Feature As a 'Middle Eastern person' of Iranian descent about to take on the role of one of literature's most famous Jews, all eyes are on Omid Djalili. David Gritten meets the controversial comedian as he takes the stage in London's West End as Fagin in Oliver!
'People asked me: Are you mad?'
As a 'Middle Eastern person' of Iranian descent about to take on the role of one of literature's most famous Jews, all eyes are on Omid Djalili. David Gritten meets the controversial comedian as he takes the stage in London's West End as Fagin in Oliver! For 15 years now, the British-born Iranian comic and actor Omid Djalili has spent large portions of his working life breaking down cultural differences and ethnic barriers. He wryly refers to himself as a "Middle Eastern person", though that only begins to tell his story: if you called him a sophisticated, cosmopolitan British citizen, that would be equally true.
Djalili's winning stand-up routines centre on making audiences laugh at their own prejudices. His knack is to explore their attitudes to "otherness" and make them see that what we have in common with those of other races and faiths is as important as that which divides us. Still, even for someone who has mined this territory with expertise and wit, his new venture constitutes quite a leap. Djalili is taking over from Rowan Atkinson as Fagin in Cameron Mackintosh's West End production of the musical Oliver!
Let's consider the implications of that: Djalili's parents are from an Islamic republic, one whose president has made his feelings about the state of Israel starkly clear; and here he is playing one of the major Jewish characters in all literature. It's true that in Oliver Twist Charles Dickens portrayed Fagin, who runs a gang of child pickpockets and petty criminals, as an unsympathetic character. But still.
Djalili is puzzled by the suggestion that he was deliberately courting controversy in accepting the role; he genuinely insists he never anticipated any kind of furore. "When I first learned I'd landed the role back in February," he recalls, "I didn't think there'd be any problem at all from 'my side'. Then recently I did a short stand-up tour of the Middle East for the first time - Dubai, Bahrain, Beirut. I did some press via e-mail, and all the magazines and papers there wrote such supportive things about me. But they raised the topic of me playing Fagin, and they all had just three questions: 'Why?' 'What's all that about?' and 'Are you mad?'"
As far as Djalili was concerned, Fagin was simply a great part: "Any actor in musicals would probably want to play Fagin or maybe Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof. Then there's Shylock, Othello - these are the big roles you want to play if you're slightly dark in complexion. I didn't realise that even to play around with the idea that here's an Iranian playing Fagin might be controversial." And it's quite obvious that Mackintosh had no thought of any cash-generating publicity that might arise from any controversy when he hired Djalili. He had no need to: this production of Oliver! is already a huge certified hit.
Advance bookings for its January opening were £15 million (Dh89m), making it the fastest-selling West End show of all time. The show also broke a box-office record at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where it grossed £815,430 (Dh4,830,905) in a week earlier this year. Instead, Djalili was chosen in part because he is so different from Atkinson. "I'm thrilled Rowan has had such a tremendous triumph in a role I always thought he was born to play," Mackintosh says. "The only way to follow such a unique performance is with a talent just as unique yet entirely different. No one could fulfil these criteria better than Omid. It's his ability to inhabit his characters with such comic energy and wily cunning that will make his Fagin his own."
Still, Mackintosh's press release announcing Djalili as Atkinson's replacement did contain one phrase of delicious understatement, describing him as "undoubtedly the first Iranian ever to portray Dickens's legendary Jewish creation". Djalili already has ideas of his own about playing Fagin. "I've seen Rowan, and that's a performance of real subtlety and gravitas," he reflects. "But what the production team want from me is to play it big, play it turbo-charged. Fagin is a character of light and shade. He can be all charm and fun, but also very intimidating. There's a tremendous fear factor about him. And both those sides of him need to be played big."
He admits he is finding the rehearsal process tough; he began it the day after finishing work on a film. So now he's racing against the clock to "nail" the role of Fagin. "It's tough, it's a whole new discipline, so unlike film," he notes. "I have this team of people telling me I'm the kingpin in a well-oiled machine. And when the 'go' button gets pressed, and I'm on stage, I can't mess it up. I can't go over it again." He grimaces: "No pressure, then."
The teams of boy actors in Oliver! have already been teasing Djalili about being thrown in at the deep end of rehearsals: "There are three teams of kids, 14 or 15 in each of them. They're so full-on in rehearsal, and it's tough keeping up with their level of energy. "I said to them, 'You're very good,' and they said, 'Yeah, well, we're better than you.' So I told them: 'By the way, Santa doesn't exist - and you're all adopted, did you know that?' If they're going to get adult with me, I'll get adult right back with them."
At this midway point of three weeks' rehearsal, he is aware there is much hard work still to be done: "You can't rest on your laurels just because you get a song - You've Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two, say - in the bag. It's about layering. You get your lines down, you put the costumes on, you learn the music, you perform with the band, then you perform with everyone else. So I haven't even found the character of Fagin yet. Until now, I've been doing the character in my own voice. But by the end of rehearsals I'll have the voice and character down.
"I want to give 100 per cent. There'll be Iranians in the audience, so I'll have to. If I don't give it my best, that's one thing Iranians will not tolerate. It's about anything that brings Iran's name down." He grins. "If I'm not up to scratch, they'll trash the place!" Yet talking with Djalili at the end of a long day's rehearsal in a south London hall, it's clear he is probably going to be a distinctive, memorable Fagin. A squat man with a shaven skull, he cuts an unforgettable figure, with his large head and generous girth. "Portly" is the word that comes to mind. And while he can be charming and funny in conversation, he can also flash or roll his strikingly dark eyes to illustrate a point, and suddenly look menacing.
Djalili, 43, grew up in west London, was raised by his Iranian parents in the Baha'i faith and attended Holland Park School, the comprehensive flagship. One day, Mel Smith, then a star (along with Atkinson) of the hit BBC comedy series Not The Nine O'Clock News, visited the school. After watching the pupils go through some acting routines, he singled out Djalili and told him that he had a future in comedy.
"I'd never even thought of performing, let alone comedy," Djalili says. "But I idolised Mel, Rowan and the others on that show. Rowan's a personal hero. I'd never have gone into stand-up but for him." His stand-up career began in 1995 with a show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In those days he used the titles of his shows as statements of intent. That first one was called Short, Fat Kebab Shop Owner's Son, and the following year it was The Arab And The Jew.
He has been a regular on British TV for a decade, starting with small roles in dramas but ending up with his own comedy show. He has also appeared in some 20 films, including Gladiator and The Mummy. As he concedes, he has often been typecast as a sinister foreign character - though he was notably amusing as Heath Ledger's manservant in the otherwise forgettable Casanova. Djalili has successfully performed his comedy routines in several countries; the American TV network HBO gave him his own comedy special. In Britain, though, his big breakthrough came in 2005, when at the Edinburgh Festival he sold out a 720-seat theatre over a remarkable 23 nights, during which time more than 16,500 people paid to see him.
I first met him when I saw one of those shows and went backstage to interview him afterwards. That was the summer of 2005, when London's buses and Tube stations had been targeted by suicide bombers. Earlier that year, Djalili had decided to jettison material about ethnicity and the war on terror, but the events of 7/7 changed his mind. Thus in Edinburgh he told a delicious joke about what sort of Muslims would have targeted Edgware Road tube station; the south end of Edgware Road is noted for its Middle Eastern restaurants. "Hey," Djalili told the audience, "I'm as alarmed as any of you by Arabs at airports."
It was extraordinary to see a largely British audience responding so enthusiastically to this energetic, rotund, foreign-looking little man, bounding round the stage telling deft jokes that addressed their worst fears. They gave him a thunderous ovation. This may be because he gives the impression of being a generous-spirited man with no interest in causing gratuitous offence. Unlike some stand-up comics who insist no topic is off-limits as a source of humour, Djalili knows where to stop: "My cut-off line is, you don't make fun of the founders of a religion. That would just alienate people. But in a positive way, you can make fun of the foibles of people who follow a religion, Muslims or Jews. And oddly enough, those foibles can be very similar."
He is proving this point not only in his comedy routines, but by starring in an upcoming film, written by the comedian David Baddiel (who is Jewish). The two men also produced the movie. "It's called The Infidel," Djalili says. "I play a Pakistani in the East End of London, who's a sort of Muslim Homer Simpson, surrounded by a devout Muslim family. But when his mother dies, he finds out he's been adopted and his real parents are Hasidic Jews. It's an identity crisis comedy.
"David and I both felt the time was ripe to do a comedy about the two 'big religions', and making fun of the similarities between them. A lot of things in the news and the culture highlight differences, but we highlight similarities." As an Iranian, he feels "hugely impacted" by recent events in that country, and sobered by the images of violence and death on YouTube. "But I don't want to say too much," he says, "because I still have friends in Tehran." Yet his sympathies are clearly with the marchers protesting against the recent election results.
Can he find any humour in that situation? "Well, I'm on Twitter now, and I did a tweet saying: 'I'm starting a rumour that President Ahmadinejad does line-dancing on Thursday nights.' That's been about my only contribution." He nurses a huge ambition to perform stand-up comedy in Iran: "I've thought about how to do it. I'd do it half in English, half in Farsi, my parents' first language. I'd love to."
Meanwhile, he feels happily at home in Britain: "I walk down the street, hail a cab, and the cab driver will say (he lapses into cockney): 'Ullo, Omid, where you goin'?' I think it's a huge thing in a multicultural society that people know my name." More still will know him once he becomes a West End headliner. Djalili's growing fame has momentum. He claims that he has seen it coming, though from an unlikely source.
"When I was in San Francisco in 1988, I met someone who read Tarot cards. He was this really geeky man who wore a wizard outfit. He said: 'Wow, looks like you're going to be world famous. But you're going to start real small and build real gradually, and you'll achieve worldwide fame in your mid-forties.' "I thought, hmmm, yeah, right. But it's happened just like that. I'm still a couple of years off my mid-forties, but I've been building blocks and foundations. It's been slow but true."
Omid Djalili opens in Oliver! on July 20.