There’s no doubt that 2016 was Riz Ahmed’s breakout year. The 34-year-old actor recently earned a Golden Globe nomination for his role on HBO’s The Night Of and starred alongside Matt Damon in this summer’s Jason Bourne. Ahmed also raps as Riz MC, and can be heard on the new Hamilton Mixtape. But on Dec. 16, he’ll appear in his biggest project to date: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
During a recent interview with TIME, Ahmed revealed how he snagged the role of pilot Bodhi Rook after director Gareth Edwards compared him to an infamous character from Apocalypse Now.
TIME: How did you come to be cast in the film?
Ahmed: Gareth Edwards comes from a background of British independent movies, which is where I’ve done the majority of my work up to this point. He reached out and said, “There’s this role. It’s not fully developed.” He made some interesting references to Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now, and he asked me to go on tape.
He made the mistake of giving me his email address because I just spammed him about 10-15 different versions of this thing—doing this obsessive thing that I do. And he emailed me back at one point like, “Hey Riz, you don’t need to keep emailing me your audition. You’re good. We’ll get back to you.” And I was like, “Oh, man, I screwed it up.” But I got the part.
In an essay published in The Guardian you wrote about three stages of typecasting for ethnic minorities in film: Stage one is the two-dimensional stereotype—the cab driver or terrorist—stage two challenges those stereotypes, stage three a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to race. What stage is Bodhi?
I’ve mostly evaded typecasting as an actor. The characters I’ve played have all been very, very different characters. I made a decision not to play characters that were reinforcing stereotypes with two-dimensional portrayals. I hope the work that I’ve done forces the culture to stretch a bit. And my agenda here isn’t some kind of niche, specialist cause. It’s really the same agenda that I hope every actor, writer, director, painter and musician has, which is to contribute in some small way to stretching our collective empathy as a society.
I think that films like Star Wars are great at letting so many different people put themselves in someone else’s shoes, and there are so many different pairs to try on—Daisy Ridley’s shoes or John Boyega’s or mine or Donnie Yen’s or Felicity Jones’ or Diego Luna’s.
The cast is very international. What was it like on set having so many people from so many different countries?
There was a lot of Google Translate going on—no, no. I’m kidding. I love languages, actually, so I just took it as an opportunity to learn random catchphrases. I can swear in lots of different languages now—that’s the upshot.