TWO NODS

Los Angeles Times - - THE ENVELOPE - By Emily Zem­ler cal­en­dar@la­times.com

Riz Ahmed on dis­parate roles.

Riz Ahmed isn’t quite sure how to process his dual Emmy nods. The Bri­tish ac­tor, who has just headed to the south of Spain to shoot Jac­ques Au­di­ard’s up­com­ing western “The Sis­ters Brothers,” fum­bles when asked his re­ac­tion to be­ing nom­i­nated for both “The Night Of ” and “Girls.” “It was a mas­sive sur­prise, to be hon­est,” Ahmed says. “It feels pretty crazy. As you can tell by my in­co­her­ent re­sponse, it was very sur­pris­ing.” He adds, “I feel ex­cited and happy and geeked out and posted it on so­cial me­dia, but I also feel a lit­tle bit sheep­ish feel­ing too proud about it and cel­e­brat­ing it too much. Maybe it’s a Bri­tish thing, but there’s so much amaz­ing work out there, so you just feel lucky to be part of some­thing that peo­ple saw. The only real com­pe­ti­tion in act­ing is with your­self, ul­ti­mately.”

The roles for which Ahmed is nom­i­nated couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent. On HBO’s eight-episode lim­ited se­ries “The Night Of,” Ahmed em­bod­ied Nasir Khan, a Pak­istani Amer­i­can stu­dent who be­comes caught in the New York crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem af­ter be­ing ac­cused of killing a woman he just met. The lim­ited se­ries, which is also nom­i­nated, is deeply in­tense, re­veal­ing the com­plex­ity of hu­man be­hav­ior. On the other side, Ahmed is up for guest ac­tor in a com­edy for the fi­nal sea­son of “Girls,” in which he played a hi­lar­i­ously dippy surf in­struc­tor. There’s al­most no cor­re­la­tion be­tween the roles ex­cept that Ahmed found an es­sen­tial chal­lenge in each.

“I’m in­ter­ested in nov­elty and ad­ven­ture in my work — and in all as­pects of my life — so set­ting my­self new chal­lenges and find­ing roles where I feel un­cer­tain about how to ap­proach it or whether I can do it ex­cites me,” the ac­tor ex­plains. “Some­times that in­volves do­ing a di­verse range of very dif­fer­ent roles, and some­times it in­volves go­ing deeper into a cer­tain archetype you may have played be­fore. If I feel like I’m not fail­ing and ques­tion­ing whether I can do some­thing, then I can’t grow.”

Dur­ing the eight-month shoot for “The Night Of,” Ahmed felt chal­lenged in ways

he never had imag­ined, emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally. He spent hours in­ter­view­ing peo­ple who had ac­tu­ally been through the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem and felt a real re­spon­si­bil­ity to tell their sto­ries. He was forced to take on an ac­cel­er­ated work­out regime so Nasir would bulk up dur­ing the lat­ter half of the sea­son.

“It was one of the most in­tense, gru­el­ing shoots I’ve ever done,” Ahmed says. “We shot in or­der, so it was a mat­ter of, in a very par­tic­u­lar way, build­ing up my strength and fit­ness. I spent two or three hours in the gym be­fore and af­ter work, and we were shoot­ing quite long days. The phys­i­cal changes had to hap­pen in real time. [And] we all felt a big emo­tional re­spon­si­bil­ity. It be­came a big­ger con­ver­sa­tion about the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem and the over-in­car­cer­a­tion of peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly peo­ple of color. It seemed like we were on the cusp of ad­dress­ing a lot of is­sues that snow­balled in the pub­lic con­scious­ness.”

The ef­fort trans­lated on­screen and cap­tured the at­ten­tion of view­ers and crit­ics when the show first aired last July. It earned three Golden Globe nom­i­na­tions, in­clud­ing one for Ahmed, and the ac­tor is still see­ing the show’s im­pact. Lena Dun­ham cast him as Paul-Louie on “Girls” af­ter watch­ing “The Night Of,” bring­ing Ahmed in to film his two episodes as the very last thing be­fore the se­ries wrapped for good. Ahmed feels that by cast­ing him as surf in­struc­tor Paul-Louie, Dun­ham made an im­por­tant move.

“Gen­er­ally when peo­ple go, ‘OK, a surf in­struc­tor’ they might not think of some­one who looks like me,” he says. “There’s no real rea­son for that other than peo­ple end up im­i­tat­ing what’s come be­fore and aren’t will­ing to break the mold. But Lena has done that, time and time again. I think she doesn’t al­ways get enough credit for that.”

Sim­i­larly, Ahmed sees “The Night Of” as push­ing art for­ward. He doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily feel that cre­ator Steven Zail­lian was in­tend­ing a spe­cific mes­sage with the story, but he knows that there are rip­ple ef­fects from a nar­ra­tive of that mag­ni­tude.

“When you tell sto­ries that aren’t of­ten told or sto­ries in a fresh way from a fresh per­spec­tive, peo­ple go, ‘Oh, wow, you’re mak­ing a state­ment!’ ” Ahmed says. “But it’s just the kind of story you’re not used to see­ing. And if see­ing that story does make you think about some­thing, then that’s great. That’s the role of art, to ques­tion and show us new per­spec­tives.”

‘It was one of the most in­tense, gru­el­ing shoots I’ve ever done.’ — Riz Ahmed, on work­ing on ‘The Night Of ’

Glenn Koenig Los An­ge­les Times

“GIRLS” and “The Night Of ” show Riz Ahmed’s range.

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