‘The Night Of’ Star Riz Ahmed: ‘It’s Very Uncompromising in Its Authenticity’

Riz Ahmed
Eric Charbonneau/REX Shutterstock

While HBO’s haunting, compelling new series “The Night Of” is very much an ensemble, its emotional punch hinges on the performance of Riz Ahmed, who plays Nasir Khan, the doe-eyed college student who becomes the murder suspect at the center of the mystery. Because of the project’s long journey to the screen, he filmed the pilot back in 2012 — before he’d made “Nightcrawler” or landed his role in the upcoming Star Wars movie “Rogue One.”

How did you get cast?

I was on my way back from Venice Film Festival, I think, for “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” and my agent just sent me a script with no explanation, just said, “Read this.” I didn’t even know who’d written it. I just remember reading it thinking it was pretty cool, and actually thinking whoever wrote this has got a great future ahead of them. Then I found out who wrote it, and then I was like, “Okay, that makes a lot of sense why it’s so good.” I just went and did a quick taping the next day. The fact that I knew so little about it, and I didn’t have a chance to overthink it, was actually quite cool in a way. I think that’s part of maybe why it went my way.

So much of the series rides on you — it’s very much about your character, your performance, your eyes. Did you feel any pressure going into it?

I guess I always feel a bit of pressure going into a job, and I think that it can be helpful as long as you allow it to motivate you in the right way. Something I like to do is to speak to a lot of people and interview them for research purposes. That kind of makes me feel indebted to these people who’ve opened up to me and told me their stories, and makes me want to try and keep it authentic and grounded, and try and do the stories justice. Ultimately, I think you always walk away feeling like you failed, but that’s okay as long as it provides the right kind of spurt just to try and step up.

I feel like maybe your initial statement isn’t true, in a way, because I feel like it’s very much an ensemble show. It’s just got some incredible actors and incredible performances in there, whether it’s Jeannie Berlin [who plays the prosecutor], or Bill Camp [Detective Box], or John Turturro [defense attorney John Stone], or Amara [Karan, another lawyer], who funnily enough, I went to university with. I feel like the greatest responsibility for this show, being what it is, really ultimately falls on the shoulders of Steve Zaillian and the incredible script that he crafted, of Richard [Price], and his vision. So in a way, it was just on me to try and just do my little bit.

The series takes a hard look at the criminal justice system, from the prisons to the legal proceedings to the post-9/11 climate in New York City. It’s not easy subject matter. 

I thought it’s just very unflinchingly authentic, very uncompromising in its authenticity, really, in its detail. A lot of people talk about the wider themes of it and whether it’s the criminal justice system, or Islamophobia, but I have to say I think that the intention of the writers is to just tell a compelling story. Tell it authentically with detail, and a lot of those themes just emerge organically because the writing’s so real. When the writing for something is real, then it can’t help but reflect back some of the themes that are around us in day-to-day life. I just loved it. It just felt very nuanced. They just bring you into a world.

Talk about working with Steve Zaillian, who directed nearly the entire series. 

Well, Steve’s a really unique mind because he has such a specificity in his vision. He is a perfectionist really. I can kind of suffer from that a little bit as well. I think the difference between me and Steve is that he doesn’t think of perfectionism as being an infliction, so it’s kind of amazing actually, the amount of detail he will go into. He’s that guy that will shoot an insert twenty times. It’s just incredible when you see how much someone cares about it, and how they don’t want to compromise on quality. It’s inspiring, man. It really makes you want to approach your work in a similar kind of way.

Was there a scene that was particularly challenging or difficult for you? I don’t want to give anything away about what happens, but your character faces tremendous challenges.

To be honest, I found the entire shoot to be, probably, one of the most challenging that I’ve ever done, if for no other reason, then because of its duration. Coming from more of an indie film background, they can feel a bit more like a sprint, whereas this is like more of a marathon. So having to learn how to run a marathon, if you’re used to being a sprinter, is interesting. You find new ways of working or approaching your work. I think just going to that place emotionally every day for eight months is… One of the most challenging things about the shoot wasn’t a particular scene, but it’s kind of cumulatively challenging, if that makes sense.

How much research did you do? How did you prepare for this role?

I went to Rikers Island, and that was a real eye opener. I went to high schools in the Bronx and in Queens. Spent time in Jackson Heights. I did some workshops and conducted some interviews at a South Asian youth charity in New York called SAYA. I spoke to those people that’d been in the prison system, lots of defense attorneys, NGOs that support families of people who are in prison. I just wanted to get help because there’s just a process of osmosis that takes place from just thinking about that stuff a lot. Also, I sometimes happened upon someone whose accent just feels like it connects to where I want to be at, so then I start listening to those recordings to kind of find a way in.

With this role and now the “Star Wars” movie, your career is about to change. Are you enjoying this moment at all?

It’s weird. From the outside I can appreciate it looks like that, and I’m grateful for some of the support and attention that comes with that, but I have to say from the inside, it just feels like you’re just trying to stick around, be consistent, take each thing as it comes. I’ve done enough films, I feel like, to know that there is no… Trajectories aren’t linear. Life’s just a roller coaster. If you’re getting a chance to do cool stuff and it’s varied stuff, just enjoy it. I guess I’m a believer in the randomness of life, rather than it being a linear trajectory, or an arc, a consistent smooth arc towards anything. Then again, I’ve never done a “Star Wars” movie, so what the hell do I know?