He is also why Darth Vader's helmet might be missing.
The Night Of has not been an easy show to watch, and it's all star Riz Ahmed's fault. This is a good thing.
The HBO miniseries began eight weeks ago with Nasir Khan—a Pakistani-American college student with a promising future—making a long, painful series of poor decisions leading up to and following his sudden awakening from a MDMA-and-tequila fueled bender to the stabbed and mutilated body of his one-night-stand Andrea Cornish. It ended this week, with the conclusion of Khan's trial, which over the course of eight episodes functioned as The Night Of's bleak summation of the state of the American criminal justice system.
As Khan, Ahmed is the human face inside a cruel machine that is often not as interested in justice as it is in closing cases—or shelving them indefinitely while suspects waste away in incarceration. It's weighty stuff, but Ahmed has made a career of exploring heavy subject matter. The 33-year-old British actor has tackled politically charged issues from the very start, first as a rapper under the name MC Riz—whose very first song, "Post 9/11 Blues," was banned from the airwaves by the British government—and then via roles in independent British cinema like the terrorism satire Four Lions, or the 2006 docudrama The Road To Guantanamo.
It was that last film that gave Ahmed his first brush with work that critiqued the criminal justice system—albeit in its most extreme form. When it comes to The Night Of's portrayal of the complex, brutal machinery of cops and courts and jail, Ahmed feels the story he helped tell was both true and necessary.
"I think it's very realistic to be honest, because you've got people like Kalief Browder, who's story came out while we were shooting. Kalief Browder was accused of stealing a backpack with very, very little evidence linking him to the crime, and actually ended up spending three years in Riker's awaiting trial," Ahmed says. "Innocent young kid, in there with people who are awaiting trial for murder. And he ends up completely scarred from the experience."
Browder's story came to Ahmed's attention in the summer of 2015 when he was shooting The Night Of because there was a new development in Browder's story: Two years after he was released from Riker's Island after enduring three years of incarceration while awaiting trial, Kalief Browder committed suicide.
"You can be at the wrong place, the wrong time, and—particularly if you come from certain segments of society," says Ahmed. "You can expect to find yourself caught up in the uncompromising cruel wheels of the machine. "
In its finale, The Night Of is meticulous in the depiction of that machine. Khan is ultimately set free, but not acquitted—a hung jury resets the entire trial back to square one, and ultimately the prosecution decides to drop its case—partly because another more likely suspect has come up, unbeknownst to just about everyone. He's free, but just by virtue of being put through the system, he's become anathema to his community.
"He's scarred, he's been in a war, he's like an army veteran returning home," says Ahmed. "He's got PTSD, he's got a substance dependency—and also he hasn't been cleared of the crime. So within the community, he has not been found Not Guilty, he hasn't been acquitted of the crime. So he's going to have that hanging over him for the rest of his life."
"If a white person shoots up a school, we don't go demonizing the entire white community."
And in one of The Night Of's rawest twists, Khan's trial doesn't just end when he's released. The post-9/11 prejudices of the public once again bubble to the surface as Khan's trial brings his entire local Muslim community under scrutiny.
"The whole community does get demonized," says Ahmed. "It's messed up, obviously, because if a white person shoots up a school, we don't go demonizing the entire white community the way we would a Muslim person who tries to kill people with guns. There's no reason to demonize that whole community. But that's a reflection of our lives in our society, in our media, in our justice system. Hopefully the show is a timely opportunity to make these characters visible, and relatable, and human. "
Now that The Night Of has concluded, Ahmed's next role is that of Bodhi Rook in the upcoming Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It's the second Hollywood blockbuster of his career, following his turn as Silicon Valley tech magnate Aaron Kalloor in Jason Bourne—and it's a homecoming of sorts.
"It's kind of funny being on set after being in British indie film for a long time. Now that a lot of big-budget film shooting goes to the UK, it's interesting to see a lot of the same people I've kinda come up with doing low-budget indie films working on these big studio pictures," Ahmed says. He went to college with Rogue One co-star Felicity Jones and just finished shooting another indie film, Una, with another Rogue One co-star, Ben Mendelsohn. "But they've been doing it for ages. You know, to me they're kind of like 'what took you so long!'" he says, laughing. "Like, 'welcome to the party!'"
Indeed, there are few parties in Hollywood as big as Star Wars, and while he can't say much about Rogue One's plot, he can tell us a bit about Bodhi Rook's place in it.
"I can say that he's an Imperial cargo pilot, and he's from the same planet as Chirrut [played by Donnie Yen]. It's a planet that gets occupied by the Empire—and that presents some conflict as to which side he should be on," says Ahmed. Beyond that, the actor isn't able to divulge much about the highly anticipated spinoff other than effusive praise for its cast and crew, and whether or not he was able to try on Darth Vader's helmet.
"I did not, unfortunately. But I did try and steal it."