Interview: 'Rogue One' Star Riz Ahmed On Playing An Average Guy In The 'Star Wars' Universe

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 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' 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 usual.

rogue one riz ahmedThis is probably something you've been asked a lot about recently, but I wanted to talk to you about your wonderful article, "Typecast as a Terrorist."

Funny enough, that's not what the title of it is. It's "Airports and Auditions," but The Guardian changed the title just for fun.

That title is more appropriate for the tone of the piece.


And it focuses on the problems facing actors of Muslim heritage in Hollywood–

Or anyone who isn't just a white guy. You know, women of all colors, people of different shapes and sizes.

Bodhi Rook doesn't seem like he was written to be played by an actor of a specific ethnicity. You were able to bring your face, your background, to a character that wasn't specifically created to be a certain type.

It just makes sense to me, in this day and age, that when you tell a just seems obvious to me that you're telling it to the world. People have stories at their fingertips, whether it's through online streaming at home or going to multiplexes, from Lagos to Jakarta to Beijing to San Francisco. You're telling your stories to the world. It's the global age we live in. So it seems only right and natural to me that the stories we tell are as diverse as the global audience. In a way, it just feels kind of right and kind of natural. And you're right, it's something that has not been done as much as it should have been up until now. But once it's done, it just feels obvious. It just feels like it's so weird we haven't been telling our global stories in a way that reflects the audiences we're telling them to.

The first six Star Wars movies starred almost entirely white men. This is refreshing.

I always thought that it was kind of funny that in Game of Thrones and stuff people can give birth to dragons, but me and you couldn't be related. It's weird. [Laughs]

That's the world we live in right now. A racially diverse cast led by a woman feels political by default.

It's interesting you say that, because ultimately the thinking behind it was just to cast the talent that they think are best for these roles from around the world. But it has somehow become resonant because of the times we are living in, where the biggest challenges we face are only ones that we can all face together. As a planet, spaceship earth has to kind of come together, right? To face these challenges. It does become resonant. I don't think it was intended as a soapboxing exercise. I think it's just when you tell a story well and tell it in a fresh way, I like to think it becomes resonant.

Rogue One is very much a team movie where all of these disparate people come together to form a group. It definitely has shades of movies like Seven Samurai and The Dirty Dozen, where everyone brings a unique skill set to the team. How does Bodhi fit into that dynamic?

Yeah, it's interesting. I think we're all kind of weird hybrids. None of us are like clear types or caricatures. It's kind of cool. They just all bring their kind of unique backstory and unique history and goals and anxieties to this mission. The one thing that unites them all is that they all have a murky past, they all have things that they want to put right and want to redeem themselves or rectify wrongs that are quite personal to them, that touched them in quite a personal way. In that sense, they're all quite similar. If I had to describe Bodhi, I think I'd struggle to describe him as an archetype, but I would say he is...he is not used to this shit. He is not used to running around intergalactic heist warfare situations. He's a cargo pilot, so he's an everyman, I guess you could say. An average Joe.

Other Star Wars movies are these grand hero's journey. Rogue One seems to focus on the fringes, one the very edge of those stories.

Yeah, a lot of the Skywalker saga is about people who are born into greatness because of their hereditary lineage one way or another. It's kind of cool to be like, "What if you aren't related to the Skywalker clan?" What if you're just an average Joe? What is it like to live in the Star Wars galaxy? I think that's an interesting proposition.

And the main Star Wars movies have always had this clear line between good and evil. I don't know how much you can talk about, but because Rogue One focuses on ordinary people, it dabbles in more shades of gray.

I think people are ready for it, now that we've set up the magnetic north of this world morally, I think it's interesting to see what happens just off-center. They've done such a great job of establishing just what Star Wars is that we can now kind of play around with it. I think, I hope, that people will be really excited by that. I am. I feel like, if you're a Star Wars fan, there will be enough that's familiar with this and it respects the heritage that you're safe. But if you don't care about Star Wars at all, you can go see a pretty cool intergalactic war movie. I think that was the approach. It's a good entry point for people into the Star Wars universe. You don't have to have seen any of the other movies.

Okay, I'm being told that I have time for one question and I hope you don't mind if waste valuable Star Wars interview time talking about Nightcrawler.

Cool! Shoot, man.

It's just gotten more and more prescient. The way it depicts the collapse of journalism is terrifying. Star Wars is the kind of thing we watch to escape from the horrifying world Nightcrawler presents.

You know, a lot of the problems we're having in the world today about a divided political landscape and divisive rhetoric is about the death of journalism, which is deeply underfunded and under-resourced profession, as you know. What happens in that kind of context, the rise of citizen journalism, is the death of fact-checking and often a kind of race to the bottom. Throw up that clickbait. As we can see, the repercussions are very real for our culture. What I'd like to say about Nightcrawler is that I'm proud of it as a movie and I think it's lessons are very real for us.


Rogue One: A Star Wars Story arrives in theaters December 16.