Riz Ahmed knows the importance of taking risks. "When I'm not fully in control is when interesting things happen," he tells GamesRadar+, and his role in Amazon's new thriller Encounter is certainly something different for the actor.
Ahmed plays Malik, a Marine Corp veteran who goes on the run with his two young sons after an alien threat comes to Earth. While Encounter – directed by Michael Pearce, best known for Beast – is grounded on our planet, there’s sci-fi imagery throughout; helicopters look like UFOs and the desert seems like an alien landscape. Yet, Ahmed is adamant that this is not simply a sci-fi movie. "It's about something more pressing than sci-fi, which is about our society right now," Ahmed says.
"If I give you an example, where we were shooting this film on set, everyone behind the camera was wearing a biohazard suit, the sky was bright red on fire on some Blade Runner vibe because of the California forest fires, and there was civil unrest everywhere because of a contested election. Now, that feels apocalyptic, that feels sci-fi, but it's not, it's right now. So I would say this film gives you the scale and scope and imagination of the genre, but it's actually about right here, right now. And it's all the better for it."
Ahmed rose to prominence after appearing in the dark comedy Four Lions, and he's gone on to appear in Hollywood movies like Nightcrawler, Star Wars: Rogue One, and Venom. He reveals that he worked collaboratively with Pearce on honing the details of his character – Malik was named Marcus in the original version of the script, but that changed after Ahmed was cast.
"I saw an opportunity here to pitch myself for this role, when, maybe, one wouldn't normally think of an actor like me in a role like this," he says. "And now that includes me, I wouldn't normally think of myself in this kind of role. So I challenged myself and challenged Michael [Pearce] to reconsider. And he saw it the same way I did… And so the character's name changed from Marcus to Malik, and suddenly his alienation from society took on a different shade. And the way that his interactions with law enforcement go down suddenly became more perilous. And it just really enriched the story."
Ahmed spoke to ex-US Special Forces to prepare for his role as a veteran. "Malik is somebody who comes back from war with many different kinds of scars, some physical, some mental, and from my research what I noticed is that that's very common," he says. "Unfortunately, of course, there's the destruction, the devastation in invaded countries. There's also a devastation that's brought back home with returning war veterans and an epidemic of illnesses, both mental and physical, in countries like [the UK] and the United States off the back of these 20 years of war."
He adds: "What I found is that, yes, there's the injuries you have in the battlefield, but then there's also the second injury you can have of coming back home and not feeling you fit into society, feeling like you're unwanted in a place that you helped defend. That alienation is something that really runs through our story and runs through Malik as a character."
While you could argue that Ahmed is the lead in this movie, it's safe to say that he shares that mantle with the two actors who play Malik's young sons. Bobby (Aditya Geddada) and Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) are the heart of the movie – they're Malik's motivation for the increasingly erratic decisions he makes as the story progresses, and the relationship between father and sons is the key to the heart of the film.
On working with Geddada, who plays the youngest of the two, Ahmed says: "He improvised almost all of his lines, he was just throwing stuff in all the time, just keeping us on our toes. Some days, if you were boring him in a scene, he would yawn in your face, so you had to really keep him there. What we discovered is, if you wanted him to do a more intense scene, give him more Skittles. If you want him to do a more chilled-out scene, wait till the sugar crash. But he's a firecracker and has this really punk ethos."
And what about Chauhan, who plays the older of the two boys? "He is so wise beyond his years. I'm learning from him... He has such a command over what he does from such a young age, it's crazy, so I would go home wanting to push myself harder seeing the commitment he brought to the table. It was amazing working with them both. They say don't work with children or animals. I don't think it's because it's difficult – it's because what's difficult is that they're better than you, so you have to keep on pushing yourself to bring the same honesty and authenticity that young actors bring on screen."
Ahmed has no shortage of variety under his belt when it comes to previous roles and projects. However, Encounter is the first time he's played a father on-screen, which he admits was a slightly daunting prospect. "That's also what Malik is feeling. Malik is feeling, 'Can I be a dad? Am I cut out for this? Will the kids accept me as their dad?' And I was having those thoughts as an actor, so when you start having the same thoughts as your character's having, without even meaning to, that's a good sign. I could bring my own insecurity about playing a father into this character who has insecurities about playing the father, because he hasn't seen his kids for years, he's returning home, he's seeing they don't trust him. And so that was useful in a way. I always try and take on roles that scare me in some way because I know that I will be a little bit out of my depth."
Encounter is released in theaters on December 3 before arriving on Amazon Prime Video on December 10. In the meantime, check out our list of the best movies on Amazon Prime that you can stream right now.