The star of 'Four Lions' talks to Tadhg Peavoy about the suicide bomber comedy.
Tadhg Peavoy: What drew you to making a comedy about suicide bombing?
Riz Ahmed: Most of all I was attracted by working with Chris Morris [director]. He's a comedy genius who has always broken new ground. In my view Chris Morris is just a class apart, in terms of comic talent. A lot of things that are popular today he kind of spearheaded - in terms of formats. It was just a no-brainer, really.
TP: 'Four Lions' could be construed by some as being disrespectful to Muslim culture. As a Muslim yourself what do you make of such an assertion?
RA: The film played to the Bradford Film Festival with a really large, mixed audience and it sold out. So we had a second screening and that sold out as well. It played at [the] Nottingham Film Festival as well. I think we sold faster than [Quentin] Tarantino [in Nottingham]. That was also a really large, mixed audience and no one found it disrespectful, no one found it offensive. The only arena those words are used in relation to the film are by people who haven't seen it. I guess it's an obvious kind of journalistic avenue.
TP: I personally didn't think the film was offensive. But, after the screening, I talked to some critics who thought it was potentially offensive.
RA: Were these journalists Muslim themselves?
TP: No, they weren't.
RA: Well, so, that's the first thing. I think they may have made an assumption that Muslim people don't have a sense of humour.
The second thing is the assumption that there is such a thing as one Muslim culture or one Muslim community. There are Muslim people all over the world, UK and Europe. There are Muslims from many different backgrounds and age-groups, [with] different Muslim education. It's [Islam] [is] a much broader thing than just a Muslim community.
Thirdly, there is this conception that Muslim people react in a group.
I don't think it's a portrayal of Muslim culture. I think it's a portrayal of four blokes that are trying to do something stupid.
The source of the comedy is not terrorism - it's the terrorists. The source of the comedy is not committing violence. It's about rivalry, group dynamics, confrontation. I think Chris [Morris] put it quite well when he said, 'five terrorists will inevitably have the same dynamics as a five-a-side football team'. That's what the film's about. The film is about interpersonal relationships - I believe all good films are about interpersonal relationships.
TP: Your co-star Nigel Lindsay plays a white Islamic convert. He reminded me of John Goodman's character Walter in 'The Big Lebowski'; the way he's constantly going on about the Vietnam War and everything he does is a travesty. Was that a conscious decision or I am the only one to have noticed it?
RA: You know what, Tadhg? I think you've absolutely nailed it man. I think that is such a good example of what the film is about: it's John Goodman in 'The Big Lebowski', it's 'The Life of Brian' - People's Front of Judea, Judean People's Front. That's what the film is about.
As for Nigel, he's a stickler for detail and research. He actually really researched this one guy, this one kind of figure that you can find on YouTube. He's this convert kind of guy. He says almost grammatically nonsensical sentences. He accidentally trips himself up quite a lot. He did a lot of research and based it [his role] around the mannerisms of this one particular character.
In terms of his performance he used lots of different references. The thing about John Goodman in 'The Big Lebowski' and Nigel in 'Four Lions' is that they are great comic characters who got [are] deluded.
TP: Chris Morris is famous for his brilliant and also very politically incorrect humour. As a director was he cracking jokes himself on set or did he leave you guys to do that? What style of director was he?
RA: Ah man, it was just so much fun. He is completely unpretentious. He is just fun. He is like, 'Say a couple of lines', 'Do the scene a couple of times' Then he would just go off and change tangent. Then he would suggest this and then he would suggest that. He encourages you to improvise around structures and to improvise there and then on the spot. It's all about throwing in new stuff. In a way his fun is infectious. That's really an inspiration, man.
TP: The martyr videos in the film are hilarious at times. Was there any improvisation in making them or were they purely scripted gags?
RA: The whole thing was heavily scripted. Not much of the film was improvised. But, you feel free saying lines, because of that sense of fun working on set. There was some improvisation in the martyr videos. We actually shot more martyr videos that didn't make it into the film and they were all improvised. They were improvised in the sense that you would jump in with words - the Mini Babybel line is improvised (Note: this is one of the best lines in the film).
Chris Morris just brought us all together and created a sense of fun. He put us up in a tiny little apartment in the middle of a building site in Sheffield. We all got cabin fever and loved and hated each other. So, that group dynamic was kind of on-screen and off-screen.
TP: Obviously the characters attempts at terrorism are morally wrong. However, there is as strong sense of friendship - even brotherhood - between the five male leads. Is this something that drew you to the film?
RA: I guess that's something that was there on the page [of the script], but it was more about when we [the cast] all met up for the first time. It was like, 'This is right, yes, definitely. We've made the right decision here'. They [the rest of the cast] are friends now, you know.
TP: Your first film role was in 'The Road to Guantanamo' by Michael Winterbottom. That film deals with the abuse of the Tipton Three: three British prisoners held without charge at the infamous US detention centre. 'Four Lions' is almost a complete antithesis to Winterbottom's film in that it tries to make people laugh about the issues surrounding terrorism. Why do you think it's important to approach terrorism from both comic and serious angles?
RA: I'm just interested in making good films. You are right, at the start of my career there was a more post-9/11 environment and I was in that kind of stuff. Recently, I have been given a chance to do other kinds of productions.
I think the most important thing is to try to make films that you want to make and that are honest in some way. I don't really think 'I've done this issue this way and I've done this issue that way'. You kind of don't really think about it like that when you are making your choices. You are kind of just thinking, 'Alright, this is a great script, these are great people'. When you look back you can kind of join the dots and see a link. But at the time you are making decisions based on the strength of individual films.
My hope is that 'The Road to Guantanamo', as a film, stands up without 'Four Lions' and that 'Four Lions' stands up with or without 'The Road to Guantanamo' - rather then them being footnotes around an issue. I think they are separate films in their own right. I'm into films not politics - otherwise I would be running in the election.
TP: On a side note, you recently starred alongside Irish actor Michael Fassbender in 'Centurion'. How did you find working with him?
RA: He's a complete don, a complete star. He's really relaxed and unpretentious on set. He's just completely chilled. Just a really good lad, really. We got on really well. I've got a lot of respect for him.
TP: What's next up for you personally?
RA: Later on in the year I might do something with Tahar Rahim from 'The Prophet.' But, what I'm doing 24/7 is a music project. I've got an album being released in September. The first single has just been released. But there is this insane live show that we have created. It's like an interactive, immersive musical experience. We did as a test drive in London last year. Now we're going to take over Fabric nightclub in London on 17 June. We are probably going to do other dates too, probably the Southbank Festival.
When you go to a live gig, you just see someone standing doing a live gig. This is kind of taking live music performance to another level. [Search for Riz MC on myspace to find out more].