TIFF 2016 Interview | Riz Ahmed on ‘City of Tiny Lights’ and Action Figures

British actor and rapper Riz Ahmed is having what you might call a very good year. In addition to starring in the hit, acclaimed HBO series The Night Of, he’s starring in the neo-noir City of Tiny Lights, which premieres this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. And to top it all off he’s also co-starring in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which seems destined to become one of the hugest movies of the year.

It’s an impressive streak that Riz Ahmed has been building to for years, with eye-catching performances in films like Nightcrawler and Four Lions, so I was thrilled to get him on the phone to talk about his bit TIFF premiere, and why the story of contemporary London detective Tommy Akhtar – who investigates a missing prostitute, and finds himself at the heart of a mystery that connects to his personal life – was so important to him to bring to life on camera.


Crave: Congratulations on having a really incredible year. You’ve got a hit HBO series, you’ve got City of Tiny Lights debuting at TIFF, you’ve got Star Wars coming up. Has it hit you yet that you’re kind of having amazing experience?

Riz Ahmed: You know, it feels really great to have lots of work out there that people have all seen and are responding to and coming up. Usually in the past I feel like I’ve been lucky to be part of films that have found a following, but often sometime after they have been released, almost like an indie cult hit in the U.K., like Shifty or Four Lions or Ill Manors. These are the films that don’t have a huge opening but have kind of gradually, through streaming or through DVD, found an audience. That’s a kind of gentler accumulation of attention. So it’s kind of interesting and new to me, kind of, getting work out and having everyone responding to it at once. It’s nice. It’s different, I guess.

What are you excited about people experiencing with City of Tiny Lights in particular? What was the appeal of this particular project to you, as an actor?

I feel like we have a mutual fascination across the Atlantic, Americans with Britain and the British with America, and I feel like sometimes we present maybe simplistic versions of ourselves to the other, maybe to make it more digestible and easy to understand. I think the U.K. is maybe particularly guilty of that, of kind of packaging ourselves to the world as period dramas and people running around in country estates with bonnets. That’s not what the U.K. is anymore and that’s not where our most exciting stories lie. Our most exciting stories are happening right now and they’re ahead of us. They’re not behind us. I really wanted to be part of a project that speaks to that.

It is a contemporary British film, set in contemporary Britain, and I think it was that from a big picture point of view, and more specifically the character is one I feel like I can relate to. It’s so familiar to me, and yet one that you don’t necessarily see very much, again, in film. That kind of wry, British, jaded, cynical dude who spends a lot of time down at the pub and kind of looks at the world a little bit sideways. I feel he’s a very kind of London character, and one that perhaps you don’t get to see very much. I just really connected with that character, and the specificity of how he works.

It’s interesting because in a lot of detective stories fades into the background, and we explore the individuals the detective is investigating. This film is far more about Tommy and his history, and how he’s trying to get over his baggage. Does that make him a more compelling character to play, as a detective?

I just thought that it was really interesting to see what personal stake Tommy has in solving the case. To me it just kind of makes it… you know, sometimes I feel like films can be about the furniture rather than about the people in the room, and this film to me is very much about the people in the room. It doesn’t just set the stage: London, the character, or the multicultural nature of the cast, or the nature of the crime, to violent crime. It’s really about how that affects the people and really investigate themselves and not just the case, and then see how open they are to kind of forming new relationships and new bonds, and trusting new people in order to, yeah, move the case forward but also to kind of heal themselves. So to me that felt really interesting, kind of like a neo-noir that isn’t afraid of being quite sensitive.

Is the process of investigating other people in any way akin to the way you operate an actor, as you’re trying to suss out a script and where the characters you play are coming from? Does that factor into it at all?

That’s really interesting you should say that. Yeah, actually I do, I do kind of go interview people and as I’m interviewing them I often tape record them actually. And in doing that I kind of feel like I just capture nuance of intonation or an accent that serves me quite well, as just a way to access their vibe almost, on set or in my trailer or in the car in the morning. So I do kind of interview people and record them. That’s actually part of it. Of course you put together a timeline, a backstory, which is similar to detective work. So it’s funny you should say that because actually when I give talks at school I do actually call it “doing your detective work” on the script, which is about drawing those dots, making sense of clues that are in the text. 

Did you get to interview any contemporary private detectives? I feel like as an audience, or ideas of what that job is are still informed by movies from the 1940s.

Yeah, you know it’s interesting, so much of what contemporary detectives’ work involves now is actually technically and electronic, and what’s interesting about Tommy is that he’s someone who… you get a sense that he’s not really living in the times. He’s in a bit of a funk. He lives with his parents. He says he’s going to take care of his father but you also get the sense that maybe it financially takes the edge off, you know?

So he’s someone has actually kind of not kept up with the times, to his detriment, but where his strength lies is in his ability and willingness to just get his hands dirty, out of a sense of… on one the hand that’s where his strengths lie, but also you get the sense that it’s a kind of recklessness. There’s a kind of melancholic self-destruction about this character. He chain smokes and keeps drinking whiskey. Hiding behind a computer to him somehow doesn’t feel like it satisfies that bite he needs to take at life.

I know you can’t really talk about Star Wars, so I’m not going to ask. But what I am going to ask is, you’re going to have an action figure of you at some point in the near future. What’s that like?

Well I’m looking at him right now. I just got given it, just the day before yesterday, and yeah, he’s not bad! He’s like me but I think he’s slightly better looking than me. They kind of made a few tweaks so yeah! [Laughs.] I can’t fault them for making improvements.

Thirteen Must-See Films at TIFF 2016:

Top Photo: Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images for Walt Disney Studios

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most CravedRapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.