Europe By Darius KADIVAR
Scene from Ridely Scott’s
[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
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).
Omid (right) a few years younger at school. Legend doesn’t say if he
dreamed of epics (Gladiator and the Mummy) or if his pal thought it
very funny idea (sic)
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
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 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 ?
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 New York for example I
was more energized. But every night is a different
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
Bottom Left : Omid in Bed with Jude Law &
Gwyneth Paltrow in Sky Captain of Tomorrow.
Right : A Dangerous Stunt scene for the trade slaver (Omid Djalili )
private parts are at the mercy of Proximo’s (Oliver Reed ) good will, a
relief in Ridley Scott’s Blockbuster Epic
Gladiator (courtesy Omid
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
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.
WAALM® Reunion, Budapest Left to Right: Shabnam Rezaei, Omid,
Bruce Bahmani ©Shabnam
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
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 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
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
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
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 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
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
with your No Agenda Stand Up ?
OD: None as yet, too busy sorry.
DK: Thank you Omid for your Time and
wishing you all the best in your promising Career.
Be Careful Mr. Bond : The Name is 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
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
About the Author: Darius KADIVAR is a Freelance Journalist,
Film Historian, and Media Consultant.
... Payvand News - 3/12/07 ... --