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Interview: Ace Bhatti

22 February 11 interview: Alison Emm

With an acting career that has already taken in the likes of Cardiac Arrest, Emmerdale, Bend It Like Beckham, Band Of Gold, Coronation Street and The Sarah Jane Adventures, Ace Bhatti – from the extremely North London borough of Sneinton - is the newest cast member of EastEnders

What did you want to be when you grew up?
I had an inkling that I might want to be an actor at fourteen when I played the bully in a school production of Kes. It was really poor. When Kes died, he was a stuffed sparrow hawk with his two legs sticking up, and it just looked really naff. A lad called Colin Fennell was really trying to act his heart out over this dead sparrowhawk and he just kept getting laughs of derision. People said that I was good, and I really enjoyed the process of trying to get into character, ‘cos I was actually quite a soft kid. So I went on from there.

You got involved in the three main acting outlets in Notts at the time - Acorn, Central Workshop and the Drama course at Clarendon College. What was that like?
I was really lucky, because it was a time when they still put money into things, unlike now. Central Workshop gave me the TV experience. I auditioned about three times; I didn’t know how to audition, really and I learned that there’s a technique. Acorn was basically a theatre group run by the Council; we got to go to Edinburgh every year for the Fringe and compete for attention with professional companies. Clarendon was a drama course that primed for auditioning for drama schools. We also did a course in Stage Decor, dahling – set design and costumes and lighting, which I found really useful, as well as English Lit. It was the first time I’d ever received praise, which was crucial; it gave me the belief that I might be able to make a career out of this. All three combined gave me an amazing, free education that kids just aren’t getting today.

What did your family and friends think of your chosen career path?
My dad was a bus driver and my mum, she called herself a hygienist - that used to make me laugh, because she used to pack soap into boxes. They both worked really, really hard, and I know the last thing they wanted me doing was become an actor. And coming from Sneinton, I have to say about 99.9% of people laughed in my face when I said I wanted to be an actor. My cousin, Saj, though, he was fantastic. He just said; “No, if that’s what you want to do, kid, go for it.”

What was it like going from Sneinton to drama school?
I don’t know what it’s like now because I haven’t been there for a while, but Sneinton in the early eighties was horribly racist. So when I went to LAMDA, I thought I’d have problems with being the only Asian there, but it was actually my class that separated me. I remember walking past a shop with another student, and she said; “Ooh, look at that hat! I must go in and buy it.” I assumed she’d have to save for it but she went in, bought it, put it on her head and came out. And it was £100! In 1990! I couldn’t afford to go out, and I was too embarrassed to admit it. I ended up cleaning the toilets at LAMDA for the cash and, um, I used to fall asleep, with my head hanging over the toilet bowl. There were some very rich people who were lovely, generous, and very aware of the world around them. And then there were others who were total cocks.But you obviously coped….
It took me about a year to find my feet. Luckily, I had a very lovely partner who helped me, and by my second year I realised that you have to compete - not in a cut-throat way, but in the sense that you’ve gotta push yourself and see where you can take yourself dramatically.  It’s all about taking risks, and it’s all about claiming whatever piece you’re in.

We have to point out that your Notts accent has gone for a toss, tut tut tsk…
Yeah, that got drummed out of me at drama school. I’m quite good at accents. I’ve done a lot of things in Manchester; Second Coming, New Street Law, Coronation Street and Grease Monkeys and just started picking up the accent off the film crews. One time they said “Ace, we invite you out to meet us but you never turn up and you don’t seem to not know where anywhere is.” Then he said; “What’s the matter, have you got like, something wrong with ya?” And I just dropped the accent and said, “Well actually, I’m not from Manchester”, and he went “Wow!”

It has to be said that you’ve got your arse out on telly on more than one occasion.
Yes, it is my forte. If there’s an arse shot going, I’m always there. One of the first jobs I ever did on television was a series called Cardiac Arrest - it was sort of like Scrubs but ahead of its time.  The first shot of me in that series was me totally starkers having a conjugal relationship with a nurse up against a wardrobe. It was a shock for my mum, who always wanted me to be a doctor - she didn’t leave the house for about three months after ‘cos she was so embarrassed.

Is it difficult being an Asian actor, especially post 9/11, or has it opened up new avenues? We’ve seen you try to kill Ross Kemp on at least one occasion - an Irish actor would have had that part not so long ago...
That’s a really hard question to answer, because compared to some actors I get a lot of roles.  I could say that it’s been hard being an Asian actor, but it’s an easy out. I’ve had my share of terrorist and bad guy roles, but I’ve had an interesting career from that. At the end of the day, like most actors, I have very little power. I just turn up, audition, and hopefully get the job. I love to play characters that are complex and interesting, full stop. If that character happens to be a negative one, like a drug dealer or a terrorist - or a pimp, as I was in Band Of Gold – so be it.

Do you ever think “Ooer, I’m perpetuating a negative stereotype here”?
Well, I don’t see it in a straightforward, ‘Oh yeah, there is racism’ way, because it can be used as an excuse, which I don’t ever want to do. The way I see it is that, yes, you are going to run into racism in your life, and you are going to meet dicks along the way, and you just have to say, OK, they’re a dick. It’s not about me, it’s about them, it’s their problem. We can go on about racism, and we should, but I think that we should also celebrate the fact that there are - and this isn’t done enough by black people and Asian people - white people who actually stick their neck out and say; ”Y’know what? I don’t want to have anything to do with Nick Griffin. I want to be part a logical society where all us normal people just get on with it”. And that’s what I want as well.

You’ve been one of those actors who appear in loads of things but aren’t nailed down to one character. Do you get recognised in the street much?
I do, but people can’t quite place me a lot of the time. So they go; “Do I know you?” and I’m like; “Well you might have seen me in...” and then they go, “Do you work in that curry house?”  But since I started in EastEnders I’m getting properly recognised, which I’m trying to get my head around. I got mobbed by three really big lads in the gym, proper weight trainers, surrounding me and going; “It’s Dr. Khan! It’s Dr. Khan!” while I was lifting the tiniest weights on the rack. They’d actually blocked out the light and it was freaking me out. It’s such a different world that I’m entering into but I was surprised because I’d only done four episodes, but obviously people watch it.

You recently discovered that you’ve got your own Wikipedia page. How weird was that?
Some of the information was slightly incorrect, but they made me younger, so I’m gonna leave that. I like that. I can’t believe anyone would be that interested in me, quite frankly, but it was nice. I may make contributions to it, make a few things up; ‘He can hang-glide, he’s a tightrope walker.’ The internet sort of scares me.

Are you a big soap fan?
Yeah.  Some actors are very snobby about them, but the amount of work you have to do on soaps is immense.  Considering the amount of pressure and lack of time I’m staggered by the quality of them, to be honest. People love watching them, and so do I; when I’ve done labouring jobs between parts, absolutely knackering work, the last thing you want is something heavy on the telly when you come in. It’s an amazing thing to be involved in. I’m very nervous because I’ve only just started, and they don’t tell you anything about how your character is going to develop or end up on a long-term basis, so it’s sort of like real life; you don’t know what’s around the corner.

So you don’t know any of the storylines, and wouldn’t tell us even if you did, nudge nudge...
That’s right. I would be hung, drawn and quartered.

What’s it like being on that set in Elstree?
Well, I’ve done Coronation Street and EastEnders, and when I went to Corro the street seemed slightly smaller than real life - I felt like a bit of a giant. The houses in Albert Square seem the right size though. Sorry, that’s a bizarre answer to your question. All the houses in the Square are just fronts. The interesting thing about soaps is that there are cameras everywhere, which is great. A lot of dramas will have just the one camera; with soaps there are so many cameras which means everybody has to play at the same time, which makes it more organic.

What are the best and worst parts of your job?
The best thing is that I’m doing the thing that I love. The worst is when you’re not working and you’re waiting for the phone call. Auditioning is the hardest part of the job. If I could give any advice to young actors, it’d be to use your time constructively when you’re not acting. Don’t sit there waiting for that phone call; go out and live your life, earn money, do a job, learn a skill, which, you know, you can always apply to your acting.

And tell us one thing about EastEnders that we don’t already know…
Walford doesn’t really exist. It’s not a real place, I know it seems it, but it’s not. And anybody who’s out there reading this article and thinking it’s a real place, get help.

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