Riz Ahmed is easy to like—and easy to worry about. With his wide, soulful eyes, disarming smile, and thin frame, the British actor projects a kind of gentleness bordering on vulnerability. Fans have fretted over his naive video-journalist assistant in Nightcrawler and his distraught accused killer on HBO's The Night Of. In Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (out Dec. 16), he costars as Bodhi Rook, a former Imperial pilot trying to prove he's a good guy by helping the Rebellion steal the original Death Star blueprints. "I was probably acting from an early age without realizing it," Ahmed says. "I was a child of Pakistani immigrants, working-class background, and I had gotten a scholarship to go to a kind of white, middle-class private school. I'd be skipping class and not turning up to play rugby and stuff—because I hated it—to go hang out with my homies on the streets. This chameleonism, it became second nature to me."
Ahmed, 34, was born a few months before Return of the Jedi came out, and as with most kids, the Star Wars films poured rocket fuel all over his imagination. "I remember watching the first films with my big brother, and seeing these crazy images of Ewoks and AT-ATs and Jabba the Hutt and Chewbacca and Darth Vader," he says. "We started acting out our own sci-fi movies at home. We'd run around the house acting out these space battles, going 'tush!...tush!...tush!' for the explosions." His mother, who spoke Urdu, didn't call their game Star Wars—she called it Tush-Tush. "She didn't quite understand what the hell I was doing," he says. "Now you get it, Mom! Here's what I was doing."
After graduating from Oxford with a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics and studying Shakespeare for a year at the Central School of Speech and Drama, Ahmed got his first role in Michael Winterbottom's 2006 docudrama The Road to Guantánamo. He also costarred in 2010's Four Lions, a pitch-black satire about bumbling terrorists, but he says he tried to steer away from too many of those parts. "I came into the industry at a time where there were a lot of post-9/11 stories being told," he says. "But I made a decision that I don't want to play characters that I feel are stereotypical or that feed into an us-versus-them worldview."
Rapping under the name Riz MC, Ahmed just finished touring to promote the album Cashmere with his band, Swet Shop Boys. "The record is about otherness and identity," he says. One song, "T5," addresses global travel in an age of racial profiling. "During a politicized time that people are taking very personally, [the album] is an interesting combination for sure."