Star Wars actor Riz Ahmed has revealed he is “typecast” as a terrorist every time he goes through an airport.
With a British-Pakistani background, Ahmed has aimed to avoid playing the “two-dimensional stereotype” of the minicab driver, terrorist or corner shop owner, he wrote in an essay published in The Guardian.
But the 33-year-old has found himself under suspicion in the post-9/11 world after starring in movies including The Road To Guantanamo and Four Lions, in which he aimed to “subvert” existing stereotypes.
After The Road To Guantanamo won a prestigious award at the Berlin Film Festival in 2006, Ahmed was pulled aside at Luton airport by British intelligence officers, who asked him: “Did you become an actor to further the Muslim struggle?”
This was only the first of many encounters with security services.
"Don't you hate it when people put you in a box?"— Riz Ahmed (@rizmc) September 14, 2016
Looking for the “Promised Land” where he could “play a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to his race” and where his name “might even be Dave”, Ahmed decided to try his luck in Hollywood.
But with his ethnic background and stamps for film shoots in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran in his passport, getting through the airport was not so easy.
After landing, his immigration card was stamped with “P” for “Protocol” and he was led to a side room “that felt instantly familiar”.
He explained: “The holding pen was filled with 20 slight variations of my own face, all staring at me – kind of like a Bollywood remake of Being John Malkovich.
“It was a reminder: You are a type, whose face says things before your mouth opens; you are a signifier before you are a person.”
Ahmed, who stars as Bodhi Rook in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, said the experience reminded him of the “familiar audition room fear”.
The interrogation was a “car crash”, he wrote, as he struggled to explain the pictures of himself dressed up in an orange jumpsuit and the novel he was reading titled The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
The same thing kept happening, and Ahmed was also twice subjected to a time-consuming background check against a global database of terrorists.
“In the end, I was always let in, so these airport auditions were technically a success,” he wrote.
“But they involved the experience of being typecast, and when that happens enough, you internalise the role written for you by others.
“Now, like an over-eager method actor, I was struggling to break character.
“I tried not to ingest all the signs telling me I was a suspect. I tried not to buy into the story world of this ‘protocol’ or its stage-one stereotype of who I was.
“But when you have always moulded your identity to your environment… it’s not easy.”
That internalisation meant his auditions were going badly, he wrote – until he started seeing his encounters with security services as “a fictional role-play taking place in a bubble”.
Ahmed’s story will now be published in The Good Immigrant, a book of essays about race and immigration in the UK.