The cast and creative team of The Night Of recently came together for a panel at The London Hotel West Hollywood.
In attendance were creators/writers Richard Price and Steve Zaillian, and cast members Riz Ahmed, Poorna Jagannathan, and Michael Kenneth Williams. Comedian and Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj moderated.
Immediately, the conversation began focusing on the social aspects of the show, with Minhaj asking about the merits to the different legal sides of the show. Then, he asked star Riz Ahmed about his preparation. Riz said he spent a lot of time interviewing inmates and outreach organizations which helped families of longterm inmates. But, more than that, he spoke about trying to prepare for a character entering a new and hostile environment:
“And I guess in a way the experience of being at Riker’s is going to be new for Naz, so more than preparing for that, I was just trying to get the background of a kid from Queens. I spent a lot of time in Jackson Heights and worked with some youth organizations there. I worked with South Asian youth. I guess, on paper, like Richard’s saying, you can’t define people by labels. And in terms of labels, you can say, yeah, I’m similar to Nazir and so is my background. But if you get down to it, it’s its own different thing. Jackson Heights is different to Wembley in London, even though you might from a distance think they’re similar. So just trying to get under the skin of that community.”
Poorna Jahannathan spoke on her character preparation as well:
I played her very very close to my heart. Played her very close to my mother and my sister. I was brought up in a very conservative household where … the notion of going out late and alcohol and drugs is… You know, you might as well be a prostitute if you had a glass of wine or something. So it was just very very close to the community and the mindset that I know.
Minhaj then went on to speak with Michael Kenneth Williams about his character, Freddy. He asked about Freddy’s inspirations behind helping Naz, to which Williams had two answers: genuine human concern and manipulation (what he wants to be seen, of course).
Then Minhaj asked Williams a very interesting question about whether his character was a hero or a villain. Williams had this to say:
I think Freddy’s actually a victim. We forget, Freddy had a lot of potential. There’s a lot of potential there. He had a budding career as a champion boxer. And for whatever reasons, whether it be lack of education, lack of self-esteem, whatever it is that made him make the bad choice that he made to land him in prison, in some sense I dare to say he became a stereotype. You know, he succumbed to the stereotypes, the traps that were set in his community to end up there. Because he had a shot. He’s not stupid. You know, so whatever was missing in his community to give him the tools to stay on the right track… I’m not putting all the bad decision he made on his community or on what was missing in his community, but I dare to say that had some part to play in it. So I see him as a victim in a sense.
He added even more depth to the answer by pointing out how, whatever it is he wants from Naz, Freddy’s risking his hard-earned reputation by offering to help someone who has unwittingly broken one of the codes of prison: not hurting women or children. But, at the end of the day, Freddy is taken by Naz’s innocence.
Admed then spoke up about some hidden depths to his character that hadn’t been considered or discussed in the talk so far. Ahmed speaking here:
I think, yeah, Naz is definitely new to the environment of Riker’s and new to the criminal justice system. But he definitely a guy that… when you see Naz at the start, he’s in a certain environment, a certain set of circumstances, a certain situation. So you’re gonna see one side of him. So when those circumstances change, a different side of him will come to the fore. Different sides of your personality come out in different circumstances. So even though he’s completely new to Riker’s, I think at every stage if you look a little closer, he definitely does still do it his way. Within limits. Like he hasn’t listened to every piece of advice he gets … He definitely does still follow his instinct. He definitely does have a view on the world and an opinion that I think you have to have as a working class person of color. You know, Muslim post-9/11. I think you’ve naturally got a mistrust of authority, which means you don’t fully cooperate with the police when you go in there … It’s like, “Why would I trust these people?” I think he definitely does have a point of view on the world, and he definitely does have a gut he trusts, but as the show progresses and his circumstances change, he is forced to trust that gut more. And that’s when you start seeing different sides to him. So I would question our assumptions about just how naive he is.
The talk then went to the shooting of the series. As Minhaj noted, the show uses a lot of wide shots. Steven Zaillian spoke on the movie-like quality of the set. In an interesting tidbit, he said that one of the reasons they were able to get away with shots so wide was due to the size and resolutions of modern screens. You can, he said, get away with that kind of stuff now.
Then, the they began talking about the justice system, citing the number that up to 97% of cases never go to trail due to an intense pressure on prosecutors to push for a deal to save taxpayer money. Ahmed again:
Then, the they began talking about the justice system, citing the number that up to 97% of cases never go to trail due to an intense pressure on prosecutors to push for a deal to save taxpayer money.
The final question concerned the nature of the criminal justice system, and whether it was something that could be fixed within our lifetimes, or whether it was just a sad reality we had to live with. Michael Kenneth Williams had this to say:
End mass incarceration is what I say. Let’s end mass incarceration. 70% of our inmates are mentally ill and non-violent drug offenders. That’s nuts. Our mentally ill belong in the hospital, our drug addicted people belong in rehabilitation centers, not in prisons.
With that, the panel was over.
The Night Of airs Sundays on HBO.
Photo Credit: Michael Angulo