After a jam-packed 2016 (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, The OA, and more), the breakout star makes yet another splash in the HBO dramedy’s final season premiere.
The Night Of‘s Naz would probably kill to live the life of Paul-Louis, Riz Ahmed’s latest small-screen enigma in Girls. The surf instructor is so chill he drunkenly raps at parties, practices free love, and even has enough patience to teach the less-than-enthusiastic Hannah (Lena Dunham) how to catch waves. (It helps that he catches her eye.) In fact, Ahmed jokes, Paul-Louis is more Zen than even Rogue One‘s one-with-the-force Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen).
And tapping into that peaceful state wasn’t easy, especially as a non-surfer. “It always struck me that surfing is like doing yoga or boxing or snowboarding, where you have to really concentrate on staying on your feet and you have to be really present,” Ahmed explains. “I tried surfing a little bit, but it takes a couple years to be able to work out what the hell you’re doing. I don’t have as much patience as Paul-Louis. I need a little more Paul-Louis in me.”
Instead, it helped to inject a little bit of himself into Paul-Louis. Dunham encouraged her guest star, a member of the hip hop group Swet Shop Boys, to use his background as a rapper and spit rhymes during a party scene. Ahmed says he enjoyed playing someone dramatically different from his last HBO role, a murder suspect in The Night Of. “It’s always been important to me to try out different versions of myself,” he says. “I think the idea that we have one essential person isn’t something I necessarily agree with… I’m very much a believer that we’re all products of our context.”
Paul-Louis clearly is — but even though the carefree surfer seems to have found paradise, Ahmed says he still has a long way to go. “He thinks he’s got it all sorted, but underneath all the boobs and drunk rapping, he’s running away from something deep down,” he teases. “That idea of escape is a really resonant one to start the whole season. It’s like, how do we escape childhood? When do we really become adults? You know, is being an adult making your own reality and designing things to your desires or is being an adult facing responsibility?”
On set, Ahmed found himself facing a challenge far less profound: trying to keep up with Dunham’s improv. “It’s hard not to crack up,” he recalls. “If you listen closely in some scenes, I think you can probably still hear me laughing. She had me pissing myself.”
He also tried to keep up with her work ethic. “Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says of filming. “She manages to direct and act and all that and still wrap the shooting day at like 4 or 5 p.m. I definitely left the experience feeling just inspired to push myself harder and to try, when I am ever in a position of leadership like she is, to lead in this generous and warm a way as she does.”
Ahmed adds: “I think she’s a genius. She’s been at the forefront of our cultural conversation for quite a long time. She’s been really provocative, and other times she’s been really quick to learn, and I just admire her bravery as a person and as a creative.”