Riz Ahmed is terrified of spoiling The Night Of for you. It’s not entirely clear whether HBO put the fear of God in the young Pakistani-British actor or if he brought this worry upon himself. Either way, he is unwilling to give any hints about where one of this summer’s most talked-about miniseries is headed.
“Oh God, I’m just being like that asshole interviewee right now,” Ahmed tells The Daily Beast by phone from London when pressed to give some insight into what is going through his character’s head as he is carted off to Riker’s Island at the end of the show’s second episode.
“Something that I think is important,” he continues, “is to understand how many of the blanks we fill in ourselves. When someone sits there staring quietly, you bring your own preconceptions to the table about how they are staring and what’s going on in their head.” Ahmed said it was co-showrunner Steven Zaillian’s intention not to “telegraph” or foreshadow too much for viewers, at least not right away. “The show is shot in that way as well, where you’ve got a lot of negative space, a lot of darkness in the frame,” he adds. “It’s about what you project onto the blank slate of Naz, into each frame, into those dark corners.”
Since its premiere on HBO earlier this month, The Night Of has receivied some of the network’s best reviews in years. Ahmed stars as Nasir Khan, the Pakistani-American student from Queens who finds himself as the one and only suspect in the brutal murder of an Upper West Side white girl named Andrea. A shy, smart, seemingly-innocent kid who was simply excited to find a woman who would pay attention to him, Naz is ill-prepared for Riker’s, where he will land in the third installment of the eight-episode series, airing this week.
Ahmed’s reluctance to give any insight into what is going through Naz’s mind, along with HBO’s decision to hold the final episode of the series back from critics, means there could be a big surprise coming in the show’s final hour. Either that, or Ahmed is just the type of actor who doesn’t like to analyze his own performances.
While Ahmed will be familiar to anyone who saw him play Jake Gyllenhaal’s unsuspecting accomplice in 2014’s Nightcrawler, this is the year he is poised to become a genuine movie star. Besides The Night Of, he has a key part as a CIA analyst in Paul Greengrass’ Jason Bourne, which hits theaters this Friday, and, even more momentously, a starring role opposite Felicity Jones in December’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Ahmed said that while he did grow up liking Star Wars, “nothing will turn you into more of a Star Wars fan than being on a Star Wars set.”
“When you see how lovingly that world is rendered by the set designers, costume designers, props department, art department, they genuinely build an actual world,” he continues, careful again not to reveal a shred of detail about the closely-guarded plot. “That is not an exaggeration. They build a world. To be in a tangible reality like that is intoxicating.”
The fact that all those films are coming out so close to The Night Of is something of a sad coincidence. Ahmed was first approached to play Naz by Zaillian and co-creator Richard Price back in the fall of 2012. At that time, James Gandolfini was on board to produce and play lawyer John Stone. Less than a year later, after they had shot the pilot together, Gandolfini was dead. For a while, it looked like the series might not go forward, but after an attempt to get Robert De Niro to take over the role fell through, the team settled on John Turturro, who may not have the gravitas of those two actors, but nonetheless makes the character of an eczema-plagued lawyer, who happened to be in the right place at the right time, unforgettable.
Naz and Stone share just one scene in the pilot, but Gandolfini, who retains a producer credit on the series, made a big impression on Ahmed. “As an actor, it was a very brief interaction that we had, although I got a sense that he was a very warm, generous, man of the people,” he says of The Sopranos star. “He was really instrumental in making it happen and championing the project,” he adds. “I hope that it’s something he would be proud of.”
“I just like watching great people work and seeing what I can steal from them. So it was like that for the brief time that I saw James on set, but it was certainly like that with John Turturro,” Ahmed continues, shifting his praise to the actor with whom he spent far more time over the grueling eight-month shoot. “He was definitely someone who took me under his wing and was very generous with sharing his wisdom, which I would constantly be trying to draw out of him. I just think he’s one of the all-time greats and the way he approaches his work with such tireless discipline and yet also with raw instinct, that’s something I aspire to.”
Much of Ahmed’s past work has consisted of short TV stints and smaller parts in British indie films, so he says he jumped at the chance to delve deeper into a character who has to carry an entire eight-episode series on his back. “My first impressions of Naz were that he is a character with lots of hidden depth,” he says. As a “working-class, second-generation immigrant, trying to earn enough money to go to college and do well,” Ahmed viewed Naz as “watching life from the sidelines.” He used that feeling of being “hemmed in” by his unique circumstances as a “useful obstacle” to “push against from the get-go.”
As Naz begins telling the story of what happened at Andrea’s townhouse the night she was killed, first to Bill Camp’s slyly manipulative Detective Box, and then to his lawyer and later his parents, he consistently leaves out one incriminating detail. While he firmly believes he did not kill Andrea, he is reluctant to reveal details of the game she encouraged him to play with a knife, during which he stabbed her directly in the center of her hand.
Asked why he thinks Naz chooses to conceal this part of the story, despite his asserted innocence, Ahmed defends his character’s motives. “I think there’s a combination of things going on here. I think there’s the shock of a situation like that, when some of your higher functions are a little bit numb,” he says. “But I think there’s also a justified mistrust of authority that comes from being a person of color from a working class background. And being a Muslim in New York post-9/11, which I think can mean that sometimes you would worry about what you told people.”
The initial reaction for many viewers has been to criticize Naz for making every mistake imaginable in both the run-up to and aftermath of the murder. But the actor pushes back on anyone who claims they would have handled things differently if they were in his shoes.
“In this kind of situation, who the hell knows how you’d respond? You can’t say how you would respond,” he says, defensively. “Maybe part of the pleasure and pain of watching a show like this is shouting at the TV screen telling someone what they should do.”
Naz’s racial and religious identity, which seems to exist just below the surface in the first few episodes, comes to the fore in a big way in later episodes. The Night Of was based on the British miniseries Criminal Justice, in which a white actor, Ben Whishaw, played a young man accused of a similar crime. The fact that Naz is a Muslim of Pakistani origins becomes increasingly relevant as his trial begins and both sides attempt, in different ways, to exploit the New York jury’s prejudices.
Ahmed, who once co-starred as a hapless suicide bomber in the British terrorism comedy Four Lions, says he sees things improving for actors of color like himself, despite what you may see from Oscar voters or hear from certain Republican presidential candidates.
“I think that it’s undeniable that the opportunities open to artists of color are fewer, that there is a glass ceiling,” he says. While he finds those barriers “frustrating,” Ahmed says he also sees them as an “opportunity” of sorts.
“It’s nice to feel like every time you make some headway into breaking down those obstacles, the repercussions are bigger than just you getting the role,” he says. “It’s about helping to break down some boundaries for the next generation of artists, but also about inspiring new kinds of empathy in audiences.”
Despite the fact that he is on trial for murder, Nasir Khan is undeniably empathetic. But that doesn’t mean Ahmed is ready to reveal what’s going through his character’s mind.
“I don’t want to talk too much about what’s going on in Naz’s head,” he maintains, “because I think what’s more important is what you think is going on in Naz’s head.”