He's played a deaf drummer and a tech-bro CEO, a freewheeling surf instructor and a reluctant paparazzo, even a Rebel Alliance pilot in a galaxy far, far away. But Riz Ahmed hardly believed he'd land the lead in the eerie apocalyptic thriller Encounter (in theaters Friday and on Amazon Prime Video Dec. 10), about a U.S. Marine veteran desperate to save his two young sons from an alien invasion — and other more terrestrial threats. "You don't normally cast people who look like me in that role, and I think he hadn't really considered going in that direction," he says of his early conversations with director Michael Pearce (Beast). "But I emailed him and we met. And speaking to him, he realized that there could be a real opportunity to do something even more layered and even more subversive with the character and the story."
Though it's been nearly a year since production wrapped — and weeks since his tender, harrowing performance earned wide praise following the movie's premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in September — Ahmed still sounds vaguely surprised that it all worked out. It's a disheartening fact that the British Pakistani actor, now 39, was often consigned early on to small forgettable parts or ones strictly reflective of his skin tone. But in the decade-plus since, he's carved a defiantly undefinable career path: one that includes a 2017 Emmy for his devastating turn in the HBO limited series The Night Of and an Oscar nomination earlier this year for the visceral indie drama Sound of Metal — the first Muslim Best Actor nominee in Academy history — with a scattering of blockbuster franchises (Venom, Star Wars, Jason Bourne) and highly personal passion projects in between.
In an industry where it's reflexive to call anyone with a producer's credit and a few extra tricks on their résumé a Renaissance man, Ahmed actually follows through on his manifold interests — actor, rapper, activist — like he means it. Though for a guy named to Time's list of the 100 most influential people just a few years ago (and one whose projects seem to invite a wide Venn diagram of culture vultures, Comic-Con cosplayers, and prestige-TV fans), it's impressive, if not a little confounding, to see how easily he moves through his Brooklyn neighborhood on a warm October evening undisturbed. "I mean, it's pretty dark," he says, shrugging. "And I'm wearing a cap and glasses. People generally mind their own business."
That anonymity might get harder to hold on to in the next few months. This winter will see a rush of Riz, including his blistering psychedelic portrait of a musician facing down mortality in Mogul Mowgli (due on HBO Max early next year) and the animated Danish documentary Flee (in theaters Friday), a festival breakout on which he serves as executive producer and voices an English-language translation. Like their star, each of these projects defies easy adjectives: Even Encounter, which initially presents itself as straight sci-fi paranoia, turns out to be timely in much subtler and more refracted ways. "It's a road trip through the heart of the country and also through the heart of our society right now — the breakdown of family and community, the true cost of conflict," the actor explains. "But the heart of it is always this emotional father-son story." Not that the London native was immune to the real-life end-of-days vibes that inevitably crept in during the mid-pandemic shoot: "People were running around with masks on in the middle of COVID. It was election season. There was unrest in the streets, the skies of California were literally on fire like Blade Runner. It's [a movie] about right now, and right now just happens to feel quite sci-fi, you know?"
Richard Foreman / © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC Riz Ahmed and Lucian-River Chauhan in 'Encounter'
There's a softer landing, maybe, in the Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Flee (Dec. 3), in which Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen examines the untold history of his high school friend Amin, whose fraught escape from Kabul to the suburbs of Copenhagen is traced with warmth, wit, and a sweet familiarity guided by some two decades of friendship. The animation, too, is a marvel, somehow more intimate and engrossing than even film would be. Ahmed, along with Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, leapt at the chance to rerecord the central pair's voices for an English-language version that he hopes will bring Amin's journey to a much wider audience. "We're not used to seeing a refugee story told with such humanity, or such artfulness, an Afghan story told from an Afghan perspective," he says. "We're not used to seeing a gay love story told in this world. It's such an incredible intersection of bold firsts. It's purely led by truth, and it's told with such magic."
The movie's message also dovetails neatly with Ahmed's own mission: to change the metrics of representation in the industry. As many incremental steps as the past few years may have brought, there's a long way to go, and he's quick to reel off the stats: "We pulled this study together with the amazing team at the University of Southern California that shows how Muslims are so badly missing or maligned on screen. In the top 200 films the last few years, they're 1.6 percent of speaking characters. Almost three-quarters of the time, they're either victims or perpetrators of violence. And this costs lives, frankly, in hate crimes and in discriminatory legislation." The approach is two-pronged: to get studios to agree to "putting a moratorium on some of the really harmful terror tropes that we see, even in super-progressive films like Black Panther, for example," and to helm a fellowship that offers young filmmakers unrestricted cash grants and access to what Ahmed jokingly calls "the Muslim Avengers"—a group that includes actors Mahershala Ali and Ramy Youssef and the head writer of Disney+'s upcoming Ms. Marvel, Bisha K. Ali. The goal, Ahmed says, "is to give people ownership of their own narratives so they can imbue it with the messiness and the humanity and the honesty that stories deserve."
He acknowledges that his higher profile in recent years "has opened doors for doing some more studio projects, like Venom, or being able to work alongside actors like Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly on [2018's loopy Western picaresque] The Sisters Brothers.… But I feel grateful, in a way, that it didn't come out of the gate. I've been working for 10 years straight doing a lot of indie movies and that kind of stuff in the U.K. before I got the awards-y attention with the Emmys or whatever.… I think Anthony Hopkins says something about the best age to find success is 40, because you know who you are."
There was a time, though, when Ahmed wasn't sure if the role that led to his watershed Oscar nod would even see the light of day. After bowing at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019, Sound of Metal — for which he learned drums and sign language and immersed himself in 12-step programs in order to play Ruben, a punk-rock road dog and recovering addict grappling with hearing loss — got caught in COVID purgatory before finding a home more than a year later on Amazon Prime Video. "I was pretty sure no one would see it, but I kind of stopped caring," he says. "When something's that special, the experience of it is its own reward. I know that sounds corny, but it's the truth. It would've been fantastic for people to see it more in theaters. But what was interesting was that for such an immersive audiovisual experience, people were still able to connect to it at home."
Right now, that slow burn feels like a sweet spot: "I think for myself and sometimes people like me, you can be taught that you are not the right type. You're not the right accent, you're not the right shape, color, size. So you get into the habit of wearing masks to get through your day. You contort and shape-shift yourself to fit in these preexisting molds, and it's taken me a long time to realize, actually — for someone like me to stretch culture, it should be less about wearing masks. It should be about taking them off."
A version of this story appears in Entertainment Weekly's December issue, on newsstands now and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.