The first time we see Amara Karan’s character in episode three of HBO’s The Night Of she is sitting at her desk in her New York law firm when her boss pulls her aside to ask a seemingly innocuous question.
“Where are you from?” Glenne Headly’s Alison Crowe asks.
“Baltimore,” Karan’s character Chandra Kapoor says, nervously.
“Your parents?” Alison clarifies.
“Mumbai,” Chandra says.
It is that short conversation that brings Chandra into the life of Nasir Khan, a young Pakistani-American man played by Riz Ahmed, who has been charged with the rape and murder of a white Upper West Side girl. Alison brings Chandra with her to the home of Naz’s parents as little more than a prop in an effort to convince them to hire her firm and fire John Turturro’s one-man operation John Stone.
“She literally walks to the floor of her office and sees someone who’s brown,” Karan tells The Daily Beast by phone from London, where she is currently working on a new season of the British television series Stan Lee’s Lucky Man. It is an indignity that Chandra will struggle to overcome for the rest of the miniseries, which aired its fourth episode this Sunday.
Born near Wimbledon to Sri Lankan parents, the 32-year-old British actress is best known to American audiences for playing the mysterious Indian woman on the train in 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited. “I really lucked out. That was my first role upon leaving drama school,” she says. “Are you kidding me? I’m in a Wes Anderson film.” But while she has been doing both Shakespeare and television in the U.K. for years, The Night Of marks her major American breakthrough role.
But so far, at least, HBO hasn’t even let her watch the whole series. The network is holding back the eighth and final episode of the show, not only from press but also from actors like Karan, who has only been able to view the show through episode seven. “When I get off the phone with you I’m going to demand to see episode eight,” she half-jokes at one point. “I’m dying to see it.”
Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
What do you think Chandra’s first impressions are of the murder case at the center of the show? And how do those change as she starts to learn more?
I think there are two things happening. On the one hand, she, like Glenne Headly’s character, is really interested, from a legal perspective, in this particular case. Because it is drugs, sex and rape. It’s the sexiest case. And it will also represent what is wrong with the criminal justice system. I think Chandra, as we go through, starts to realize how important this case is in terms of justice overall. In terms of looking at the criminal justice system and looking at how fair it is, how individuals like detectives can swing around the evidence to go against the person accused of murder. How juries can be very biased. And that it is a rigged system. And [the suspect] is a Pakistani guy, so racial profiling is going to come into it. She then realizes that this is a much bigger story. I also think that she empathizes a lot with the parents generally, in that this case is going to become a racially profiled case from a legal standpoint, but also for the community of Muslims in New York. I think Chandra is aware that there’s an opportunity to unify, to bring people together, to make people relate to this small community that feels very divorced and very isolated from everyone else.
But even if it turns out that her client, this character Naz, is guilty or even if it turns out that they lose the case, I think she appreciates that those people in the community need a voice, need a representative that is encapsulated in herself as a woman of color. It’s to represent an idea of what is brilliant about that community. Even just by her presence in the trial, she is representing on so many different levels. She becomes a poster girl, both for the Muslim community of people who feel isolated or alienated in Western culture, but also for the Western media and New Yorkers to not feel that everyone of Indian subcontinent background—that there’s a relatability to her.
And do you think that means she is able to relate to Naz in a way that others on the show can’t?
I think initially yes. Glenne’s character is very smart because she sees how Naz feels listened to by Chandra and his parents feel calmed by her. She very cleverly again uses Chandra at the critical moment when she needs Naz to accept the plea bargain deal. Obviously detrimentally, but she doesn’t realize that. That’s the kind of influence that Chandra has on these characters who are feeling very vulnerable, very scared, very confused. Chandra can make you feel like you’ve been listened to and she can make you feel like you’re a normal person. It’s a power of hers.
She definitely does that for Naz when she goes into his cell and tries to get him to take the deal. Chandra tells Naz not to take the deal unless he is guilty of the murder. And as we see, he decides to go to trial. How does that decision he makes change the way your character views him?
Well, that is a very interesting turning point. That is a really big twist. I think there are so many things happening in that moment, because I think she has known that she has a huge influence on him. I think she’s trying to win his trust. And what she’s doing is very devious against her boss. She goes in trying to persuade him to accept the deal and then she ends up saying, if you’re guilty, then take the deal, but if you’re not, then don’t. And then he doesn’t. So there’s an unspoken communication between them, which speaks volumes. Is he doing that to prove to her that he’s not guilty? Is he doing that to prove to the world that he’s not guilty? Is he guilty, but using that logic to show people around him that he is not guilty? There’s a lot that is happening in that moment, which makes it such a great scene.
I think that Chandra knows her power. She knows she can persuade Naz, she knows she can win his confidence. She knows he likes her. She knows his parents like her. So she can advise him from a personal point of view, not a lawyer point of view. You could even argue she’s a bit manipulative in that sense, because she knows that she has this power over him and we see her doing that, whether it’s for his good in the end or to help him in the end, she’s not just a prop or a puppet. We’ve also seen John Turturro’s character before that scene say to her, are you just going to be a prop for your boss? You know why your boss took you in, don’t you? She took you in because you fit a profile. Chandra might be like, yeah, he’s right. I’m not just going to be a prop. That woman just drags me into the case when she needs me and leaves me out when it doesn’t suit her. There’s a scene, which I love, which is Glenne’s character working on the case with other lawyers. And Chandra is looking in from the outside.
I loved that scene, too. And there’s no dialogue needed.
Yes! I’m just looking. And it’s a great moment, because she’s in one moment, she’s out the next. She is being treated like a prop and this won’t do.
And then ultimately Naz’s refusal to plead guilty causes Alison Crowe to quit the case, but you stay on as his primary attorney. Do you think that’s meant as a reward or a punishment from your boss?
Well, at that point in time, the evidence is so stacked against Naz, but it’s not that he’s definitely going to lose. My character is a junior lawyer, not an experienced one. And Alison is punishing [Naz] for taking this very high-risk strategy and saying, “If you want to plead not guilty, you see it through, but I won’t be the lawyer. We’ll give it to my junior counterpart, who’s the cheapest biller in the firm and we’ll see how you do and if you come crawling back.” I don’t think Alison’s even thinking about Chandra at that moment. I think she’s thinking about punishing Naz. But from Chandra’s point of view, I don’t think she ever expected that she would get the case. That is a surprise. And it’s a big ticket, like, OK, I get to do one of the most high-profile cases in New York and I get to be the lead defense attorney in the case. Christmas has come early. To build up your name as a defense attorney, you need big, high-profile cases. Obviously, this is a really tricky case for her now that she’s probably set to lose. But, you never know. With a bit of investigating, she might find a piece of evidence that gets him off. Either way, Chandra has very little to lose.
I want to ask you about working with Riz Ahmed, because you are both British actors playing Americans in this series. Did you know each other before?
We did! And it was amazing, we’ve known each other for a long time. We were at university together actually, so we knew each other in Oxford. We knew that we both always loved acting and then we’d both seen each other work and do well, so it was amazing that we finally crossed paths. And we crossed paths in such an awesome show. And getting to play opposite each other was so, so cool. It was so joyous that I was like, why hasn’t this happened before? Also we were talking to each other in American accents, which was quite bizarre. Riz kept his accent the whole time we were filming, so his was more consistent. I didn’t. I only did the accent when we did the scenes and then I dropped out of it. When I first got on set and he was talking to me in the makeup trailer, I was like, OK, this is a bit weird, but whatever you have to do man, I get it.
I know you can’t give anything away about the end of the show, but what was your reaction when you first read that last script and found out how it ends?
I read the whole thing in one go. I like binge-read the whole thing. I was like, are you joking? Is this really happening to me? This is one of the best things I have ever read and this will probably be one of the best shows made for television. It was so good. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it. And when I read it, it took me time to process it because it is written so well. Every single scene, you’re like, no way, no way! And so when you read the whole thing and it comes to its conclusion, you just want to cry at the end of it. It’s so overwhelming. Such a big story. And it comes full circle and you’re like, wow. It comes full circle. I can’t wait for you to see episode eight, because it just goes right ‘round. And there’s a bombshell after bombshell and it gets even more intense and even more wrapped up and goes even more crazy.