Riz Ahmed, a Pakistani-British actor and rapper who struggled as a young actor to find work beyond two-dimensional stereotypical roles and who faced nearly constant interrogation and difficulty flying internationally after acting in such films as The Road to Guantanamo and Four Lions, says that airports and auditions are quite similar. In both, he is trying to play a fully realized three-dimensional character to an audience—producers and casting agents and immigration and security officers—who can’t get past the color of his skin and his “Muslim-sounding” name. Ahmed says:
You see, the pitfalls of the audition room and the airport interrogation room are the same. They are places where the threat of rejection is real. They are also places where you are reduced to your marketability or threat-level, where the length of your facial hair can be a deal-breaker, where you are seen, and hence see yourself, in reductive labels – never as “just a bloke called Dave”.
Ahmed’s difficulty at airports—he was once illegally detained at Luton Airport where British intelligence officers insulted, threatened, and attacked him—echoes the treatment that many other Asians receive when traveling internationally, including actor Shah Rukh Khan, the “King of Bollywood,” who has been repeatedly detained at US immigration and who famously said: "Whenever I start feeling too arrogant about myself, I always take a trip to America. The immigration guys kick the star out of stardom."
After Ahmed’s experience at Luton airport—where he was illegally detained after having just won a film award for a movie about illegal detention—he wrote a song called “Post 9/11 Blues,” which included lyrics such as: “We’re all suspects so watch your back / I farted and got arrested for a chemical attack.”
In an airport holding pen, Ahmed explains, with few exceptions there are twenty slight variations of his own face, “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; you are back at stage one.” He adds:
The holding pen also had that familiar audition room fear. Everyone is nervous, but the prospect of solidarity is undercut by competition. In this situation, you’re all fighting to graduate out of a reductive purgatory and into some recognition of your unique personhood. In one way or another you are all saying: “I’m not like the rest of them.”
With his passport stamped with visas and entries to such countries as Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, Ahmed found himself being questioned again and again. These “airport auditions” included such questions as “Did you become an actor to further the Muslim struggle?” and although so far they have always been successful in the end, “they involved the experience of being typecast, and when that happens enough, you internalize the role written for you by others. Now, like an over-eager method actor, I was struggling to break character.”
As he becomes better known (he has been featured recently in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, HBO’s The Night Of, and the latest Jason Bourne movie), his experience at US airports becomes smoother. Now he is often able to find the additional airport baggage search and questioning “hilarious rather than bruising.”
“But this isn’t a success story,” he says. “I see most of my fellow Malkoviches still arched back, spines bent to snapping as they try to limbo under that rope. These days it’s likely that no one resembles me in the waiting room for an acting audition, and the same is true of everyone being waved through with me at US immigration. In both spaces, my exception proves the rule.”