In the arena with Omid Djalili
December 27, 2006
“Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious”
-- Peter Ustinov
If the Great British actor Peter Ustinov was alive today, he would most probably make the following comment in the form of a friendly tribute to British-Iranian rising Star Omid Djalili quoting his own Mentor the no less great Charles Laughton from a memorable scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Epic Masterpiece Spartacus, in which they portray two slightly decadent yet wise citizen’s of the declining Roman Republic :
“You and I, have a tendency towards corpulence. Corpulence makes a man reasonable, pleasant and phlegmatic. Have you noticed the nastiest of tyrants are invariably thin?”
If you believe in post-mortem reincarnations, then you would agree that there is certainly something of a Peter Ustinov in Omid Djalili. Or is it the contrary? They both seem to share this rare combination of wit and quick tongue humor disguised within a cosmopolitan envelope. Interestingly Ustinov, very much like Djalili today, was first noticed for his supporting roles be it as a blind beggar in the Egyptian, or the mad, yet funny villainous Emperor Nero in another memorable Epic “Quo Vadis?” before achieving international Stardom and critical success with his Oscar winning performance as the colorful Roman Slave dealer Batiatus in Spartacus followed by his other popular on screen personifications such as in the title role of Belgian detective Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie’s crime film adaptations.
Similarly Omid Djalili is certainly one of the most versatile and successful actors of Iranian decent who has managed to draw attention beyond his community and conquer Hollywood in noticeable appearances opposite some of its greatest Stars. Equally convincing as a slave trader in sword and sandals films like “The Mummy” and “Gladiator” , or as Casanova’s comic side kick Lupo, Djalili often manages to steal the show from such co-stars as the late Oliver Reed or the new sex idol Heath Ledger. He was also to reveal a darker side of his impersonations as the ambitious and ruthless Pablo Picasso opposite Andy Garcia in Mike Davis’ “Modigliani”.
Often dubbed as the only Iranian stand up comic, his noticed performances on the British stage and on American TV shows like Whoopie have drawn large audiences and certainly paved the way for the younger generation of Persian Diaspora artists like Maz Jobrani, Shappi Khorsandi, Dan Ahdoot, Amir Talai or Patrick Monahan.
The former student of the University of Ulster, Coleraine in Northern Ireland who earned a degree in English and theater studies, has surely come a long way. Happily married to British actress/director Annabel Knight and father of three children, Omid Djalili’s talent has been finally acknowledged by his fellow compatriots of the Iranian Diaspora thanks to the Persian Golden Lioness Awards, also known as the Iranian Oscars along with another fellow actor of Persian Decent Mrs. Shohreh Aghdashloo (Oscar nominee for The House of Sand and Fog, 2003).
I had the privilege of interviewing him recently on his life, career and future projects.
You were first noticed in Hollywood particularly for your roles in blockbuster epic films like The Mummy, Jason and the Argonauts or Gladiator, which re-launched a film genre that was virtually oblivious since the 1960’s. What was it like to be part of a Sword and Sandals film?
A great thrill, especially "Gladiator” that from the moment you walked on the sets you knew from the sheer scale of the project you were working on something special. It helped working with special people too. Directors like Ridley Scott and Steven Sommers had the eye for the “big picture” epic that I was brought up on with films like “Spartacus”. “Gladiator” especially has that quality of being thrilling and moving.
Your Stand up No Agenda was a hit at the London Palladium (Now on DVD). Has “taming” a British or American live audience to the Persian sense of humor been as equally challenging as running a gladiator school in ancient Rome?
I don’t know about “taming” but I’m genuinely surprised that my sense of humor is something many people share. Humor is very subjective, and to have reached so many people across so many time zones has bewildered me somewhat. I suppose the fact that I have a genuine interest in people and different cultures has helped me connect with a more multicultural, multi-class and multi-aged audience. The Americans appreciate energy so when I performed in New York for example I was more energized. But every night is a different story.
Who were your role models as a teenager when you were aspiring to become an actor?
I was always a big fan of Jack Lemmon. He performed with so much heart that it was impossible not to feel a little moved as well as entertained whenever I saw him on the screen (and on stage in London in 1989 in a legendary production of “Long Day's Journey Into Night” (*) with a cast that included Kevin Spacey). Al Pacino was always a curiosity especially as I read now that he started out in comedy and is always clowning around on set and trying to get back into comedy much against the wishes of the film Studios. Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate” affected me a great deal too, and I’ve always been inspired by the great actresses such as Meryl Streep, Glen Close and Julia Roberts. But it was the film "The Deer Hunter”, specifically the Russian roulette scene between Christopher Walken and Robert DeNiro that made me want to be an actor. I remember watching it at home on TV when I was sixteen and standing with my head in my hands pacing about and shouting as I watched the scene unfold.
You grew up caught between two cultures: Persian and British. In a recent excellent BBC documentary (See Below) You seem to regret the “cool” or lets say “positive” image we as Iranians seemed to have before the Revolution. Do you think Western awareness on our history and struggles as a Diaspora community has evolved since the early days of the Revolution?
Not really no. That’s why I keep going.
One of your very hilarious sketches is about the typical shy Iranian in a Disco who ends up reinventing an entire new dance genre. I think a lot of us can identify with that acute observation. How much of your live performances are improvised and do you think there is a limit to self derision?
One is always open to improvisation because the live genre requires you to be. Finding stuff on the spur of the moment happens all the time but not always on stage, it happens in life which is why I write things down as they happen. Nothing gives me more pleasure though than a something I had just thought of and written out before hand then performed that evening and getting an instant reaction (a big laugh hopefully). And with regards to “self-derision” I am always wary of people who take themselves too seriously.
You seem to have paved the road for other talented Persian Stand Ups in Britain like Shappi Khorsandi, or Patrick Monahan. What is your outlook on this new generation and is there a difference of approach in Humor between British and American Iranians of the Diaspora?
They’re all good comics. Those two comics definitely have Iranian charm stamped across their stand up and their stage persona. Maz Jobrani too I think is one to watch, I love his voice and his manner.
How can or should our Diaspora Community evolve without denying its roots and identity?
By firstly integrating and assimilating in and to where ever you are. Having lived as a "Brit” abroad myself (in the former Czechoslovakia in the 1990s) I have seen how learning another language and adapting to the mind set of those around you in a foreign land can be the difference between people loving you and just tolerating you. Of course when you do this you are never fundamentally forgetting who you are and where you came from. The idea that you are denying your roots and identity by assimilating is a completely unfounded fear in my mind.
Persian Diaspora actors or celebrities seem to want to use their image also to raise awareness on the plight of Iranians back home. Singer Nazanin Afshin-Jam for instance who is also a former Miss World Canada is currently trying to draw attention on the case of a young girl who risks execution in Iran (see article). As an Iranian Baha’i do you feel the same commitment or responsibility in regard to your religious community who is also suppressed back home?
I think there is no question in the minds of all Iranians and indeed the international community that Baha’is have had undue negative treatment in Iran to various degrees since the inception of this peaceful World Faith in the mid 1800s. I suppose in the same way that through me a portion of mainstream Britain/Europe/America sees that Iranians are not all the religious fanatics that the media would have us be, and have a sense of humor and fun (and thus, dare we say it, humanity!) I would like to think that for those who have been brought up with prejudice against Baha’is I am a positive reminder that Baha’is are not all bald and overweight... hang on, that came out wrong
You have played so many different colorful characters in movies, and on stage which makes it very difficult to typecast you as an actor. Which one has been your favorite part so far?
On the contrary, being bald, dark and over weight makes it very easy to type-cast me. However playing Lupo, Heath Ledger’s Valet to his “Casanova” where I played some sort of posh-talking effete socialite/man-servant was a testament to the fact that I’m not just here for the Middle-Eastern bit-part film ride.
You have proved that you can also play serious roles as with your remarkable portrayal of Picasso opposite Andy Garcia in Mike Davis’ Modigliani, interestingly you both share a similar commitment to your community, have you been tempted by film direction as Garcia with Lost City?
Playing Picasso was indeed a thrill and Garcia is an artiste of some influence. You will, over the next few years, see me direct and produce as this is where the power lies. Already being at the helm of my own TV show at the BBC has been liberating.
There seems to be a cultural and geographical gap between Iranian Cinema and that of the Persian/Iranian Diaspora which is still trying to define an identity, and style. Do you think there is an area to find common ground and maybe even subjects that could lead to cooperation between these two Worlds?
This a very good question. There is so much talent in Iran. I am in contact with some of the “new wave” such as Bijan Daneshmand who along with Mania Akbari blew me away in their film “20 Fingers” (***). Collaboration between the two sets of artistes I believe is an inevitability.
You were awarded the Persian Golden Lioness Award this October, along with Shohreh Aghdashloo in the field of dramatic arts, and many other artists in different disciplines.
The Persian community has alot of young aspiring actors/directors and artists worldwide. What advice would you give them to succeed in this profession?
To live by my own personal motto "screw it, just do it !”.
Any plans of a tour in California with your No Agenda Stand Up?
None as yet, too busy sorry.
Thank you Omid for your time and wishing you all the best in your promising Career.
Ghorbaneh shomah. Comment
Omid Djalili’s Official Website : http://www.omidnoagenda.com/
(*) based on Eugene O'Neill's play.
(**) Gladiator was Oliver Reed’s very last movie ( he died during the shoot). He was a great British actor who ironically had also shot a movie in Iran in the 70’s called And Then They Were None(novel by Agatha Christie) shot in Persepolis and Shah Abbas Hotel in Isfahan.
(***) Had its World Premiere at the Venice Film Festival September 2004 where it was awarded the Best Film - Venezia Cinema Digitale. Subsequently the film has been selected and screened at the following Film Festivals: Los Angeles AFI FEST International Feature Competition, Vancouver- New Cinema, Sao Paulo- Young Directors, India, Gijon-Spain, Zagreb. In December 2004 it was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for the Spirit of Freedom, International Film Competition at the Bahamas International Film Festival.
Darius KADIVAR is a Freelance Journalist, Film Historian, and Media Consultant.