Variety’s 10 Actors to Watch Stars Riz Ahmed, Mahershala Ali Talk Bad Auditions, Big Breaks

Variety's 10 Actors to Watch Include
Handout/Eugene Gologursky

“The Night Of” star Riz Ahmed tore Danny Boyle’s shirt at his audition for “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Luke Cage” breakout Mahershala Ali is getting used to people yelling “Yo, Cottonmouth!” at him in public. Those were just some of the revelations when Variety hosted its annual “10 Actors to Watch” brunch at the Hamptons International Film Festival Saturday morning.

Also in attendance at the event were Aja Naomi King, known for her work on the hit TV series “How to Get Away With Murder” and Kara Hayward, who made her film debut in Wes Anderson’s 2012 “Moonrise Kingdom.” The quartet spoke frankly on topics ranging from their toughest roles, being recognized, and bad auditions during a roundtable discussion moderated by Variety’s Jenelle Riley.

Hayward is attending the festival with two acclaimed movies, Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson” and Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea.” She revealed she had never thought about being an actress until she heard about “Moonrise Kingdom” casting in Boston. “I had gone to the audition on a whim,” she said, but quickly fell in love on set. “I went there and thought, ‘People do this for a living? Of course I want to do this!’ I had such a great experience on set and such a good time, I thought, why would I ever stop?”

King didn’t have a film in the festival but is now on screens in “The Birth of a Nation,” which opened in theaters Friday. She plays Cherry, the wife of Nat Turner, a preacher who led a slave uprising. She said the role was the most difficult of her career, noting, “Our set was way too realistic. It didn’t feel like a set. Just being there and experiencing that emotionally was a lot and I didn’t really know how I was going to enter into it and honor this woman’s experience without kind of crumbling myself. But she carried me through.”

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Ali was attending the festival with “Moonlight,” and though he made his film debut in David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in 2008, said he really felt a change in his career with his Emmy-nominated turn as Remy Dalton on “House of Cards” – 12 years into his career. Ali got a big laugh when he spotted festival juror Mariska Hargitay in the crowd and said they’d worked together on her TV show, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” “Unfortunately, I played a rapist,” he noted, then talked about walking into a bodega in Brooklyn after the episode aired. “I heard someone go, ‘Yo, that’s him, I saw him on TV! He raped a girl!’ And I was like, ‘Put that in context! It was on “SVU”!’”

Ali, who also appears in “Kicks” and “Hidden Figures” this year, said he’s used to people shouting: “Yo, Remy!” when he’s in public. But since the premiere of “Luke Cage” last week, it’s changed a bit. “Now people are like, ‘Yo, Cottonmouth!’ But it’s all positive, all good. Maybe eventually people will say, ‘Mahershala!’”

Ahmed spoke at length about another kind of public recognition — being stopped in airports. “I wrote an article about it for the Guardian called ‘Airports and Auditions’ about how the airport interrogation room, which I’m regularly taken to, and the audition room are really quite similar spaces” the British-Pakistani Ahmed said. “You’re surrounded by kind of look-alikes of yourself and you’re all trying to convince the person making the decisions you’re not like everyone else. And you kind of have to audition.”

Recently, Ahmed was pulled aside before a flight only to board later and found himself on the cover in the inflight magazine. “Then I turn on the inflight entertainment and it says: ‘Virgin recommends “The Night Of.”’ So I tweeted: ‘That awkward moment when they search you before allowing you on the plane… But it turns out you’re kind of already on the plane.’”

The actors then spoke about real audition nightmares, including one where King didn’t bring a headshot and the casting director held it against her. When the CD went to record her audition, King said, “I notice she’s back there and the camera’s right beside her – she did not reach to turn it on.” Unsure of what to do, she says, “I read the scene and I was like, ‘Well this was great, you have a nice life!’”

After acing her first audition with “Moonrise Kingdom,” Hayward said her inexperience actually helped. “Because I had no idea what I was doing, I guess it sounded natural,” she noted. “Wes said, ‘It sounded like you were making up the lines.’ And that’s something I try to carry to every audition: I want it to sound like I’m making up these lines.”

Ali revealed that he had a “horrible” audition for “Game of Thrones” when he went out for the role of “the guy who gets locked into the vault,” aka Xaro Xhaon Daxos. Explained Ali, “I had this whole thing set up where I’d been working with this chair and playing with these power positions and it was good. I go in … and there’s two stools, no chair in sight. All my work went out the window, I felt like I was a robot, so stiff and uncomfortable. I just kept thinking, ‘I need a damn chair!’”

Ahmed, who is also a successful rapper under the name MC Riz, said he landed his breakthrough role in “Nightcrawler” when he was visiting L.A. for work on his music and agreed to meet with writer-director Dan Gilroy. “We sat down and he said, ‘Look, I’ve seen your work, you’re definitely wrong for this role, there’s no point in you auditioning for this, but let’s just have a coffee.’” Ahmed said by the end of the meeting, Gilroy told him to make an audition tape; Ahmed did, thinking he would never get the part, and ended up landing the role. “Sometimes when there isn’t that pressure, it really frees you up.”

On the flip side, Ahmed talked about auditioning for “Slumdog Millionaire” and meeting “the nicest man in the world, Danny Boyle.” He said, “He wanted me to have an argument with him and I got a little bit excited and slammed him up against the wall and ripped his shirt open.” Ahmed added that he has seen Boyle since then. “I have run into him a couple times. He’s been friendly. He didn’t get too close, though.”

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