Riz Ahmed’s profile has been steadily increasing in Hollywood, but amazingly enough, Rogue One is his first major studio motion picture (you might have seen him in Jason Bourne over the summer, another big studio outing, but that was shot after Rogue One). Ahmed plays Bodhi Rook, a rather neurotic Imperial cargo pilot who is given an incredibly dangerous mission by scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen): deliver a message to Erso’s daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones) with critical information about the Empire’s new superweapon, the Death Star.
Rook knows that his life as he knew it is all but over by betraying the Empire, but he does it anyway. Bodhi is the latest in a series of complicated characters that Ahmed has portrayed in films like Four Lions, Nightcrawler and others, but he was perhaps best known until this week for his chilling performance in HBO’s The Night Of, as he transformed from a mild, soft-spoken — though not entirely innocent — college student into a hardened convict and killer.
But for now, you’re going to watch him do his part to save the galaxy from the likes of Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. Den of Geek spoke with this immensely talented actor about joining the Star Wars universe at the recent film press day in San Francisco.
Den of Geek: When you first got word of this, what was your response, what was your reaction?
Riz Ahmed: My response was, “What!” no, disbelief, shock, glee, and then utter panic. It’s a roller coaster getting that phone call, because it’s something that is tied up in so many childhood emotions and feelings. It kind of brings out the kid in you, it has that little childlike emotional intensity.
What was your first Star Wars film that you saw, in the theater?
The first movie that I saw, oh, in a theater, it was Episode I. Because I was a kid when the other ones came out, and so I saw them on VHS with my brother many years after they had come out, it’s like late 80s, early 90s even. I got to say, I know a lot of people don’t like the prequels, I really enjoyed them man, I really enjoyed them. I loved how they were kind of like quite political, and I enjoyed that.
It’s interesting that you say that, there’s a generational thing with those films. People who first saw the prequels in the theater I think, they really love the prequels.
Yeah, it’s timeless, I love that.
What can you tell me about Bodhi?
Bodhi’s an Imperial cargo pilot, he works with the Empire because it’s the only job in town. He lives on an occupied planet, how else are you going to earn a living? Go collaborate with occupying forces, become a cargo pilot. It was interesting, I started researching real world examples of that. People in World War II living under Nazi occupation in France, Israeli Arabs, people in Kashmir, whatever. These are things that exist in the real world, so that was kind of interesting. Translators for the American Army, Afghan nationals for example. It’s a complicated thing to do to earn a living, to risk being marked out as a traitor. To live with a certain level of guilt. I think he’s a character who feels he has a lot of debts to settle. He wants to makes things right.
He goes almost 180 degrees from working with the Empire to being part of the Rebellion.
I think there’s a real quite dramatic evolution that takes place for all these characters. I think that’s something that’s exciting. You see these characters kind of evolve before our eyes, it’s what we enjoy when we see characters like Rey and Finn in The Force Awakens. I think the difference here is, these characters are evolving from within shades of gray. This is a quite gritty, edgy rendition of the Star Wars world. No one’s coming to the table with a clean slate.
You mentioned how you found the prequels to be pretty political. Does this have a political component to it as well?
I think it’s interesting, because the central message of this film is one of like teamwork and belief. I think that’s a poignant message for kids and adults to take home from the theater. The idea that people of all different backgrounds can all come together to take on big challenges that they couldn’t face alone is relevant for us. Because the biggest challenge we face as species, a planet, are challenges we can only face together. At a time when there’s a lot of “us and them,” and people are retreating into tribalism, in times of economic and political uncertainty, it’s important that we’re reminded that we need each other. There is no us and them, it’s just us, we’re all in this mess together.
Is this your first big effects-driven picture?
My first studio movie. My second studio movie, which I shot while I was shooting this, was Jason Bourne. Kathy (Kennedy, head of Lucasfilm) was kind enough to give me a couple weeks off to go and work for her husband (producer Frank Marshall) on Bourne.
How does dealing with a lot of effects, stuff you may or may not see on the set, affect your acting process?
It’s interesting because there weren’t a lot of effects. There were obviously some, but they built stuff, as far as possible really. So it was tangible. It was stuff you could interact with. There were alien creatures walking past you. It had a kind of immersive feel, because I think they wanted the movie to feel like that. Have a bit of dirt under the fingernails, boots on the ground kind of feeling.
Gareth (Edwards, director)’s idea was to kind of rediscover that esthetic from the earlier films. These worlds, these costumes, these props, these sets were so lovingly rendered by people really at the top of their field in film, with a sizable budget, who all grew up loving Star Wars. They all went above and beyond. Pick up a random prop, and you realize it had alien writing on it, and all kinds of touch screens, and buttons and things, I mean this isn’t even going to be on camera. People just do it because they love this. At that point you steal the prop, take it home, and upload it onto eBay (laughs).
Who breaks character first on set?
Whoever’s doing the scene with Alan Tudyk. The guy’s hilarious, and he kept throwing in random lines, makes you crack up. There’s actually a couple moments in the film where people are almost cracking a smile. So much of his improvised stuff is in the film. A really wonderful actor.
Have you had a chance to meet George Lucas?
I met him briefly at a reception with the Queen, a few years ago now, back in 2013 or something. Yeah, hardly spoke a word to him. I like to think it was that brief meeting that led to this moment.
There has been some discussion about the diversity of the cast in the film. There’s been a lot of talk about women, and African-Americans, but I’m starting to think about persons of Pakistani descent, about Muslims, because unfortunately they’ve got a target on their back right now thanks to the recent election results here. Do you feel it’s important for someone like yourself to push back on that through positive film roles?
If any work I do can inspire people, raise their aspirations, or make them feel like they can relate to a new kind of person that they haven’t met before, that’s a great thing. Ultimately, I think it’s great, what we’re trying to do is push the boundaries of our collective empathy outwards as a society. As I said, until there’s no us and them, in people’s minds, it’s just us. If culture is a space for us to be able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, we should have as many kinds of different shoes in the shop as possible for people to try on, see if they can walk a mile in them, and go home feeling like can relate to some people.
In that sense, I think it’s really important that we have all different kinds of people up there on screen. All different kinds of stories up there in screen and in films. More than it being important, I think it just makes sense, I thinks it’s just fun. It keeps things fresh if you’ve got different kinds of stories being told. I think it just makes sense in this global age that stories reflect their audiences. These days, you tell a story, there’s a global audience. I get fan mail from like Jakarta to like, Lagos. You tell a story today, you tell it to the world, so when you’re casting a project, why not cast a net as wide as the world. Yeah, I think it’s important to stretch our empathy in a divided time. I also think it just keeps things fresh and just makes sense.
Rogue One comes out Friday (December 16).