Arsher Ali is the latest local actor to break through big style, with a stunning film debut in Chris Morris’ terrorist satire Four Lions. We cornered him in Lee Rosy’s and questioned him about his career and what it’s like to workwith the man himself, without resorting to waterboarding...
So whereabouts in Notts are you from?
I grew up mostly in New Basford but now I’m based in Sherwood and London. I can straight out say that I prefer Nottingham. There are places in London that I like; there’s something nice about the South Bank on a mild night looking out onto the Thames with the lights, trees and the National Theatre. But that’s just one place in a massive city. Here, you can walk around and you just feel like you’re home.
Do you think that being Asian helps or hinders you getting roles?
I think both. If you’re a white actor my age you’ve got about 10,000 other people going for the same role, but if you’re an Asian actor the pool is a bit smaller. That’s a good and a bad thing though. I’ve been quite lucky in that I have had roles that have been written for white people or someone non-specific. If you’ve got an imaginative casting director they see past your colour. Anything you do is up to these guys, they’re the ones who decide.
Before this you’d done quite a lot of Shakespearean acting…
Yeah, I spent about a year and a half at the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was amazing and I’m glad I did, but being a newbie and going straight into the RSC you’re not exactly offered a lot to do. I was lucky because my contract gave me a bit of progression and more responsibility, where I was playing Oberon and Theseus in Midsummer Night’s Dream. Stratford’s great and it’s a real remedy to London. But I’m not going to lie, I did go a bit insane. It’s a lovely place to visit but it’s very middle England, very Daily Mail. There’s a small minority that object to black actors playing monarchs, but I was aware of it.
Where’s your favourite place to hang out in Nottingham?
Lee Rosy’s, Broadway and also Alley Café because they do the vegetarian and vegan friendly stuff. I’m a part time vegan - I don’t have dairy but sometimes at home my Mum will have cooked with meat. You can’t say no when it is made for you, “No, no, no. Can I just have some chickpeas?” Nah.
How did you first get into acting?
I dunno… just randomly. I’m glad that’s how it worked out for me, I didn’t chase after it; it fell into my lap and felt right. I didn’t question it, I just threw myself into it.
You won the Laurence Olivier Student Award in 2005 - how did that come about?
Every UK drama school nominates a male and a female from their final year to take part and it’s a fight to the death for £7.5k. I had no idea what it was before I got into it, it was bizarre but it gave me a taste of what was going to come once I had left drama school. It helped me out and also the drama school I went to wasn’t one of the established clique powerhouses so it was nice to give it some exposure and stick the fingers up to RADA and places like that.
Who are your inspirations then?
There are the obvious American actors but there’s no point even name checking them because you know who they are. Then people like Daniel Day-Lewis and Gary Oldman and David Thewlis in Naked – that’s one of my favourite films – and his performance in that is absolute. That’s a performance which makes you think you should just pack it in because what he does is absolutely ridiculous. Paddy Considine is great; in A Room for Romeo Brass I spent most of the film thinking he’s a buffoon and then realised he’s a dangerous buffoon.
What about British directors?
Michael Winterbottom and Shane Meadows, I like their style and I rate Mike Leigh. A lot of these British directors are quite cliquey – I hope Chris Morris doesn’t turn out to be like that. Actually, I do! I hope Chris becomes one of those cliquey British directors because I would be part of that clique.
What was he like to work with?
He has this crazy, enthusiastic intelligence and wit that rubs off on everyone. You’d try something and he’d immediately know how to make it funny. It was uncanny because he’d be able to improvise in your character’s voice so it got to a point where you’d dread him coming over because he’d make everyone piss themselves. You just thought, “I’ve got to do that now. Why don’t you just do it?” He was very hands-on and happy to let things
reel off and just go with things because ultimately there might be something funny in it.
Did you have to audition for Four Lions?
Yes and no. Chris was one of the first people that I met when I left drama school. I was told by my agent to be at this place to meet a casting director and then half an hour before I got there I got another call saying “Oh, and Chris Morris is going to be there.” I was like, “What? The Chris Morris?” I went in and there he was with his wild hair like a crazed Sideshow Bob genius. We had to do lots of improvisations and were used as sounding boards for other actors, unofficially auditioning people as well as being auditioned ourselves.
So you were aware of his work before working with him?
Years ago me and my friends at Haywood School would stay up late and watch Brass Eye and then come in and talk about it the next day. Other people at school would be like, “Hey, what you talking about? What’s Brass Eye?” And we’d be all nonchalant and go “Oh, forget it…”
So how did it actually feel to portray a terrorist, albeit in a jokey way?
It was fine. About 50% of the roles I get offered are that kind of clichéd, lost between two worlds all “hey, I’m doing it for my brothers” and I just say “no” off the bat. Four Lions is the be all and end all of the terrorist thing. I’m glad I’ve done it because I’ve kind of gone, bang, turned it on its head, made everyone talk about it and got them to re-evaluate how they think of it and now I don’t have to go there any more.
What do you say to the people that tried to stop it being shown?
We were never out to offend people. The starting point was all the research Chris had done where he found lots of little hilarious stories. Like the story of a bunch of guys who wanted to blow up a US ship off the coast of somewhere. They’d set the charge and filled it with explosives and then it sank. So Chris asked us: “Who says what in that situation? Who was the first to speak and what did they say? What’s the expression on their faces?” In a way it’s also a parallel to films like The Ladykillers and all those Ealing comedies that were quite controversial at the time too.
What are you working on at the minute?
I’m doing a stint on Silent Witness and the thing I’m most excited is a BBC 3 pilot that I did that’s coming out in June called Pulse. It’s a medical horror; conspiracy theories and shady happenings in a hospital where you’re never quite sure what’s going on. I’m hoping it’ll become a series but it depends on audience reaction.