Scene from Ridely Scott’s Gladiator:
[looking at some slaves]
Proximo ( Oliver Reed ) : “Can any of them fight? I've got a match coming up.”
Slave Trader (Omid Djalili) : “Some are good for fighting, others for dying. You need both, I think …”
“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
The Former Student of the
Center : Omid (right) a few years younger at school. Legend doesn’t say if he
already dreamed of epics (Gladiator and the Mummy) or if his pal thought it
was a very funny idea (sic) ©OmidNoAgenda.com
I had the privilege of interviewing him recently on his life, career and future projects.
Darius KADIVAR (DK): 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?
Omid Djalili (OD): 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.
DK: Your Stand up No Agenda was a hit at the
OD: 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
DK: Who were your role models as a teenager when you were aspiring to become an actor ?
OD: 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.
DK: 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 ?
OD: Not really no. That’s why I keep going.
DK: 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 ?
OD: 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.
Above : Casanova Premiere with Heath Ledger & Sienna Miller and cast as Lupo
Bottom Left : Omid in Bed with Jude Law & Gwyneth Paltrow in Sky Captain of Tomorrow.
Bottom Right : A Dangerous Stunt scene for the trade slaver (Omid Djalili ) whose
private parts are at the mercy of Proximo’s (Oliver Reed ) good will, a comic
relief in Ridley Scott’s Blockbuster Epic Gladiator (courtesy Omid Djalili website)
DK: 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 ?
OD: 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.
DK: How can or should our Diaspora Community evolve without denying its roots and identity ?
OD: 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.
DK: 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 ?
OD: 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
DK: 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 ?
OD: 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.
DK: 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 ?
OJ: 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.
Opposite Any Garcia in Mike Davis’ Modigliani © REZO FILMS
DK: 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 ?
OD: This a very good question. There
is so much talent in
DK: 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 ?
OD: To live by my own personal motto ˜screw it, just do it !”.
DK: Any Plans of a tour in
OD: None as yet, too busy sorry.
DK: Thank you Omid for your Time and wishing you all the best in your promising Career.
OD: Ghorbaneh shomah.
Be Careful Mr. Bond : The Name is Djalili …
Omid Djalili (courtesy Omid Djalili website )
Authors notes :
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
(***) 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,
About the Author: Darius KADIVAR is a Freelance Journalist, Film Historian, and Media Consultant.
... Payvand News - 3/12/07 ... --