Though Riz Ahmed has been working steadily over the last decade in films like Four Lions and Nightcrawler, there’s no denying that this year his career went into hyperdrive. The talented Brit landed his biggest project yet with Rogue One, where he plays former Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook, but he also led HBO’s talked-about series The Night Of, popped up in Jason Bourne and Netflix’s The OA, and added to his rap discography with the Swet Shop Boys’ Cashmere, an appearance on The Hamilton Mixtape, and the release of his own mixtape, Englistan. All of these projects would tire out an average person, but when Ahmed rang up Vulture recently to chat about Rogue One, he was upbeat and funny as he candidly discussed how much work went into making it right.
When I think about how bad 2016 was — and it was bad — the silver lining I find is that at least Riz Ahmed was in everything.
Yay! Hopefully, we don’t have to keep losing iconic pop stars and endure terrible political collapse in order for my career to progress. I feel like that’s not a fair trade for everyone else.
For you to be so well-represented in TV, film, and music this year … how does that make you feel?
I feel kind of lucky, it’s been a great couple of years. I’ve just been keeping my head down working hard like I always have. It’s just great luck that a couple of the things I’ve done lately have struck a chord with people, and now they’ve all come out around the same time. That’s the kind of stuff you can’t control, so I try not to think too much about it — instead, I think about what I’ve learned from one job to the next. Man, I can tell you I learned a lot from filming Rogue One. I hope to take that forward with me.
Tell me what you learned from this one.
I signed up for the movie not having read a script or knowing where the character sat in the movie. I’ve got to be honest, the character was a different character at that point. He had a different name and a different relationship to the rest of the team, and he really evolved once I signed on and once I started shooting, even. They decided to start expanding the role and introducing him earlier and he became more integral to the story and the rest of the team. It’s interesting, looking back, that I signed up knowing nothing, but ultimately I’d sign up for a Star Wars movie to make tea, just to be around that level of creativity.
It’s got to be flattering that they saw your performance and wanted to put you in more scenes.
Listen, I don’t want to say that’s because of anything I was doing. Maybe they just got wise to my gigantic following in the Falkland Islands [laughs]. To be honest, it speaks volumes to their approach that they allowed things to evolve in an organic and fluid way. People talk about blockbuster movies being really stiff and like a big machine, and there is a lot of infrastructure around these stories and how people tell them, but you’ve also got a lot of people who are willing to unpick stitching that doesn’t work, rather than just embroider it. That takes guts, man. That takes balls, that takes heart. Things kept evolving, and they weren’t afraid to go back and change it or try to make it better. That can be scary, but it makes you realize that no one’s going to let anything be mediocre. You don’t normally have the time and resources to be that perfectionist about things, but they did.
Are you used to doing this much promo for one movie?
Of course not! I’ve been doing indie films where I don’t even have a trailer, and now I’m touring the world, doing interviews with an action figure.
Are you prepared to go to Comic Con now and see tons of people walking around as your character?
I don’t know that I’m going to be the dress-up of choice. You’ve got some pretty cool characters over there — I’d probably dress up as Donnie Yen’s character, to be honest. But hey, if millions of people want to dress up as me, then I’ll get to be in my own Being John Malkovich moment, and that’s fine by me.
How did you feel about your costume?
Everyone who worked on this movie, especially in costumes and props and set design, is a Star Wars fan. All these people went into film because of those Star Wars movies, so you’ve got people who are at the very top of their game with a great amount of resources. They’re entrusted to execute something that is basically a childhood dream, so you’re in safe hands, and people go above and beyond. You could regularly pick up a prop on set and see buttons and a touch-screen on it and think, “This is never going to be on camera, but this is amazing.” And then you take it home and upload it to the dark web [laughs].
You were filming when The Force Awakens came out in theaters. What was that moment like for you?
I went to see Force Awakens and I was like, Wow, this is awesome, but then also, I kind of went, Gulp. There was a high bar that was set … were we going to be judged in relation to this? And then the next day we went back to work and I realized we were doing something totally different. We were doing this hardcore, gritty war movie that just happens to be in the Star Wars universe and connects up to the saga, and I love that. I love that we’re sitting within the lineage of Star Wars but striking out on our own. We’re like a weird stepbrother who listens to cool music.
What was the most Star Wars thing about it? Without lightsabers and with a different tone, what was that X factor that still made Rogue One feel the most like Star Wars to you?
Darth Vader. I mean, for anyone who tries to question our Star Wars credentials, I just say, “Darth Vader.”
I know that on Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams really prioritized practical effects over computer-generated ones. Was Gareth Edwards the same way on Rogue One?
What’s interesting is that there wasn’t a lot of green screen — I mean, there was for scenery and background, but honestly, there was a ton of stuff they built. They really built spaceships and desert islands and rebel bases and Imperial bunkers, and even the spaceships were built on these hydraulic mechanisms that moved around to scenery projected onto 360 degrees of giant LCD screens. It was like you were on a flight simulator. A lot of it was done like that, and I think it’s because Gareth wanted to discover the original grit those first Star Wars movies had. George Lucas speaks about the “used future,” and you only achieve that sort of steampunk aesthetic by building things and getting dirt under your fingernails.
What do you make of the people who complained about how multicultural Rogue One’s cast is?
I don’t know if there are a lot of those people, actually. I think it’s quite right that the stories we tell are as diverse as the audience we’re telling these stories to. These days, you’re telling the stories to the world, whether it’s online streaming at home or a multiplex cinema in Lagos, Jakarta, or San Francisco, so it makes sense to reflect the audience. It just kind of feels like, duh, you know? What’s weird is that we haven’t been doing this more consistently for longer. There’s only one way, and it’s forward.