Riz Ahmed and ‘The Night Of’ strike a chord of contemporary concerns
Riz Ahmed knows what you’re thinking: His character in “The Night Of” could have benefited from having a ride-sharing app like Uber or Lyft installed on his phone.
“If we had filmed the series more recently, there would be no story,” Ahmed said during a recent visit to the Los Angeles Times. “I wonder what kind of stories are being closed off to us, going forward, with all these technological advances.”
In “The Night Of,” Ahmed portrays Nasir “Naz” Khan, a Pakistani-American student living in New York who is accused of killing a woman he had just met — a role for which Ahmed received a Golden Globe nomination this month. Naz has no memory of the events that took place the night of the crime, though the evidence is stacked against him.
The 34-year-old actor, who has steadily been building international acclaim after making a name for himself in the British indie movie scene, can be seen in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”
Did you find that you were thinking about causation and how one choice can snowball into something bigger?
I think that’s the thing about the choices we make and the moment in which we make them. The first choice doesn’t seem too crazy, and then from that, the next one doesn’t, from that, the next one doesn’t and before you know it, you’re doing push-ups in prison high on heroin as an accessory to murder. I hope that’s something that makes people sit up and think about their lives and sliding doors that open and close.
The pilot was shot in 2012 but put on hold after the death of James Gandolfini. When it came out, the series was lauded for its timely portrayal of Islamophobia and what it said about mass incarceration —
I seem to quite often be in projects that seem to strike a nerve or connect with current affairs. Whether it was “The Night Of” or even “Bourne’s” touching on privacy and stuff like that. They don’t necessarily cast people like me in “Game of Thrones” very much. People can give birth to dragons in “Game of Thrones,” but I can’t be related to Peter Dinklage, which is always fun and really interesting.
It feels good. I feel that the role of an artist is to reflect the world around them, even if it’s to reimagine it. It’s ultimately to put a mirror up to reality and ask difficult questions and ruffle feathers and make us look at ourselves differently, and look at each other differently. To be a part of projects that have come around at the right time and struck a chord and done all those things, that’s the goal of all art.
You talked to prisoners as part of your research in playing this character. What did you take away from those conversations?
First, it was just to get a basic lay of the land. Just understanding how the politics and the economy of prison works and how survival in prison works. Everything from phone cards, to drugs, to meal times, to gang affiliation. That’s a big picture, but really the stuff that stayed with me was the details of people’s personal experiences, particularly the idea of how you drift from family and how people often cut that cord themselves because it’s too painful. Just calling people up and hearing their voices, remembering that life you’ve left behind, is almost too painful. It’s about the bonds that form in the wake of that, and often what I found was there were intimate or affectionate relationships that would develop between prisoners and their counsels, or prisoners and their social workers, or their caseworkers. In that sense, the Naz and Chandra story line, which I know caused some controversy among fans, felt quite true to life in my experience speaking to people.
I thought of the transformation that Naz goes through. He’s like a caterpillar that goes into a chrysalis, but what comes out isn’t a butterfly, it is a wolf.
Naz has a striking transformation as the series progresses. What was that like to inhabit?
It was challenging. I had an entire wall in my apartment in New York covered in notes and photos and spider diagrams and timelines. I thought of the transformation that Naz goes through. He’s like a caterpillar that goes into a chrysalis, but what comes out isn’t a butterfly, it is a wolf.
It was really mapping out the journey from one scene to the next. Some of that was actually about the physical training. You just carry yourself differently when your body is built in a different way. I lost weight to begin with to be the skinny college kid, then I built up weight. Then when I start smoking heroin I started losing weight a bit more.
Did people look at you differently?
I remember once I went to see this spoken word performance at BAM in Brooklyn, and I was meeting up with a friend. I walked in, with my leather jacket and my shaved head, and I think I still had the tattoo from that day’s shooting. People really look at you differently. It’s almost alarming, it’s a little bit heartbreaking, actually. So some of that mental work gets done for you, when you put yourself through that physical transformation.
Has the character stayed with you in the time since?
I’d still be acting out scenes from “The Night Of” — as late as this summer. I’m really quite obsessive, and it’s a gift and a curse. I’ll find myself back on the stand or talking to Chandra. I was still doing some “Rogue One” scenes on the flight over here. I’m a dog with a bone. I will keep chewing it until someone gives me a different bone.
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