Rapid Round: Riz Ahmed Talks Post-Snowden 'Jason Bourne,' Keeping 'Rogue One' Secrets

Riz Ahmed - Getty - H 2016
Getty Images

Riz Ahmed - Getty - H 2016

The British star — currently appearing as the lead in HBO's acclaimed 'The Night Of' and starring in two of the biggest films of the year — admits a "ton of bricks" have dropped for him.

Riz Ahmed compares the current, burgeoning state of his career to the London buses. “It’s like that old saying,” he laughs, “you wait ages for one and then three come at once."

In his case, the three metaphorical buses in question aren’t just any old buses either. Not only does the rising British star have a major role in Paul Greengrass’ Jason Bourne, playing a Zuckerberg-like tech guru trying to untangle himself from a shady arrangement with the CIA, but he’s also the lead as a student accused of murder in Steven Zaillian’s crime series The Night Of, earning rave reviews on HBO. And in December comes a film that'll put his face on everything from Christmas wrapping paper to toothbrushes to children's duvet sets — the Star Wars spin-off Rogue One, in which he plays rebel pilot Bodhi Rook.

While Ahmed, 33, may have come onto Hollywood’s radar as Jake Gyllenhaal’s ambulance-chasing video assistant in 2014’s Nightcrawler (for which he’d be nominated for both a Gotham and Independent Spirit award), he was already an emerging face in the U.K. as both an actor and MC.

In 2010, he broke into the British mainstream as the straight-talking leader of a shambolic group of wannabe terrorists in Four Lions, the critically-acclaimed and increasingly-poignant “jihad satire” from legendary British comic Chris Morris. A year later he released Microscope, his first studio album (under the moniker Riz MC) and has continued to juggle his skills on the mic and in front of the camera (as well as a trip behind for the short Daytime, which he wrote and directed). Amid his already hectic 2016 schedule, Ahmed has managed to find time to release a politically-charged mixtape, Englistan, and has an album out later this year as part of the Swet Shop Boys (get it?) rap outfit.

Ahead of Jason Bourne's U.S. release, Ahmed spoke with THR about taking the spy-thriller franchise in a new post-Snowden direction and how Brexit has affected the underpass over the road from his London house. There's a little bit about Star Wars too.

So how are the Rogue One reshoots coming on?

Yeah, they were great. But we’re all finished up on them now.

There’s been a lot of talk about them in the press. What’s been your take on this?

There’s been so much speculation, but it’s just because people care so much about Star Wars. Reshoots are par for the course on any film. For me, I kind of love it because, as an actor, you always feel that there was a way you could have done it differently. Being able to go back and do some stuff again is always a blessing in my eyes.

Did it take much convincing to join Jason Bourne?

Haha, nah man, what do you think? It took me by surprise and I jumped at the chance. Paul [Greengrass] is such a unique filmmaker. He’s managed to make films that reach a really wide audience, because they’re thrilling and entertaining, really action-packed. But they’re also really intelligent. Big but intelligent movies are really the holy grail.

Did you watch the previous Bournes?

Yeah, absolutely. And I remember the first time thinking ‘I’ve never seen an action film like this.’ It transformed the genre. I think there wasn’t really much like it and obviously since then it’s been something people have tried to emulate it.

Where do you lie on the Bourne v. Bond debate?

Ha! I don’t! I haven’t had a chance to work on the Bond films yet. If they ask me, I’ll let you know. I suppose that’ll be the thing that’ll decide it.

Your character in Bourne, tech entrepreneur Aaron, helps push the franchise into post-Snowden territories. Is this something you found?

It’s certainly not a cynical revival of the series – it’s definitely driven by the fact that there are new things to say around this new world of spycraft and surveillance. In a way, it’s been much closer to us all. It’s around privacy and the spread of amateur terrorism. It’s brought the world of surveillance closer to us.

Given Jason BourneThe Night Of and, of course, Rogue One, are you seeing this as your breakout year?

It’s been really funny how things have worked out timing wise. It really wasn’t planned. There are no promises, no guarantees in this business. You just kind of lay one brick at a time and see if you get handed another one to lay on top of it. But yeah, I guess a ton of bricks dropped down at once! And also with the music – I’ve got an album coming out in a couple of months and my Englistan mixtape came out a while ago. 

Englistan, which discusses issues of racism and identity in the U.K., came out just weeks before the Brexit vote. Have you noticed a change in atmosphere since then?

Right outside my house there’s a little underpass. And everyday someone is writing on there in marker pen, EDL [the acronym for far-right anti-immigration group the English Defense League]. The almost hilarious thing is that every other day, someone else is coming along and painting over it. So this whole underpass is now a weird patchwork quilt of blotches of white and grey paint and someone writing EDL on each new spot. And in a way it’s a kind of a really ridiculous and terrifying metaphor for what’s happening right now, this really kind of weird tit-for-tat vandalism, fucking up our political landscape. That’s where I took the cover shot for the Englistan album cover, stood in that tunnel.

Are you seeing a similar thing happening in the U.S.?

I think it’s something that’s really sad and dangerous, seeing it on both sides of the Atlantic. Because we’re living in a time of real economic uncertainty and rising inequalities, you see a lot of people trying to capitalize on that. That old thing of divide and rule, turn us against each other for your own political gains. We saw that with Brexit, we’re seeing that with Trump. Certainly, you notice that the whole political landscape is changing and people are being fed a lot of propaganda that just doesn’t stand up to the evidence. Immigrants generally end up contributing a lot more to a society than they cost.

You’re still living in London, but have there been any calls for you to relocate to L.A.?

No. It’s interesting now. You don’t have to be in a certain city to audition for things. And with a lot of the tax breaks in the U.K., there’s not necessarily a reason to be out there. Apart from the weather.

What’s the one project you’ve turned down that you regret?

I actually turned down Four Lions. Luckily Chris [Morris] was clever enough to see how stupid that was and undo that for me.

What’s the worst piece of career advice you’ve received?

You should do everything. Yeah, I remember one agent saying you should just do everything that comes along when you’re starting out. In a way, it’s not immediately as stupid as it sounds. It is wise to put yourself out there but I think there’s something empowering about knowing what you want to do and trying to stick to it a little bit.

Do you enjoy seeing yourself on the big screen?

Nah! I really just see my shortcomings really and my failings. It’s something I’m trying to get better at, but I think it’s really quite common.

What’s your favorite thing about Hollywood?

There’s a lot to love; the climate and also the massive concentration of really intelligent, creative and talented people. I find all of that really inspiring, the can-do attitude. Sometimes in the U.K. people look at things differently. The cliché is if you come up with an idea, here they say, “why, why bother?” whereas in America they go, “why not?” I think it means a lot of new talent comes through, whereas in the U.K. it can be a bit slower. Certainly I’ve seen a lot more opportunities in the U.S. than the U.K. over the past six years – almost all my work has come from the U.S. and I think that’s something a lot of people have seen, especially actors of color.

And your least favorite thing about Hollywood?

I guess the thing I miss about London or Europe when I’m over there is that you don’t share a lot of public spaces with people, you don’t feel like you’re part of a society. You can feel a bit cut off from the life around you if you’re always driving around, isolated in your own car, your own bubble. As an artist there’s something to be gained from feeling like you’re living cheek by jowl to people who are nothing like you, and the idea of feeling like one society. That’s something that kills me a little bit when I’m out there.

Back to Star Wars, you recently attended the huge Star Wars Celebration in London. Was this your first exposure to the immense fandom of the Star Wars world?

Yeah, and it was incredible. It was such an amazing feeling. Usually when you’re in a film you ‘re in some kind of cave or shoebox somewhere filming and then years later it comes out and sure, you might have a premiere or cast-and-crew screening, but that’s it. It’s an amazing gift to be able to connect to the fans throughout the process of making the film. It’s almost like that feedback loop of energy that you get from theatre or doing a live show. I just really hope they like it.

Has it been difficult to keep the film a secret?

I think the anticipation is part of the fun and I don’t want to ruin that for anyone. It’s probably difficult for them, not difficult for us! It’s like being an evil genius, muhahahaha! It’s probably harder for the people around me who want to know.

Are you prepared for seeing people dressing up as you in the next Star Wars Celebration?

Hahahaha! You get a bit of that anyway with stunt doubles.