After breaking out with his scene-stealing performance opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in the Oscar-nominated thriller “Nightcrawler,” Riz Ahmed is ready for the spotlight in what’s expected to be one of the biggest films of the year. In “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” Ahmed plays Bodhi Rook, a member of the secret rebellion team tasked with stealing plans for the Death Star before it becomes operational.
The opening of the new “Star Wars” movie comes on the heels of an already strong 2016 for Ahmed that included his critically acclaimed performance in the HBO limited series “The Night Of” as well as a strong supporting role in the latest Bourne movie, “Jason Bourne.”
In an interview with Variety, the British actor talked about how delighted he was to see “The Night Of” make a mark in a tough TV landscape, his work on “Rogue One” with director Gareth Edwards, and the timeliness of both projects.
How crazy was your year, between “The Night Of,” “Jason Bourne,” and “Star Wars”?
A: It has felt like a whirlwind to be honest, because I haven’t really had to do press like this before. All these projects came out around the same time, which is kind of interesting because prior to this year I had never done a studio movie; “Nightcrawler” was on a lower scale. While I was shooting “Rogue One” they happened to offer me “Bourne,” so after the ‘Rogue’ shoot, I went to do that. I guess it is kind of funny and insane that I don’t do projects like these in London, and then three of them come out all at once.
“The Night Of” had been bouncing around for years, but when it finally got into your hands, what drew you to the story and the character of Naz?
To be honest, I knew nothing about the project when it came my way. I was getting on the plane from the Venice Film Festival and my agent sent me the script just before I was boarding to read on the flight home, and I didn’t even know who had written it. I just couldn’t put it down. I didn’t know where it was going and I certainly didn’t know the caliber of people that were involved with it, which was good because I didn’t have to be too nervous when I met on it. I just got on a plane, did the audition, and, luckily, won the part. What really drew me to that audition was the writing. It’s quite rare when you get sent a project and people go, “Oh, it’s James Gandolfini and Steve Zaillian and Richard Price” and people give you all this context. In a way I’m really glad that when I went in I didn’t know any of that. I should just get my agent to do that all the time — just send me the script and tell me nothing else because often that kind of background noise can be kind of distracting.
What would James Gandolfini have been like instead of John Turturro in the role of John Stone?
The person Steve Zaillian originally wrote the part for was John Turturro but James Gandolfini got hold of the script from HBO and said, “What do you think about me doing it?” At that point HBO was like, “You do whatever the hell you want, so you should do it.” James would have been great in the role, too, but he would have been very different. John takes the character and really makes it his own and puts so much of himself into it. What he did with it was very, very special and it was a pleasure to work with him. It was a joy just to get to know him and to learn from him. He really kind of took me under his wing. It was a special experience.
When you first started “The Night Of,” how did you think viewers would respond?
While we were shooting, the famous “Serial” podcast came out as well as the story of Kalief Browder in the New Yorker, so we knew the significance. I was visiting Rikers and interviewing a lot of ex-prisoners, but there is so much amazing TV out there that we didn’t know if it would just get lost in the mix. Think about it — we shot the pilot in 2012, and there was a different feel to the TV landscape then. There was great TV, but there wasn’t so much great material as there is now. We didn’t know if it was too distinctive, too bleak. We did know we were doing something different. Sometimes it’s a little bit scary, like “Oh man, that’s really different. Who watches stuff like this?”
Did you ever feel that Naz had possibly committed this crime?
I think the thing is, Naz doesn’t know ultimately if he did it or not. I think he believes in two things by the end of the story: He believes that he didn’t mean that girl any harm and didn’t intend to hurt anyone. But the second thing he knows is that deep down everyone has the capacity to do something horrific. When you are forced to make friends with the darkest part of yourself, I think it gives you a really confusing feeling. Everything in Naz that he couldn’t be capable of doing was forced to come to the surface just so he can survive in prison. When he looks in the mirror at the start of the show, you think this guy could never do this, but when he looks in the mirror at the end of the show, you think maybe this guy could do that. We all have it in us to be heroes and monsters.
Moving on to “Star Wars” — were you a fan of the franchise?
I’m definitely a fan, but I use that word lightly now that I have seen the extent of “Star Wars” fandom. I am a fan, but I feel like that’s almost insulting to the superfans that I’ve seen.
What elements of the original pictures have returned, and what new elements did “Rogue One” bring to the franchise?
The fact that the film takes place at the core of the “Star Wars” saga provides us with a great opportunity to throw out some really familiar references as well as introduce some new stuff. I think that one of the things that Gareth [Edwards] and [writer] Tony Gilroy and [producer] Kathy [Kennedy] and the whole team have done is create a cool balance between old and new. One of things that stands out is how it was shot — it feels more like a war movie given the way Gareth did it. I think the world will feel familiar and it should get fans excited.
It has a very diverse cast. What do you think that will bring to the film?
This is a way to bring new and fresh energies and fresh elements into our stories. When you’ve got a world like “Star Wars” where it’s such a global story and belongs to all of us, why not try to respect that by putting forward a global cast like Diego Luna and Donnie Yen and Mads Mikkelsen?
Was it daunting to work on such as large-scale shoot?
I don’t think there is anything like a “Star Wars” film when it comes to scale. It was my first studio movie, so to go from “Nightcrawler” to this was absolutely a big shift. I’m not going to lie — to see a thousand film extras dressed as Stormtroopers, that’s gonna freak anyone out. Because it was in the “Star Wars” world, and you grow up watching the movies, it was the best possible experience to have for that be my first big movie. A lot of the ingredients were familiar; I was like, “Oh yeah, I grew up playing with that toy.” The biggest difference [between a small film and a large film] was that you had a bit more time, which is a gift and a curse, because you can go back and redo things, which to someone like me is great ’cause of how obsessive I am. I also think you can have too much time to think about things, which is not always good.
Is this a fitting film to be coming out after Donald Trump’s election?
I do think a great story with a great writer like Tony Gilroy can always be timely. When “The Night Of” came out, everyone was saying how timely that was with the current justice system and what was going on across the country. When we were filming that, though, we weren’t trying to get up on our soapbox and try to talk about our views on specific issues. I would like to think “Rogue One” is timely right now, but I also think it could be timely 10 years from now because the things it’s talking about may never go away. I think resisting or fighting for what you believe in is an age-old tale that never ends.