DIGGING OMID’S ROOTS
British-Iranian comic Omid Djalili is everywhere. A star of stand-up with his own BBC show imminent, he now has a leading role in new British film Grow Your Own. Leigh Singer discovers where the serious funny man is coming from.
June 14-20, 2007
If using ethnicity to gain advantage is called ‘playing the race card’, British-Iranian joker Omid Djalili has long been dealing aces with stand-up shows entitled ‘The Arab and the Jew’, ‘Behind Enemy Lines’ and – just to clarify things - ‘Omid Djalili is Ethnic’.
Born and raised in London, the forty-one-year old - of Iran’s minority Baha’i faith, incidentally, thus neither Arab nor Muslim - has gradually established himself as one of the UK’s leading comics, and character actors in blockbuster movies like The Mummy and Gladiator. Yet his distinctive Middle Eastern look (his stand-up debut, ‘Short Fat Kebab Shop Owner’s Son’ came from his wife’s description of early photos he sent her) and choice of material has meant that issues of race and cultural identity are never far away.
“I wouldn’t say it’s because it’s expected of me, it’s because I’m genuinely interested in it,” considers Djalili. “As you see with a lot of black comics in America – Dave Chappelle, Richard Pryor – if you’ve been a minority or perceive yourself as being in a minority, you will talk about it.”
Instructive, then, that Djalili’s last stand-up tour – a nationwide hit and Edinburgh fringe record sell-out – was pointedly entitled No Agenda, widening the scope of his targets. And his imminent headlining BBC1 show – “it’s sketches and stand-up, a bit like Dave Allen,” he says proudly – is more diverse still.
“I deal with my Iranian-ness, the fact that I’m an outsider, about 10% of the show,” he says. “It could easily have been 50%, so I’m very lucky that I feel there are lots of other issues I can tackle. And there is a limit to how much you can bang on about it.”
Nevertheless, Djalili moving away from ethnocentric material isn’t remotely the same as, say, Eddie Izzard deciding to hold off Mrs. Badcrumble gags. Such concerns are genetic; part of Djalili’s comic DNA. So it’s no surprise to see him in a new independent British comedy Grow Your Own, about a group of asylum seekers and refugees given plots at a very traditional northern allotment.
The film’s premise is based on a real programme set up outside Liverpool: traumatised immigrants, unable to work while their applications to stay in the UK are processed, allowed to cultivate their own patch of land on foreign soil. In the film this provokes mixed responses from the dug-in, eccentric English natives.
Amid an excellent ensemble cast, Djalili plays Ali, an Iranian doctor with a suspect resident status. No gardener himself – “there were some shots were the director said, look just pretend that you’re cutting the grass and I couldn’t even do that, I was so bad” he winces – the film had immediate appeal for Djalili.
“I’d never heard of anything like this project and thought it was a lovely idea,” he enthuses. “It just brought the plight of asylum seekers to such a tremendous human level. These people are not just economic migrants, they’re escaping something and have suffered tremendously. I love the way it’s a small film that deals with all these things in a really subtle way and doesn’t knock you over the head with the issues – it kind of reminded me in a way of one of these Iranian films that win all the awards…” Evidently you can take the boy out of Iran…
Indeed, though originally written as an Albanian, at Djalili’s encouragement, his character was changed to an Iranian. “There are a lot of Iranians up north and a lot who are traumatised,” he reasons. “I even heard a story of an Iranian doctor who’d been deported in exactly the same way.” But there were perhaps even more pertinent, personal reasons for the shift.
“Technically I am a refugee myself,” he states. “I was born and raised in Britain but my family was going back and forth to Iran and it was only when the revolution happened in 1979 that that stopped any possibility of returning. People hear my accent and think, ‘Oh he’s just some upper-class ponce’.”
Djalili continues: “My point is, even though I’m officially a refugee, I don’t really think much about asylum seekers. This film is such a powerful comment on that. In a microcosm film like this, you get such a great macrocosm message about the oneness of mankind.”
It might sound a little grandiose but there’s no mistaking Djalili’s sincerity. For him, comedy is a serious business, perhaps befitting someone whose early performance work involved avant-garde theatre in Prague. When he did later switch to stand-up, encouraged by his Scottish actress/director wife, Annabel Knight, it took a while – and cataclysmic world events – for him to really find his niche. And his voice.
“2002 was when I really began to grow up as a comedian,” he asserts. “Up until then I’d just been a gag slinger. It was all about surviving at Jongleurs: bludgeon them into listening to me, get a laugh, do some dancing at the end and then piss off. But after 9/11, I couldn’t for the life of me just get up there and say, ‘Hello, I’m Omid Djalili…so, milk floats, eh?’”
9/11 as career-saver? If only things were so straightforward. “On September 13th , I had a corporate gig cancelled because it was me,” Djalili stresses. “A lot of gigs were withdrawn because people thought, this guy could be dangerous. I actually believed my career was over, to be honest.”
“Then I thought this is the time to step up, to write material around all the issues that people were experiencing. I can be a commentator, I can be of use, get an issue, make people think about it and make them laugh.”
The gamble – and it was a gamble - paid off. “When I went to Edinburgh in 2002,” he points out, “I was prepared to put a bet on that there would be at least 10 shows, drama and comedy, that would deal with 9/11. I got there and realised it was just me.”
Yet again, Djalili was in the minority. Making fun of the Taliban or suicide bombers might have been viewed then as career suicide. Rather than being ostracised, however, he found audiences flocking to his shows keen to hear the view from someone spanning both worlds. He insists, “Certainly in the Middle Eastern community after 9/11 I felt I was someone who was a real bridge between East and West.”
It’s the bridge that Djalili evidently built on and paved the way to his current successes. Along with the burgeoning stand-up, upcoming TV show and regular, memorable movie roles – he’s the only person to share a bed onscreen with both Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), and to be shot dead by Keith Richards (Pirates of the Caribbean 3) his star continues to rise in the West. So how does he bill himself now? Comedian? Actor? Renaissance man?
“I’d just put ‘chancer’,” he laughs. “Honestly, I watch myself onscreen and think, ‘You can’t act’. I watch myself do comedy and think, ‘You’re not funny’. But somehow people allow me to do it. I don’t really understand it but I’m certainly enjoying it. And when you make people laugh because they’ve understood something, they feel elevated. And so do you.”
It seems like Omid Djalili still has an agenda after all.
Grow Your Own opens June 15th.