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‘I want to help stretch our culture, introduce characters and stories that aren’t as visible,’ says Riz Ahmed.

At this moment, it's our most important story – the international diaspora, the massive ripple effects of humanity on the move – and Riz Ahmed is at the centre of it.

"I want to help stretch our culture, introduce characters and stories that aren't as visible," the London-born actor and musician, 33, whose roots are Pakistani Muslim, said in a phone interview this week. "I'm interested in bridging gaps, shrinking cultural distance, joining up the diaspora dots."

Ahmed's hit HBO series The Night Of just ended. His latest films, City of Tiny Lights and Una, will screen at the Toronto International Film Festival next week. His duo, Swet Shop Boys (with Heems), will release an album, Cashmere, on Oct. 14. He has a major role in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, due Dec. 16. All these projects live in those gaps.

In The Night Of, the gap is more like a rabbit hole. Ahmed's character, Nasir Khan, a U.S.-born university student from Queens, borrows his father's taxi, picks up the wrong woman and becomes a repository for America's suspicions and prejudices. "These aren't Arabs? What are they?" a cop asks. Another calls him "some Muslim freak."

In Rogue One, Ahmed is Bodhi Rook, an Imperial cargo pilot from an occupied planet who's forced to question his loyalties. "The movie has a series of complex characters with murky pasts or torn loyalties," he says. "That, combined with its vérité feel – a rough-and-readiness in the camera work – makes it quite edgy."

And in City of Tiny Lights, Ahmed stars as Tommy Akhtar, a Raymond Chandler gumshoe for the 21st century: British and brown. When a black hooker hires him to find her Russian roommate, he doesn't turn to the Old Boy network; that London doesn't exist for him. He navigates via New Boys, South Asians striving to claim their piece of turf. "It's a glimpse into the London underbelly that we haven't seen," Ahmed says. "It's a real joy for me to see contemporary London respected in a realistic way, that doesn't erase its rich multiculturalism. If The Night Of is the polar opposite to Sex and the City, City of Tiny Lights is the polar opposite to Downton Abbey."

Ahmed won't be in Toronto to walk the carpet at Ryerson next week – he's committed to promoting Cashmere. "I'm gutted, because I love Toronto, and I think the film's multiculturalism will really resonate there," he says. "From everything I've seen, Toronto is a guiding light for multiculturalism right now." (He's attended three TIFFs, with The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Ill Manors and 2014's Nightcrawler, which he handily stole from Jake Gyllenhaal.)

But Ahmed's music career came first. "It's an opportunity to say certain things I feel need to be said, in a way that maybe others aren't," he says. "Heems is Indian from New York. I'm Pakistani from London. So Cashmere references that Hindo-Pak conflict, as well as the sweatshop thing." Two singles are already available via SwetShopBoys.com: Tiger Hologram, a party track about a girl, but also about an actual hologram of a tiger Ahmed found in a Pakistani restaurant in Queens; and T5 (for Terminal Five), "a polemical political tract" about being randomly searched at airports. (In a scene of spectacular irony, Ahmed was detained on his return from the Berlin Film Festival, where his first film, The Road to Guantanamo, had just won the Silver Bear. He played a man wrongly imprisoned for terrorism.)

Growing up, Ahmed navigated three distinct worlds: He was raised in a working-class British-Pakistani household with traditional expectations. (His father, who was in the Pakistani Merchant Navy before becoming a shipping agent, "still puts job vacancy ads in front of me," Ahmed jokes.) He won scholarships to private schools and to Oxford University, but he would often skip class to hang out with friends in the British Asian subculture. He recorded his first song, Post 9/11 Blues, in 2006.

"Being South Asian in the U.K. is like being Latino in the U.S., I would guess," he says. "It's a bit more hood. You see things; things happen. I was bouncing between worlds. You're acting from a very early age, when you have to code-switch like that. I'm a hybrid, a mongrel," he continues. "I think many people live that life." So he's interested in exploring "hybrid forms, hybrid characters."

"Since the Greek myths, the greatest stories are premised on the idea of, 'A stranger arrives,' " Ahmed adds. "Aeneas is a refugee from Turkey; his house is destroyed in civil war, and he leaves and founds Rome. Storytelling is based on refugees, outsiders, people who don't fit in, trying to make their way in a new culture."

Ahmed is still between worlds: In New York, fans of The Night Of stop him on the street; in London, he takes the Tube. (He's doing his laundry as we speak.) "I never thought acting would be a realistic job for me," he says. "Because, quite frankly, I didn't see people who looked like me doing it. I quickly realized, that's all the more reason to try."

Even in his short career, he's noticed an uptick in multicultural stories and colour-blind casting. "It's embarrassingly slow progress, though," he cautions. "I wouldn't want to start saying it's a brand new day." He laughs. "It's still #problematic."

City of Tiny Lights plays TIFF Sept. 15, 9 p.m., Ryerson; Sept. 16, 6:15 p.m., Hot Docs Theatre; and Sept. 18, 9:45 a.m., Scotiabank. Una screens Sept. 14, 9:30 p.m., Princess of Wales; Sept. 15, 3 p.m., Princess of Wales; and Sept. 16, 3 p.m., Ryerson.