Elisabeth Moss: You’ve had a really big few years here. It’s a lot at the same time. Has it changed how you approach your work at all?
Riz Ahmed: I’m hoping it doesn’t change how I approach my work. I remember when I did “Nightcrawler,” I just had such a sense of freedom going into that film. I remember working opposite Jake [Gyllenhaal]. He was carrying a certain awareness that eyes are on him, because he occupies a certain position in the culture. And I, almost in a weird way, felt bad for him that he had to navigate that. There was this kind of filter between him and his work.
Moss: And this self-awareness.
Ahmed: And he does it amazingly, and that’s why he’s such a great actor. But that’s something that’s new to me. The idea that people might seek out my work now because they might have gotten to know me through “The Night Of” or “Star Wars.” That’s new to me. And maybe there isn’t that same sense of freedom; there’s just more self-awareness. But on the flip side, I’m really enjoying meeting people I admire. So I hope that the pros of soaking up the wisdom of people whose work is so great outweighs that self-awareness. … How have you dealt with your fame? How have you navigated what roles to play?
|Mark Williams and Sarah Hirakawa for Variety|
Moss: I try to do it in the most unselfconscious way. I look for the best material I can, the best writing I can, the best people to work with I can. Because I truly believe that the people you work with truly do make you better. And I want to learn from the people that I work with so I can become better. So for me, it’s just trying to find the best material and the best people, and if that’s in TV, that’s great. If it’s film, great. Theater, great. I don’t really care. It’s just about finding things that I want to do and not being self-conscious about it.
Ahmed: Do you find that certain mediums allow you to access that work more easily than others? I know you’ve been doing a lot of theater and a lot of TV. Why do you think that is?
Moss: I think it’s a combination of things. It’s partly circumstantial. And partly, I came along at a time when television was having its golden age.
Ahmed: And “Mad Men” was a big part of why we’re in this era.
Moss: Totally. And before that, I was on “The West Wing” for a long time as a recurring character. So I came along and came of age in this time when television was taking over. And all the writers were going there, and the directors were going there and then the actors started going there. The chance to do
it over and over again, and try to get it right, is great. I love television — or a miniseries in that sense — because I love that you have six hours or eight hours [or] 10 hours to figure it out. You get a little bit at a time, and you just try to put the puzzle together. And sometimes you have seven years to create a character. And your life informs the character and you change and the character changes. I love doing films too, but for me, it’s almost odd sometimes. Because I go and I do a movie and it’s over in two months and I’m like: “Is that it? We’re not going back? I don’t get to play this character again?”
Ahmed: So it’s kind of your tendency toward perfectionism that drives you to having a bigger canvas.
Moss: Exactly. I like the idea of being able to continue to chip away at something. I think that directors as well, and writers — I find that they blossom in television because they have six hours to tell a story.
Ahmed: It’s weird because when I do a film, and 90% of the work that I’ve done has been British independent films, you’re looking at maybe a five-week shoot if you’re lucky. And you work out what you’re doing in the first month. And just when you work out what you’re doing, it’s over.
Moss: Yeah, it’s terrible. The worst. And then you’re done. And you’re like, “No, I just got it! We’re just going to have to go back to the beginning, if we can. That’d be great.” I feel like that when I do six-month jobs. We get to month four or five, and I’m like, “We should go back to the beginning because I’ve got this now, and I know what I’m doing.”
Ahmed: I feel like one of the guiding things for me in life, in terms of the people I surround myself with and the experiences I seek out, is to embrace a kind of diversity of experiences. I grew up in a certain way where I was bouncing around between different worlds. My home life, my school life, my social life — they all existed in very different ways. I was always different people altogether from one part of the day to the next. So when I get into one thing too much, I just get really claustrophobic. I need it to be eclectic. That’s kind of a weird urge that I have.
Moss: That makes total sense though.
Ahmed: But I think there’s something to be said about committing to one kind of rhythm for a certain period of time so that you can hone that craft. So if I ever stop being this restless, then maybe I’ll find a way of doing that.
Moss: They’ll lock you down somewhere.
Ahmed: Well, on a cop show.
Moss: Exactly. It’ll run for 12 years.
The interview will air in its entirety on Variety’s “Actors on Actors” Season 6, presented by Shutterstock, which premieres June 13 on PBS SoCal. You can also watch the full interview below.