Thursday, 10 April 2014

Interview with Omid Djalili

OMID Djalili is a busy man. The award-winning actor, comedian and avid football fan has, by his own admission had a “bit of a day” by the time he is able to speak to me.
Meetings with various people about the autobiography he’s writing, roasting a rabbi and writing material for a new tour – it’s all go.
And when we do chat, he is on his way to do a gig in Bedford. "I'm so sorry," he says apologetically. "It's been a mad day with meetings and what have you so I've been a little bit rushed off my feet.... I'm not one to complain though," he jokes.
"But now we’re good to go,” he adds warmly.
And go he does, through a whole manner of different subjects close to his heart - his love of grassroots football, dying on stage and learning how to recover, celebrity, acting and reacting successfully to hecklers.
In fact he's on sparkling form talking 10 to the dozen throughout the conversation.
But he starts by telling me about his appearance tomorrow as the headline act for this year’s Udderbelly Festival on the South Bank.
"I was very pleased to be asked and to be able to do it as I've been wanting to for a while," he says. "A lot of my friends say it's a brilliant venue so I thought why not?
"Besides, it’s a tent isn’t it? I've always done well in a tent... maybe it's a Middle Eastern thing," he chuckles (Djalili was born in the UK to Iranian parents).
The Udderbelly gig will act as a wram-up for his nationwide Iranalmadingdong tour later this year.
"This is part of my pre tour - a chance to try out my new material and see what people think," he explains. "You have to do loads of gigs before you get it right."
And those who go to the Udderbelly show will be in for a treat.
The 48-year-old's trademark rapier wit will be in full force for the entire evening as, not only is he the main act, he's his own warm up as well.
"I had a warm up man once and you pay for them to basically come on and do a load of old material and then spend 10 minutes berating the audience for not laughing.
"It's very easy and I thought 'I could do that'. So now I do!"
During the evening he will talk about "all sorts of different things" before finishing with a Q&A session.
One of the main topics of conversation will be how he's "cracked the code" of relationships.
"There is a universal code on all relationships," he says. "It's not just romantic ones but any that people have. We don't know why we are friends with certain people nor why any relationship goes wrong.
"It's intriguing and something I'm very interested in. I've done my research - I've been married for 22 years - and I've now cracked the code and will be revealing it at the Udderbelly," he adds proudly.
As well as relationships, he will be putting our obsession with celebrity under the microscope.
"Celebrity is relevant to all our lives," he insists. "We are all celebrities in one milieu or another - if you get promotion, when you are perceived to have more power than others and how you deal with the power, it's not just about those on TV."
What he won't be doing is talking about topics he is perhaps best known for - such as that of being an Iranian in Britain.
"I've done all that being a fish out of water stuff," he says. "When I started I felt I had to do talk about those kinds of things. I'm actually very integrated in this country so I need to do something different."
He says that making sure the audience has a good time and laughs a lot is what matters to him most though.
"I'm very quietly pleased when people put nice things about my gigs on Twitter," he says warmly. "When they say they've had a great night, that's fantastic. I think that brings me far more pleasure these days.
"They've paid their money and want to laugh and enjoy themselves. It's the memory you create for an audience that's important."
And Twitter has had another impact on his time recently. When he found out that Hereford United Football Club was in danger of being wound up due to a lack of cash, he sent a supportive Tweet.
"They need about £78,000 and I started a campaign to help raise the cash they need," he says.
"Hereford were the original giant killers when they beat Newcastle United in 1972 so if the club goes it would be a real blow.
"I am a passionate supporter of football, particularly grassroots which is really struggling right now.
"It's disgraceful because it offers amazing outlets for kids to join a club, have a go at a team sport and get some exercise in the process.
"I worry that if Hereford goes then other clubs will follow."
Instead of donating money, he offered to do two fundraising gigs, which have raised £21,000.
"They've even promised to name a stand after me so there's a bit of pressure - hopefully I'll be hilarious!"
And pressure to be funny is something he knows about only too well.
"Between 1998 and 2002 there was a gaggle of us who used to drive around the country doing gigs," he says.
"There was a lot of banter in the car and we laughed a lot. It was great fun and some of them are the funniest people I have ever met."
But not only were they funny, they also didn't hold back in giving Omid the brutal truth about his performances.
"They did take the piss out of me, doing bits of my act that went badly. And I've had my fair share," he laughs.
"I've had some real stinkers - one night at Jongleurs the crowd was shouting 'off off off' before I'd even come on so I ended up doing a disco dance and they just started chucking beer cans at me. I kept dancing and they kept chucking stuff. Eventually I managed to turn it around but it was close!" he chuckles loudly.
"You need to do about 1,000 gigs before you find your voice and I've done 2,500 now so I'm easy with it.
"I have learned over the years to develop a bullet proof skin!"
But the memory of those bad gigs has not deterred him and the past 20 years have seen him sell out gigs around the world, win awards and branch out into acting.
"I flit between acting and comedy depending on what else I'm doing and scripts that I get. It's great to have the variety and acting helps me do my stand up. It's very exciting to have two disciplines.
"But I haven't found the perfect role yet. One day I might even write a film," he muses.
But for now he says he's looking forward to the Udderbelly gig.
"It's wonderful travelling around and performing to people in places I've never heard of, but London is my home town and the older I get the more I connect with a London audience," he says.
"I also tend to see a lot of people who look like me - slightly squat, bald, over weight, Middle Eastern with a chin beard....
"It's going to be hilarious!"

Omid Djalili is at Udderbelly on Saturday, April 12. Tickets cost £25. Visit or call the box office on 0844 545 8252

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