Omid Djalili in a musical? The comedian has had to win his public, his creative team and himself round to play the role of Fagin in Oliver!, finds Caroline Bishop.
Omid Djalili, it turns out, was the last person to realise he may be suited to musical theatre. In fact, it is surprising he has ended up playing Fagin in Oliver! at all. “I have always hated musicals,” he tells me, shortly into our conversation at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where he is a couple of weeks into his run.“A friend of mine, years ago, we went to see The Producers and he said ‘I bet you’ll be doing a musical soon.’ I said ‘you’ve got to be joking.’”
Whoopi Goldberg, with whom Djalili worked on her self-titled sitcom back in 2003, also saw the British-Iranian actor/comedian as a musical theatre star. “She was thrilled to find out I was doing Fagin. She said to me, ‘I told you motherf***er, I told you.’”
Cameron Mackintosh, it seems, saw it too, when he called Djalili in to audition and recalled him when the first audition didn’t exactly go to plan. “I was absolutely appalling,” he says. “I don’t know why they even considered me. But they must have seen something; I think I threw in a few improvisations which I remember made them laugh and they just thought well let’s give it a shot. I think there was always the thought that they could sack me a week into rehearsals.”
Perhaps Mackintosh and director Rupert Goold had seen a certain aptitude in the comic’s musical sketches in his BBC series The Omid Djalili Show. He certainly seemed in his element warbling and dancing his way through skits like Credit Crunch The Rock Opera and Kebab Shop The Musical. “But I always did them ironically,” he says, claiming that he never thought he could be in a musical for real.
“Work is worship and you get to find out about yourself by working”
But here he is, sitting in his capacious dressing room at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and by his own account, he is actually quite enjoying himself. So why did he hate musicals? “I’ve always been put off by musical theatre acting, I think that’s what it was,” he explains. “And I think that was a big struggle we had in rehearsals, where they [the directors] kept wanting me to push it bigger, and I kept saying ‘well I have to find the truth of it first’, but I was far too quiet. Then I realised when you get to the theatre you can find the truth of it but you just have to project and your voice has to be big and your face has to be up because you’ve got four tiers. For the first few nights people in the stalls would be clapping and standing, the circle would be warm and then there would be almost no cheer from level three and four because they would complain that all they could see was my nose.”
“I think that’s when the director said to me look, you just have to exaggerate it. You don’t have to be toe-curling, anus-shrivelling, bad acting, you’ve just got to show the truth by exaggerating a little bit. I think I’ve got that now,” he smiles.
Unlike Rowan Atkinson, his predecessor as Fagin, Djalili is not a household name; he has to work hard, he tells me, to win round an audience who may be thinking “who’s this curious little man playing a rather overweight Fagin?” “Every show before I appear I’m gee-ing myself up, thinking ‘you’ve got to make this.’ I can’t wing it. I’ve noticed the one night my energy was low, they still cheered at the end, but the cheer for me was less than for everybody else. I thought ‘oh I can’t walk through this, I have to be at my best every single night.’”
It surprises me that Djalili didn’t know all this already, because he is a theatre man at heart. Though he hasn’t acted on stage for 13 years, he read Theatre Studies at university and was a jobbing stage actor for years before becoming a stand up and screen actor. His acting experience reveals itself in his comedy – he is known for his impressive array of accents and a penchant for belly dancing – and he is no stranger to big theatres, having played the London Palladium and the Hammersmith Apollo.
“I think there was always the thought that they could sack me a week into rehearsals”
But being on stage alone as a stand up is very different to acting as part of a company, he points out. “In stand up everyone’s focused on you, so the smallest thing you do they will laugh because they are focused on you, but it’s different in a musical where you are kind of fighting for attention.”
He discovered the comedy circuit after spending five years in touring theatre in Europe and on the London fringe. In 1995 he played his first stand up show at the Edinburgh Festival, Short, Fab Kebab Shop Owner’s Son, which set out the style of comedy that has become his trademark, one which plays heavily on ethnicity and his own Iranian heritage. Six return visits to Edinburgh and two series of his own BBC show testify to his success as a comedian, but it turns out that stand up was something of a career diversion. “They always say you end up doing the thing you’re second best at,” he says (Marcel Proust apparently), “and I think that maybe stand up comedy was the thing I was second best at. Because I don’t think I’m a great stand up comedian but I’m good enough, apparently, for people to listen and to be put on TV a bit, but I don’t ever see myself in the league of the greats, at all, I don’t even see myself as that as an actor, but I think certainly I have a better chance of being a better actor than I am a stand up comedian.”
Djalili admits a couple of times during our conversation that he has a big ego – it is one of the reasons he strives for as big a cheer as co-star Jodie Prenger each night – and yet on this subject he is self-deprecating, not seeing himself on the same level as comedians he admires like Eddie Izzard, Bill Bailey and Robin Williams. “There is a league who I think really are magnificent, and I don’t know if I could ever get into that league. So when this opportunity came up I thought I’m just going to take a little break from stand up comedy and try and broaden my horizons and maybe go back to stand up as a richer human being, as someone who has had more experiences, who has worked in a company, who has collaborated with people.”
I am expecting a joke to follow, but it doesn’t. Djalili is taking this business seriously. Several times he has moments of profundity which, though teetering on the edge of trite, are heartfelt. “I’m not in it for the money or the fame,” he tells me at one point. “You get to know yourself through working. Work is worship and you get to find out about yourself by working and I think it’s been such a rich experience so far that I can’t be thankful enough.
“The only thing I regret,” he adds, “is putting a false beard on twice on a Wednesday. Because I don’t like facial hair stuck on my facial hair, it feels icky.” Even that is said with a certain solemnity.
“I think that maybe stand up comedy was the thing I was second best at”
His reinvention as a musical theatre star completes a year of rich experiences for Djalili. His steady career as a character actor in films both here and in the US – watching 1984 film Amadeus was what inspired him to be an actor – has led him to producing. Next year will see the release of two films he has co-produced: the screen adaptation of Howard Marks’s autobiography, Mr Nice, which stars Rhys Ifans as the famous drug dealer, and David Baddiel’s screenplay The Infidel, in which Djalili also stars as an adopted British-Pakistani Muslim who finds out his biological parents were Jewish. “I think being involved in the process of both those films, especially The Infidel, have been extremely exciting. Because even if the film loses money and even if it flops, at least we knew that we were trying to do something different and trying to do something that would have some kind of meaning, some kind of zeitgeist for what’s going on in the world right now.”
Film producing, he says, has been a revelation. “To be part of that decision making process and the politics in it and the diplomacy you need… these are things that help you grow as a person.”
Now he can add musical theatre actor to his burgeoning set of skills. He may have started rehearsals disliking ‘big’ acting and being taken aside for a quiet word when he hadn’t learnt his lines, but now the show’s creative team, who “look like nine of the most scary people who would not be satisfied by anything I did”, seem satisfied enough to no longer feel the need to give him notes; assistant director Laurence Connor is sending him congratulatory texts, the dance captains have nicknamed him “Gorge, short for Gorgeous” and he hasn’t, as his wife predicted, been sacked. Most importantly, the reluctant musical theatre actor has even won round himself: “It’s been more enjoyable than I thought it was going to be,” he concedes.
So what’s next in the Omid Djalili journey of self-improvement? Would he ever, I venture, expand on his ironic musical sketches and write a real, full-length stage musical? He considers. “I think I would actually,” he says, “now I’ve grown to really love this. I love musicals now.” Who would have thought?