Leoni Horton talks to Oscar-nominated actor Riz Ahmed and BAFTA-winning filmmaker Michael Pearce about their science-fiction road movie, Encounter.
It’s Riz Ahmed’s world, and the rest of us are just living in it. At least, that’s how it feels right now, watching Ahmed walk away from his collaboration with Bassam Tariq and first writing credits with Mogul Mowgli; an Oscar-nominated performance in Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal; and his triumphant second studio album, short film and ground-breaking virtual performance all titled The Long Goodbye. With the ensuing success and positive attention, one would imagine the talented actor/rapper beating a manifold of offers, roles and scripts away with a stick. Yet, surprisingly, for his next career move, Ahmed found himself metaphorically camped out on Michael Pearce’s doorstep, unwilling to budge an inch until he landed a part in the homegrown British filmmaker’s upcoming project, Encounter.
“To be honest, it’s all Michael,” reveals Ahmed to Filmhounds during a zoom chat one rainy afternoon in October. “I believe he’s one of our great filmmakers in the making,” he continues with his usual level-headed confidence, explaining why he approached Michael with such an unrelenting longing to star in his next film. “I started stalking Michael, phoning him up, getting friends to phone him up; I emailed him, asked him to go for coffee and pitched myself to him. I think, at first, he was wondering, like, ‘What is happening? Why is this guy going so hard for this film?’ But the script felt relevant; the role felt like a juicy acting challenge, and for me, it felt out of my comfort zone. I’ve never played a character like this before, and I wanted to challenge myself to do something more physical and research and empathise with a group of people that lay outside of my own experience.”
However, it isn’t as if Ahmed had to explain himself too much. His reverence for Michael Pearce is easily understandable. Pearce won the BAFTA for Outstanding British Film of the Year with his knockout debut feature Beast, a romantic psychological drama starring Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn, and gleaned a fast reputation as a filmmaker to watch. His newest film, Encounter, which he co-wrote with Joe Barton, follows Marine Corp veteran Malik Kahn as he journeys across the US in an attempt to save his two young children from a parasitic alien invasion. In terms of scale, Encounter feels more ambitious than Beast; the film is a potent genre thriller with nail-biting tension, body horror and intense physicality, grounded by a heart-warming central family drama between a father and his two sons. However, under the surface, Encounter echoes the same uncomfortable psychological suspicion and enigmatic mystery as Pearce’s Jersey debut. We’re never quite sure who to trust or where our protagonists are heading until Pearce brings his intentions into focus.
“I wanted to maintain the same kind of project I had with Beast and paint a character portrait of a complicated antihero which would test the audience’s identification,” Pearce recalls when asked about the inspirations behind his newest film and why he chose to cross the pond and hit the freeway in the US to tell this story. “I wasn’t really looking for anything set in the UK or the US; I’m kind of agnostic when it comes to geography. I came across Joe’s script, which fit this Venn diagram between genre and character that I was looking for. Plus, there was another added element in Joe’s script, being that I really, really identified with the family dynamics within the story. I grew up with a younger brother and a single father, and we went on lots of road trips. When we were the same ages as the characters in the film, we kind of encountered a crisis as a family and the three of us had to navigate through that together. Looking back now, I can see that my younger brother and I helped my dad get through that crisis as much as he was helping us. So, I also had this added element of wanting to tell a very personal story on this big canvas. In some ways, I went into the film thinking that it was actually a more personal film than Beast, which we set in Jersey, where I grew up. Encounter happened to be set in the States, but the characters and the dynamic of that family relationship was something that I knew more intimately.”
Full interview available in Filmhounds Magazine print edition – click here to order