A bookish, 22-year-old Pakistani-American named Nasir Khan from working-class Queens steals his father’s cab to go joyriding in Manhattan and hit up a party. While en route to meet his friend, he unwittingly picks up a mysterious female passenger and ends up at her place. They drink. They snort drugs. They have sex. When Khan wakes up, he finds the woman has been brutally murdered and is arrested for the crime. But what actually happened?
After only two episodes, HBO’s new crime drama The Night Of has garnered the type of buzz most Prestige-TV shows would kill for. Written by novelist Richard Price (a veteran of The Wire’s writing room) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), the show takes its time untangling the intricacies of the case, dissecting the murder from all points of view including Khan, his morally questionable lawyer (John Turturro in a role originally conceived for James Gandolfini) and the seen-it-all lead detective eyeing retirement (Bill Camp in a star-making role). The suspect’s actions after discovering the body — running away with the murder weapon, asking police if the woman is dead — are a master class in how to look guilty, though as the series unfolds, it raises more questions than answers.
Riz Ahmed has already earned acclaim playing controversial characters in the terrorist-themed black comedy Four Lions and Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo. But with roles in this show and upcoming blockbusters Jason Bourne and Rogue One — not to mention a legitimate career in hip-hop as Riz MC — the British-born 33-year-old is poised for a breakout year stateside. Ahmed breaks down the role of Nasir, dissects the show’s political and cultural bend and (spoiler) lets you down easy on your misguided theory on who did it.
Nasir goes through a dramatic change as the series progresses. How much of that was in the script versus what you wanted to bring to the character?
The script has been the guiding light for everyone here and it’s been about us trying to service that script. But something that’s interesting about Richard and his writing, similar to the way the show was shot, is that it’s all about dark spaces. It leaves a lot of blanks in there. So there’ll be quite dramatic changes happening to a character and it will be a very sparsely written scene that leaves some space for you to bring what you want to it.
Why are those blank spaces important for the show?
The more I filmed it, the more I realize it was about embracing that sense of leaving negative space for people to project things onto characters and into the scene. It’s not feeling the need to fill in all the blanks and I think that draws people in a little bit more if you just let things sit. Sometimes the most interesting thing you can do is not go out of your way to fill things in.
” If you are a person of color, everything you do is seen as political. You could shoot me ordering a sandwich and that becomes a political statement depending on how you do it.”
Part of the show’s tension comes from its minor, mundane moments, like a cop banging on a vending machine or clipped, seemingly inconsequential conversations between officers.
Yeah, absolutely. Steve told me, “Listen, I want to focus on the scene between the scenes. I want to shoot the scenes that you never normally see.” That’s what makes it feel authentic. Richard Price is a stickler for that kind of micro, human-level detail. That’s what makes the whole thing feel more convincing and draws you into a world where there’s quirks and nuances.
What’s the most striking example of that for Naz?
He starts out as any typical American dreamer: y’know, the second-generation immigrant. The world sees him as a caterpillar, but he wants to be a butterfly and he’s stuck in the strictures and limitations imposed on him because of his working class background, his race and his parents’ expectations of him.
He’s also beholden to the illusion of his significance. I think we all kind of suffer from that; that’s part of the hopefulness and the naivety of youth. You’re enamored with the illusion of your own significance and I think what liberates Naz and gets him to a place of control is an acceptance of his total insignificance — the realization that he’s just another cog in the machine.
It’s self-actualization through ego destruction.
Right. What allows him to take the leap is the desire to empower himself; the empowerment that comes from embracing oblivion and flirting with your own destruction. We talk about the destruction of the ego in positive ways that have undertones of salvation. But actually, destroying your ego can be a really painful, dark process as well. Shedding the self is like making peace with a lack of control. The way you gain control in life is by discarding the illusion of control. When you realize that you don’t have the control, that’s when you’re empowered by your circumstance.
Is the same true for you as an actor?
I think so, yeah. Sometimes we try and go, “You know what? What am I going to do with this role?” You’re imposing your ego onto something, whereas if you just take your cues from your environment and the circumstances around you, that is when the narrative empowers you.
You seem to gravitate to very provocative, outspoken roles in films like Four Lions and The Road to Guantanamo. How conscious were you of the show’s political and cultural bend when first taking on the role?
I think that’s just a reflection of the moment that we’re having in society right now. If this show had come out in 2012 or 2013, maybe we wouldn’t read into it as much. I think it’s the mark of great writing that it’s authentic and detailed and complex enough that it carries hints and traits and scenes of all kinds of things that resonate in our society today, and will continue to 5, 10, 20 years down the line.
I don’t think Richard set out to write a “race” piece or piece about the prison-industrial complex or the mis-allocation of justice to people of color. He wants to tell a compelling story and tell it authentically. The reason they made my character Pakistani and I’m playing this role isn’t because they thought, “Ooh, you know what? Islamophobia’s hot right now.” They just went, “OK. The dude’s a cab driver. Oh shit: Cab drivers in New York generally aren’t white; It’s more likely they’re Pakistani.” Just by following the breadcrumbs and trails of authenticity, they’ve ended up creating something that reflects our society and allows us to project our preoccupations onto it. I came at it from a more artistic point of view.
But it’s impossible to ignore the fact that a Pakistani-American Muslim is at the center of a murder of a white woman in New York.
Right, and it’s not ignored in the show. What I’m just saying is, what drew me to it as an actor isn’t like, “Oh, yeah. Let’s talk about Islamophobia in America in the context of the criminal justice system, which is itself something that’s racially loaded.” What drew me to this was: complex character, cool script. You look at the body of my work and go, “Hmm. Well, how come so much of this shit feels political?” I’ll say two things: This stuff lands on your doorstep. It’s not on you. They seek you out.
Two: If you are a person of color, everything you do is seen as political just by not conforming to the mainstream mold. You could shoot me going into a shop and ordering a sandwich and that becomes a political statement depending on how you do it.
There’s already a lot of online speculation about how the series will end. Do you read any of that or purposely stay away from it?
I haven’t seen it. I end up seeing stuff accidentally because as an independent musician, I tweet out links and post Facebook links to my music. And sometimes I spot online chatter like that. But I think it’s great that people are talking about it. I just want to say that [pauses] they’re all wrong.
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