HERE IS A PARTIAL INVENTORY of Riz Ahmed’s projects from his breakthrough year of 2016:
— Two television shows, “The Night Of” and “The OA”;
— Four feature films, including the blockbusters “Star Wars: Rogue One” and “Jason Bourne”;
— One essay contributed to the best-selling book “The Good Immigrant”;
— And two major musical moments, a guest appearance on the “Hamilton” mixtape and the album “Cashmere,” released by Ahmed and the rapper Heems as part of their hip-hop duo Swet Shop Boys.
It was a lot, for good and for ill. In December of that year, Ahmed took to Instagram for a celebratory look back that sounded more than a little exhausted. “Only a year ago, for various reasons, I wasn’t sure I could carry on doing this,” he wrote. “I had a realisation through some really tough moments that we have no control in this life. And it got me down, but then, seeing no other way forwards, I had to embrace this helplessness.”
Over Zoom four years later, I read the caption to Ahmed, who blinked twice. “When did I write that?” he said. “I have no memory of that. Wow. Wow. I had a bit of a burnout.”
Ahmed has always been eager to pile his plate high. “Like Ruben, I rely heavily on being obsessively busy,” he said. A successful career as an actor practically demands an itinerant lifestyle and that came naturally to Ahmed, who grew up in Wembley, London, with a father who worked for the Pakistani merchant navy: “He was away from home a lot, so maybe I’ve internalized this idea that what you’re meant to do as a working man is go out of the house and cover as much ground as possible in the world.”
Or maybe, Ahmed mused, a child of immigrants will always feel an innate sense of wanderlust. “There’s a constant narrative of home being somewhere else, home’s the next place you’re going to get to,” he said. “But if home is always the next place, then you’re building a tent on quicksand. The work itself is the place you can live, maybe.”
So live there he did, working steadily then heavily, and in the process becoming the first Muslim and the first South Asian man to win an acting Emmy for his transformative role as an accused murderer in “The Night Of.” But around that time, after having been pulled in so many different directions, Ahmed began to lose his center. Worse, the creative spirit that animates him had come to feel less like a wild creature and more like a circus animal.