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Actor Riz Ahmed on increasing Muslim representation in Hollywood


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Finally tonight, Amna Nawaz speaks to actor Riz Ahmed about his upcoming films, increasing Muslim representation in Hollywood, and 9/11's lasting impact on Muslims 20 years later.

It's part of our arts and culture series, canvas.

Amna Nawaz: For Riz Ahmed, his acting career...

Actor: You don't have kids?

Riz Ahmed, Actor: There's no time, man. I got to go.

Amna Nawaz: ... his music career have always gone hand in hand.

And in his new film, "Mogul Mowgli," which he co-wrote, the two art forms collide, with a story that hits close to home.

Actor: Forget this damn tour!

Riz Ahmed: OK, so what's it's going to be, huh?

Amna Nawaz: The main character, Zed, is British, like Ahmed, of Pakistani descent, like Ahmed, and a rapper, also like Ahmed.

Riz Ahmed: It's in English. It's in Urdu. It's an acting piece and a rapping piece. And though it's rooted in my specific experience, I think a lot of people can really relate to that of all backgrounds.

Actor: And was I ever successful? Did you ever listen to me?

Riz Ahmed: No, but can't you just let me do my thing, man?

Actor: Do your bloody thing, yes.

Amna Nawaz: There's clearly a lot of you in this new film. Could this have been something you did five years ago or 10 years ago? Or is this sort of the perfect story for this time?

Riz Ahmed: I don't think I would have had the guts to make this five or 10 years ago, because I think I was still in a place where I was thinking about wearing masks in order to fit in for other people.

What I'm interested in now is bringing all of myself to my work, bringing all of myself into every room I enter, not leaving the British side of the door, the Pakistani side, or the posh side or the working-class side, the actor or the rapper.

Amna Nawaz: Though the 38-year-old's been acting since the early 2000, Riz Ahmed became more of a household name after a breakthrough turn and critical acclaim in HBO's 2016 miniseries "The Night Of."

That propelled him to big screen blockbusters, like Disney's "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," in which he played Bodhi Rook, an Imperial-pilot-turned-rebel. 2020's "Sound of Metal," in which Ahmed played a punk drummer losing his hearing, earned him his first Oscar nomination, making history as the first Muslim nominated for best actor.

And he continues to make music, most recently releasing a new album called "The Long Goodbye."

Riz Ahmed: I'm a fool. When you're at war with yourself, you're easy to divide and rule. She had me locked down, beat me red and blue until I knew that right was white and not brown.

Amna Nawaz: Ahmed's success has come in spite of an industry influenced by a surge of anti-Muslim sentiment post-9/11, narrowing Muslim representation to reductive stereotypical roles Ahmed says he worked hard to avoid.

Years later, that strategy has paid off, and his superstar status has been cemented. But that, he says, isn't enough.

Riz Ahmed: Exceptions don't change the rules. Real change comes from not someone having a moment, but by people creating a movement.

I know for a fact I'm here because people before me have kind of carved out a path. None of us is getting to the finish line. We all just running a relay race. We all just doing a stretch of the race and we just pass the baton forwards. That's just how it is.

Amna Nawaz: New numbers show just how far Hollywood has to go.

Ahmed joined forces with the University of Southern California's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, the Ford Foundation, a "NewsHour" funder, and the Pillars Fund, aimed at amplifying Muslim narratives, to back a first-of-its kind study breaking down the 200 top grossing films between 2017 and 2019.

Of more than 8, 500 speaking roles, fewer than 2 percent were Muslim, and over 75 percent of those roles were boys or men. Over 90 percent of films had no speaking role for any Muslim character.

Riz Ahmed: We got the numbers back and, surprise, surprise, the numbers are terrible. Of I think these 200 movies, Muslims are only 1.6 percent of all speaking characters. And three-quarters of the time, they're either victims of or perpetrators of violence.

What does that do when we're fed this image of a group of people? It makes it easier to dehumanize them and destroy their lives.

Amna Nawaz: In response, Ahmed and the Pillars Fund have created a multiyear fellowship to jump-start and support Muslim artists in the U.S. and U.K.

Riz Ahmed: You know, it's 25 grand unrestricted cash grant to this new generation of Muslim writers and directors, storytellers, along with an amazing, I call it the kind of Muslim Avengers, collective of Muslim talent in Hollywood that can mentor them and make their professional networks available to them, people like Bisha Ali, who just wrote "Ms Marvel," or Mahershala Ali, Hasan Minhaj, Ramy Youssef.

Yes, it's about access, but it's also just about making sure people can pay the bills and keep the lights on. So we thought that that would be a solution.

Amna Nawaz: Do the Muslim Avengers have like secret handshakes, a secret hideout somewhere? I am imagining all of that in my head.

Riz Ahmed: They do, but if I had mentioned it, wouldn't be secret, so, yes.

Amna Nawaz: Good point. Good point.

A new initiative for a new generation of creatives entering the industry 20 years after the attack that turned scrutiny and suspicion onto Muslims worldwide.

Riz Ahmed: Suddenly, it became about the West vs. the East, us vs. them. And, actually, a lot of us, people like you and I and millions of people around the world, found themselves to not fit in to those neat boxes and those kind of clean lines.

You know, there's a kind of hybridity to our identity and to the identity, really, of most people in the world. There's a complexity and nuance to our views. My whole career really has taken place in this post-9/11 era.

The kind of impetus behind it is to try and make that no man's land habitable, try and make it fertile ground to try and, yes, create a home for those of us who don't fit neatly into these black-and-white narratives that were imposed on us.

Amna Nawaz: So, I'm curious, from your perspective, over the last 20 years, do you think it's gotten better?

Riz Ahmed: Isn't it strange? It feels like things are getting worse and better at the same time.

For me, the hope comes in seeing the next generation, seeing how passionate they are about change, about real change. To go back to that relay race analogy, I don't know if we're going to be the guys that are going to fix this, but maybe we can help the next lot to do that.

Amna Nawaz: And along that journey, Ahmed says, there are plenty of stories left to tell.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz.

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