The Artful dodger Interview: Art Malik

After establishing himself in `The Jewel in the Crown' in 1984, Art Malik became well known as a Hollywood baddie. Now Britain's most successful Asian actor is turning his hand to comedy

Time was when Art Malik was only offered series with titles like Patel and Smith. "Casting directors only thought of Asians as doctors, lawyers or people pushing brooms around Heathrow," he sighs at the memory. "You'd only get scripts with an Asian slant. No commissioning editor woke up and said, `Of course, I've got to keep black people off our screens.' But whenever my agent asked, `What about Art?' they'd reply, `Oh, we didn't think of him.'"

Now, at last, Malik finds himself being cast in colour-blind roles. "If I've done anything, I've pushed things forward," he says, with evident - and justifiable - satisfaction. "My generation has helped to change things. Recently I've played parts where the name of the character is Anglo-Saxon; they just wanted me. Asians in their twenties and thirties are now presenting children's TV. I used to write to Blue Peter and think, `Why do they never read out a name that isn't Anglo-Saxon?' Asians are also appearing on mainstream dramas like This Life."

Despite what Norman Tebbit might claim, Britain is becoming a more tolerant, multi-cultural society - and that is being reflected in our dramas," Malik argues.

Malik's latest role - as a smoothy art critic who seduces both a mother (Harriet Walter) and a daughter (Elizabeth Dermot-Walsh) in the new Marks and Gran comedy, Unfinished Business - has absolutely nothing to do with his colour.

"How can you turn down Marks and Gran?" he asks. "Their scripts are so rich in texture. I've wanted to do a comedy for years. Early on in my career, I did a sitcom called Mixed Blessings, where I played an Asian visual gag, but I've done no comedy since."

Sipping Budweiser at the Groucho Club in a white collarless shirt and haut-couture stubble, Malik is a charismatic figure. The fatal combination of a rich voice and deep brown eyes is enough to win over any doubters.

Born in Pakistan, Malik moved to Britain aged three when his father got a job as a surgeon at Moorfields Eye Hospital. He trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and had stints at the Old Vic and the RSC. Things didn't really take off for him, however, until 1984 and The Jewel in the Crown, Granada's epic 13-part reading of the Paul Scott novel about India, which enjoyed a repeat run on Channel 4 last year.

Malik played the vulnerable Hari Kumar, a role which showcased what he reckons is his greatest asset. "The easiest bit is when you're talking. It's listening that is so difficult. If you get out any Spencer Tracy film, you think, `Wow, he's doing nothing, yet he's doing everything.' I'm lucky, I've got great photogenic eyes. You're up and running if you've got that and one brain cell to attach it to."

He admits that since then he has always been known as Art "Jewel in the Crown" Malik. Hasn't he ever worried about being type-cast as Hari? "No, I'm not trapped Jewel in the Crown," he contends. "Hari is a great friend. How many times in your career do you get to play a part like that?"

All the same, the Hari halo hung around Malik for some years and casting directors may have been deterred by it. By the early 1990s, a 14-month period without work had resulted in Malik owing pounds 32,000 to the Inland Revenue and pounds 55,000 to the bank. In the summer of 1993, he went for a crisis meeting with the tax man, who told him he had a week to repay his IR debts before summoning the Official Receiver. Malik returned from the meeting to hear about the offer of the part of Aziz opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in True Lies. He can laugh about it now: "I just said thank you to whoever is up there. No more Mr Tax Man for Art."

Even so, the role of an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist was not without its critics. Muslim groups complained about the portrayal. "It was stereotyping," Malik concedes, "But I didn't worry about it. My father and brothers are Muslims. They saw the film for what it was - a hoot. If anyone was coming away from True Lies saying, `Now I understand the Middle East problem', then Arnold is President of the US and I didn't know about it."

True Lies made Malik a Hollywood player, but with two teenage daughters, he didn't fancy the pools-and-plastic-surgery lifestyle of LA. He turned down both Spielberg's The Lost World and The Mark of Zorro with Antonio Banderas. "True Lies reinvented me in the eyes of a new generation and got me offers," Malik reveals. "It's just that I said no to them. I didn't want to do action movies that weren't as good."

Instead, he returned here to make Jean Vadim's quirky art-house movie Clockwork Mice, and take a lead in the West End production of Tom Stoppard's Indian Ink with Felicity Kendal. Work in pieces such as last year's Turning World on Channel 4 and Ismail Merchant's forthcoming Sidestreets has flowed regularly since.

Malik has even branched out and made his directoral debut with Blue Moon, an accomplished short about homelessness which he proudly showed me in an airless viewing room.

All this is storing up valuable experience for the day when Malik is no longer perceived as a sex symbol. Malik snorts derisively at the tag. "That's just a badge. You can be a sex symbol to the press. You embrace it, then say, `Thanks very much, I'll move on now'. That's why I chose those bad-guy roles, so people would think, `He doesn't mind not being liked'. That knocked the sex symbol image on the head. There are young boys out there who can do with that badge. I say to them, `Enjoy it.' You can't be a sex symbol at 45," he says, flashing me the sort of devastating smile that makes me think "rubbish".

`Unfinished Business' starts tonight at 9.55pm on BBC1

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