Posted on Tuesday, December 6th, 2016 by Jacob Hall
Riz Ahmed has been having one hell of a 2016. Before audiences see him as Imperial pilot turned Rebel sympathizer Bodhi Rook in the upcoming Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, he played a key role in Jason Bourne earlier this summer and headlined HBO’s critically lauded miniseries The Night Of. Toss in major roles in modern gems like Four Lions and Nightcrawler and you’re left with one of the most interesting (and multi-faceted) young actors working today.
I was able to speak with Ahmed shortly after watching 28 minute of footage from Rogue One and we chatted about using fanboy feelings as on-set fuel, the importance of diversity in modern stories, and what it’s like to play an ordinary person in the Star Wars universe. Oh, and we wasted valuable Star Wars time chatting about Nightcrawler.
I feel like we’ve been slowly watching you climb up the Hollywood ladder. An independent film like Four Lions, a well-liked movie modest hit like Nightcrawler, and eventually, a Star Wars movie. Was that a trajectory you were aiming for?
I don’t think you can plan to be in something like this. It always happens by accident. What happened is, [director] Gareth Edwards comes from a British indie movie background as well, so he knows my work from that circuit and I know Monsters and stuff like that, his work before Godzilla. He contacted me and said, “Look, come and audition for this role, I’m doing this Star Wars standalone movie.” I didn’t even know they were doing standalone movies. It wasn’t something I was tracking and following or knew existed. The role was very different from what it is now. It was a lot smaller. Different name, different guy, different relationship to the others. Once I came on board and we started working, it evolved a lot by the end of the shoot into what it is now.
But yeah, he knew my work from those indie movies and that’s why he asked me to audition. And I started spamming him with auditions. I went totally overboard. I sent him fourteen different takes in three days. He emailed me and said, “Please stop emailing me.” And I thought, okay, I’ve screwed this up. Then a month later he calls and says, “You’ve got the role. Stop emailing me auditions!” [Laughs]
Can you talk more about how the character changed? I know you can’t go into detail because they’d probably shoot both of us–
But how did the character evolve once you were cast? Can you talk about what you brought to the role?
I like to think that you always bring something to the role and make if your own. I think it was kind of their sense of wanting to…you can’t impose something on a film. Sometimes, a film tells you what it is. I think sometimes when you start working on something, that’s when it starts becoming clearer to the filmmakers and producers that this is what it is. What’s cool about a film of this size is that you actually have the time and the resources to modify things as they evolve and tweak them as they go. Which isn’t a sign of anything other than how much people care. It takes guts to unpick sticking that isn’t perfect, rather than just embroider over it, which is what people usually do. They did that. They’d regularly go “No, no no. Because of that, let’s unpick that and redo what we did last week, but this time that’s the relationship.” It was interesting in a way, it was an organic process of evolution throughout the shoot.
One thing that’s very clear is that Rogue One is a movie made by people who grew up really loving Star Wars and have been handed the keys to the kingdom. Was there a moment where it became suddenly very clear that you were in a Star Wars movie?
I think the first day. First day, turn up, and it’s on an airfield outside London and multiple cranes are lifting and carrying giant palm trees and embedding them into the Buckinghamshire soil, where they have created a real-life desert island. That’s nuts. The scale of that is mind-blowing. You turn up on set and there are hundreds of Stormtroopers standing around. That’s…you pinch yourself, and you do start fanning out. For a while, I fought that. I was like, “Come on now, you’re Bodhi Rook, you’re this guy, you’re not a fanboy.” And then I realized that, actually, if being around Stormtroopers and U-Wings and stuff elicits a kind of childlike emotion in you, ride it. Use that. It was only by the end of the shoot that I worked out what the hell I should have been doing…as usual.