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Why Riz Ahmed is at the center of the biggest movie (‘Bourne’) and TV show (‘The Night Of’) of the week

Riz Ahmed
Riz Ahmed, one of the stars of the HBO series “The Night Of, " is shown July 30 at the 2016 Television Critics Assn. Summer Press Tour at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hillse .
(Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

The music festival poster listed the performers in the way that musical festival posters do, a run-through of names and styles united by a theme. There was the Bhangra mistress DJ Rekha, the punk act Kominas, the post-racial hip-hop artist Riz MC, the Pakistani neo-traditionalist Arooj Aftab.

All were part of the lineup for the Asian-centric Function fest that took place at a Brooklyn bar Sunday night.

One of those acts, though, was not your typical musician: Riz MC is actually the British actor Riz Ahmed. Shortly after he was set to take the stage in his guise as a smooth-grooved but provocatively political rapper, his face would appear on TV screens everywhere as Nasir Khan, the stoic, tortured son of a New York cabbie and accused murderer  in HBO’s summer breakout series "The Night Of.”

At the same moment, multiplex audiences were turning out to see Ahmed as Aaron Killoor, a conscience-stricken Silicon Valley mogul, in “Jason Bourne," which opened to $59 million over the weekend in the U.S. and has taken in an additional $51 million overseas. 

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The London-based Ahmed had actually hopped a flight to Function after promoting “Bourne” in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, appearing at an HBO Television Critics Assn.  panel to talk up “The Night Of,” and hitting a round of Hollywood meetings in which he courted offers on upcoming projects. Most of the people he met with were unaware of his musical moonlighting.

“I kind of am proud of the fact,” Ahmed said just before he stepped into one of those meetings last Friday afternoon, “that 90% of the people that cast me as an actor have no idea that I do music. And vice versa.”

Every once in a while an actor blows up at seemingly the exact right time. Ahmed, 33, has been toiling in the film world for more than a decade — his first major role was as a prisoner in Michael Winterbottom’s “The Road to Guantanamo” in 2006. But in the space of a few months he has gone from barely known to nearly ubiquitous, a fate that will be sealed when he appears as Rebel pilot Bodhi Rook in the “Star Wars” spinoff “Rogue One” later this year.

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Ahmed’s fame comes at a moment when debates about immigration and Islam have roiled the U.S. election, when questions of outsiderness have polarized his native Europe; when the issue of celebrities’ political outspokenness remains charged; and when, as his music career underscores, the idea of simply choosing one art form and sticking with it is a less appealing or tenable career path.

Ahmed was born to Pakistani immigrants in London’s working-class Wembley area— and is a medium-hopping artist as likely to sing about otherness as he is to embody it on screen — which puts him at the fulcrum of all these trends.

“As a teenager I had a lot of moments of ‘who the hell am I; what are my values?’ There were so many different sides of me; I felt like a kind of insider-outsider,” Ahmed said. “But I’ve found that there’s also something very enriching about being the insider-outsider.”

Ahmed left the gritty neighborhood of his youth and made his way into a different world via a scholarship to an elite high school. He eventually attended Oxford, studying politics and philosophy. As he began shifting into acting in his 20s, he soon found his background an advantage — in part for a film industry interested in faces of color as it explored the worlds of Asia and the Middle East, but also in the evolution of his own creative identity.

Several years ago he directed a semi-autobiographical short called “Daytimer,” a film he describes as a “a kind of multicultural take” on coming-of-age films such as “The 400 Blows.” The movie played Sundance; he aims to continue directing. Among his upcoming projects are a multi-generational Pakistani-British family story he aims to make for U.K. television.

Viewers of “The Night Of” will find echoes of Ahmed’s own childhood in the Naz character, a 23-year-old who is in the process of studying hard to transcend his background before matters go awry. The back and forth in the past few days between presidential nominee Donald Trump and Khizr and Ghazala Khan — like both Ahmed and Naz’s parents, Pakistani immigrants to the West — further underscores this timeliness.

Ahmed spent weeks in neighborhoods such as Jackson Heights, Queens, to burrow deeper into the show’s world. He even met the indie rapper Heemy in his travels--a Punjabi Indian from a working-class background who had a similar trajectory, attending Wesleyan University--and formed a rap duo known as Swet Shop Boys. (The name is a mischievous pun on the long-running English electropop duo The Pet Shop Boys.)

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Still, he cautions against inferring too many similarities between person and portrayal.

“Where I grew up and the Jackson Heights you see on the show are actually very different places in a lot of ways,” he said. “The danger is looking at them and thinking they’re the same [just because they look the same]. That’s what we’re trying to avoid.”

 What he’s not avoiding is politics. Ahmed frequently tweets news-related opinions and actively lobbied on behalf of  Britain’s “remain” movement, making a pro-immigrant argument that was unafraid of stepping on a social third rail.

On “Englistan,” his Brexit-era mixtape that has surged in popularity since dropping in April, he laces a plea for multicultural tolerance with a more scabrous subversion of the English idyll. (“God save the queen/Nah she ain’t mates with me/But she keeps my paper green/Plus we are neighbours see/On this little island/Where we’re all surviving/Politeness mixed with violence/This is England.”)

He says he has not had thoughts about toning down his speech.

“When I was growing up there was value in an actor being an enigma, this notion of ‘less is more,’” he said. “But I don’t think that’s true now. You can put yourself out there and still disappear into a character. Realness is more." 

(Incidentally, though his rap career wasn’t known to all in Hollywood, tracks did reach “Night Of” creator Steven Zaillian, who had auditioned nearly 200 actors for the part of Naz. None suited, and he requested Ahmed send a tape. The actor didn’t right away, prompting the filmmaker to take a different tack.

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“I went on YouTube to see what I could find.  I watched him in some clips from ‘Four Lions.’  His performance in one of the posted scenes got my attention,” Zaillian said in an email. “The scene, like the film, is comedic, but Riz was playing it straight.  This, I felt, was a deft choice by an actor.  To me, it made the scene work.  And I thought, you have to be smart to make that choice. I then watched some of his rap videos.  What came across in all these clips and videos was someone who was smart, sophisticated and multi-faceted.”)

British fans haven’t yet been exposed to “The Night Of” — Sky UK debuts it in early September — leading to Ahmed feeling a little jolted as Americans have begun to stop him on the street in the three weeks since the show debuted. At the “Bourne” premiere in Vegas, he was still able to walk past a chunk of the red carpet unfettered as Matt Damon and other costars were more heavily pestered. As “Night Of” builds to its eighth-episode finale on Aug. 28, that’s certain to change.

If there’s any annoyance at being cast as the misunderstood Muslim — he also starred as the rational voice in the suicide-bomber comedy “Four Lions” and the title role in Mira Nair’s is-he-or-isn’t-he jihadi drama “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” — Ahmed doesn’t show it.

“I never felt I was being typecast,” Ahmed said, noting that he’s played a range of different roles. “Being an actor is about stretching empathy; it’s about making something universal by being specific,” said the actor, who can speak in well-meaning if occasionally earnest tones. “But it is a nice side effect for people to see characters they don’t otherwise experience.”

The “Night Of” role came about because Zaillian and fellow series creator Richard Price decided to switch the cabdriver family from Anglo, as it was in the British miniseries on which it’s loosely based, to Pakistani.

That said, there are signs that Ahmed is outgrowing his role as a go-to Muslim, that disconcerting Hollywood trend in which producers settle on just a few actors of color to portray a wide variety of parts.

He was actually cast in and initially began making “The Night Of” in 2012 (the project was put on hold with the death of former star James Gandolfini). His role in the more recent “Bourne” has no ethnic overtones, and his turn in “Rogue One,” as Bodhi Rook, does not seem laden with them either. (While plot specifics are elusive, Ahmed says the film is “almost like a war movie, where characters have rich pasts and murky motivations.”)

In late 2013, Ahmed began shooting Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler,” as the sidekick Rick to Jake Gyllenhaal’s  sociopathic Lou. In retrospect it was the beginning of a new chapter in which his ethnicity made no statement — or rather, its non-factor made its own kind of statement. He had to win over Gilroy, who initially thought of Rick as an American role.

If anything, Ahmed said, he actually likes playing parts outside his background — as Rick; as “Bourne’s” Killoor, which found him talking to experts on metadata in conversations he (mostly) understood; even as a rapper at a New York music festival. “The best creativity,” he said, “happens when it’s not about you — [it’s] when you can open the door to someone else.”

‘The Night Of’

Where: HBO

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

steven.zeitchik@latimes.com

@ZeitchikLAT

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