Riz Ahmed is having a moment. The actor previously best known as Jake Gyllenhaal’s ill-fated assistant in Nightcrawler, he’s now playing a social media mogul in Jason Bourne and winning plaudits for his portrayal of accused killer Nasir Khan in the HBO crime drama The Night Of.
Based on the BBC series Criminal Justice and originally set to star the late James Gandolfini in the defense lawyer role played by John Turturro, the eight-part series (concluding August 28) casts Ahmed as a naïve young man who sneaks out in his dad’s taxi for a night out, and wakes up in the same house as a brutally slaughtered woman, his prints on the murder weapon and no recollection of what happened.
It’s the biggest role yet for the London-born actor of Pakistani heritage. We sat down with him recently to ask him about joining the Star Wars universe in Rogue One and how, as alter ego Riz MC, he’s also making a name for himself in hip-hop. Yes, hip-hop.
“Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me on the screen. So I feel proud to be able to be part of a generation that’s helping to change that.”
You’re really great in The Night Of. What about the series appealed to you?
It was a beautifully written script. It had space to contribute things as well as being really specific. It was this incredibly rich canvas and really it was on us to just try to commit to each scene and each moment.
How did you prepare for the part?
Something that I found really helpful was interviewing and speaking to people that had been through the criminal justice system, that had been to Rikers [Island]. I was very grateful to these people for opening up to me, telling me their story and just hopefully from their experiences trying to get a sense of what it’s like to be in there, though it’s not even a tiny fraction of what people going through those experiences feel. We all went to Rikers, which was really helpful. Soaking up that atmosphere was something that kind of gave me a glimpse and real insight into what it’s like to be incarcerated.
Besides The Night Of, you’re also in Jason Bourne and working on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. While it seems like you’re an overnight sensation, that’s not the case, is it?
No. I’ve been working for a really long time, just trying to keep my head down and do good work. We have a saying in the UK—you wait three hours for a London bus and then three of them come all at once. That’s what’s happening to me now.
Did you always want to act?
Yeah, I did but I never really thought it was viable for me as a career. Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me on the screen. So I feel proud to be able to be part of a generation that’s helping to change that.
Have things improved with regard to diversity in the industry?
I call it normalization rather than diversity. I think we’re making some slow progress. It’s never enough.
What can you reveal about Rogue One?
My character Bodhi Rook works for the Empire. He’s a cargo pilot. The planet he’s from is occupied by the Empire, which throws up some contradictions and conflicts for him. All the characters in Rogue One are quite complicated in terms of their pasts and their intentions, and I think that adds to the gritty feel that [director] Gareth [Edwards] wanted to create in the movie.
Is it a dream come true to be in a Star Wars movie?
Yeah, I was a fan, but being on set will convert you quicker than anything. You realize the care and effort that’s gone into creating that world. It’s kind of amazing.
“We have a saying in the UK—you wait three hours for a London bus and then three of them come all at once. That’s what’s happening to me now.”
You have a couple of other movies in the can.
Yes. In Una, I play a supporting role. It’s really a two-hander with Ben Mendelsohn and Rooney Mara. It’s based on the play Blackbird, which was recently on Broadway with Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels. City of Tiny Lights is an adaptation of a novel. It’s a gumshoe private eye detective movie set in contemporary London.
Meanwhile, you have a hip-hop career.
Yes. Talk about things coming all at once, but it’s just a coincidence. I just released my mixtape, and the next project on the horizon is I’ve got another release coming up with my band Swet Shop Boys, which is myself and Queens rapper Heems of Das Racist. I met him when I went out to research The Night Of. I wanted to spend time in the community in Queens and meet South Asian people there. They said, “There’s this rapper you should meet.” And we met and formed a band. We’re going to be announcing some new stuff soon.
What are you proudest of so far?
I’m certainly proud of The Night Of because I’ve been involved with it for such a long time. We shot the pilot in 2012, and then there was a long hiatus after James’ passing. So it feels like a huge part of my life, you know? I’m just proud to keep working with great people on cool projects.