In his 2015 video “I Ain’t Being Racist But …” British rapper Riz MC (a.k.a. Riz Ahmed) wears a ski mask while spouting rhetoric that would make Boris Johnson and Donald Trump blush: “Let’s face it, this fucking country is going down the shitter/Immigrants nick our jobs and impregnate our sisters.” He eventually removes his mask and reveals himself to be of Pakistani heritage.
As an actor, the 33-year-old Ahmed has tackled race and religion in films like The Reluctant Fundamentalist and The Road to Guantanamo. Now he’s starring in Steven Zaillian and Richard Price’s eight-part HBO drama, The Night Of, as a Pakistani-American student accused of murdering a young white woman. “What’s interesting about this show is it’s not preoccupied with race or religion,” Ahmed says. “It’s just a reflection of a society dealing with cultural dissonance.”
Previously best known for his supporting role in 2014’s Nightcrawler, Ahmed will follow up The Night Of with high-profile turns in the Matt Damon sequel Jason Bourne and Star Wars: Rogue One. But he still hopes to maintain his anonymity. “I look pretty different in all three projects,” he says. Ahmed spoke with Vulture about The Night Of’s long road to the screen and his transition from indie films to blockbusters.
You shot The Night Of pilot four years ago. How did you originally get cast?
It all happened very randomly and quickly. I knew almost nothing about it. I got sent the script. I didn’t know who’d written it — that page was missing. I actually thought, This writer’s got a great future ahead. When I realized who wrote it, I felt kind of dumb. It just fell into my lap really late in the day. It’s kind of cool sometimes if you don’t overthink things. The less time you have, the less chance you have to fuck it up.
When you were shooting the pilot, did you keep in mind the fact that you had to play the character as if he could be innocent or guilty of the crime?
No, funnily, I’m not clever enough to do that kind of puppet-mastery thing and try to second-guess what I can make an audience think or feel. I follow my instincts, and people can project what they need onto it.
James Gandolfini developed the show and originally played your lawyer, but he died after the pilot was shot. How much did you get to work with him?
We shot the one scene between my character and his that you see in the pilot. It was a real pleasure to meet and work with James. He was very generous. He laid out cake and pastries and sushi for the whole crew on the days he was working. He seemed like a super-cool rock star, man-of-the-people-type dude.
In the years that followed, did you think the show wouldn’t move forward?
I absolutely assumed we were never going to make it. I felt like the pilot went really well, but for some reason, it wasn’t picked up. Then we heard it was getting picked up, but James passed away, so we weren’t going to make it. Then Robert De Niro was interested, so we were rushing to make it, but he stepped out and we weren’t going to make it. Then it was like, “Get on a plane tomorrow — we’re making it with John Turturro.” So it was really weird.
Did you have any discussions with Zaillian and Price about the racial aspects of the show, especially since in the British series it’s based on, Criminal Justice, your character was white?
They made that decision before I was involved with the show. I contributed some authentic details. They asked for my input here and there, but Richard and Steven already had a good grounding and knowledge about those things. So I helped add some texture, but quite frankly, these are two writers who are sticklers for detail.
You’ve done other projects that deal with race and religion. Is that something you seek out, or do you ever feel pigeonholed by it?
Ultimately, as a society, we tell the stories we’re preoccupied with. It’s natural to tell stories that grapple with these ideas. My golden rule is to tell stories that add some complexity and nuance and humanity to the situation. These issues rear their head in a very organic way on the show. It’s not a soapbox piece by any stretch of the imagination. It focuses on the criminal justice system more than race per se.
Do you see a difference between U.S. and U.K. productions in their willingness to deal with race?
The irony to me is that cities like London are less segregated than American cities like Chicago or New York, because after World War II, we were all mixed together in housing projects. But it feels strange to me that the image the U.K. productions sell is a lily-white period drama. I see fewer mixed-race couples walking down the street in America, yet the image you sell is black and white characters fighting together side by side. It’s interesting to me that both societies are in denial of their reality.
Have you found more opportunities as an actor of color in the U.S.?
The multiculturalism of Britain is one of our greatest strengths in music, literature, and visual art, but the TV and film industry doesn’t tap into the multicultural talent pool in the U.K. as much as they do in the U.S. So, much of my work has come from America in the last five years.
Do you feel like the anti-immigrant sentiments you satirized in “I Ain’t Racist But …” have become more prevalent lately, or have they always been around?
My fear is that it’s cyclical, and things that happened in the 1930s are happening again. You have a devastating financial crash, a massive disillusion with politics, and the rise of the far left and the far right. That leads to the scapegoating of racial minorities. I think we’re at a quite important moment, quite a crossroads.
You’re at a crossroads in your career with three major projects coming out in the next six months. Do you feel like your life is suddenly about to change?
I can see how it might seem that way from the outside, but from the inside, these projects came together over a long enough stretch of time that it feels like a funny confluence they’re all coming out around the same time. Very few people have those kinds of careers where you skyrocket overnight. My career has been incremental, and that feels good. But certainly doing a big TV series or movie feels different. Creatively, coming from a background of indie films, which I’m very proud of, I would work on films for four to six weeks. Working on a project for six months or a year, you can’t be a sprinter. You’ve got to run a marathon.