Pakistani-origin British actor Riz Ahmed has penned a heartfelt essay about breaking down racial stereotypes in Hollywood and the wider world.
The 33-year-old Rogue One: A Star Wars Story star has revealed he feels both “typecast” as a terrorist every time he passes through airport security when travelling, and also that this impression extends the range of roles he is offered as a professional film star.
At the start of his career, he was frequently given narrow roles based around what he calls “the minicab driver/ terrorist/cornershop owner” stereotype, he wrote in the article published by The Guardian.
“As a minority, no sooner do you learn to polish and cherish one chip on your shoulder than it’s taken off you and swapped for another,” he wrote.
“You are intermittently handed a necklace of labels to hang around your neck, neither of your choosing nor making, both constricting and decorative.”
In particular, he highlighted a particular incident in 2006 when he was physically assaulted by airport security personnel at Luton Airport, as he returned from the Berlin Film Festival where his movie, “The Road To Guantanamo”, won awards.
“Intelligence officers frogmarched me to an unmarked room where they insulted, threatened, and then attacked me. ‘What kinda film you making? Did you become an actor to further the Muslim struggle?’ an officer screamed, twisting my arm to the point of snapping,” Ahmed wrote.
He reported the incident to the newspapers, which subsequently made headlines. “A story about the illegal detention of the actors from a film about illegal detention turned out to be too good to ignore.”
Ahmed later won awards for his role in Chris Morris’ terrorism satire “Four Lions”, after which he left for Hollywood in search of roles that weren’t “intrinsically” linked to his ethnic background.
He landed a part in HBO’s well-received The Night Of, a key supporting role in the award-winning Nightcrawler alongside Jake Gyllenhall, and a part in the Star Wars spin-off Rogue One, to be released later this year.
However, he believes that his example is the exception that proves the rule.
“You see, the pitfalls of the audition room and the airport interrogation room are the same. They are places where the threat of rejection is real.
“They are also places where you are reduced to your marketability or threat-level, where the length of your facial hair can be a deal-breaker, where you are seen, and hence see yourself, in reductive labels, never as ‘just a bloke called Dave’. The post-9/11 necklace tightens around your neck.”