“It’s really interesting working with someone who’s got an alien up their arse,” Riz Ahmed recalls, chatting to Den Of Geek at a snazzy London hotel, ahead of the release of Sony’s Venom movie. Ahmed is softly spoken and polite and his use of a rude word, even at a press event dedicated to a film with slathering alien symbiotes and plentiful violence, comes as a bit of a shock.
Wearing a natty jumper and stirring some soymilk into his tea, Ahmed – whose manifold pastimes include acting, rapping, writing and political activism – is a very wholesome conversation partner. Swear words sound alien coming from his mouth, he answers questions carefully and thoughtfully, and he’s definitely not the first person you’d think of when trying to picture an evil scientist.
Despite this, Ahmed’s character in Venom is a billionaire industrialist villain named Carlton Drake. He looks like a nasty piece of work in the trailers, particularly when Tom Hardy’s Eddie Brock accuses him of conducting experiments that kill people, but Ahmed himself has a different take.
“I don’t see him as a villain”, he insists. “I see him as a really focused, sincere, egotistical guy with a messianic complex – a justified one.”
“He’s actually got good intentions of saving humanity, but he’s going about it in slightly ruthless ways and narcissistic ways. He wants to ensure a better tomorrow for all of us, like all these guys in Silicon Valley do. He has the same hubris [as real life tech geniuses], and I just thought it played to our contemporary reality while still honouring the legacy of the comic books.”
Recapping comic book history, Ahmed explains that “the Carlton Drake in the comics was heading up this secret club of millionaires, who would pay him to safeguard a future for themselves, in a kind of radioactive-proof bunker, after inevitable nuclear war destroyed civilisation. Remember these comics were around the time of the Cold War.”
But the world has changed a lot since David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane introduced Carlton Drake in 1988’s The Amazing Spider-Man #298. And because of this, the 2018 Venom movie – which has no less than six credited writers on IMDb, and Zombieland’s Ruben Fleischer in the director’s chair – has updated the character accordingly.
“Contemporary billionaires are trying to find an escape on other planets”, Ahmed explains. “And they’re not outrunning nuclear war, they’re outrunning ecological collapse.”
It’s this thoroughly modern mission that leads Ahmed’s version of Drake to send “one of his exploratory shuttles into outer space to look for a home, for humans to live on outside Earth.” This shuttle, as Ahmed teasingly tells us, “inadvertently comes across a meteor that’s full of symbiotes. And actually these symbiotes may still hold the key to our survival in outer space, given that they can survive there.”
And so, Drake’s shuttle nabs the slimy symbiotes and brings them to Earth. The aforementioned lethal experiments begin taking place, at the labs of the Life Foundation, which soon catches the eye of Hardy’s prying journalist Eddie.
In real life, Hardy and Ahmed go way back. In fact, the former starred in a music video for the latter a whopping eleven years ago. Working with Hardy again is something that drew Ahmed into the Venom movie, and it sounds like he wasn’t disappointed with the experience.
“It’s always great to work with Tom,” Ahmed says, “because he really cares about it. He really wants to make it as good as possible. He cares about every aspect of it. And he rolls his sleeves up and gets involved. That’s why he’s cool to be around. There’s a lot going on on sets like that, and you often need these different people that are helping to pull us – this massive thing – in the right direction.”
Ahead of the movie’s release, Ahmed wouldn’t be drawn into discussion on a couple things: he didn’t want to chat about whether Carlton Drake merges with a symbiote and becomes the Riot villain from the comics; he didn’t want to talk about whether he shares any scenes with Hardy in his fully-fledged Venom form; he didn’t want to talk about whether Sony had signed him on for multiple films; and he went rather quiet when Tom Holland and the Marvel Cinematic Universe came up in the conversation.
He’s happier to talk about tone. Once Hardy’s Eddie has coupled up with the Venom symbiote, Ahmed believes “it’s almost more like a werewolf movie than a superhero movie. I think that’s an interesting way to look at it. Think about it: he’s possessed by an external force, stronger than himself, that threatens to take over. It’s kind of a Jekyll and Hyde vibe.”
To create the scenes when the Venom symbiote is talking inside Eddie’s head, Hardy “recorded his own voice” to be played “in his own earplugs.” Nobody else on set could hear the Venom voice, leaving Hardy’s fellow actors to marvel at his work.
“It’s a very physical performance, as well, as you’ve seen. It’s just great to watch, man, and it’s great to act against as well, because really unpredictability is the key. So you want to feel surprised, and it’s always surprising working in that environment.”
As our time together nears its end, we ask Ahmed if he’s seen the finished film yet. “I have, man, and I loved it”, he enthuses. “I think it walks a fantastic tone between horror and comedy, and that’s kind of a tricky thing to nail.”
The internet has taken a keen interest in the film already with many Tweeters saying the trailers feel more like a ’90s throwback than a traditional modern superhero movie.
“It’s interesting to hear you say that,” Ahmed ponders. “I think that’s actually a really fair description. I think it does have a slightly inbetweeny retro feel, but I don’t think that necessarily makes itself feel dated in anyway… I think it’s actually something that makes us question why we’ve got such narrow boxes now around the films that we watch. This is something that sits between those stiff categories.”
Bucking the norms of comic book movies in one major way, Venom is apparently flirting with a 15 rating from the British Board Of Film Classification. Only Fox’s Deadpool and Logan movies have gone that hard in recent years, and Ahmed believes this is the right level for Venom. He promises that the film is “a bit more dark than some of those straight-up PG movies.”
“That’s something that’s exciting,” Ahmed says, and it’s hard to disagree with this enthusiastic statement from a softly spoken bloke in a nice jumper. As for whether Carlton Drake is really a villain, though, we’ll just have to wait and watch to see if we agree on that…
Venom is in UK cinemas from 3rd October