Riz Ahmed on ‘Rogue One,’ Its Unique Place in the ‘Star Wars’ Universe, and Defending the Prequels
For a lot of the creators of Rogue One, making a Star Wars movie was the culmination of a lifelong dream. Riz Ahmed, who plays cargo pilot Bodhi Rook in the film, told me his Star Wars roots go deep, but he wouldn’t put himself in the category of a “super fan.” When I asked him to name the wildest super fan he’s met so far in his travels, he told me a story about a recent trip from Toronto to San Francisco.
“The guy asked me what I was doing there,” Ahmed told me. “And I was just like, ‘Yeah I’m here for work.’ He asked, ‘What do you do?’ I said, ‘I’m an actor.’”
‘What are you doing here?’
‘I’m here promoting a film.’
‘Star Wars: Rogue One.’
“‘He just stopped, looked up, and said ‘One moment please.’ And he calls up [mimes taking out of a phone, starts talking in American accent], ‘Yeah, honey I’m with the Rogue One guy. What do you want me to tell him? Okay. Anything else? That’s it?’ He goes, ‘My wife wanted me to tell you she’s got a pizza cutter at home and it’s a lightsaber and when you cut the pizza it makes a noise.’”
“I was like, ‘That’s what she wanted to tell me? Cool, tell her I said hello.’ He goes, ‘You can tell her yourself. She’s three lanes down at immigration.’”
Ahmed called it the most “surreal” Star Wars moment of his life, but that’s probably just the beginning of what’s in store for the 34-year-old British actor, who’s riding a hot streak with Rogue One and the acclaimed HBO mini-series The Night Of, which just netted him his first Golden Globe nomination earlier this week. In the midst of a very busy month (Ahmed, who also performs as Riz MC between acting gigs, is also a featured artist on the new Hamilton Mixtape), Ahmed sat down with me at Disney’s New York offices to discuss what he sees as Rogue One’s place in the Star Wars universe, how he prepares to portray a job that doesn’t actually exist, and why the prequels are better than people think.
When you first heard about this movie, what did you do? How did you get involved?
I didn’t know it existed. I was in bed [after] filming The Night Of, woke up, and they said that morning the new Force Awakens trailer is out. I started watching it, trying to hold back the tears. The music, man. It just gets you. It could be stick figures dancing around and it works.
My agent calls and says, “Do you know who Gareth Edwards is?” I knew his work; I hadn’t seen Godzilla but I knew Monsters. It won a British Independent Film Award one year, and I attended, and he was at the next table. Everyone was like, “Who is this guy? He has a background in VFX, he’s written, directed, produced, shot and done the VFX on this sci-fi monster movie and it’s amazing?” I was like, “Wow, I want to see it.”
So I knew him, and my agent says “He’s doing the new Star Wars film.” I said, “Well I just watched the trailer for it.” She said, “No, there’s a standalone thing.” I didn’t know about it before that. [Gareth] called me up and told me a little bit about the story, the character — who ended up completely changing and being a very different character in the end. He has a different name and everything. And he said, “I’d love you to audition for it.” So, I went overboard and started slamming him with stuff. He gave me his email address so I sent him like 15 takes over 3-4 days. On the fifth day he emailed me back and said “Please stop emailing me.”
So when you were first contacted, the character was so different than the guy in the final film that he had a different name?
I don’t want to talk about that too much before the film’s out because I don’t want it to color people’s perceptions, but the character was really a different character. It wasn’t like that character doesn’t still exist, it was just ... that character evolved dramatically.
What was the motivation to change him?
What was the motivation? I don’t know. I guess they started embracing the feel of this as a Dirty Dozen thing, about a gang or group and so changes that establish that dynamic more, I think, are ones that were made. They shot [Rogue One] in quite an organic way. They’re not chopping and changing in a haphazard kind of way. It’s more like, “You know what? That thing really worked, so when we come back to that thread, let’s rework it and we should redo some of that.” So they were kind of unpacking as they were stitching, it’s quite brave. If you’re gonna have big budgets, the best thing to use it for is time to get the story right, rather than just more explosions.
You play a space pilot. That is not a job that actually exists. As an actor, how do you prepare to play that?
Funny you say that, because I very much like to interview people before taking a role, with a dictaphone, just like what you’re doing right now. So I was a bit stumped. Then I realized there is a way in.
Bodhi Rook is a character who lives on an occupied planet, and he’s forced to collaborate with or work for the occupying forces to earn a living. There’s a lot of real world examples of that: Europe in World War II, the Middle East today. A friend of mine is making a documentary about Afghan translators working for the American army and the risks that they face for those choices, just trying to survive. There’s some of that, which is helpful.
Then I think the second thing that was helpful — more than helpful — they really build a world around you. There really isn’t very much green screen; not nearly as much as you’d think. The fact that you really have U-wings, alien creatures, and droids walking around means that yes, preparation in your head, backstory, that is part of it. But part of it is kind of surrendering to the world that they have really built around you; letting that in and letting the gravitational force of all of those different things slip you into your own orbit. The gravity of those things is immense. It was interesting in that sense that I can be a homework geek. I love that side of my job, researching different lives, and meeting different people. This was slightly different.
There are already so many Star Wars movies. When we look back, what do you hope this movie represents or adds to that gigantic thing that is Star Wars?
My hope is that people look back on this film and say “This is a Star Wars film that broke the mold.”
In what way?
In terms of the way it’s shot, in terms of its feel; it has an edge to it, certainly, a grittiness to it that makes it resemble a war movie in quite a rough and ready way.
This franchise has not always had the best record with prequels —
People say that, but I did not have a massive problem with the prequels at all. There were some elements that stood out. Jar Jar Binks, I didn’t enjoy him as a character. But people had a problem with them because they weren’t broad and tough and cheek. I enjoy that. I enjoy the fact that it was about grown-up politics and the dissolution of the League of Nations and World War and the rise of fascism. I really enjoyed that and I really enjoyed Clone Wars. I really don’t see what the big problem is, to be quite honest.
So you think it’s time for people to take another look at the prequels?
If all Star Wars movies were the same, it’d be boring. I hope each new movie adds a new dimension, and I think that’s certainly what Rogue One does.
I’m going to put you on the spot: Which is better, Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back?
You can’t do that.
Yes I can. I did just did it.
[pause] Listen... [sigh]
[laughs] It can’t be answered?
You can’t have one without the other. But I prefer The Empire Strikes Back because it’s a little bit darker, I guess, in the same way I feel proud of this film. It’s got quite an edge to it, yeah. That’s what I’ll say.
That wasn’t so bad!
Nah, but I’ve met Star Wars fans and I’m gonna meet more of them.
Oh I see. You’re held accountable about those opinions.
Yeah, there can be reprisals.
The next time you’re walking through the airport, that couple might bring this up.
Yeah and they might bring the pizza cutter with them.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opens in theaters on Friday.