“We trimmed some of the fat”: Ahad Raza Mir on how his Brampton production streamlines Hamlet for a modern audience
The Canadian Pakistani screen star dishes on being the first South Asian to play Hamlet in Canada and why he’s (sort of) fine with being called a nepo baby
In 2018, Pakistani Canadian actor Ahad Raza Mir earned rave reviews for his portrayal of Hamlet in Calgary. He was all set to reprise the role at Brampton’s Rose Theatre when along came Covid and almost three years of delays. Already a paparazzi magnet back in Pakistan, Mir spent the prolonged break boosting his international profile by starring in Netflix’s Resident Evil and the BBC’s World On Fire. Now, between October 12 and 18, he’s finally tackling Shakespeare’s tortured prince, but it may not be the Hamlet you remember. “I think if you want to appeal to a modern audience, you have to get to the point and trim some fat,” says Mir of his production’s two-hour runtime. (Shakespeare purists—don’t @ him). Here, he talks about being the first South Asian to play Hamlet in Canada and why he’s (sort of) fine with being called a nepo baby.
You are a massive star on Pakistani TV, never mind Netflix and the BBC. What made you want to pack it all up and do live theatre in the suburbs of Toronto?
I think a lot of actors will agree that getting the chance to be on stage, especially if you have spent some time doing film and TV, is really grounding. It’s an opportunity to get back to your roots and what you really love about acting. And of course, also, it’s Hamlet. Every actor dreams of playing the role just once, so to get a second opportunity really is amazing. Obviously I didn’t anticipate almost three years of delays. I’m just happy I could make it work to fly back here and do the rehearsals.
Right, because you managed to stay pretty busy when your show was on ice.
I did spend the first few months of Covid at home, getting a chance to be with my family, which doesn’t happen often, but then things started to get busy again. I shot Resident Evil with Netflix in 2021 and then World On Fire with the BBC in 2022 as well as some projects back in Pakistan. I think I have taken around 700 PCR tests. That may be a record.
For readers who aren’t among your 3 million instagram followers, can you talk a little bit about how you went from University of Calgary theatre grad to Pakistan’s TV prince?
I was born in Karachi, Pakistan, where my family has been in the entertainment business for generations. My grandfather actually directed the first-ever film in Pakistan, and then my dad was a pretty big movie star who went on to be in some really popular TV shows. When my brother and I were young, he decided to move the family to Canada so that we could have a somewhat normal life. We came to Toronto first, but there were too many Pakistani people here who knew my dad from his work. He wanted something quieter, so he chose Calgary, which is where I went to school. I finished my BFA at the University of Calgary and worked there for about a year.
I was planning to move to Toronto. I actually came and took some meetings and looked at apartments. Then I went to Pakistan for what I thought was just a summer vacation, but my career really took off, and I ended up staying there and working for many years. Everyone knows Bollywood for its movies. Pakistan is known for long-form television. I was in a 26-episode series that changed my life, almost overnight.
Can you compare it to something Canadian audiences would know?
The show is called Yakeen Ka Safar. It’s a doctor show. I guess it’s sort of similar to Grey’s Anatomy, but with a lot more family drama.
How do you feel about the term nepo baby?
You’re definitely not the first person to ask me that. It’s okay. People are going to say what they’re going to say. I do feel like a doctor’s child becomes a doctor or a lawyer’s kid becomes a lawyer and nobody is giving them such a hard time. It’s not like I grew up in the acting world. I didn’t even understand that my dad was a celebrity until we took a trip back to Karachi when I was a kid. I won’t deny that coming from the family that I come from opened doors, but if people don’t like your work, it won’t last. I have been very lucky to be on some series and build my own fan base. Just to be a working actor is not something to take for granted.
“A working actor” is a bit of an understatement. From what I understand, you are the subject of Bieber-fever levels of adoration in Pakistan.
Privacy is definitely a bit of an issue. Let’s just say I don’t leave my home much when I’m in Pakistan. That’s part of what’s been so nice about being here in the GTA and getting to interact with fans in a more controlled environment, which is something that doesn’t happen at home. I was in Brampton for my birthday, and the Rose was kind enough to put on a meet-and-greet where people showed up to meet me and celebrate. They brought gifts—chocolate, notebooks, bracelets—which was so kind.
Brampton is home to the country’s largest South Asian population. Do you feel the pride from the community?
Definitely. I think, for the local Pakistani community, they might watch me on TV shows from back home, but this is a chance to have one of their stars in their adopted home. They can bring their friends, share a part of their culture.
You are the first South Asian actor to play Hamlet in a professional Canadian production. Is that a big deal for you?
When we did the show in 2019, having a diverse cast felt like a bigger deal. I think we have come so far in just a few years in terms of opportunities and roles for people of colour, to the point where it doesn’t feel like such a big deal. I guess I am happy to be an example. Maybe there is a Pakistani boy in the audience who will see me and think, If he can do it, I can. There is a lot of pressure put on South Asian kids—and all kids, really—to choose a career path that is stable. I was enrolled in business school before I decided that I had to pursue my dream. I’m not going to lie—the arts are a risk. And I understand where parents are coming from when they want their kids to choose something more practical. But, if you’ve come to a country where these opportunities exist, you might as well give them a try.
This particular production of Hamlet has been tweaked to appeal to contemporary viewers. What does that look like, exactly?
Shakespeare can be a little intimidating—the language and the duration. A lot of people today are used to flipping through their phones for entertainment. We want to broaden the audience, so we decided to trim some of the fat from the play and make it very plot driven.
You just know there are the purists reading this and thinking, There is no fat on Shakespeare!
I think that really depends on your audience. We’ve got all the best scenes, all the best soliloquies, the beauty of the language is still there, but we get to the good stuff in two hours instead of four.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.