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Riz Ahmed Eyes Starring Role in Netflix’s ‘Hamlet’

Riz Ahmed already brings inclusion to the screen where it counts and a Shakespearean role would only reinforce that.
By  · Published on October 17th, 2017

Riz Ahmed already brings inclusion to the screen where it counts and a Shakespearean role would only reinforce that.

There was a time when I would trawl the internet in an attempt to find any Riz Ahmed content. This was back in 2013, and I’d just seen The Reluctant Fundamentalist and was blown away by his performance. Yet, whatever content was out there was minimal and it was easy to be indignant over people ignoring such a great actor.

Fast forward a few years later and Ahmed would appear in four films in 2016 and starred in one of the biggest films of the year, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. As if 2016 couldn’t get any better for Ahmed, he led HBO’s The Night Of (eventually earning an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series), contributed a searing essay to The Good Immigrant, and had successes in several musical endeavors, including solo projects or with his band the Swet Shop Boys.

Now, Ahmed is circling one of the biggest roles in literary history. Deadline reported that Ahmed is in negotiations to star in Netflix‘s adaptation of Hamlet. The film will be a contemporization of Shakespeare’s iconic tragedy, shifting the family drama to modern-day London. The traditional narrative of betrayal and vengeance is set against a backdrop of political and economic upheaval. Netflix’s Hamlet will be written by Mike Lesslie, whose credits include another recent Shakespeare reimagining — Macbeth — and the video game adaptation Assassin’s Creed.

Historically, “Hamlet” has been adapted for the screen by a variety of directors, including the likes of Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh just to name a couple. Olivier’s version took home Best Picture and Best Actor Oscars for a more psychologically-driven production that trimmed the politics from Shakespeare’s play. Meanwhile, Branagh managed to make Hamlet as a luxurious epic, featuring word for word dialogue and running just over four hours long.

But of course, Shakespeare adaptations don’t just take the form of traditional page-to-screen reimaginings. Netflix’s Hamlet wouldn’t be the first time a modernization was delivered to any Shakespearean text. Ethan Hawke starred as a college student version of Hamlet in 2000, situating the series of events in Manhattan instead. This version, directed by Michael Almereyda, featured dialogue from the play itself but in a modern-day setting; reminiscent of something like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.

So clearly, people have no trouble revamping Shakespeare, whose work will probably be a staple in Hollywood forever because of its universality. But something else makes Netflix’s Hamlet potentially special already. It would be purely wonderful to imagine that such a quintessentially British play would star a quintessential British man who happens to be of South Asian descent. And I know that “Hamlet” is originally set in Denmark, but what do most people think when they hear the word ‘Shakespeare’? In the end, Ahmed’s portrayal of Hamlet would be what tangible representation looks like.

Frankly, Hamlet is also the kind of intense, multi-faceted role that Ahmed deserves to get at this point in his career. He has been proving himself since early projects like The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Four Lions and Nightcrawler and continues to step it up with each performance. Furthermore, Ahmed’s Emmy win for The Night Of exemplifies that he can actually be deservedly rewarded for that hard work. Ahmed broke down barriers, being the first Muslim actor of South Asian descent to win an Emmy, let alone a lead acting one.

Hence, part of me can’t help but hope that if he plays Hamlet, Ahmed could replicate Olivier’s Oscar success in some way. Some members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may be reluctant to let Netflix in the door as far as awards season is concerned, but an adaptation of Hamlet hasn’t looked as fresh and exciting in a long while. If Netflix is the platform providing that, the question of “cheapening” a movie experience is pretty much null and void. Truthfully, the opposite actually happens, where a wider cross-section of an audience can see themselves and their lives reflected in classic roles that speak generationally. If you aren’t already thrilled about the prospect of Ahmed being some version of Shakespeare’s most famous troubled, vengeful prince, please rectify that.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)