RIZ Ahmed has got the shiftiest, dartiest eyes in Hollywood. OK, technically I can’t prove that. What I can say is that almost everything that is great about Ahmed’s performance in Nightcrawler, and it is great, is captured in his eyes. They flicker and blink, now and then they gleam, but most of the time they look utterly, blindingly terrified.
Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut is a pitch black satire, an excoriating exploration of news culture, the seedy underbelly of big cities, management-speak; if we are willing to get grandiose about it, his target is capitalism itself. It is a brilliantly compelling movie.
The buzz around it has largely focused on Jake Gyllenhaal’s drastically slimmed down appearance to play the film’s anti-hero, Louis Bloom. (Come to think about it, that’s about the eyes too, his are bug-like, both searching and predatory in their gaze.) Gyllenhaal is superb, but a large part of that is the other actors around him, Rene Russo as a hard-bitten hack struggling to stay ahead of the game, Bill Paxton as a cocky freelance cameraman and, of course, Ahmed as Rick, Lou’s sidekick, protégé and, ultimately, his victim.
Ahmed was, he says, catapulted “down a rabbit hole of wanting to know who this guy really was”. He spent weeks during the preparation time for the film meeting homeless people (Rick is sofa surfing but has lived on the streets) around skid row in Hollywood. He spent lots of time at shelters and got to understand “the system”. “What comes up again and again when you speak to these people is abandonment issues. A lot of them have been abandoned. It means the relationships they do form can be very intense and often abusive. Rick ends up addicted to Lou in a way. It’s like drugs, they’re not good for you but they are something to latch on to. Lou is like that for Rick. It’s an abusive relationship.”
A lot of people wanted to play Rick. A lot of people not really including Ahmed. He was in Los Angeles for a friend’s wedding rather than looking for a part. But he had just signed with an American agent and they suggested he meet Gilroy. “I hadn’t had a chance to read the script, I didn’t know anything about him. I just met up with him for a general chat.” If Ahmed did harbour any hopes of being cast, Gilroy didn’t waste any time putting him right. “He said pretty much straight away that he’d seen some of my work and if he was being honest I was definitely not right for this part.” They just had a blether, they spoke about the film but about plenty of other stuff too. “Eventually he was like, ‘Listen if you want to put yourself on tape you can do that,'” Ahmed says. “So I was like ‘OK, cool'.”
Ahmed grew up in Wembley, north London, the son of Pakistani parents who’d moved to the UK in the mid-70s. He won a scholarship to a local private school before going on to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford and then acting at the Central School of Speech and Drama. He first came to attention in Four Lions, Chris Morris’s black comedy about a group of aspiring jihadis from Sheffield. He then went on to work with Michael Winterbottom on both The Road To Guantanamo and Tristan, Winterbottom’s retelling of Tess Of The D’Urbervilles, before starring in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mira Nair’s adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s thriller.
Ahmed has also has a successful music career as Riz MC. He’s performed at Glastonbury and co-founded Manchester’s underground music event, Hit & Run. If you’re feeling giddy with that level of creative activity, brace yourself because there’s more. Ahmed’s first short film as writer/director just showed as part of the London Film Festival and he is already writing another film with plans to direct more too. He’s also started working on an HBO series which he’s filming in New York. There’s a kind of restless, relentless creativity that feeds all this work. It’s what made the fit between Ahmed and Gyllenhaal so right for Nightcrawler: they’re both driven, they want to experiment and push and try new things. “Jake is inspirational,” Ahmed says. “Nothing about him is complacent, absolutely nothing. He will always go that extra mile. He’ll smash his hand up punching a mirror. He’ll starve himself for two months. At times, I was like, ‘Why is he starving himself? I don’t get it'. Then you see him act and it’s genius. Lou Bloom is desperate and hungry so Jake’s just going to be desperately hungry for the whole shoot. Cool. Works.”
The shoot was intense in other ways too, demanding that they work through the night for six weeks straight. It was, he says, a kind of vampire existence. “It was almost like if you’re fasting, you go into slightly more primal, minimal way of being. You’re more efficient with your energy so everything has got a film of grey over it.”
Until making the film Ahmed only knew LA as the Hollywood bubble. He’d never had reason to venture out into the valley and the surrounding areas. But it’s clear that the city he discovered in making the film delighted him. It is, he says, a “special place”. “It’s a big, weird, monster of a city. There’s something wild and untamed about it. Dan talked about how if you see LA from space it’s just surrounded by desert, it’s a little cluster of lights surrounded by darkness. This film is about how that darkness encroaches into the city. It’s a city of extremes and the film looks at those weird juxtapositions that it throws up. Lou Bloom at times comes across as crazy but he’s totally a product of his environment.”
Ahmed is right. What is genuinely creepy about Bloom, what lingers in your mind long after the film is over, is how ordinary he is. He does monstrous things at times, but he’s not a monster. “There is a cut-throat capitalism about Lou,” Ahmed says. “He is the American Dream at its basest, most exploitative, unhinged and zealous. There’s a kind of manifest destiny vibe about Lou. He looks at the streets of LA as though they are his Wild West and he’s going to conquer it.” Rather than quoting from the Bible as those original pioneers did, Bloom quotes from self-help books and how-to-succeed-in-business manuals and the effect is chilling.
It’s clear that Gilroy has been a big influence on Ahmed. He raves about his positivity, his “ego-less presence” on set, the way he instils confidence into his actors by being both clear about what he wants, but also open to their ideas and input.
“I always want to try to be the worst person on the team. I want to feel like I’m just not sure what the f*** I’m doing on this one. And then it pushes you to learn, it stretches you a bit. If I mix it up it’s because I want that feeling of being a bit out of my depth. It means it’s a challenge and an adventure.
“When Dan said you’re definitely not right for Rick I believed him because I had never played a character like him and I had never been asked to play a character like him so then it was about, ‘Well, just let me try it'.”
In the past there have been parts that he’s “obsessed over” and chased, but, he says, he’s learning a different approach. “If there’s one thing that acting teaches you it’s that control is a complete illusion. That’s true of most endeavours, but acting shows you that in brutal technicolour every day so really the only thing you can do is get out of your own way.” n
Nightcrawler is on general release