Riz Ahmed is one of the hottest stars around right now. He can’t stop getting nominations for his role as Naz in The Night Of, and is part of the rebel group of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
But acting is not the only thing that Riz can do: he is also a rapper who has enjoyed quite a bit of success with his hip-hop albums and his collaboration in the Hamilton Mixtape.
Riz sat down recently with loaded in LA to talk about the incredible twelve months he’s been having.
loaded: You’ve had an amazing twelve months, plus a golden globe nomination and SAG nomination for The Night Of – how did this project find its way to you and what attracted you to the role of Naz?
Ahmed: It found its way to me very, very randomly. Someone I once worked with on the music side actually, a manager I once worked with, said, ‘You know the thing with this showbiz thing is it’s like you’re waiting on the goal line for the ball to come in and you miss it but then somehow it bounces off the post, bounces off someone else’s foot, hits you on the back of the head and rolls over the goal line.’ And it was kind of like that because I don’t think I was being considered for this. I can look quite different when I’ve got a bit of facial hair and stuff, clean shaven I look a lot younger and I think they just thought, ‘This dude’s way too old to play Naz’.
And I remember when I’d seen Avy Kaufman in the Berlin Film Festival just earlier that year, you know, I had like a full beard situation going on and I think she just thought, ‘He’s a dude who looks 30, he is 30.’ So I wasn’t being considered for it and then just last minute I think they just thought of me and I was at the Venice Film Festival for ‘Reluctant Fundamentalist’ screening and I was just getting on the plane and my agent called me and said, ‘I’m sending you a script, read it on the plane because you’ve got an audition when you land.’
loaded: It’s got an odd history though because it was green lit in like 2012 but didn’t happen then. Had you sort of put it out of your mind and were you excited when you found out it was getting a second chance?
Ahmed: Yeah definitely was a massive rollercoaster. We shot the pilot in 2012, so episode one is from 2012 and we shot at the very end of episode one you have a scene with John Stone, where he kind of comes into the police precinct and that was shot with James Gandolfini, who was originally playing John Stone. And then the show didn’t get picked up, weirdly, and then that was it. And then it did get picked up and we were ready to go and then James Gandolfini passed away. And then months and months and months go by and then John Turturro is doing it and we’re shooting it next month. There had been a two-year gap and I had put it out of mind and I was heartbroken that it wasn’t going to happen. And it was only then, I think we had six weeks or so, something like that, that they sent me the other seven scripts. Because I didn’t know what was going to happen to Naz.
loaded: As a fellow Brit have you ever run into Ben Whishaw, who plays you character in the original British version?
Ahmed: I bumped into Ben Whishaw on Oxford Street, the main shopping street in London, just after I’d found out we were going to do the show. So I’d been kind of jealously thinking of this dude for two years since the pilot and it’s like, ‘Ah you got to do that thing and we were going to do that thing and then we didn’t get to do it.’ But then it was like, ‘Oh we are doing it.’
And I literally just bumped into him on the street and I went, ‘Ben, I’m an actor, my name is Riz.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, yeah I know who you are.’ And I was like, ‘We’re doing that Criminal Justice thing, we’re doing the HBO remake of it’ like really happy somehow expecting him to be happy for us. [laughs] ‘Like it’s finally happening that thing we’ve been thinking about for two years, we’re doing it.’ And he was like, [subdued] ‘Oh yeah I heard about that.’ I was like, ‘Alright cool, nice to meet you, see you later.’ And it was super awkward. [laughs]
loaded: You’re not just a great actor, you’re also a rapper of course. How long did you work on the Hamilton Mixtape?
Ahmed: Oh I mean it’s all Lin [-Manuel Miranda] work. I saw the show, loved it, sent a fan letter to my agent saying, ‘If you know who reps him let him know I think his work is amazing and it’s an inspiring show.’ And then he emailed me back saying, ‘I love your work, I know it’s a big ask [laughs] but I’m doing a mix tape with Buster Rhymes, Jill Scott, The Roots… do you want to be on it?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah I’ll be right back.’ And just went and recorded the verse straight away. It was just a real honour to be a part of that. He’s doing such amazing work I think and I also just think that whole idea of like taking classics and refurbishing classics is something that I’m really interested in.
Right now this kind of political moment that we’re living in, it’s based on a lot of alarmism that we’re facing, unprecedented threats, we live in an unprecedented time and I think now more than ever what we need to do is reconnect with history. It’s like we need history lessons. I think we need that more and more.
loaded: You have to go to some really dark places over the run of this show. Was it ever hard to leave it behind at the end of the day or did you find that the character continued to haunt you?
Ahmed: Yeah I kind of struggled with that a little bit. I mean I don’t have the issue of like I go home and I think I’m Nasir Khan, like that doesn’t happen to me. It’s more like I just, you feel tense man, you just carry a lot of tension with you. I started getting like crazy stress rashes and stuff by about half way through the shoot which I’d never had anything like that before. I don’t know who said it, I’m not sure who the actor who actually said this, but it was like ‘Your body doesn’t know it’s not real’. Yeah, I think it was an actor from ‘Narcos’ whose name escapes me, who plays Pablo Escobar, and he was like, ‘Yeah your body doesn’t know it’s not real sometimes.’ So you carry a lot of that tension with you.
loaded: What advice do you have for minorities breaking out of the stereotypical minority roles?
Ahmed: I think everyone has a cross to bear, right? If you’re a very heavy set tall guy, if you’re a very petite blonde girl, if you’re an Asian American, if you’re African American, you know, if you’re Middle Eastern, everyone kind of seems to have a cross to bear and everyone has a kind of box that they’re put into but some boxes are a lot wider and have a lot more breathing room and a lot more room for manoeuvre than others right?
loaded: For Rogue One, was that an audition situation and was the character written as a person of colour or was it open to interpretation?
Ahmed: Nothing is written as anything, it’s the Star Wars universe, right? And I think that’s the amazing thing about sci-fi, questions of race, it’s harder to go, ‘Well I’m sorry like, you know, a Chinese dude would just not be an army ranger’. It’s harder to make that argument when you’ve got a giant fish as an army ranger stood next to you right? So that’s like a good thing about sci-fi, it automatically evaporates a lot of bullshit by creating fantasy.
There was an audition situation but no, actually the character for Star Wars started out as a different character. The character at that time wasn’t called Bodhi Rook, he was called Bokan and I’ve never actually told anyone else this before publicly but he was a totally different character.
So Bodhi Rook is an Imperial cargo pilot who defects. Bokan was an engineer that worked for the Empire, like electronics engineer that worked for the Empire, that had been kidnapped by Saw Gerrera many years ago in order to make his magnetic moon planet undetectable by the Empire and stuff. He was basically like a prisoner with Stockholm Syndrome. So he was like someone who was just living with Saw Gerrera as a kind of live in Imperial slave kind of character.
I just got super obsessive with it and did like 12 tapings over three days or whatever and just kept emailing Gareth. I mean he basically screwed up because he gave me his email address so I just kept spamming him. Literally every three to four hours I’d just go, ‘Shall I send him one? Fuck it yeah. I’ve got an idea, I’ve got an idea, I’ll do it differently.’ I’m like sending him all these tapes, like 12 times over and then he emailed me and he went, ‘Thank you for sending me all the tapes, please stop sending me all these tapes.’ But luckily I didn’t totally scare him.
loaded: It obviously worked!
Ahmed: I think it was more just like a way to stop me sending tapes [laughs].
loaded: Is it true you had a really strange audition with Danny Boyle?
Ahmed: Yeah I did have a strange audition – for Slumdog Millionaire.
So I went in for that and he wanted me to read for both brothers. So I went in and I did the role that Dev [Patel] went on to amazingly play, he played beautifully well, and I went in and did that role and he was like, ‘OK cool and now let’s do the other brother. He’s a bit more mean, he’s got a bit more edge to him, he’s a bit ruthless.’ So he explained him to me then he says, ‘Look Riz, you can really go for it, don’t be shy.’
And Danny is so nice and sweet and encouraging. He like has so much energy and he’s like, ‘Go on Riz mate, you can do whatever you want mate, just make it your own, we’ll catch it on camera.’ And there’s a guy behind camera walking around and Danny is in the room. So I start and the line is something like, ‘No Ravi you won’t.’ And then it’s my line and I fucking ran up to him and grabbed him by his shirt and slammed him against the wall because he said, ‘You can really tell me off.’ So I grabbed and slammed Danny Boyle against the wall and accidentally ripped his shirt and then started doing my speech at him and I’m like spitting in his face by mistake. The guy clearly can’t film it because I’m all up in his face. So the camera guy is trying to get in and I’m ripping his shirt and spitting at him. And then he goes, ‘Alright cool. Alright Riz. Thanks for coming in mate.’
loaded: Have you seen him since then? Did you get him a new shirt?
Ahmed: [laughs] I have seen him since. I saw him once since but we didn’t talk about it. We didn’t mention it. We just pretended that never happened.
loaded: Finally, it has been such a great year for you. How has your life changed? You’re an action figure now!
Ahmed: Yeah that’s kind of funny and cool. The adjustment in terms of like my life is, I mean I don’t know. I just left the country as soon as Star Wars came out. I just went on holiday. I went to visit my brother basically who lives abroad. So I haven’t really seen that. I’ll keep you posted.
Credit: Jason Adams / The Interview People