Once a year, a group of young actors – we’re not sure what the collective noun would be exactly: a herd, a glint, a rookery? – who have demonstrated outstanding talent in their craft arrive at the offices of Official London Theatre to receive a Laurence Olivier Bursary, and each year we try to guess who will be the next to join the long list of famous bursary alumni from Michael Sheen to Ewan McGregor or who will find themselves with an Olivier Award in their hand first.
In 2010 Raj Bajaj was one of those to make the prestigious grade and take his spot in the limelight at our Rose Street home, so, three short years later, it is particularly satisfying to find myself chatting on the phone to the young rising star and discussing his Royal Court theatre debut in new drama The Djinns Of Eidgah, just over a year following his West End debut with the equally esteemed Royal Shakespeare Company.
Having two theatrical Royals on your CV may be impressive enough, but Bajaj still has his eyes set firmly on the future, with the National Theatre waiting to be ticked off his to do list and even his own production company keeping him busy when he’s not on stage.
Here he tells us how winning the bursary was imperative to getting where he is today, why telling his parents he wanted to be an actor and not an accountant was terrifying, and reveals that his strangest job to date was witnessed by a billion people across the world…
CV in brief:
2010: Awarded a Laurence Olivier Bursary by Society of London Theatre, the organisation behind Official London Theatre
2011: Graduates from ALRA drama school
2011: Appears in the The Snow Queen at the Unicorn theatre
2012: Plays Balthasar in the RSC’s Much Ado About Nothing in Stratford-upon-Avon and in the West End
October 2013: Make his Royal Court debut in Abhishek Majumdar’s The Djinns Of Eidgah
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Bristol in 1986. I was the youngest of six, so in my household if you needed to voice an opinion you had to pretty much shout! There were five other siblings that were going to get there before you so you had to fight for everything: food, shelter, TV programmes…
Do you think learning to have your voice heard led you into performing?
I guess I got quite a lot of attention being the youngest, which is something I enjoyed. My mum and my dad are not very extroverted people, but it was funny because watching my siblings growing up, they were very confident, and I think it was going to weddings and seeing all my sisters and brothers on the dance floor, not feeling shy, it kind of pushed me into naturally performing. I’d go to Saturday and Sunday schools, and when we recited the Hindu prayer I’d be the loudest in the group; everyone else would be really shy and wouldn’t want to sing it, while I’d be singing at the top of my lungs!
When I was growing up I had a massive collection of movies – Bollywood and Hollywood – and there was always a fascination there, but because I had a lot of other things going on and my parents were quite traditional – they wanted me to be an accountant or a chemist and a lot of my older brothers and sisters took the very academic routes of degrees and masters – I felt like that was what my parents wanted me to do.
How does your family feel about it now?
Now it’s different! I remember I was sitting on a bench at college and I saw all these performing arts students come out and they were having so much fun. I went back to my sister and said ‘Look, I really want to do this’ and she helped me break it to my mum and dad. They weren’t too happy to be honest, but that was the start. I did a B-TECH, then I did a HND [Higher National Diploma], then I went to drama school. It was quite tough, but it was worth it.
You won a Laurence Olivier Bursary at drama school. What did that mean to you?
Yes, I was one of I think 10 chosen to receive a bursary and I was extremely happy about that. The alumni was fantastic, but even recent graduates who had received them, I’d seen them in theatre and had been blown away by their performances. I think you do go through ups and downs [as an actor] and when I won that award it definitely helped me with my confidence.
Do you think initiatives like the Laurence Olivier Bursary are important?
Absolutely. Any kind of award is so helpful, even if you break it down to [help pay for] drama school. ALRA was 11 or 12 grand a year and on the application sheet it said if you didn’t receive a drama award, like a scholarship, would you still be able to afford the school? And I ticked the box saying there was no way I could. I went for an audition, they offered me a place and I got one [a scholarship]. But if it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have been at drama school. And then the Laurence Olivier Bursary [the Bursary is awarded to help students in their final year of studying]!
The hard work was obviously worth it because now you’re at the Royal Court!
Yes, which is absolutely amazing. It’s been a dream of mine since drama school. It was like ‘Yeah, one day I’ll do the Royal Court, the RSC, the National’ and so far I’ve done two out of three, so the National’s next! I’m totally honoured and grateful to be a part of the process and be a part of such a fantastic play.
Tell me about your character in The Djinns Of Eidgah.
I’m playing Khalid who is a 21-year-old Kashmiri boy who loves football, but at the same time he’s also passionate about his country and he doesn’t like the way Kashmir is being run at the moment. His one wish is to be able to walk on the streets of Kashmir freely and not have restrictions or soldiers around, being able to do what he wants to do and not be judged because he’s a Kashmiri. He’s a fun, happy go lucky character and he makes a lot of jokes, but at the same time he’s very passionate and very religious.
The play looks like it deals with some big social and political issues. Have you done much research?
Yes. I actually got in contact with a few people from Kashmir, young boys between 21 and 25. I went onto Facebook and because my character is heavily involved in football, I looked up Kashmiri football teams and [found] a group of boys that play in Kashmir. I messaged them and a few of them got back to me! I just spoke to them about their opinions on life and what it’s like to live out there.
We Skyped as well… Even talking to them helps me with my accent and things like that, but also there were questions that needed answering and they happily gave me the time, which was really nice. I also read a few books about Kashmir and the whole history; I’m Hindu Punjabi and my parents are from India, so initially I thought I’d do the history of Kashmir, but for me to do the history of Kashmir I had to look at the history of India.
Did appearing in the RSC Much Ado About Nothing feel like an important experience?
Absolutely. It was part of the World Shakespeare Festival and a full-blown Indian Shakespeare, which I’m very sure has never been done before, so that was incredible to be a part of. It was such a lovely show and a lot of people came to see it from all over the UK, not just your typical RSC clientele.
What’s your favourite thing about being on stage?
There’s nothing better than making a joke and the audience laughing!
And the worst?
The worst feeling about being on stage is the nerves. The other thing is forgetting your lines, that’s never happened to me… or a prop not being there!
What do you do when you’re not performing?
I have a little, I call it a production company, called Bad News Crew, but it’s really just me and a few people who write scripts and then we film them. We come up with small sketches here and there or we write stand-up for each other.
What’s the most obscure job you’ve ever done?
I’d probably say being in the Beijing Closing Ceremony was one of the most obscure jobs. We were in a stadium and there were 85,000 people and you were watched by a billion people around the world. We sung the national anthem and did a little dance number. We went out initially and did a Shakespeare play [in Beijing, with the National Youth Theatre], The Merchant Of Venice, with subtitles, went back home and flew out again for the Closing Ceremony. That was incredible.
What’s the best advice anyone’s ever given you?
When I was applying for drama school and I was extremely nervous, I said to this man called Jim, who I used to work with part-time at Royal Mail: ‘I feel really nervous about this audition coming up’ and he sat down with me and said ‘Listen Raj’, you’ll be in that room and you’ll see all those other people in that room auditioning. You could be in that room with celebrities, you could be in that room with well-established actors, but remember one thing, you are as equal as the man standing next to you’. If they can do something, then surely I can do something.