Poorna Jagannathan Believes There Are “No Winners” in ‘The Night Of’

The actor who plays Safar Khan, Naz’s mother, delves into her moments of uncertainty and the brutality of the criminal justice system.

HBO: What was your experience reading The Night Of scripts for the first time?

Poorna Jagannathan: The writing is haunting. Once you read it, you can’t shake it off, no matter what. You can’t shake the characters off; you can’t shake the story off, which is what I even felt in the audition process.

HBO: What do you find most compelling about the story?

Poorna Jagannathan: It’s so deeply relatable. It’s one bad decision (and we’ve all made those in our 20s), and that decision has catastrophic consequences. Usually when you see a crime drama, there’s a need to move the story along. The most dramatic element is what you see on the screen: the actual crime or judicial process. But the truth is, when a crime is committed, it has a 360-degree effect. It effects every portion and everything that the accused person comes into contact with, consciously or unconsciously. The Night Of explores those connections.

HBO: Despite having few dialogue-heavy moments, your character has a huge emotional arc over the course of the series. How did you go about communicating that without lines?

Poorna Jagannathan: It’s tough. Sometimes you just don’t trust that you’re doing enough. It’s also about really understanding your role within not only the script but also the visual language of the script. Steve [Zaillian] and I went back and forth trying to get that balance. When Steve directs, he wants the most stripped down performance possible. It’s hard as an actor to give that sometimes, to actually trust enough to give everything up. You’re scared you’re not doing justice to the writing or to the character, that what you are doing and thinking won’t read. It’s a huge lesson in acting for me to watch the show now.

HBO: Why does Safar begin to doubt Naz’s innocence?

Poorna Jagannathan: I think it’s the mounting evidence on one hand and then the slow dawning of the fact that she actually doesn’t know her son. There is something that makes her go and search Naz’s room right in the beginning and start looking through his things. You see the shift very subtly in the beginning. She finds condoms and a Maxim magazine. Not a big deal for a young man to have those things in America, but culturally where this family comes from, they become a big deal — a symbol of the fact that he is has veered from the strict morals they brought him up with. I think that’s where the breach begins and it widens for her throughout the show.

HBO: In Part 7 you have a particularly resonant line — “An animal did that. Did I raise an animal?” How did you approach that line and the scene as a whole?

Poorna Jagannathan: The thing with good writing — the thing with brilliant writing — is that I had to get out of my own way. That’s literally the biggest task ever. And the writing is a net that you’re falling backwards into, which is fucking really scary. But by that time, we’d all had some practice. It’s a beautifully written scene and really goes into the emotional fracture that Safar will never recover from. If Naz is innocent or guilty, it doesn’t matter because everyone has already lost something they will never find again.

From creators Steven Zaillian and Richard Price, The Night Of is an eight-part limited series that delves into the intricate story of a fictitious murder case in New York City.

New episodes of The Night Of air Sundays at 9 PM on HBO and are available on HBO GO and HBO NOW.