To hear an audio version of this interview, check out the latest minisode of The Shelf – DorkShelf.com’s new official podcast – right here.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story blasted into theatres this week (read our full review here and hear a spoiler-filled Star Wars deep dive episode of The Shelf here) with all of the fanfare and anticipation that any new Star Wars movie brings. Set just before the events of 1977’s Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, Rogue One follows a ragtag band of rebel agents tasked with retrieving the plans for the Empire’s dreaded super weapon: the Death Star.
One of those rebels, Bodhi Rook, is a new and somewhat unwitting recruit, a disillusioned Imperial cargo pilot swept up in a mission with galaxy changing stakes. Played by rising star Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, HBO’s The Night Of), Rook is a highlight of Rogue One, the kind of underdog character you can’t help but root for no matter the odds.
We had a chance to speak with Ahmed while he was in Toronto to promote Rogue One. We discussed his “space trucker” character, how he dealt with the spectacle on set, the diversity of the cast, and whether or not he took anything home from the set for his Dork Shelf!
On thinking he blew it before he got the Rogue One role:
RA: When Gareth [Edwards] first called me to say that he’d like me to audition for this role I was just totally geeking out – as you would! And then I started getting really obsessive. I taped myself like twelve times and kept emailing him new auditions every two hours for two days. Finally he emailed me a few days later and said “Please don’t send me any more auditions.” So I thought “Oh, okay I’ve screwed this up. [laughs] But yeah, it’s definitely something I jumped at the chance to do.
On his “Space Trucker” character Imperial defector Bodhi Rook:
Riz Ahmed: [Bodhi]’s someone who has been forced to make moral compromises just to survive, and that carries with it a kind of shame, self-loathing, and a desire to escape. So if you’re living on an occupied planet, a good way of escaping is flying long distances all over the galaxy. But at some point you realize you can’t keep running, that you have to face up to things, and then you start running equally hard in the opposite direction right towards the fire. He’s a character who has a lot of moral debts to settle, I think that’s how he feels about himself. And in that way I guess he’s quite similar to the other characters, even though he’s very different from them in terms of his military experience.
On Bodhi’s tipping point and motivations:
RA: There is something that is a tipping point, but I can’t really talk about that. Most of the time, the way we try to make things right by ourselves or feel better about ourselves, is by doing something that’s not just for our own benefit, something that helps other people. The word “Bodhi: means awakening as you know, so it’s about going through that kind of moral – and to some extent political – awakening where you kind of sit up and realize that you can’t have your head in the sand, you know?
On dealing with the spectacle as an actor and how he prepared for the role:
RA: I’d never experienced that kind of difficulty before doing a gigantic Star Wars movie. Coming from a background of independent films, I didn’t have a lot of exploding spaceships and thousands of stormtroopers running around in those movies… It’s a bit of a learning curve to be honest. [I started] kind of trying to close my eyes and think about my backstory and what I want, and then you realize that actually adrenaline and the wonder are quite natural responses to seeing hundreds of stormtroopers. That’s your first memory of watching anything on screen, so maybe that’s something you should ride with, maybe you can use that! So by the end of the movie I’d worked out what I should have been doing throughout the movie. That’s usually what happens on every movie. [laughs]
But just doing something that’s science fiction means that you can’t interview people to prepare for your character. That’s what I like to do. I meet up with people with my own little dictaphone that I have and interview people for hours. That throws up all kinds of interesting stuff and helps builds character stuff for me. You can’t interview Imperial pilots… They don’t want to talk to me! [laughs] So what you end up doing is trying to embrace the loudness, you embrace the spectacle, you ride the adrenaline wave that the six-year-old inside you saying “STORMTROOPERS!” is throwing up. In a way it becomes quite personal, you know? So you come at it from a totally different way but hopefully it ends up just as personal, even if the personal elements start from a position of fanboy rather than researcher.
On seeing his face on Star Wars posters all over the world:
RA: It’s still weird actually! It’s cool, man. Not to sound too pretentious or whatever, it doesn’t feel like me. It’s Rogue One, it’s something bigger than you. This isn’t a ticker tape parade for Riz saying he got to be in this movie. It’s an honour that I got to be part of this thing that’s so much bigger than me, that so many people are into. It’s more that kind of feeling. It’s not “Oh cool, that’s me!” it’s more like “Oh wow, I got to be a part of that thing,” you know? I guess I should apologize to everyone for all those car crashes that are going to be caused by those bus shelter ads.
On all the secrecy surrounding Rogue One:
RA: It’s kind of ninja and cool. It’s some real 007 stuff, you know? It’s exciting in a weird childish way sometimes, and sometimes it’s just really frustrating. Can someone just email me the script? No, you have to login to this website with a passcode and the script will self-destruct every week! It’s kind of insane, but it reminds you how excited people are about the film. The anticipation is a big part of its enjoyment. People are going to this much effort just making sure word doesn’t get out – you’d better bring something to the table that’s worth hiding, that’s worth fighting for. It was a new kind of experience. I’m still working it out, in case you can’t tell.
On the diversity of the Rogue One cast:
RA: I think it’s very natural. Film audiences are global these days, whether it’s streaming something at home or these big tentpole mega movies, the audiences are global so it only makes sense that you would cast it in a way that’s global, to try to get the best talent from around the world to work on it. Why limit yourself? And I think that’s actually getting more and more true not just in bigger movies, but in smaller movies and TV too. Our audiences are global, why would we limit ourselves in terms of how we tell our stories? It’s kind of a weird mental switch. Once you flick it on you go “Oh yeah, that’s so weird. Why have we been doing that?” Now it just feels kind of obvious and natural, doesn’t it?
On what separates the movie from previous Star Wars movies:
RA: Greig [Fraser], our DP, shot Zero Dark Thirty, the people behind the VFX did Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down. You’ve got a gritty, war movie aesthetic to this, which is different from other Star Wars movies. Couple with that the fact that you have all these characters, a lot of whom have quite murky pasts and bring a lot of baggage to the table, that kind of moral ambiguity immediately sets it apart. It feels more realistic and gritty, it’s more about the grey areas. The other movies have that as well, but Rogue One is really embracing that grown-up messiness a bit.
On why being a standalone film makes Rogue One more special:
RA: I hope it makes it even more special. It already has the potential to have a special place in people’s hearts because it brushes right up against A New Hope – what for many people is their favourite movie ever. I hope it has the potential to occupy a special place in the heart’s of its audience, and because it’s not going to start a whole waterfall of [imitators] hopefully that makes it just a little bit more rare and special.
On film’s place in the larger Star Wars saga:
Riz: In a way this is Episode 3.5! Chronologically it fits into the Star Wars saga, but as far as being focused on Luke Skywalker and that dynasty, that’s not what it is. So hopefully it’s the right mix of familiar and distinctive. It’s definitely a tightrope they’re walking in making something like that, but I think they’ve got the right team in trying to pull that off, particularly with someone like Gareth [Edwards] who’s such a fan. If it was someone who didn’t know anything about Star Wars movies and he was like “Yeah! Let’s mess with things a little bit!” you’d be a bit like “What? Hold on!” But because he knows it like frame-by-frame, you feel a lot more comfortable with a superfan do their own thing with it.
On working with his Una co-star Ben Mendelsohn (Director Krennic) on a very different movie:
RA: It’s a real joy to be around Ben. I don’t know if you’ve ever met him, but he’s a really loving, playful, magnetic personality. In many ways he’s almost like a big kid, which I think is a massive asset as an actor – to have that childlike enthusiasm, wonder, and playfulness in what he does. I hope I get to work with him again. He’s a really cool guy. Getting to hang out with him and work with him is inspiring. It’s nice when you see good guys do well.
On being able to play another Star Wars character:
RA: I would like to think I could do a mean Ewok. [laughs] I think casting-wise that’s my casting bracket. Ewoks were bad ass man, I don’t care what anyone says. I vibed with them heavily.
On whether or not he took something home from the set for his Dork Shelf:
RA: I can’t talk about that one while we’re recording. [laughs] Of course, I would have loved to have stolen all kinds of stuff. That’s really what I was doing most days on set. I was like “Oh, I’m just wandering off to go get into character,” I was really just trying to find a spot where no one was looking to pocket some props! [laughs] But I think they knew what we were up to because they tried to buy us off with loads of cool gifts. “Here you go, here’s a special edition little thing to show that you were part of the film!” to make sure we didn’t steal much stuff. They’re like frisking us on the way out everyday!