'You can never expect a project to catch the zeitgeist like this one did'
[Warning: Includes spoilers about the The Night Of’s finale.]
It’s the morning after the final chapter in HBO’s summer phenomenon The Night Of, and star Riz Ahmed is wearing a hat and sunglasses. For the first time in his life, the disguise is necessary: The staff at a New York hotel and people in the street all want to know about Naz Khan, the character he’s played for the past eight weeks — and a role that he shot over four years ago — with astonishing complexity, depth, and muscle growth. We got the in-demand Ahmed, 33, on the phone for a postmortem chat about the show’s success, whether Naz just might have done it, and the chances of a second season.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congratulations on this incredible success. The Night Of was on against the VMAs last night and it was definitely holding its own.
RIZ AHMED: Oh, thank you. It’s all down to this amazing team behind it, with Steven [Zaillian] and Richard [Price] and John [Turturro] and the rest of the incredible cast. It’s a great feeling that it’s been received so well. It’s an amazing feeling, man.
How do you rank this in your career?
I’d rank it as the most challenging experience I’ve ever had as an actor. It was an endurance test. It was quite emotionally and physically draining work. 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.
Is it surprising?
Frankly, it is. Because I had been associating this project with a lot of, honestly, hard graft [British slang for “tough work”]. This is a pleasant and quite unexpected upside. You can never expect a project to catch the zeitgeist like this one did. And ultimately you can’t control that.
How have things changed for you, walking around in the streets in the last eight weeks? Do people recognize you as Naz and want to talk about the show?
Yeah. That’s the weird thing. In America, I’ve always been able to just go about my business without being stopped or anything. But that’s totally changed, I must say, in a way that’s totally surprising to me.
How often does it happen?
I was just checking into my hotel in New York and all the staff wants to talk to me about the show and congratulate me. I’m walking around with shades and a cap on at the moment. It’s flattering, but I’m really confused. I’ve done most of my work in the U.K. and it’s been in U.K.-focused projects, but just on the back of this one series, I get stopped more by fans. It’s very sweet but it’s a strange creature of the night for me.
Well, I don’t think it’s going to stop — especially with how you delivered that “I don’t know” line on the witness stand when Jeannie Berlin asked if you killed Andrea. Naz remains an enigma.
Yeah, and haunted. He’s haunted by the experience of Rikers. If there’s something that people take away from the show, outside of if it being entertainment and properly thrilling, I hope it shines a light on the criminal justice system and the tragedy of mass incarceration. I visited Rikers and there are a lot of people that shouldn’t be in there. They should be in rehab.
That’s one big theme. And the other is how the series showed Pakistanis as working-class Americans and was very sensitive to their experience.
Absolutely. It’s something that’s very admirable about the American culture is its ability to absorb new identities and groups. Whether you look at Glee and its normalization of gay identity or you look at the work of Martin Scorsese and the Italian-American community. American culture is able to take these stories, which are seen as marginalized, and just turn them into American stories. And you don’t think twice about it. That’s a tradition that I hope we’ve continued.
It sure is timely, especially given the fact that Naz is Muslim.
Exactly. And having said that, Muslims are not a new group in this country. Forty percent of the Africans who were brought here as slaves were Muslim. Jefferson celebrated Eid [a dinner during Ramadan] at the White House. It’s time that we shed a light on all of this.
Did you watch the British series Criminal Justice, which the The Night Of is based on?
No, unfortunately. I just missed it.
The ending is a little different. One of the other characters, a guy that existed in the American version as well, is revealed to be the real killer of Andrea.
Don’t tell me.
No, no. But what do you think about The Night Of‘s ending, which leaves the door open just enough to the possibility that Naz could have done it — do you think Naz killed her? Or rather, could he have?
[Long pause] You know, I’m not going to answer that question directly. I think one of the themes of the show is that we all have it in us to be anyone. We all carry the same seeds within us, give or take. And in the right or wrong circumstances, depending on how you’re looking at it, we can adapt to survive. So does Naz have it in him to be a killer?
From what went down in Rikers, we kind of know he does.
Right, we see in the end that he’s an accessory to a murder in Rikers. Does that mean that he is a killer? And does that mean he is guilty? Something I love about the show’s writing is that it doesn’t essentialize characters — nobody is essentially good or essentially bad. In the right or wrong circumstances, anything is possible.
But how did you ride that arc as it pertains to Naz?
I think there’s an element of aggression and an edge to Naz that you might not immediately glimpse in the story. We start off with a doe-eyed version of the character, but if you go back and watch the series again now that you’ve seen the whole thing, there are lots of tells and little hints of that edge.
Right, he’s pretty quick to come back at those two passersby in the street outside of Andrea’s apartment.
Yeah, he has an edge. Maybe you have to as a working-class person of color in the United States. What’s really clever about the show is that we bring preconceptions to everything. How we generally think of this young, South Asian male is either as emasculated or like a terrorist. The show toys with those two extremes. Naz isn’t either of those and there are a lot of little complexities in there from the beginning.
Things are looking pretty sad for Naz at the very end. But then there’s always the cat.
[Laughs] Yes, there is.
If the cat can be saved, then there’s hope for everybody. So what about a second season? Can you imagine playing Naz again?
I haven’t imagined it. I’m only entitled to imagine that if Steven and Richard have something further they want to explore. But, to me, the piece feels complete. I think it’s come to a satisfactory conclusion. We made something that worked on so many levels and sometimes it’s good to just quit while you’re ahead. But who knows?