Riz Ahmed’s role in Nightcrawler was a breakthrough for the talented actor, who had, up until then, proved himself mostly at home in the UK, with the likes of Four Lions, Shifty and The Road to Guantanamo. With Hollywood unable to deny Ahmed’s versatility and fastidiousness, 2016 has been a banner year. Kicking off with Jason Bourne in the summer, Ahmed set the small screen alight in the brilliant HBO series The Night Of (for which he was recently Golden Globe and SAG nominated), and will play Bodhi Rook in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, releasing this weekend. When we spoke, he’d just come fresh from his first viewing of Gareth Edwards’ Star Wars spin-off…
So, how is the film?
Honest to God, I think it’s really good. I’m so excited for people to see it. It’s genuinely achieved what it set out to do, which is to put forward a slightly more edgy vision of the Star Wars universe. It has the dirt-under-the-fingernails feel of a war movie.
To be honest, when you’re in the middle of it, it doesn’t really sink in. There’s the initial fanboy moment when you’re told you’re going to be in a Star Wars film, and then when you first turn up on set. But then you kind of get lost in it, like you get lost in anything else.
Letting that feeling through is a double-edged sword, because it makes it so much harder to stay in it when you’re thinking, oh my God, Stormtroopers! [laughs] But actually, you weirdly don’t have to do any work to create emotional associations with those kinds of things, because the inner six- or seven-year-old in you is still getting a little scared of the sight of a Stormtrooper. What I realized by the end of the shoot was that I should go with those feelings rather than fight them.
You’d done Jason Bourne, but the scale of Rogue One must have been an adjustment also.
It was my first full-on studio movie, and while The Night Of did feel like a big movie, nothing is quite on the scale of Star Wars. It was a massive adjustment for me having come from small British films like Four Lions, Shifty and Ill Manors.
It was a learning curve, adjusting to a six- or eight-month shoot. My first experience of that was on Nightcrawler, and then again with this. You realize it’s not the same in America, and you have to kind of manage your energy in a different way.
Plus Star Wars was a different kind of role for me, with all the action in it. That’s an almost entirely different skillset; trying to inhabit an action sequence from moment to moment. It really does require intense concentration, to find the specific stimuli to move you from one action to the next, while the film moves at 100 miles an hour and there are 100 moving parts.
It must help to have people like Donnie Yen around.
It’s really kind of amazing that people like Donnie Yen manage what they do, and speaking with them and learning that side of it was actually really enjoyable. I just love learning and being pushed out of my comfort zone. So going from small dramas to massive sci-fi action was definitely a plunge in the deep end, but I really relished it.
That feeling of being a beginner is really quite exciting for me, because it’s kind of scary, you know? I can certainly understand why it’s not necessarily the move that everyone makes, because it can be quite exposing. It’s a vulnerable position to put yourself in. The more well-known you are, too, the higher the stakes attached to every decision you make, and if you fall flat on your face from one thing to the next, there are more and more people that are going to be watching.
But I’ve always operated on the assumption that nobody is watching. Nobody’s really noticing and you should just kind of do what you want to do. I guess maybe that changes a bit after you’re in something like Star Wars. But I try not to think about it, because I think it’s quite freeing to assume that other people have got other things going on and they’re not really bothered by what you’re doing. It has allowed me to make the music I make and write the things I do without thinking too much about how they’ll be received.
Do you ever feel like you’ve stumbled?
Each role I do I feel like I’ve failed in some way or another. Not a complete failure, but as long as I keep failing in new ways, that’s good actually. I like to keep a little mental note of the lessons I’m learning from one day to the next. It can be a healthy attitude, psychologically, to approach work like that, but it’s not always that easy on the business side. People seem to have shorter attention spans than ever, so that making movies, and betting on whether or not audiences are going to see them, becomes ever more of a crap shoot. It does feel like our business, or our culture, is slightly less forgiving of failure than it used to be.
Paul Greengrass gave a talk at BAFTA where he was saying that filmmaking isn’t something you become magically good at. It’s something that you learn how to do. It’s a craft—like carpentry or anything else. You need three, four or five films to maybe know what the hell you’re doing, and these days we don’t allow filmmakers that leeway.
Your first feature film, The Road to Guantanamo, came out 10 years ago this year. It made me think of a theory I’d heard from Scoot McNairy—one of the stars of Gareth Edwards’ first film, Monsters—who thought the first 10 years of a career was the period you had to persist at, as you learn your craft, before you have any hope of sustaining a career for life. How do you reflect on these last 10 years, now you’re working on these big studio pictures?
It’s funny you mention Monsters and The Road to Guantanamo, because Gareth actually told me today that The Road to Guantanamo inspired the road trip aspect of Monsters.
Certainly I feel lucky that I’ve been able to do this for as long as I have, and I still feel lucky that I get to do this at all. I don’t know if that’s a pinch-yourself, working-class guilt thing, or maybe imposter syndrome, but I do really wonder when I’ll be found out. And maybe there’s something healthy about that, because it stops you from becoming complacent. The flip side is I don’t sit around going, “Wow, I’ve really accomplished a lot.” But I do feel very happy to have worked with such a diverse range of people, and on diverse projects. I do feel proud of that and I want to continue to do that.
I grew up dancing between different worlds a lot. Switching between a working-class household and a middle-class private school that I won a scholarship to and had to take a bus to for an hour-and-a-half each day. In the middle was British Asian street culture, with gangs of kids and its own exciting and really dangerous subculture. I was always pinballing between those different worlds, and so I think a part of me needs that same eclectic range from one project to the next; it just feels normal to me. If I get stuck in one vibe then I start to feel claustrophobic, so I’m glad I’ve been able to scratch that itch.
Not to draw a tortured parallel here, but your character in the superlative The Night Of winds up having to adapt to just as many different worlds in that show.
He does go through quite a transformation; not just in his intentions, or what he learns, or his outlook on life, but really in a kind of raw, fundamental way. Who he is really transforms. As a character, he’s not able to be very active, so you can’t chart that journey of transformation through a series of massive decisions, one after the other. He is pinballed around too, and he shouldn’t be hit from one paddle to the next, but he is, and those transformations are taking place.
It’s quite tricky in a lot of ways, and as always you wonder what you could have done differently. When I signed up, I had no idea what was going to happen with this character. All I had to work with was the pilot script. Really what attracted me to that character was how subtly it was written. It left enough negative space in the writing for you to try something with it. All of the raw ingredients— that kind of scaffolding of the character—was down to the bare bones, but still really three-dimensional.
Being able to play this kind of code switching I’ve spoken about; you don’t often get to do that on the big screen. I don’t know if that’s just the mad dash of 90 minutes, that you have to go, “OK, this is this person’s vibe, and he’s now going on a journey.” What I really liked about The Night Of, was to set up a character by saying, “This guy has a lot of different vibes; this is them at school, this is them at home, this is them out and about.” The values and behaviors they’re displaying from one world to the next is always at odds. I think people are like that, but we don’t see it on screen very much. It was that blueprint that really attracted me to the character, but I didn’t know how large the transformation would be until I read the other seven scripts, six weeks before we started shooting.
What goes through your mind then?
You think, OK, so I need to start going to the gym in about two months time, and I need to fill a massive wall full of Post-It Notes, and I need to start plotting how this transformation will take place from one scene to the next. It was a kind of “Oh, shit,” moment. Then, it was on. I thought I knew what I was getting myself into, but it was something else.
The biggest gift was that we did shoot in sequence, but we didn’t really stop, for example, to allow the physical transformation to take place. I started at my normal weight, and then from Episode 3 I started hammering it at the gym. You have a day on set, and it’s still 10pm in Yonkers, so you drive to the city to go the gym until midnight, and you have to be up again at 5am. I won’t lie; it did take its toll.
Isn’t it doubly scary, that you don’t know if those hours in the gym are going to pay off in the right way necessarily? At least as an actor doing a scene you must have a degree of control.
Well, I don’t think it’s really all that different. You put the work in, both ways, but you actually can’t control the outcome, and if you try to, then you won’t get the best results. The best things that happen are those magical things that come when you relinquish a bit of control. If you’re open to the unpredictable happening, that’s when jazz starts to happen and things start riffing, and you find grooves and rhythms. The best things happen when you get out of the way a bit.
You’ve written articles, and made music, about the way you’ve been treated as a Muslim, by airport security for example. The Night Of deals in some of those kinds of prejudices. You were recently stopped once again. Why haven’t we been able to fix this?
The reason I make the music I make, and the reason I’ve written what I’ve written in the past, isn’t because I’m trying to do something important, or get on a soapbox. It comes from the same place as anyone pursuing a creative act, which is to try and tell the specificity of my story and my experience, to share it with people.
I’m doing that for quite personal reasons, because it’s cathartic. I’ve got certain things on my chest and I need to work them out and articulate them. Like I said, I make and say these things with the assumption that people have got other stuff going on and they won’t want to read this or check it out.
But it’s interesting because the thing I’ve learned recently is that the specific is universal. Every time we think there are marginal stories that aren’t relatable or mainstream or visible, we don’t tell those stories. But actually the specificity of experience is something people relate to, even if it doesn’t correlate to their circumstances.
So that’s where it’s coming from. A personal place. And it’s connecting with people for personal reasons. They’re not being asked to sign up to a political manifesto. I’ve had British soldiers and Jewish girls in Connecticut contact me and say, “Thanks for the music you’re putting out there.” What we relate to isn’t what’s on the surface.
I think what we need to rediscover right now in this really divided, divisive climate of “us” and “them” is personal connection. I know that can sound a bit hippy-ish and hokey-ish. Ultimately, the whole basis of any art is the idea that, deep down, “me” and “you” are actually the same. There’s no “us” and “them”, just “us”. We’re all in this mess together.