From a British Pakistani background, when Riz Ahmed first burst onto the scene in 2006, he was typecast and consigned to roles as Muslims, Arabs and Middle Easterners (“The Road To Guantanamo” was one of his first roles). But things quickly changed for the actor after he earned a nomination for Best Actor at the 2008 British Independent Film Awards for the film “Shifty,” and got recognition across the pond for his turn in the satirical “Four Lions.”
Continually showing he can break out of any preconceived box, the actor has made the most of opportunities that have become eclectic. A supporting role in Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” turned heads, but it’s Ahmed’s lead performance in the terrific HBO miniseries “The Night Of” that has turned him into a bonafide star and Golden Globe nominee.
This weekend, he’ll be in front of his biggest audience yet in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” playing Bodhi Rook, an Imperial freight pilot who defects to the Alliance after a change of heart. The Playlist spoke to Ahmed in San Francisco earlier this month about the new “Star Wars” film, his “crazy audition” and diversity on screen. Keep in mind, I conducted this interview before I saw the entire movie (press were only shown about 30 minutes of footage beforehand).
How is ‘Rogue One’ different from other “Star Wars” movies?
I think it’s a strong movie. It’s like a “Star Wars” movie, but it’s also very distinctive in its own way. It’s doing something fresh, and quite bold. The way it’s been executed, it’s got a dirt-under-the-fingernails kind of aesthetic, boots on the ground, rough and ready. It feels like a war movie, so it has a lot of edge. It feels a lot edgier than the other “Star Wars” movies. It’s darker.
Your character is an ex-Imperial trooper. How did you get into the character? What was his backstory?
I make it up. I feel like so much of the “Star Wars” world, the parameters are already there, down to the fact that you don’t have buttons on clothing, and so it’s great that they give you some space to bring your own ideas to the table as well when creating these characters. The framework and all the main turning points were there in the script, which was beautifully written.
At his core, he’s a defector. Does that help you dive into the character?
His backstory related to Finn (in ‘The Force Awakens’) a little bit [ed. who also absconds from the Empire]. He’s a character who is willing to put himself on the line, make a sacrifice and take a risk for what he believes in. I think in the times we are living in, that’s a pretty powerful message. I don’t think you have to be someone’s kid, don’t have to be a domestic elite to make a difference. A long-distance truck driver like Bodhi can make a difference. So can you.
With occupied territories, militarized zones and the like, it feels the movie has a lot of contemporary parallels to what’s going on in the world right now.
You know, if you look at the other “Star Wars” movies, they feel very resonant and reflective of our political reality as well. Sci-fi as a genre has the ability to reflect our world back to us with a certain freedom that socialist cinema doesn’t. And that’s partly to do with the fact that once you elevate something to the level of mythology and archetype, you’re able to project whatever you want onto those stories. And partly because they reflect the times that we live in. Cinema is always a product of its environment, even escapist cinema, which is trying to run away from reality. I think the main message that I think is particularly poignant, aside from one can make a difference, that people of all different backgrounds can come together to take on big challenges that we couldn’t face alone. And I think the biggest challenges we face as a species, as a planet, are only the ones that we can face together. And it’s worth remembering that we need to come together, particularly in a time where things feel quite divided.
There’s a do-or-die quality to the footage we were shown.
It has a certain momentum, like a war movie or a heist movie does. It certainly moves fast.
‘Rogue One’ director Gareth Edwards recently talked about his war-movie influences. Did he screen any of those films for the cast?
They showed us a 30-minute teaser, a making-of kind of thing. And you get sense of how much loving care goes into making these films. It’s another level. I mean, like double amputees were operating some of the creatures because they could fit inside them. It’s a diverse range of shapes and sizes that go into creating this world. And people who grew up idolizing these movies, stories and characters have ended up working in this film, so it means they go the extra mile.
There are a lot of practical effects in the film, but there are still lots of AT-ATs and vehicles that aren’t there, which is new for you. Was that hard to act against?
There weren’t AT-ATs, but there was literally everything else. They really went to town with building these worlds: U-wings, creatures, deserts, mountains. The first day of filming, they had built this desert island. I turn up at this airfield in Buckingham, England and cranes are planting palm trees that they have imported. Tons of sand being poured in to create a lagoon and an artificial lake that they created. They went to town, so a lot of it was real, which is great for the cast, everything but the AT-ATs, which is the name of my next album [laughs].
The cast must be one of the most multi-cultural we’ve ever seen in a franchise movie, and while there’s a lot more to be done, it feels like a worthwhile starting place.
I’m from an immigrant background and I get to live my dreams creatively and I hope that inspires other people who maybe felt like outsiders to feel like they can, too.
At the same time, it’s weird that [diversity] is a unique thing in movies. Hopefully after this it will be the norm. Or [‘Rogue One’] will take us a step towards that. These days when you’re telling a story, you’re telling it to a global audience, whether its online streaming or at home or in multiplexes around the world, so it makes sense for our stories to be as diverse as our world and audiences are.
You auditioned for ‘Rogue One’ and pestered Gareth Edwards for the part, yeah?
I didn’t lose the role, but I kind of went into psycho mode and kept spamming Gareth with auditions. I sent him, like, 12 takes over four days. Every few hours I would send him a new version of the scene, doing different accents, costumes, different comedy versions, really emotional versions. He ended up emailing me on day five saying, “Stop emailing me.” I was like, “Oh my god, I screwed it up.” He hit me back and said, “Listen, you know what? You’re crazy, but let’s do this.” And I was like, “Yes!”
You were a big “Star Was” fan growing up?
I was a fan, but now that I’ve met real fans, I know what fans really are.
“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” opens in theaters nationwide on December 16.