“It’s like a caterpillar going into a cocoon of Rikers, and what comes out isn’t a butterfly, it’s a wolf,” says Riz Ahmed about the story of his character in the HBO miniseries “The Night Of” (watch our video chat above). He plays Nasir Khan, a New Yorker whose life is upended after he’s accused of murder and thrown into Rikers Island jail to await trial. But the entire project spent years in a cocoon of its own before finally premiering in July 2016.
“I’ve never been part of a project that takes place across four and a half years,” Ahmed explains. “It was a big part of my life, and the person I was when I shot the pilot was totally different from the person I was when we finished shooting, kind of like Naz’s journey in a way … For it to then go on and be so well received is kind of insane because all the associations we had with this project were about struggle.”
When Ahmed was first cast in “The Night Of” it was spearheaded by James Gandolfini, who was producing the project and playing the role of defense lawyer John Stone. But Gandolfini died after the pilot was shot. “It was a big blow to everyone,” Ahmed remembers, “not just those of us involved in the project, but everyone who knows how amazingly gifted and talented he was.”
After Gandolfini’s death the role was recast with Robert De Niro, but then he stepped away and the project was in jeopardy again until John Turturro stepped in to to play John Stone. “So it was definitely a roller coaster even getting to that point,” says Ahmed.
But “The Night Of” seems to have been worth the wait, scoring rave reviews and ratings that increased with each passing episode. And it came during an especially good year for Ahmed, who will next be seen in a markedly different project: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” which opens December 16.
“You’d think that television and a big movie are really different, and in some senses they are because the content of the stories are very different … But these days TV series can feel like movies,” Ahmed says. “Obviously they’re just really different characters … Naz is someone forced to be very still … and these chemical rumblings of transformation are happening under the surface, whereas Bodhi Rook is on the run, flying spaceships … so that has a kind of kinetic energy, and he’s a frenetic character.”
Of course Ahmed can’t say much more than that about “Star Wars.” The production was shrouded in such secrecy that even reading the script to learn his lines became a complex process of log-ins and security. “It kind of makes you realize that this matters to people. The anticipation and element of surprise and wonder matter to people,” says Ahmed about the responsibility of being a part of the “Star Wars” universe, “but having said that it can also just be a real pain in the ass.”
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