“The Night Of” didn’t happen overnight for Riz Ahmed. The actor first began work on the HBO drama four years ago, back when the late James Gandolfini first brought his passion project to network. “I started shooting this in 2012. I was a different person,” he recently told IndieWire. “I’ll never forget this experience. It’s emotional, because it was a lot of blood, sweat and tears for everyone to get to this point.”
In “The Night Of,” adapted from a British miniseries by Richard Price and Steve Zaillian, Ahmed stars as Nas, a young man whose bad luck drags him into the criminal justice system. But right now, Ahmed — who broke out in Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” — may be about to explode on a whole new level, as he heads into the blockbuster world with roles in “Jason Bourne” and “Star Wars: Rogue One.”
Ahmed doesn’t think that his life is about to change. Or, at the very least, he doesn’t want it to. Instead, he’s passionate about authenticity, both on and off the screen. Below, the British actor explains why he’s found it easier to get roles in the US, why he doesn’t want to be a movie star and why “The Wire” is so popular in Britain. First, though, he explained how “The Night Of” changed after Gandolfini passed away and John Turturro inherited the role.
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With “The Night Of,” how did the energy of the project change from having Gandolfini in that role, to having John Turturro take it over?
James’s involvement in the project predates mine. I’m sure that his involvement in its development and his creative input are things that are above my paygrade and outside of my knowledge, so perhaps Steve Zailian and Jane Trantor can speak to that. But in terms of on set, he actually ended up filming very very little on the show. So, the scenes of his that we had to replace, I think it was one or two scenes. We didn’t really have any scenes together. They were just scenes introducing his character. So there wasn’t an adjustment I had to make in terms of a relationship with an actor. All I can say is that I hugely admire his work and I think his work will live on with us for decades to come. In terms of working with John Turturro, I loved it. He’s someone who’s as interested in the craft of what we do as I am. Its frustrations and its pitfalls. It’s great to be able to speak to someone with that level of experience and just chat with them on a level…back and forth ideas. He was someone who I was able to go to for wisdom and advice.
Was there something specific you learned from him that you could mention?
What I learned from John Turturro is that every profound insight in life can be conveyed in a metaphor about cooking or dancing. That’s what I learned from John Turturro [laughs].
All the TV you’ve taken on has been very much anthology, serial anthology. Is there a reason behind that?
I think, if I’m going to be honest — perhaps it’s different at the stratospheric level of George Clooneys and Brad Pitts and Sandra Bullocks or whatever, but I think people overestimate the amount of control that actors truly do have over their careers. I’m not hellbent against the idea of a returning series. “The Sopranos” is a masterpiece in my eyes. So is “The Wire.” I love those shows.
I know “The Wire” has a really big British following.
I’ve always been curious about why that is.
I think, because it’s complete absent of any aspiration or glitz, it’s something that resonates with British audiences. Look at an American soap opera and look at a British soap opera. The British soap opera, everyone’s working class. People are going to the laundromat and making cups of tea. Look at “Dallas.” Look at American soap operas. They are so aspirational and glamorous and “Days of Our Lives” and all this stuff. It’s like, everyone’s beautiful and climbing some greasy pole. And I think the idea, if I were to dissect it, I think that’s something that resonates with British audiences. Just to take it as a given that we are all rats in a bag.
You’re in a really interesting place right now, career-wise. Do you feel like you’re on the verge of the next level?
I don’t really. I really have to be honest. I don’t feel like that at all. I feel really happy and lucky to be doing different kinds of work. And I think that’s something that I always wanted to do — diverse, varied kinds of work. When you do your first play or your first film or anything, people go, “Oh when this comes out, it’s going to change your life.” But it’s never really true. I’ve been doing this for 10 years and no one thing has changed my life. I feel like cumulatively, I’m now doing bigger things, but it’s never a linear trajectory.
I remember when the “Star Wars” photograph came out and people were like going, “Oh my god. Dude, you’re in ‘Star Wars.’” I was sick as a dog in bed throwing up. The illusion and suspension of disbelief isn’t just something that people want in the theater, when they’re watching the thing. They want it the whole time. They want to believe that you’re a kind of character in reality the whole time. I personally don’t respond well to that. I really enjoy reading about actors and artists and people who talk about their vulnerabilities and are honest about them — because we’re all fucking human. Let’s just be real about it.
I think 20 years ago we started talking about the divide between actors and movie stars…
Do you think that movie stars are kind of expected to be in character the whole time?
I think they’re selling something–
People are buying into a brand, yeah. Perhaps. I guess what I’m saying is that I have no interest in being a movie star. Shit, is that what you’ve just backed me into?
Oh no! That’s the headline!
With “Night Of,” what are you really excited about people seeing?
Honest to god, I just feel too close to this. I’ve been acting for 10 years. I started “The Night Of” four years ago. This is basically half of my career, this has been around. I can’t really watch this without those goggles on, without understanding and remembering how I’ve changed and I’ve grown and I’ve learned or how it was then. I guess there’s nothing different between that and anyone doing any film and saying, “Ah, I feel like I’m too close to it watching it.”
In adapting the original British series for America, they did make the choice of changing your character: He was originally white, and now he’s Pakistani. Was that a decision made before you were involved?
Yeah… perhaps America’s idea of itself is kind of one that includes, or at least traditionally has up until very recently, the idea of the immigrant at its heart. I guess the quintessential American story is on some level the story of the immigrant, which, by default, kind of makes a little bit more room for someone like me in people’s minds and putting that stuff together. Whereas, I think perhaps it’s not as true in Britain.
If you’re asking me how come the character wasn’t Pakistani in Britain, it’s because in British dramas, no one’s ever Pakistani. All my work has come from America since 2010. You get to a certain point in the UK, and they can’t do anything for you anymore. It’s like, “Should I play a shopkeeper again?” It’s just a total failure of imagination and a total failure to embrace what is so strong about Britain, which is our multiculturalism.
I have to say, we’re a far less segregated society than America is. If you look at interracial marriages, where housing is planned in urban centers. So it’s kind of a weird inversion where America sports the myth of itself that’s opposite to its reality and so does Britain. The reality of Britain is like really diverse and multicultural communities. But all we export is really like lords and ladies. America kind of can feel segregated a lot of the time to me…but, you know, you guys are all side by side fighting aliens [on screen].
When you went out for “Nightcrawler,” was there an ethnicity assigned to that role?
It’s so interesting that you should ask that. Dan Gilroy said, “I want this character not to be played by a white actor because Los Angeles’ diversity, particularly in that socioeconomic level of guys hustling and stuff, that’s the reality of LA.” I think he was eager to kind of see actors of color for that role. I think they saw up to about a hundred actors for that. And they were of all ethnicities and inevitably, most of them were white. So I think it’s an interesting example of like, even when there’s all the will in the world to kind of [cast a role like that], the pressures of the industry still kind of move against you. That was interesting. I don’t know what the lesson is there, but yeah.
In general, do you find yourself, when you go out for a role, looking for roles that are specific in what they’re looking for in terms of ethnicity? Or they’re more general calls?
I feel like now I’m more and more playing characters whose ethnicity is incidental to their journey as characters.
Which is the dream?
I guess so, yeah. It’s weird because I don’t want to contend that all portrayals of characters of color should be deracinated portrayals, where they’re not embedded in the reality of their culture or their heritage. But I guess we almost need to get to a point where that’s happening for a while before we can even say, “Oh, he goes on holiday to India,” and it feels like a creative choice — rather than a shackle.
“The Night Of” premieres Sunday at 9pm on HBO.