Riz Ahmed, Star Wars actor and star of HBO TV drama The Night Of, talks The Resident through his career highlights so far…
Riz Ahmed is one of the hottest stars around right now. The British actor and rapper, and south east Londoner (when not in LA), was nominated for a Golden Globe and SAG award for his role as Nasir ‘Naz’ Kahn in HBO TV drama The Night Of. Meanwhile, he has hit the big time in Hollywood, joining the Star Wars franchise to play Bodhi Rook in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and also appeared recently in Jason Bourne.
Riz Ahmed was initially known for his work in independent films such as The Road to Guantanamo, Shifty, Four Lions, and Ill Manors, before his breakout role in Nightcrawler alongside Jake Gyllenhaal.
As a rapper, he is a member of the Swet Shop Boys and is known for the critically acclaimed hip-hop albums Microscope and Cashmere and his feature in the chart-topping Hamilton Mixtape. There’s quite a lot to talk about…
The Night Of was given the green light in 2012, but it didn’t happen. Were you excited when you found out it was getting a second chance?
Yeah, definitely, it was a massive rollercoaster. We shot the pilot in 2012, so episode one is from 2012 and at the very end of episode one you have a scene with John Stone, where he comes into the police precinct, and that was shot with James Gandolfini, who was originally playing Stone. And then the show didn’t get picked up, weirdly, and then that was it. And then it did get picked up and we were ready to go and then James Gandolfini passed away. So the show was done. And then months and months go by and then Robert De Niro wants to do it.
So they start writing all the scripts and they’re ready to go and then De Niro steps away – then the project is definitely done. And then months and months and months go by and then John Turturro is doing it and we’re shooting it next month. There had been a two-year gap and I had put it out of mind. I was heartbroken that it wasn’t going to happen. And it was only then – I think we had six weeks or so, something like that – that they sent me the other seven scripts. Until then I didn’t know what was going to happen to Naz.
How did you prepare for the mental and physical transformation of Naz?
Well, the physical stuff was a lot of hard work, but it’s quite straightforward in a way. You just go to the gym for two hours every day after shooting, six days a week. And that’s really, really, really tiring to be honest and on Sunday you can hardly get out of bed, but you just do it, it’s quite straightforward. The stuff that I find more interesting, but trickier, is the psychological side. Like, how do you transform from that puppy into that wolf believably and it’s the same guy? Obviously you’re in safe hands with a brilliant director and brilliant writers. But it was quite an academic exercise because Naz isn’t a particularly active character – well he is, but in very kind of minute ways. He’s under these conditions where he can’t achieve his objectives, or his objectives aren’t grand ones at all.
Well, the physical stuff was a lot of hard work, but it’s quite straightforward in a way. The stuff that I find trickier is the psychological side. How do you transform from that puppy into that wolf believably and it’s the same guy?
So I actually just covered the wall of my apartment in New York with wall charts and stuff. If you had come to visit me it would look like I was an axe murderer or something! I was just trying to plot out from scene to scene in this colour coded way how all the relationships develop, and his journey with drugs and his relationship to women. He goes from being this naive kid with Sofia Black D’Elia at the start, to making this almost predatory move at Amara [Karan] by the end. So that was really interesting, preparing that kind of arc.
For Rogue One, was that an audition situation and was the character written as a person of colour or was it open to interpretation?
Nothing is written as anything, it’s the Star Wars universe right? And I think that’s the amazing thing about sci-fi, questions of race, it’s harder to go, ‘Well I’m sorry like, you know, a Chinese dude would just not be an army ranger’. It’s harder to make that argument when you’ve got a giant fish as an army ranger stood next to you.
So that’s a good thing about sci-fi, it automatically evaporates a lot of bullsh*t by creating fantasy. There was an audition situation, but actually the character for Star Wars started out different. Gareth Edwards [the director] contacted me through my agent while I was filming The Night Of on one of those days off where I couldn’t get out of bed. I answered the phone and he was like, ‘You know I’m doing a Star Wars film.’ And I was like, ‘I’ve just seen the trailer for the Star Wars film, so are they doing re-shoots? Are you doing them?’
Nothing is written as anything, it’s the Star Wars universe right? That’s the amazing thing about sci-fi, questions of race, it’s harder to go, ‘A Chinese dude would just not be an army ranger’. Sci-fi automatically evaporates a lot of bullsh*t by creating fantasy
And he was like, ‘No we’re doing this other one’ and he explained that to me, told me about this character. The character at that time wasn’t called Bodhi Rook, he was called Bokan. I’ve never actually told anyone else this before publically, but he was a totally different character. So Bodhi Rook is an Imperial cargo pilot who defects. Bokan was an electronics engineer that worked for the Empire, who had been kidnapped by Saw Gerrera many years ago in order to make his magnetic moon planet undetectable by the Empire and stuff.
He was basically like a prisoner with Stockholm Syndrome. So he was someone who was just living with Saw Gerrera as a kind of live in imperial slave. It was a totally different guy and he kept talking to me about Dennis Hopper from Apocalypse Now, about some guy who had spent too long in the bush, and so he asked me to audition for it and I just got super obsessive with it. I did like 12 tapings over three days or whatever and just kept emailing him.
He basically screwed up because he gave me his email address so I just kept spamming him! And by the end of it I’m sending it to him in different costumes and then I thought he said Dennis Hopper, so I f**king went out and bought a green waistcoat army gilet, and I was like how do I get a red headband? So I got my dad’s old tie and put it round my head and I’m sending him all these tapes, like 12 times over and then he emailed me to say, ‘Thank you for sending me all the tapes… please stop sending me all these tapes.’ Luckily I didn’t scare him off!
You also have Una coming out, in which you look very different. What else is next?
I’ve got a British independent film coming out called City of Tiny Lights, which played at Toronto and it’s really quite a unique proposition. It’s a contemporary British film, which we hardly ever see. British stories are generally period dramas. And I think our best stories are happening right now and are ahead of us, they’re not behind us, particularly in Britain and in London. It’s so international and so rich with different kinds of communities and different kinds of stories here. That’s why I love my city, and that’s what’s amazing about somewhere like LA and New York too. I just really wanted to tell a story like that. It’s based on a novel by Patrick Neate and it’s a kind of new school noir thriller about a private eye detective, who I play, set in contemporary London. That will be coming out in the spring.
City of Tiny Lights will be released on 7 April