‘I’ve never been so inspired as I was on Barbie’

British-Bangladeshi actor Ramzan Miah on the importance of South Asian role models and using his social media clout for causes he cares about

actor Ramzan Miah
Ramzan Miah stresses the importance of South Asian role models, citing actor Riz Ahmed and dancer Akram Khan as personal inspirations. Photograph courtesy of Ramzan Miah

For any young person, the pressure to succeed can be immense and choosing an unconventional career path means the daunting task of breaking the news to your family. For the actor Ramzan Miah, 30, it was a conversation he had long dreaded. “I didn’t tell my parents when I applied to drama school,” he laughed.

The second-generation British-Bangladeshi, who grew up in Luton and has appeared in the Elton John biopic Rocketman and Disney’s Aladdin, spent months visiting drama schools in 2012 without informing his parents. “I just wanted to audition and see where it took me,” he said. “I auditioned in 10 drama schools without them knowing, and luckily four of them accepted me.” 

Eventually Miah enrolled at Bird College, south-east London, but his parents took convincing. “My family were a bit unsure, but later I invited them down to my third-year show. And that’s when they were on board and genuinely believed in me.”

Miah’s most high-profile project to date was last year’s riotous blockbuster, Barbie, in which he played South Asian Ken. In the short windows between the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and industry shutdowns, Miah spent three months on Greta Gerwig’s set before taking a small role in Jon M Chu’s upcoming big-screen adaptation of the stage musical Wicked, which premieres this November. 

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The industry he chose is notoriously unpredictable, but has also changed drastically over his lifetime. While increasingly the roles available to young Muslim men extend beyond orientalist cliches, actors also use social media to develop adjacent careers as influencers. Miah has more than 80,000 followers on Instagram and more than 65,000 followers on TikTok, and regularly models for fashion brands such as Asos and TOMS, the footwear company.

Many actors supplement their incomes with hospitality work, but Miah has gradually harnessed his followers to get through the periods in which work has been thin on the ground, building a diverse community who are thrilled to see someone from a similar background model, act and dance. 

“After drama school, I got myself an agent,” he said. “I tried to market myself as much as possible because I come from the acting side, the dance side and the modelling side. When I was on a contract for three months for Barbie, that was great to do, but then after that finished I had modelling campaigns.” 

Miah takes his role model duties seriously: growing up, he saw few South Asians on screen. He looks up to Akram Khan, who blends kathak and contemporary dance, and also cites actor and producer Riz Ahmed as an inspiration: “It’s very important to me. It’s my culture, my identity, and I put that into my performances but also in my content. My whole social media platform was based on creating awareness in my community, which is very underrepresented.” 

Ahmed’s success — he produced, co-wrote, and starred in 2020’s Mogul Mowgli, which earned a nomination for the Bafta Award for Outstanding British Film — has influenced film-makers to adopt a broader spectrum of roles and stories. Miah said that despite a tumultuous time for the film industry, which has had to contend with both Covid and industry strikes, he feels encouraged that he has managed to avoid being typecast.

“There are moments where they are typecasting, but not in playing a terrorist, for example,” he said. “It’ll be potentially that film-makers are looking for a South Asian person, Black person or someone from the LGBT community. I would say overall 40% of the roles I audition for are an open box.”

actor Ramzan Miah
Ramzan Miah acts, dances, and has used social media to develop a side hustle as a fashion model and influencer. Photograph courtesy of Ramzan Miah

Working on Barbie was undoubtedly a career highlight for Miah. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get that moment again,” he said. “I think at one point there must have been 12 to 15 A-list actors on that day. And then you’ve got the Kens, and then you’ve got the dancers, and then you’ve got the models and America Ferrera. I’ve never been so inspired.” 

He describes his work on Barbie as a valuable opportunity to gain more skills. “We had to learn a lot of dance, movement, stunt coordination and training. Once a week, we’d be in stunt combat training, and it was so nice to really learn that craft because now, when I audition, I can say I’ve got this skill.” 

But as well as learning new skills Miah got a front-row seat watching famous actors at work. “Margot [Robbie] would be going on set and she would take five minutes to prepare and centre herself, and then do her thing. Other actors had their specific methods and rituals.”

Miah regularly attends acting and dancing classes and workshops. I recently watched him participate in a programme training and showcasing young actors from low-income backgrounds. Miah was in a group of 18 actors and industry professionals. His performance included a scene playing a closeted young man from Waleed Akhtar’s acclaimed play, The P Word. For the actor, being on stage helped showcase his acting ability to a new audience of industry professionals. “It was my way of refreshing people’s minds and showing what I can bring to the right role,” he said.

Shortly after the showcase, Miah was cast in a short film that will be shooting later this year.

Between acting roles, Miah said he will continue to use his social media feeds to work with clothing brands and raise awareness about a number of issues. When I interviewed him, he was working with TOMS to highlight Mental Health Awareness Week. “That’s something I’m really passionate about, and I want it to be openly discussed more in my community,” he said. 

“I definitely want to explore all different types of roles and push myself physically and mentally,” he added. “If you can do it all, that’s what makes an actor.”

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