After making his name in critically acclaimed British indie films such as Shifty (2008) and Four Lions (2010), he secured his first major American success in a role opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler (2014).

His star is set to rise higher this year, with his performance in The Night Of, followed by a supporting role in the new Jason Bourne movie and a prominent part in the standalone Star Wars movie, Rogue One.

"It is funny in a way, it is like London buses," he says, referring to how commuters wait ages for a bus and then several arrive at once.

"I spent almost the whole of 2013 out of work. It is always like that, up and down. It feels like people have these big moments but, really, The Night Of was supposed to come out in 2013 or 2014, for example. That was when we were going to shoot, but then James Gandolfini passed away and it went into a hiatus."

Gandolfini was originally cast in the part now played by Turturro.

Ahmed continues: "It is strange how things work out. But I've also been working on my own television show, based on a short film I made called Daytime. And with the music, as well, it has been busy."

In the action-thriller Jason Bourne, which stars Matt Damon in the titular role and a strong supporting cast including Vincent Cassel, Alicia Vikander and Tommy Lee Jones, Ahmed plays Aaron Kalloor, founder of social network Deep Dream.

Ahmed says: "Aaron is a sympathetic character, but part of him feels a little calculating. It's interesting to cast such characters in a good light, but we don't shy away from the complications and the possibility that they may be acting out of self-interest as well."

Even more eagerly anticipated is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which tells of the Rebellion's theft of the Death Star plans, setting up the story that played out in the first film, 1977's Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope.

"It's been exciting," says Ahmed. "I was a little young when the first films came out, but I have seen them all. My brother was more into them because I was just a kid, but some of my early memories are of Ewoks and AT-ATs and that beautiful girl in the bikini. They are definitely formative memories for me."

Another formative memory has been far less pleasant for him."I always get stopped at airports. It is an experience faced by many British Muslims. And it is not nice," he says.

His most humiliating travel experience took place 10 years ago, when he was coming back to London from the Berlin film festival, where his debut feature film performance in director Michael Winterbottom's docu-drama, The Road To Guantanamo (2006), had helped the film scoop the Silver Bear award.

The work is about three British Muslims who were detained for two years in Guantanamo Bay without charge before being released.

Ahmed and his travelling companions were stopped at Luton Airport. "The actors and the people the film was about, the Tipton Three, we were all stopped by the authorities," he recalls. "I don't know why. They kept asking me if I was becoming an actor to further the Muslim struggle. I was angry and upset. It was an illegal interrogation. They put us in arm locks and were screaming random stuff at us."

Compared with the atrocities faced by the Tipton Three in Guantanamo, it was nothing. "Yet it was illegal and when we came out of the interview room, I was outraged.

"But the Tipton Three were really chilled and just said, 'Shall we go and get some breakfast?' You realise that this kind of thing happens all the time. Their reaction was quite humbling."

With a Star Wars film sure to send his profile stratospheric, maybe he will find it easier to pass through airports in the future.

He laughs and says: "At the moment, if I get stopped at Heathrow, it's usually quite funny. That area is full of Asian families and lots of Pakistani and Sikh teenagers are working at the airport, a lot of whom are my fans. It is super awkward for them when they have to search me."

• The Night Of airs in Singapore on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601) on Monday at 9am (same-time telecast as the United States) and 9pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2016, with the headline 'Rising star always stopped by airport security'. Print Edition | Subscribe