Riz Ahmed is hungry. He’s just flown in from his native England and seems eager when a waiter at a downtown Manhattan restaurant asks for his order. “Can I please have this grilled chicken sandwich but would you swap the bacon out for mushrooms? Love that, man, love that.”
But then the grilled chicken arrives. Ahmed’s eyes, which even in their resting state resemble a Keane painting, open wider than jet lag would seem to allow. The sandwich is as big as a toaster, with a sand-castle-sized side of French fries. “Thank you very much,” he says, laughing and nodding his head. “We are in America!”
He most certainly is. Ahmed was acclaimed for his 2014 supporting role in the sleeper hit Nightcrawler (he played the nervous car navigator to Jake Gyllenhaal’s venal cameraman), but in the next few months, stateside audiences will be seeing the full span of the 33-year-old actor’s soulful talent — starting with the July 10 premiere of HBO’s The Night Of and continuing big time with his roles in July 29’s Jason Bourne and December’s blockbuster-to-be Star Wars: Rogue One.
The Night Of is a mesmerizing 8-episode limited series written by Richard Price (Clockers), directed by Oscar-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and costarring the beloved veteran of 100 movies, John Turturro. Ahmed plays a college student who borrows his dad’s taxicab one evening and ends up, inconceivably, as the prime suspect in the vicious stabbing of a woman. Turturro is the eccentric lawyer that defends him, a role that was originally meant for James Gandolfini before the Sopranos actor’s way-too-soon death in 2013.
“I found a real connection to Riz as a person,” Turturro says. “He’s really talented and a real hard worker and so smart. Look at his performance — it’s not overdone, not at all. That’s where the whole things lives. It’s all in the minutia and the moment-to-moment life and the cost to this young man’s life. And that’s all Riz.”
Zaillian concurs. “I knew that the guy’s gotta be good in that part or else we’re dead,” he says. “I looked at a lot of actors and I didn’t even know about him until close to the end. He did Nightcrawler after we shot the pilot. And the transformation he goes through — this is something I don’t want to talk about, by the way — but the transformation is really remarkable. You would never know he’s British, by the way.”
And even if you know he’s British, you might not know that’s his heritage is Pakistani — a fact that he even toyed with in his shadow career as a rap artist for his latest mixtape. In his provocative, Brexit-timely single, Riz MC spouts racist agitprop for seven straight minutes before taking off his ski mask for the twist ending (listen below).
As he was polishing off his sandwich and fries (with some help from his interviewer), we began by talking about the challenges faced by an actor of Pakistani origins in an industry which still tends to see life in one color. Soft-spoken but disarmingly honest, Ahmed had one or two things to say on the subject.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So I’ve been tempted to watch Criminal Justice, the BBC show that The Night Of is based on.
Riz Ahmed: Oh, yeah? But too many spoilers if you watch that one first, right?
Exactly, that’s the problem. Have you ever met Ben Whishaw, who played your character in that version?
No, not really. I bumped into him in the street once and I said, “Hey, I’m doing the American version.” And he said, “Oh, yeah, I heard about that,” and he wished me luck.
In that show, the character is not of Pakistani origin.
No one’s of Pakistani origin in any British show. That’s why every actor of color is here, working in the States. It’s true.
But for you, certainly, it’s been a meteoric couple of years since Nightcrawler came out.
Well, people always say, “When this thing comes out, everything will change for you.” People have been saying that to me my whole life. I just don’t believe a word of it. Some people, they do explode on the scene, you know. Carey Mulligan in An Education — BAM! I never saw myself having that kind of career. And perhaps that’s because people who look like me don’t get to have those careers, often. I think if you don’t fit a traditional mold, people will just go, “He’s great, but what are we gonna do with him?” That’s okay. I get to stretch different muscles. And then it becomes more about trying to be consistent and sticking around and staying sharp and you build, block by block, cumulatively, if you’re lucky. And I repeat: if you’re lucky.
I guess we don’t want to give away too much of The Night Of‘s plot.
I think you’ll all thank us for that ultimately.
But what has this project meant for you, personally and professionally?
Well, we did the pilot in 2012. So watching this back is like watching videos from childhood. I’ve been acting for 10 years, this is like almost five years ago. That’s half my professional life. It’s a strange feeling. I don’t think many people knew about the show. This was like our precious little secret. Our little hope. It hadn’t been out into the light of day.
Does it feel good that it finally is?
Yes. It feels great that there was belief in the project. Which was great. James [Gandolfini] had a couple of minutes in the pilot. Then when he died, we all thought it was over. But then we filmed it with Turturro in 2014. I think they spent a year just editing it. And now it’s on HBO. You know, we don’t have HBO in the U.K. So that’s a thing. That’s one of those things in Family Guy that’s a cultural reference in America.
In the pilot, you’re arrested while driving a taxicab late at night. And you spend most of Nightcrawler in a car. What is it about you driving around late at night?
I’m always locked in a car, heading to no good, man.
What kind of research did you do for The Night Of?
I’m playing a working class college kid, and he defers some of his credits. That was something that came up a lot in talking to college guys. I spent a lot of time at Queens College and in Queens in general, mostly Jackson Heights. And I went and visited Richard Price, who wrote the series. And he’s written so many iconic New York tales like Lush Life and Clockers. Such an interesting guy, and he told me he’d been to Syria right before the revolution started. And he’s been to Pakistan. I met someone who’d just come out of Rikers Island at his house. I met a lot of people like that.
What was the most challenging part about actually shooting it?
It was just the length of the shoot. I’m used to doing U.K. indie films, like six weeks of filming, tops. So for me, six months? Really? Holding onto trauma for six months, going there. You’ve got to find new ways to work. Because otherwise you will just f— your stamina. It’s a war of attrition. That was a big learning experience for me. I’m so grateful for [it]. It’s a luxury for me to act for six months with this caliber of actors. They just give off good vibes, man. Good vibes engine.
In the pilot episode, John Turturro’s character sees you and asks, “Who’s that kid with the big eyes?” It’s amazing how much your eyes convey both fear and the anxiety that goes along with trying to hide your fear.
Well, I give credit to Zaillian for that. He is quite uncompromising in how he wants to pace things. He just soaks in the authenticity of a situation. It’s nice to treat audiences like grown-ups.
But in terms of your eyes, how much do you consider what a tool they are in your performances? How self-conscious are you of your acting?
I think on a good day you’re not conscious of it at all. On a bad day you’re conscious of everything. You get the best results when you get the hell out of your own way. Often the thing that stops us from doing that is fear — and fear means that we have a desire to control things. And when we control things they’re never as magical as when we abandon control. There’s something spiritual underpinning that idea, not to sound too hokey. Tapping into something bigger than yourself to find a transcendent creative moment. What I try to think about is, did you move forwards or backwards through an experience?
What is it like watching yourself on screen?
All I see are my shortcomings.
Do you know that Sarah Paulson hasn’t watched any of her performance as Marcia Clark in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story?
You gotta be kidding? Why not?
She’s too critical of her own work.
Well, she shouldn’t be. But I’ve got to say it’s so nice to hear other actors go through the same s—. Not that we’re in the profession to be pitied or anything, but you’re saving my life by telling me this about Sarah Paulson. It can be a lonely black hole that you go down. That’s my default spot to be in, chasing my own shadow.
Do you watch everything you’re in?
I watch it because I want to learn. And I want to improve, but it’s painful.
Your American accent is flawless, both the Californian accent in Nightcrawler and the New Yorker in The Night Of.
It’s kind of you to say that. I think sometimes it’s good and sometimes could be better, like everything I do. You probably think that about everything you do.
I’ll listen to this conversation later and think of how I could’ve asked every question better.
What the f— is that? Is it an innate human thing or is it something to do with being the Facebook generation? That we’re always able to go back and apply filters and re-edit and revise so that we present the perfect, manicured version of ourselves.
I can think of certain people, especially a certain presidential candidate right now, who’s popular because he doesn’t apply filters.
I think I know who you mean. [Laughs] Different generation, though, right?
The Night Of premieres July 10 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.