*Created by Steven Zaillian and Richard Price, HBO’s “The Night Of” was seven years in the making, and the intense, eight-part limited series is based on the BBC drama “Criminal Justice.” It premiered July 10 and continues to receive praise for the gripping mystery that surrounds the grisly murder of a troubled young woman named Andrea Cornish. The addictive series stars John Turturro, Riz Ahmed, and Michael K. Williams who plays Freddy, an inmate at Rikers who takes a liking to Nas (Ahmed), and offers him protection.
Williams has previously spoken about how his incarcerated nephew inspired his take on Freddy, and during “The Night Of” session at the Television Critics Association in Beverly Hills, he furthered explained how he didn’t have to look far to prepare for the role.
“I know that situation all too well, unfortunately, due to my nephew and some other family members who have been incarcerated. You know, they’re no angels,” Williams said during the TCA panel Q&A. “They’ve done the crime. I also see there was room for a better legal support, legal representation had we had the proper money as a family to help, and particularly my nephew, which is who I drew a lot of inspiration from for Freddy. I didn’t have to look far for that. I’ve never done time in prison, thank God, because I don’t think I would have the balls, I would have the stamina to survive that. But it’s dark.”
UK actor/rapper Riz Ahmed plays Nas, a Pakistani-American student from Jackson Heights, Queens who is accused of murdering Andrea. John Turturro plays his lawyer John Stone.
“I think all the characters are beautifully written, so it was a wonderful collaboration with Steve and Richard,” John said, adding that the story was “A beautifully written piece, full of nuance. And I get to work with a great group of actors.”
Freddy’s character represents such a powerful, feared, and fearless inmate presence, so EUR/Electronic Urban Report asked Michael, what makes a guy like Freddy want to protect a guy like Nas?
“It was weird. I kind of — to come to that place in Riz and Fred’s relationship, I put myself in Riz’s shoes and I imagined what — how my nephew would have treated me had I got arrested and we weren’t nephew and uncle and I came into the prison and I was Riz. I put myself in his shoes, and how would my nephew treat me knowing the kind of man, the kind of heart that he has. And that’s where I got the foundation for this relationship. And I love the fact that everybody’s thinking that some type of, like, manipulative, sexual thing is going on with these two, and it couldn’t be further apart.”
Michael continued: “Freddy’s a very smart man, very smart man who made some bad decisions like we all share in life. And his bad decisions cost him some time being incarcerated. But nevertheless, he’s a very smart man. He reads. And there’s not many people in prison who can stimulate his mental, his IQ. They’re either frightened of him or they want protection from him. Here comes this — Riz, his innocence is deafening. They call him like Bambi, I think, in Episode 1. “Who’s Bambi over there?” Just pure innocence. And he’s smart. You can see that right — well, not off the bat. But I think Freddy senses something, that there’s something else behind this kid’s eyes besides just his innocence.”
Williams further explained how in some ways Nas is also a threat to Freddy because suddenly, Freddy was no longer the smartest man in the room.
“There’s a brain there, something that can stimulate — it’s an exchange of energy. My pastor, he always said, “Michael, if you’re the smartest and the richest in the room, run.” And here comes Nas, and all of a sudden Freddy was not the smartest in the room anymore. He had someone to battle with. You never want to play chess with someone who you constantly win with. How can you learn? And I think that’s kind of — it’s the old saying: Iron sharpens iron. Riz represented that mental stimulation where he could sit down and have a conversation with someone who could possibly tell him something he didn’t know or show him something that he didn’t know, which was very rare for someone like Freddy in there.”
When asked if he ever had to fight against second-guessing Nasir, because the character makes a string of arguably terrible decisions, Riz said: “Well, you know, in terms of Nasir’s decisions and kind of what happens and that kind of situation, I don’t think any of us can be sure how we would respond in such an extreme set of circumstances.”
“When the adrenaline kicks in and you’ve just been taking drugs, maybe you’re not used to drinking, and all this kind of stuff all kind of comes to a head together, I think none of us are kind of in the peak of our powers, you know, making the best decisions necessarily in that kind of circumstance,” Ahmed explained. “But yeah, I mean, there was this incredibly rich canvas that these guys had put together. And really it was on us to just try to commit to each scene and each moment and not try and get ahead of the curve too much. I think trying to work out or trying to kind of put together a narrative or piece together, both for himself or for other people, what happened that night is something that Nasir was doing. So in a sense it makes sense for the actor not to try and get too far ahead of things.”
Rikers is a strong personality in “The Night Of,” and Riz explained how he found “speaking to people that had been through the criminal justice” in New York “very helpful” with preparing to occupy the headspace of his character.
“Richard set me up with some people and so did Steve. And we kind of — yeah, I was just very grateful to these people for opening up to me, telling me their story, and just hopefully from their experiences trying to get a fraction, a sense of what it’s like to be in there,” Ahmed said.
“It was also really helpful going to visit Rikers, which we all went and did as a team, and soaking up that atmosphere was something that kind of gave me a glimpse,” he continued. “So I wouldn’t like to stand up here and say that playing a fictional role of someone going to prison gave me any real insight into what it’s like to be incarcerated, but the research certainly helped, and I’m grateful to those people who opened up to give us those insights.”
Considering the great reception of the series, creator Steven Zaillian was asked if he’s thinking ahead about a second season.
“We’re thinking about it, you know. And if we come up with something that we all feel is worthy of doing, we’ll do it. This was designed as a standalone piece. That being said, there are ways of certainly, you know, kind of taking what it feels like and what it’s about and doing another season on another subject. So we’re talking about it,” he said.
Turturro added that he would “certainly be open to exploring” his character further.
“The Night Of” airs Sunday at 9pm.