Riz Ahmed on How His New Film 'Encounter' Isn't Sci-Fi; 'This Is Now-Fi'

Riz Ahmed Gareth Cattermole/Contour/Getty

"This isn't sci-fi, this is now-fi."

Riz Ahmed is making a career out of breaking barriers on film and TV while also picking roles consistently different from his last. The first Muslim to be nominated for Best Actor for Sound of Metal and the first Muslim and Asian actor to win an Emmy in a leading category for The Night Of, Ahmed continues to change perceptions in his new film Encounter (in theaters December 10). Directed by Michael Pearce, Ahmed plays Malik Khan, a father trying to protect his kids from a looming alien threat. But Ahmed says it's more than just a sci-fi film. "This is about something more pressing, more grounded." And part of what grounds the film is Ahmed's Malik. "He is someone who isn't sure if he's wanted in society, if he's properly accepted in the country that he's fought for and helped to protect." All the layers and genres Encounter bridges is part of what appealed to Ahmed. "It takes so much of what we love from so many different kinds of films and makes something unique. That's really the kind of film that I'm drawn to."

How is Encounter different from sci-fi films?

I would start off by saying that this is not a sci-fi movie. It's just not. I would say it gives you all the thrills and spills and imagination and spectacle of a genre movie, but it is actually something more vividly urgent than an alien invasion movie. It's about what's happening right now. Malik Khan is someone who's trying to save his family from certain worlds. He feels it is increasingly difficult to know who to trust. So I'd say this isn't sci-fi, this is now-fi. This is about something more pressing, more grounded than sci-fi. But it still gives you all those kicks that we like from those movies.

What was it about Michael Pearce's vision for Encounter that first appealed to you?

Well, he was willing to cast me, which always helps. [laughs] I actually hunted him down. I wanted to know what he was doing next. I found the script he was circling. Originally everyone thought that this role should be played by perhaps a white American rather than a British Pakistani, go figure. To some extent, I kind of saw it that way, too. I loved the script and tried to imagine myself in the role, and I realized, casting someone like me in this film really adds some layers to the movie, and adds some stakes, and adds a specificity that could only serve the peril at the heart of it. Malik Khan is someone who isn't sure if he's wanted in society, if he's properly accepted in the country that he's fought for and helped to protect. Certainly being pursued by law enforcement in this current context, with a character like Malik at the heart of the story, it just adds to it. So I kind of made that case to him and to his credit he thought it was a great idea. And that's really a good example of what's so special about Michael. He has such a specific vision, but he's also open to collaboration.

I wanted to ask you about that. What way do you think having a person of color as the protagonist of this story adds a new layer to this story?

I think in this case, it makes the character even more of an outsider. It's [about] not fitting in parts of the country that aren't particularly diverse. His feeling of people noticing him sticking out and that creeping paranoia that characterizes a movie like this but is also grounded in something even more specific and tangible. I also think that what's really interesting about this movie is that it's not out there. I think the casting of non-white actors in roles can result in that being a focus of the film, whereas in this case it really is really not.

How do you think Encounter adds a new take on the sci-fi genre?

I guess I'd call this a psychological drama and thriller. It's a family action movie. It bridges so many genres. What I really like about this film is that it takes so much of what we love from so many different kinds of films and makes something unique. That's really the kind of film that I'm drawn to. Movies and stories that have that kind of hybridity in their DNA, they keep you guessing.

From Sound of Metal to Encounter to your upcoming film Hamlet, so many of your roles are vastly different, which feels counter to what so many leading men do. What makes pick such varied characters?

It's really to try and push myself. There are certain roles that I haven't done before, and I want to push myself. I feel like there are certain roles that other people may not have imagined to see someone like me play, and I want to push them to see that. And there are also certain roles, including this one, that I might not have imagined myself in initially, and I want to push myself. To me it always comes down to how can I push myself and how can I push audiences? When you do that you kind of stretch culture.

Earlier this year you brought light to the underrepresentation of Muslims in popular movies. Have you seen a notable reaction to that, and what are some positive steps being made to bring about change?

These changes don't happen overnight. I feel like this is a blind spot on a lot of people's radars. We're kind of waking up out of this 20-year war that's so systematically and deliberately demonized. I think we're in the business of telling stories and realizing how much work there is to be done to free ourselves. There's a lot of work to do. But I feel like off the back of that study that we launched, we've launched the Pillars Artists Fund, which is a fellowship, $25,000 unrestricted cash grant, kind of like a Muslim MacArthur grant for up-and-coming filmmakers. It includes mentorship and guidance, professional development, as well as an unrestricted cash grant. We've had a tremendous influx of applications and we've had really productive conversations with major studios and streamers, who express support. I feel like with all these things, if you don't get to the finish line overnight, maybe there isn't even a finish line. Maybe you continue to find new ways in which you need to grow. And that's okay. But the important thing is that we get started, because getting started on this topic is just way overdue.

Do you have more music in the works?

Music is always a part of my life, it's really my kind of therapy, it's a direct line to what's going on in my head and in my life. When I reach that critical mass of feeling that knot in my chest and I need to unpick and share, then I will. I've no doubt there'll be more music coming soon. I'm just thinking about how I might be able to perform The Long Goodbye [released in 2020] live because we managed to put together a really cool live stream for it. It was a mixture between short film and the gig and also a one-man show almost. I'm really interested in taking that format live. So I think that's the next thing I would like to turn my attention to, musically.