Riz Ahmed’s meteoric rise continued on Sunday when the actor won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie at the 69th annual Emmy Awards for his starring role in HBO’s The Night Of.
Ahmed is the first man of South Asian descent to win at the Emmys and only the second Asian star to ever take home a trophy at the ceremony, following Archie Panjabi for The Good Wife in 2010.
“Wow. This is a tremendous honor to be recognized along so many actors who I’ve watched for so long,” Ahmed said in his acceptance speech. “If this show has shown a light on some of the prejudice in our society, some of the injustice in our justice system, then maybe that’s something.”
He also honored the late James Gandolfini, one of the series’ executive producers who died in 2013 (and was set to star in the show in the role fellow nominee John Turturro eventually played).
“He’s a man who I believe single-handedly changed television and I hope he’s proud of us,” added Ahmed.
This marks the actor’s first major award win, for playing accused murderer Naz Khan. As Ahmed explained to EW’s Joe McGovern after The Night Of finale aired, it was a tough gig.
“It was an endurance test. It was quite emotionally and physically draining work,” Ahmed said. “But I just caught the slightest glimpse of what it would be like to be a prisoner, as an actor who got to go home every day, and I found it extremely difficult. I can’t even begin to think what it must be like for people who live in that situation. Just experiencing that for eight months and to shoot for eight months was new for me. So the fact that the most challenging project for me has also been probably the most prominent and successful, certainly in America, that’s satisfying.”
Ahmed beat out fellow nominees Robert De Niro, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ewan McGregor, Geoffrey Rush, and even his The Night Of co-star John Turturro for the win.