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Comedian Omid Djalili is breaking barriers . . . seriously

The British-born Iranian actor didn't anticipate the fuss over his playing the Jewish character Fagin, in 'Oliver!'

July 18, 2009|David Gritten

LONDON — Over the last 15 years, Omid Djalili, a British-born Iranian comedian and actor, who wryly refers to himself as "a Middle Eastern person," has become gradually famous by breaking down cultural differences and ethnic barriers.

His appealing stand-up routines hinge on making audiences laugh at their own prejudices, exploring British attitudes to "otherness" and observing that what various ethnic and religious groups have in common is as important as what divides them.

Still, even for a performer familiar with this territory, his latest venture represents a huge leap. On Monday, Djalili, 43, takes over from Rowan Atkinson as Fagin in Cameron Mackintosh's West End production of the musical "Oliver!"

So here's a man with parents from an Islamic republic, one whose current president makes his feelings about the state of Israel starkly clear, playing one of the best-known Jewish characters in literature -- even if in "Oliver Twist" Charles Dickens portrayed Fagin, who runs a gang of child pickpockets and petty criminals, unsympathetically.

Djalili refutes the idea that he deliberately courted controversy in accepting the role; he insists he never anticipated any kind of furor.

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'Are you mad?'

"When I first learned I'd landed the role in February," he recalls, "I didn't think there'd be any problem from 'my side.' But then recently I did a short stand-up tour of the Middle East for the first time -- Dubai, Bahrain, Beirut. I did some press, and the magazines and papers there wrote supportive things about me. But they raised the topic of me playing Fagin, and they all had three questions: 'Why?' 'What's all that about?' and 'Are you mad?' "

To Djalili, Fagin was simply a great part: "Any actor in musicals would probably want to play Fagin, or maybe Tevye in 'Fiddler on the Roof.' Then there's Shylock, Othello -- these are the big roles you want to play if you're slightly dark in complexion. I didn't realize that even to play around with the idea that here's an Iranian playing Fagin might be controversial."

Impresario Mackintosh had no need to stir up cash-generating publicity. This production of "Oliver!," which opened in January, was already a huge hit; its advance bookings of $24.6 million made it the fastest-selling West End show ever.

Instead, he chose Djalili as a complete contrast with Atkinson. "The only way to follow such a unique performance is with a talent just as unique yet entirely different," says Mackintosh. "No one could fulfill these criteria better than Omid. It's his ability to inhabit his characters with such comic energy and wily cunning that will make his Fagin his own."

Djalili already has his own ideas about the role. "Rowan's performance is one of real subtlety and gravitas," he says. "But what they want from me is to play it big, play it turbo-charged. Fagin is a character of light and shade. He can be all charm and fun, but also intimidating. And both those sides of him need to be played big."

Still, he was thrown into the rehearsal process literally the day after finishing work on a feature film: "It's tough, it's a whole new discipline, so unlike film," he says. "I have this team of people telling me I'm the kingpin in a well-oiled machine. And when the 'go' button gets pressed, and I'm on stage, I can't mess it up. I can't go over it again." He grimaces: "No pressure, then."

But he is determined to give the role 100% effort: "I have to," he says, scowling, "because there'll be Iranians in the audience. If you don't give it your best, that's one thing Iranians will not tolerate. It's about anything that brings Iran's name down. If I'm not up to scratch, they'll trash the place!"

Yet talking with Djalili after a long day's rehearsal in a south London hall, it's clear he might be inspired casting. A squat man with a shaved skull, he cuts an unforgettable figure, with his large head and generous girth. Urbane and amusing in conversation, he can also flash or roll his strikingly dark eyes to illustrate a point, and suddenly look menacing.

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British TV regular

He grew up in west London. While some in Britain still assume he is a Muslim, he was raised by his Iranian parents in the Baha'i faith. His stand-up career began in 1995 with an hour-long show at the Edinburgh Festival. Back then he employed the titles of his shows as statements of intent. That first one was called "Short, Fat, Kebab Shop Owner's Son." The next year it was "The Arab and the Jew."

A regular on British TV for a decade, he has also appeared in some 20 films, including "The Gladiator" and "The Mummy." He has often been typecast as sinister foreigners -- though he had an amusing turn as Heath Ledger's manservant in "Casanova."

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