Omid Djalili: 'I'm cast as the Arab scumbag'

The comedian and actor has a new film in which he plays a Muslim taxi-driver who discovers he's a Jew. But, generally, he says...

The Big Interview
Friday 05 March 2010 01:00 GMT
(David Sandison)

Omid Djalili is contemplating taking his clothes off. Well, not right now, as we're sitting in a busy restaurant near his house in leafy East Sheen and that would be extreme behaviour, even by his standards. No, he's talking about stand-up – which despite his successful film career is still his greatest love – and how there are times when he struggles to curb his baser impulses.

"I could easily streak on stage," he says, his eyes twinkling. "I would love to do a whole act naked. I could insult people, I could swear, I could do the most filthy material you've ever heard. But luckily I have a conscience that says: 'Would that really be good for my mother to see?'"

This balance between what is acceptable and what is not, what will make people laugh and what will send them running for the exits, has been something of a theme for Djalili, the London-born son of Iranian immigrants. His material is risqué alright, even if it doesn't involve sex, swearing, or shedding his clothes.

When I first saw his stand-up, less than a year after the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, he would play a neat trick on audiences, arriving on stage with a strong Iranian accent before unmasking himself as a well-spoken Englishman who just couldn't believe how well the "ethnic angle" was working.

Since then he has carved a niche as the de facto representative of anyone vaguely Middle Eastern, with gags about suicide bombers, the Taliban, even a gay Osama bin Laden. Meanwhile, on the big screen, he is invariably cast as "the Arab scumbag" (his words, not mine). In Ridley Scott's Gladiator he played a slave trader who got his privates manhandled by Oliver Reed, in The World is Not Enough he played an Azerbaijani oil-pipe foreman and in Spy Games he played a Lebanese CIA informant.

In taking over the role of Fagin in the West End production of Oliver! last year, Djalili made the shift from a Muslim stereotype to a Jewish one, even though he is neither, having been born and brought up a Baha'i, in a religion based on spiritual unity in which all the prophets, Jesus and Mohammed included, are spiritual messengers.

In his latest film, a British comedy called The Infidel, he gets the best of both worlds. Or worst, depending on how you look at it. He plays Mahmud, a Muslim cab driver and second-generation Pakistani from east London who discovers, following the death of his mother, that he is adopted and was born a Jew. Mahmud is horrified by the discovery, though his curiosity about his identity leads him into a friendship with another Jewish cabbie, played by The West Wing's Richard Schiff.

The film, which was written by David Baddiel, struggled to get financial backing at first – "people thought the subject was too scary," says Djalili – though it has already been sold to 42 different countries. The script certainly doesn't shy away from depicting the mistrust between Jewish and Muslim communities, even if it seeks to show us that, in the face of friendship and family values, religion doesn't matter.

Djalili is immensely proud of the film although he has the hump that, despite being the star of the show, his name isn't above the title on the posters. "I said: 'What's this rubbish? I want my name all over it, preferably in lights.' But they want me to be humble. I reckon it's their way of trying to get a good review."

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At 44, Djalili may be a seasoned actor but clearly he's not above worrying about such things. Neither is he beyond being impressed by his Hollywood friends. His latest cameo is as a hotel manager in Sex & The City 2. "They wanted me to be classy, which makes a change," he says. "I was alone with the four girls for four days. Four whole days! It was marvellous. Were they at each other's throats? Of course not!"

Are there any roles that he has turned down, and wished he hadn't?

"No, but I don't think like that," he reflects. "None of it has been planned. In 1988, way before I had started my career, I was travelling around America and stopped off in San Francisco. I met this group of gay guys who were making a film and they asked me to be in it. Part of it has me having my tarot cards read. This woman said I was going to be world-famous. She said my career would be built slowly in blocks and that I had to be patient but that I was going to do something very significant and the whole world would see it." He pauses and gives me one of his famous mile-wide grins. "I'm still holding out for that."

For all of his outward charisma and confidence, it's surprising to find that Djalili still frets about how he is perceived. In 2003 he landed a part in a sitcom with Whoopi Goldberg but he was never comfortable with it and was relieved when the show was axed after one series. Why?

"Because I hadn't established myself here in Britain. It was the wrong way round for me – British actors are meant to make their name at home first and then go to the States. HBO did a special on me over there in 2005 and I felt like a charlatan. Over here no one knew me, not really. It wasn't until I got my own television show (BBC1's The Omid Djalili Show) that I felt that I had earned it."

For Djalili, having his own show meant mainstream acceptance – something he never expected – as well as an opportunity to articulate his view of the world.

"I've had the weight of the world on me from a very young age," he tells me, with great seriousness. "I'm a minority within a minority. I'm not just an Iranian Briton, I'm a Baha'i Iranian Briton. Even Muslims think I'm weird. For years I was this wacky, cult figure packing out tiny comedy venues. I thought it would be like that forever. To be on BBC1 was a real stamp of approval. Plus it went to about 30 different countries. I went to Israel recently. Usually they give me trouble at the airport but this time they said, "I love your TV show" and just sent me through with no search. I like to think that from watching that show they trusted my viewpoint."

Djalili's parents came to London in 1957 – his mother had said to his father that if he wanted to marry her he had to take her to Carnaby Street. She worked as a dressmaker while his father was a photographer and foreign correspondent for Kayhan, an international Iranian newspaper. Following the Islamic revolution in 1979 his father lost his job and his parents made ends meet by opening their home as a hostel to sick Iranians visiting England for medical treatment.

School was, by all accounts, a disaster for Djalili. Having flunked his O-levels he went on to take 49 different A-level papers over three years, and failed the lot of them. Desperate to go to university, he lied about his grades on his Ucas form and got a place at Ulster. He emerged with a high 2:1, proving that he wasn't the dunce that everyone had assumed he was.

"I had a Lebanese professor there, Suheil Bushrui, who was a friend of Prince Charles and advisor to many countries. He was a short, fat, bald man, though he was so charming people treated him like George Clooney. He had faith in me; he made me feel like I had potential to be unleashed. He confided in me once that all he ever wanted to do was be an actor, so I thought 'Well that's what I'll do then'."

In 1992 Djalili married actress Annabel Knight, with whom he now has three children – Isabella, 16, Louis, 14 and Danny, 10. The couple spent a few years in the Czech Republic doing experimental theatre, after which they came home to start a family.

It was Annabel who suggested he try stand-up – she had once shared a flat with Alan Davies, and watched his ascent – and in 1994 persuaded him to go for a night out at the Comedy Store. Djalili's initial reaction – a shrill "I can't do this! Are you insane?" – gradually gave way to curiosity.

He took a show to the Edinburgh Fringe called The Short Fat Kebab Shop-Owner's Son. On returning home he wrote to every comedy establishment in London telling them how he had stormed Edinburgh (which wasn't strictly true) and would like to perform at their club. No one responded apart from a small place in Twickenham which gave him a five-minute slot.

Djalili raised the roof after just three minutes, at which point his stand-up career was up and running. He was taken under the wing of the comic Ivor Dembina, with whom he briefly formed a double act called The Arab and the Jew, and who tutored him in the ways of the stand-up – "he would always give me notes after a show, a typical high-status Jew".

There were disastrous nights when the compere couldn't get his name right – "ladies and gentlemen, Omad Darjeeling!" — and where he didn't get a single laugh. On one such evening the crowd cried "off, off, off" to a slow-handclap. Djalili squinted into the lights to see his wife leading the chant. "In her defence, she saw how badly things were going and she just couldn't bear it. She thought I'd be better off if I just left."

There have been suggestions that Djalili wouldn't have had a career without September 11, but the truth is that it nearly finished it off. Immediately after the terrorist attacks he was dropped from corporate gigs and from theatre performances. "Their excuse was that they were dropping comedy altogether but I would find out later that someone had taken my place," he recalls. "Fortunately, I had just won the Time Out comedy award and they had me booked in at the Bloomsbury Theatre. I didn't want to do it but they were the only ones that hadn't dropped me. There were posters around town saying 'Middle Eastern madman!'. We had people running all over central London tearing those posters down."

Djalili rewrote his material to reflect the new political times, and the resulting show, Behind Enemy Lines, was a huge success, earning him adoring reviews and a nomination for the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh festival. Since then he has become the cuddly face of the Middle East, a cultural standard-bearer with a big grin and a nice line in belly dancing.

So, I ask, no death threats, no placards, not so much as an angry letter? "Well, there was the time on my TV show when I had a sketch called Middle-EastEnders where we used the Islamic call to prayer," he replies. "There was quite a bit of rage on my website after that. But, on the whole, people can see the respect I have for all the religions I talk about. Through my own faith I have an understanding of many different religions and I think people can tell there's a good intention, that there's a warmth there."

'The Infidel' is released on 9 April

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