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On Thursday evening, the team behind Amazon’s Encounter gathered at the Directors Guild of America Theater in West Hollywood for the film’s premiere. The story follows Malik Khan (played by Riz Ahmed), a decorated Marine Corps veteran on a rescue mission to save his two young sons from a mysterious threat of alien parasites.
Malik was originally imagined as what director Michael Pearce called the “default white anti-hero” type. But upon meeting Ahmed, the director knew that the Sound of Metal actor was perfect for the character.
“He wasn’t our initial first choice,” Pearce told The Hollywood Reporter. “It was only when I spoke to Riz about the project that I just looked at the script again and I thought, why can’t we diversify the choices of the people that we’re looking for for this part?”
He continued: “I’ve been a fan of [Riz’s] for such a long time, it just became so exciting the idea of him in this role. He’s got that steel, laser focus and fortitude and grit and determination that I could really imagine him incredibly playing a Marine. And I hadn’t seen him play that before. He’s also got this warmth and humanity in all of his characters, so I thought that father-son dynamic would be very deeply felt on-screen.”
After the core family was cast, Ahmed and Janina Gavankar — who plays Malik’s wife Piya Khan — came together to rename the characters of their two sons Jay and Bobby, played by Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada, respectively.
“Riz is an old friend, mostly because the Indian-Pakistani-South Asian diaspora, we’re a very tight-knit community and we’re very supportive of each other,” Gavankar said. “Riz and I have been looking for something to do together for a while. So when I signed on to this, I called him and I was like, ‘do you want to name our kids together?’”renaming her own character in the process.
And while Pearce didn’t always have Ahmed in mind for the leading role, the director said that he wrote Octavia Spencer’s part specifically for the Oscar-winning actress.
“I had actually written the part for her, which is dangerous because you very rarely get the actor that you’re thinking of,” Pearce remembered. “I wrote her a letter and I told her this, and she got back within the week and said she wanted to do the movie. I think the movie gods were looking on me kindly with regard to the casting of this film.”
“I never pick roles, honestly, I pick projects as a whole,” Spencer said of her interest in the film. “Riz’s involvement was a huge plus, and then I read the script, and I thought Michael did an amazing job genre-bending. It’s a psychological thriller with some sci-fi elements and it’s hugely dramatic, but at the center is a family that’s troubled, and who doesn’t want to be a part of [a project] like that?”
On top of this starring role, earlier this year Ahmed’s production company Left Handed Films struck a first-look deal at Amazon to produce TV content; the actor also recently produced the animated documentary Flee, the story of an Afghan refugee confronted with a secret from his past. Having premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, Flee has since garnered awards buzz in the coming season, after securing the Grand Jury Prize in Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary category earlier this year.
As for Encounter, Ahmed spoke to the film’s many relevant themes that will resonate with audiences, especially amid the ongoing pandemic.
“Family is the most important thing, isn’t it? For many of us,” Ahmed said of the film’s focus. “Whether or not you have family, or you have your chosen family, that group of people that you cling to when times are uncertain. I think a lot of people can relate to that during a pandemic. I think for a lot of people, [the pandemic] made them reassess what really matters to them — holding those dear ones closer to you. So, this is a film that has a lot of resonant themes for our current moment. It’s about that fear of infection, fear of the other and trying to hold your loved ones close in that uncertainty.”
Encounter is now in theaters and starts streaming on Amazon Dec. 10.
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