Entertainment

'I had to pinch myself:' Rogue One's Riz Ahmed joins the Star Wars universe

British actor Riz Ahmed talks about action figures, creating art that asks important questions and the culture-shifting potential of Rogue One, the first in a series of standalone Star Wars films.

'Star Wars has the potential to really shape culture and lead the way'

It's been a breakthrough year for Riz Ahmed: after starring in HBO's The Night Of and playing a lead role in Jason Bourne, he's joining one of the biggest movie franchises in history with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. (Jonathan Olley/Lucasfilm Ltd.)

Not many people can say they have their own action figure, so British actor Riz Ahmed could be excused for not knowing what to do with one made in his likeness.

"I didn't bring it with me. That would be weird. Although maybe I should start rolling around with the action figure at all times," Ahmed quipped to CBC News.

Rogue One actor Riz Ahmed on what the standalone film contributes to the wider Star Wars universe. 0:23

It's been a breakthrough year for the 34-year-old actor. He's the star of HBO's The Night Of, plays a lead role in Jason Bourne and, with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, is officially part of one of the biggest movie franchises in history.

"I just couldn't believe it. Yeah, straight up! I had to pinch myself — still not sure it's fully sunk in. Hopefully it'll sink in by the time the movie opens," he said during a recent stop in Toronto.

In 2015, Star Wars: The Force Awakens reached a box-office milestone with record-setting speed. Rogue One is expected to be a tougher sell — especially to Star Wars purists — since it's the first in a new series of standalone films.

Ahmed portrays Bodhi Rook, a cargo pilot who works for the Empire but changes course when faced with a harsh truth. He believes the new film is timely in today's political climate.

"It's important that art and cinema asks important questions and asks us about where our moral compass lies, as well as kind of providing entertainment and some escapism," he said. 

Born and raised in England, Ahmed watched the Brexit vote and, more recently, the U.S. presidential election with great interest.

"People want change and it's really up to us what kinds of visions of change we offer them. You could say that on the one hand things are moving in unexpected directions, but that doesn't mean they only have to move in one direction."

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story features a diversity in its cast that's unprecedented for the franchise. (Jonathan Olley/Lucasfilm Ltd.)

Amid a second year of #OscarsSoWhite outcry and widespread discussion about more accurate depictions onscreen, Ahmed considers Rogue One's diverse cast and strong female lead (Felicity Jones) as a possible changing of the guard. 

"I think Star Wars has the potential to really shape culture and lead the way," he said, noting co-stars Forest Whitaker, Jiang Wen and himself on the film's movie poster.

The actor from the upcoming standalone tale Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on the film's potentially culture-shaping, globally reflective casting. 0:41

"When people like [producer] Kathy Kennedy decide that they're going to put a woman front and centre of Force Awakens or Rogue One, I think people will sit up and take notice." 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opens in Canadian cinemas on Dec. 16.