Riz Ahmed has a heavy conscience. Or at least it seems that way when the British actor reflects on 2016, a year he tells ET “has been a mess in so many ways,” pointing to the deaths of pop culture icons from David Bowie to Carrie Fisher and the civil unrest in Aleppo, Syria, that has left tens of thousands dead and has caused even more to flee the country. And while he didn’t mention it, Ahmed could have easily been referring to a tumultuous U.S. presidential election, which weighed heavily on the minds of many Americans as the year came to an end. All of this in the same year that saw Ahmed’s profile skyrocket thanks to a starring role on the hit HBO miniseries The Night Of, the surprise debut of Netflix’s The OA and scene-stealing parts in Jason Bourne and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. And if acting wasn’t enough, the talented performer also raps under the moniker MC Riz in the group Swet Shop Boys, which released its first LP, Cashmere, in 2016.
“I was spending time over the holidays, hanging out with a friend. I just felt really weird about the incongruity of that comfort and security that we’re able to enjoy,” Ahmed says of watching the news about the crisis in Syria. “I had a really good year professionally and it’s like, you have to give back. That’s something I’ve always personally believed in my life. I thought, If I’ve been lucky enough to have a good year and so many people haven’t, then pay it forward.”
The 34-year-old performer, who was born into a Muslim British Pakistani family, saw himself in the families that were -- or rather, are -- struggling in Syria (“they are really just like ours”) and felt compelled to do something, to use his star power to help those in need. So on Dec. 27, just five days before the new year, Ahmed and Propercorn founder Ryan Kohn launched “10 for 10,” a fundraising campaign benefiting the Karam Foundation that, as of mid-January, has raised 97 percent of its fundraising goal of $100,000.
“A lot of people think that the misery of 2016 might be galvanizing for people, and I'd like to agree,” Ahmed says. “I’d like to hope that people will take this weight -- this shockwave experience -- of 2016 and make them think, OK, how can I make my own waves? How can I make positive waves? How can I make good ripples in the pond?”
“We've got to do something to make 2017 count, and it's really in our hands.” It’s a hopeful rallying cry Ahmed offers in his smooth, calm voice. For the actor, who was nominated for a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award for his role as a Pakistani American college student accused of murdering a young woman on The Night Of, that something is using his rising platform to create awareness for something other than his own benefit. “We live in a world where people are expected to stand for something, and if you don't stand for something, you won't fall for anything.”
While Ahmed wouldn’t necessarily consider any of his work -- onscreen or musical -- political, there is an inescapable layer of politics threaded throughout his work, starting with his first onscreen roles in The Road to Guantánamo and on the ABC miniseries The Path to 9/11. Despite getting into acting after Sept. 11, Ahmed sought parts that subverted the popular onscreen stereotypes that followed the attacks, which led him to the 2010 jihad satire Four Lions and 2012’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Nasir Khan in The Night Of -- a role which stuck with him long after filming.
“When you put yourself into a situation everyday where you're thinking, My life is about to end. My life is destroyed. Maybe I'm a murderer, it's weird. Your body starts taking it on,” Ahmed says. “There was a certain amount of tension you take on, a certain amount of the way you hold yourself in the world that it takes some time to shed.”
Most recently, Rogue One -- yes, even a Star Wars film -- took on new meaning in the haze of 2016, despite Disney refuting any claims it was meant to be seen as a political statement.
“No one can relate to a whole planet being destroyed by a Death Star, but people really relate to Rogue One because they relate to the universal themes in it of hope and rallying together to face big challenges, people from different backgrounds uniting to take up a common cause,” Ahmed says, adding that it’s a mark of good storytelling -- something he says both Rogue One screenwriter Tony Gilroy and The Night Of creators Richard Price and Steven Zaillian achieved. “If these stories are good enough that people want to use them as a prism in which they can digest and understand their own experience, that's amazing. That's also the highest compliment in mind.”
In fact, his role as Bodhi Rook, a former Imperial pilot who defects to the Rebels in Rogue One, may just be the “Promised Land” he writes of in the book The Good Immigrant, which features his essay “Typecast as a Terrorist,” about the struggle to find roles beyond a cab driver, terrorist or bodega owner. The “Promised Land,” Ahmed explains, is “where you play a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to his race. There, I am not a terror suspect, nor a victim of forced marriage. There, my name might even be Dave.” And in Rogue One’s case it’s Bodhi, which is Sanskrit for “enlightenment.”
As for his music, despite tracks like “The Post 9/11 Blues,” “T5,” which name-drops Donald Trump and addresses racial profiling at airports -- something he’s very much been a victim of -- or “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” on The Hamilton Mixtape, Ahmed says it’s all just a reflection of personal experiences. “My daily experience is living a double life of trying to bridge that cultural gap between your parents and the way that you live because you grew up in different countries,” he says. “My daily experience is turning on the news and feeling like there's a bullseye around me. I'm usually just writing about my daily experience and in a way, there's nothing political about that. It's so personal to me.”
And it’s that same humanity that can be found in both Ahmed’s onscreen and music careers that also goes into fundraising for “families and moms that can't get medical supplies, babies that need heaters in the freezing cold war zones” of Syria. “As long as you believe in our common humanity, none of those things should be controversial,” he says. “I like to think that humanitarian instinct is one that transcends political affiliation.”