On Saturday, Richard Price and Steven Zaillian, who helm HBO’s The Night Of, and their stars Riz Ahmed, John Turturro and Michael Kenneth Williams took questions from Television Critics Association reporters about the addictive new summer series.
The Night Of stars Ahmed as Nasir Kahn, a doe-eyed college kid who winds up accused of murder when a night of partying goes wrong and — plied with booze and drugs before he hopped into a beautiful stranger’s bed — the inexperienced Naz has no clue if he committed the crime or not. Turturro plays the opportunistic, eczema-bedeviled New York lawyer who right-place-right-times himself into Naz’ case — one that could be the biggest case of his career. And Williams plays Freddy, a former star boxer who has created a little kingdom within the walls of Rikers and sets his sights on Naz.
Price started out by addressing his and Zaillian’s Americanized update to the Brit series Criminal Justice, on which the show was based. “It was not made out of whole cloth,” he explained. “It was to Americanize the story and to go into much greater detail about the legal system. The original was four hours. This is eight hours. So it’s an inherited starter yeast, there. I mean, it’s the antithesis of Law & Order. That’s all I can tell you. It’s not like, you know, just put it in a microwave, hit ‘60 seconds,’ and serve. This is some tough climbin’.”
Asked if Turturro’s role — played by the show’s late executive producer James Gandolfini in the original pilot and recast following his death — needed to be tailored to its new Stone, Zaillian says “It was toughest for me on a personal level because I was friends with James. As far as the project goes, he was not involved in the very beginning. He came on after we had started writing. And he was indeed a great champion of it. But the character is the character. We didn’t rewrite anything for John. This character is the character.”
Speaking of Stone — about that eczema.
Prices says the character trait was crafted by Criminal Justice creator Peter Moffat, who suffered from the affliction himself. And maybe it’s a metaphor for Stone’s journey. “Once I started reading the reviews, people picked out that the eczema was a metaphor, you know, for the frustration of finding a solution. And it’s sort of a metaphor for the entire frustrating judicial system. Although somebody said, ‘I always wait for my reviews to come out to see what I wrote about it.’”
As for the addition of Naz’ Rikers experience, Williams says, “… The Night Of takes place in New York City. And if you’re from New York City and you break the law, you get processed. After you leave The Tombs, which is what we call the precinct — the little cage in the precinct — you have to go to Rikers Island for processing and while you wait for your court dates …. Basically, if you get arrested for a crime in New York City and it’s beyond a misdemeanor, you are going to see Rikers Island — especially if you don’t have the money for proper lawyers, while you wait for trial.”
“Rikers is very particular,” adds Zaillian. “And when you go there, it’s startling. It’s a jail, but it feels like a prison. And it’s startling to know that someone can steal a backpack or be accused of stealing a backpack and stay there for 18 months, waiting for a trial or until charges get dropped, as in the case of Kalief Browder. And this happens a lot. And just this idea that, whether you’re guilty or not, you’re going to have to go to a place and try to survive it as the slow wheels of justice turn is — we thought was really important to show.”
Williams says he based some of his character on the experiences of his own incarcerated family members, specifically his nephew. “You know, they’re no angels,” he explained. “They’ve done the crime. I also saw there was room for better legal support, legal representation had we had the proper money as a family to help. … 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. ”
As for Freddy’s interest in Riz, Williams says it’s all about the brain matter.
“Freddy’s a 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 IQ. They’re either frightened of him or they want protection from him. Here comes this Riz and his innocence is deafening. … Just pure innocence. … I think Freddy senses something, that there’s something else behind this kid’s eyes besides just his innocence. There’s a brain there, something that can stimulate him. 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? 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.”
As for Riz’ race and religious background, Price says the decision wasn’t made to fan any social or political fires but to reflect an honest New York.
“To make him Muslim was my choice,” he explains, “because in the original BBC, you’re going to have white cab drivers in London. But in New York, you’re not going to have a lot of American, Caucasian cabdrivers. It’s sort of like an entry level job once you come here. And it’s packed with South Asians, people from the Middle East, and people from, say, West Africa. I mean, it’s the immigrant’s first job.
“Because of my wife was writing a novel about Pakistan and I’d been to Lahore and met a lot of her friends, to make him Pakistani, for me, was the most comfortable of all the options,” he continues. “And in terms of how this metastasized into post‑9/11 malice towards Muslims, I was just thinking about the guy being authentically the son of a real New York City cab driver. But once you have a Muslim character and then you imagine the fallout to an atrocious, headline‑grabbing crime like this, it’s almost natural that there’s going to be a lash out at the whole Muslim community. It was not designed to say, ‘Oh, now we can get into post‑9/11, anti‑Muslim, ISIS xenophobia. And it just evolved from that.”
New episodes of The Night Of premiere Sunday nights at 9/8CT on HBO.