“The Night Of” actor Riz Ahmed penned a stirring letter for the upcoming book “The Good Immigrant,” a collection of essays about race and immigration in the U.K. by 21 British black, Asian and minority ethnic writers. In an excerpted by The Guardian, the actor details living as a British-Pakistani man, getting hassled by security at airports and compares the incidents to film auditions where he is typecast as a terrorist.
“As a minority, no sooner do you learn to polish and cherish one chip on your shoulder [then] 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. Part of the reason I became an actor was the promise that I might be able to help stretch these necklaces, and that the teenage version of myself might breathe a little easier as a result.”
After starting his acting career during the post-9/11 boom, his first film was Michael Winterbottom’s “The Road to Guantánamo.”
“When it won a prestigious award at the Berlin Film Festival, we were euphoric. For those who saw it, the inmates went from orange jumpsuits to human beings,” he explained. “But airport security did not get the memo. Returning to the glamour of Luton Airport after our festival win, ironically named British 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,” he recalled. “The question is disturbing not only because it endangers artistic expression, but because it suggests our security services don’t quite grasp the nature of the terror threat we all face. A training presentation outlining Al-Qaida’s penchant for ‘theatrical’ attacks may have been taken a little literally.”
While time and again he would get stopped at airports, he also dealt with securing roles that were not “intrinsically linked to his race.” Many producers claimed that they wanted to work with him but had no jobs fit for him. That’s when he decided to head to Hollywood.
“You see, the pitfalls of the audition room and the airport interrogation room are the same,” Ahmed explained. “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.'” Adding, “I had so far managed to avoid this in the audition room, but now I faced the same threat at US airports.”
After landing his “big job” it secured him a proper US visa and was soon waved through security without the extra hassle. “Now, both at auditions and airports, I find myself on the right side of the same velvet rope by which I was once clothes-lined,” he mentioned. “But this isn’t a success story…These days it’s likely that no one resembles me in the waiting room for an acting audition, and the same is true of everyone being waved through with me at US immigration. In both spaces, my exception proves the rule.”
Read his full essay by clicking here.