“In his 2015 video “I Ain’t Being Racist But …” British rapper Riz MC (a.k.a. Riz Ahmed) wears a ski mask while spouting rhetoric that would make Boris Johnson and Donald Trump blush: “Let’s face it, this fucking country is going down the shitter/Immigrants nick our jobs and impregnate our sisters.” He eventually removes his mask and reveals himself to be of Pakistani heritage.
As an actor, the 33-year-old Ahmed has tackled race and religion in films like The Reluctant Fundamentalist and The Road to Guantanamo. Now he’s starring in Steven Zaillian and Richard Price’s eight-part HBO drama, The Night Of, as a Pakistani-American student accused of murdering a young white woman. “What’s interesting about this show is it’s not preoccupied with race or religion,” Ahmed says. “It’s just a reflection of a society dealing with cultural dissonance.”
Previously best known for his supporting role in 2014’s Nightcrawler, Ahmed will follow up The Night Of with high-profile turns in the Matt Damon sequel Jason Bourne and Star Wars: Rogue One. But he still hopes to maintain his anonymity. “I look pretty different in all three projects,” he says. Ahmed spoke with Vulture about The Night Of’s long road to the screen and his transition from indie films to blockbusters.
You shot The Night Of pilot four years ago. How did you originally get cast?
It all happened very randomly and quickly. I knew almost nothing about it. I got sent the script. I didn’t know who’d written it — that page was missing. I actually thought, This writer’s got a great future ahead. When I realized who wrote it, I felt kind of dumb. It just fell into my lap really late in the day. It’s kind of cool sometimes if you don’t overthink things. The less time you have, the less chance you have to fuck it up…”