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[This interview contains spoilers for the finale of HBO’s The Night Of.]
If you didn’t already know Riz Ahmed from Nightcrawler and Four Lions, the British actor is having a breakout 2016 with Jason Bourne and upcoming roles in film-festival entries Una and City of Tiny Lights, plus a little film called Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Also, Ahmed, as Riz MC, and Heems, have an album coming out as Swet Shop Boys.
But for the past eight weeks, Ahmed was seen on HBO on Sundays as the star of The Night Of, a critically acclaimed drama about a college student accused of and imprisoned for murder. Ahmed’s Nasir Khan was the subject of weeks of “Did he or didn’t he?” speculation that was resolved in Sunday’s finale.
Or was it?
Naz was released after a jury was unable to reach a verdict, but the series left much ambiguity when it came to who actually did it, never conclusively spelling out the killer or Naz’s innocence.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Ahmed about the openness of the ending, how he charted Naz’s transformation from seemingly gentle student to hardened prisoner and whether he wants to follow the character for another season.
Since I never thought of the show as a whodunnit, I liked all the ways the finale was ambiguous, or at least as conclusive as you want it to be. When you were getting to that final script, what were you personally anticipating regarding answers and how did you feel about the ambiguity?
I found it really satisfying in the sense that I think a lot of murder cases are resolved in a way that is not clean cut. I agree with you that it wasn’t really a whodunnit. It was really character driven, and it’s more about the journey that the characters go on rather than solving for “x.” I actually found it to be resolved in a very classy and bittersweet way that was still dramatically satisfying.
Do you feel like we’ve closed the door on whether or not Naz at least theoretically could have done it?
It’s interesting, because we all bring certain preconceptions to the start of the story, whether you see Naz as, like, “the Muslim who can’t be trusted” or whether you see him as “the doe-eyed college boy who couldn’t hurt a fly.” I think we all come to the table with certain preconceptions, and I think as the show goes on, those preconceptions change and impressions of characters get lodged in our head. This guy suddenly becomes a hardened criminal and an accessory to murder in prison, a drug addict, also someone who’s completely alone, someone who’s cut off by their family. It’s just interesting which impressions get lodged in people’s heads and I think really informs how you see the conclusion. If you’ve got certain impressions lodged more firmly in your head than others, then I think you might watch the conclusion and say, “I’m sorry, but I still think he might have done it” or you might watch it and go, “No. OK, finally. I knew all along that he’s innocent.”
I think that’s satisfying in a way, because it says more about what has made an impression on you and what stayed with you.
Given that Naz presumably was less than conscious even if he did commit the crime, was it ever important for you to know for sure from Steve [Zaillian] and Richard [Price]?
Steve and Richard, particularly Steve is someone who really likes to let the writing speak for itself. He’s not someone to come and sit down and tell you everything the scene represents. In my mind, it’s quite conclusive about who did it. I just find it interesting that for many people it isn’t. Regardless of who killed Andrea or not, you see that Naz becomes an accessory to murder in prison by the end of [the season]. Certainly he leaves with blood on his hands, one way or another.
From your perspective, how much do you think prison changed Naz, and how much do you think it brought out stuff that was already in him?
I think it’s a combination of the two. Certain experiences can feel completely new to you and that does change you, but I think ultimately we all have it in us to be anyone. I have to believe that, because that’s what acting is premised on, that if you were to have a slightly different backstory or go through slightly different experiences, you’d be a different person and that you can be. I think that in that sense, it’s quite a meta experience for me as an actor, seeing a character going through that kind of immersive transformation of personality that you might try and trigger yourself as an actor, so it was quite interesting managing both, you going on that journey as an actor and the character going on that transformation.
Along those lines, for your own purposes, how carefully did you have to arc out different beats of his prison transformation so that even if it felt rushed, you could track it?
It was actually quite a lot of meticulous planning. I remember that I had these massive, wall-sized charts and just started drawing out charts and tables and graphs. Naz is someone who is not the most vocal character at times, so finding little moments that you can show his defiance or edge coming to the forefront … the kind of sweep that takes you on that transformation from a kinda lost, domesticated dog to a wolf who could possibly head up his own wolfpack by the end, that was quite tricky. Of course, the writing is masterful and does some of that work for you, but I think there’s also an opportunity and an invitation in any great script to find something. For example, in episode five, when I’d just swallowed the slug and getting rid of them, putting them into the bucket, finding that moment where Petey looks over at me, a really small moment and it wasn’t scripted for me to go, “Well what the f— are you looking at?” Just to show that, “OK, I may be the lieutenant to Freddy’s generalship, but I’m still above you, Petey.” I just wanted to add that moment, where I’m asserting myself into this wolfpack and “F— you” and just seeing that willingness to climb the ranks and [to say], “I’m part of this. I want to be a ranking soldier.”
Given the state of isolation and addiction in which we left Naz at the end of the finale, does that feel like where his arc was designed to go or do you want a second season, personally, for following Naz further?
I think it was conceived of as a one-season one-off, and perhaps there’s a second season they might do a different case like they did in the British version of the show. I think sometimes it’s said, “Better to quit while you’re ahead.”
You have Una and City of Tiny Lights doing film festivals this fall and then Rogue One. Are you just in non-stop promotional mode for the entire fall?
Yeah, it’s weird, actually. I’ve got a Swet Shop Boys album coming out in October. I’m going to be touring for that in November, so maybe that’ll be the most creative thing I’m doing outside of the promotion, touring and rolling out the album. I’m also doing rewrites for the TV series I’m directing for the BBC. I just turned in my draft.
What did you think of The Night Of conclusion? Sound off in the comments below.
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