Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Image: Walt Disney Studios

At the Rogue One: A Star Wars Story press event this weekend, we got a chance to talk with Riz Ahmed, who plays Bodhi Rook, a skilled pilot who leaves his gig with the Empire to join the Rebellion for reasons we learn early in the film (but won’t spoil here). Soon he becomes involved in the plot to steal the Death Star plans.

Ahmed (whose credits include Nightcrawler, Jason Bourne, Four Lions, and TV’s The Night Of) spoke jokingly of how weird it was to have an action figure created in his likeness—and when asked what his character has in common with another Imperial defector, The Force Awakens’ Finn (played by John Boyega), he cracked, “Well, they’re both from Southeast London.”

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But the actor is very serious when it comes to Bodhi Rook, a character who has seen both sides of the film’s central conflict, and what he represents for the film overall:

I think people are ready for Star Wars movies to really embrace the murky grey area between good and evil. That’s the reality of most of human experience, you know. I think it’s a good time for a slightly grittier, edgier, darker Star Wars movie to come out, just because the franchise is mature enough to be able to handle that, and the fandom is developed enough to want that.

Also, I think it’s quite resonant, globally, to tell a story that reflects the times we’re living in. Hopefully characters like Finn and Bodhi Rook are resonant within that canvas, because they’re just like everyman characters. They’re just average Joes. I think there’s something quite inspiring to be taken from that. Greatness, and making significant contributions, and making a change doesn’t just fall to those who are born into the right family, who are part of the right clan, or had the right grandfather or whatever. It’s in your hands, too. You can step up, and if you stand up for what you believe in and you take a risk, you can make a difference. I think that’s a potent message in that context.

Bodhi may be a Rebel, but he struggles along the way. Ahmed said he was most intrigued with the character’s “sense of remorse and regret and his desire for redemption, and his awareness of what he’s [gotten himself into] is not necessarily within his comfort zone. Embracing both your guilt and your fear at the same time, and still moving forward—not allowing those to paralyze you. Those were a really compelling set of ingredients for a character.”

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Though Ahmed is a lifelong fan—he saw his first Star Wars movie when he was seven years old, and even had nice things to say about the Ewoks—he didn’t go back and revisit the films before he began work on Rogue One: 

I didn’t want to go and watch the movies again once I was cast. I felt like it would be a bit too burdensome, that weight of expectation. I kind of felt like, I’m confident in where this lies in the saga. It’s in the hands of people who revere the story and know the world back to front. Now it’s my job to commit to this character in this moment, in this storyline. We’re just trying to make something that pops because it feels real.

That realness extends to his voice; unlike his fellow Star Wars star Boyega, who adopted an American accent to play Finn, Ahmed uses his normal accent for Bodhi. “We were all encouraged to play close to ourselves,” he said. “Everyone more or less plays in their accent. I think that’s okay—the galaxy’s a big place.”

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is out December 16.