"WHAT’S that woman who played the Chinese man?”
Omid Djalili is trying to remember Tilda Swinton’s name. But he’s just been kicked out of his hotel room on the Isle of Wight an hour early, disturbing a much-needed lie-in, on a gruelling run of tour dates. As a result he’s slightly distracted, and more than a little tired.
Swinton’s recent role as Dr Strange, a character portrayed as Tibetan in the comic books, had Marvel defending their casting choice against allegations of ‘whitewashing’.
Ever since last year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy, it seems all eyes are on the roles available to actors of different ethnicities, but it’s arguably Arab and Middle Eastern actors who have drawn the very shortest straw when it comes to negative stereotypes on the silver screen: terrorist, slave-trader, religious fanatic.
Djalili, born in London to Iranian parents, is amply qualified to talk about typecasting. A self-described “A-list film actor Arab scumbag”, he’s played every clichéd bit-part going in movies like Gladiator, The Mummy and Pirates of the Caribbean.
As a young graduate of the same English and drama course at the University of Ulster as James Nesbitt, his acting ambitions, and abilities, were extensive. But denied mainstream roles of any real depth for years on the screen, it was through comedy that he found the space to let rip.
Looking back at the mid-1990s, when his stand-up show, Short, Fat Kebab Shop Owner’s Son, took Edinburgh by storm, there was a simmering anger beneath his routines.
Slapping the audience around the face with the comedic wet fish of their own assumptions, he leapt from guise to guise; he was every ludicrous Arab cliché, but then suddenly he was a north London insurance salesman.
“Yes, I think I was angry then,” Djalili says.
“Maybe I was over-encouraged in university, told I had all this promise and then suddenly I was a struggling young actor. I remember someone laughing at me and saying, ‘why are you going for all these roles in Hamlet and Another Country; all these English ponces?’ and I thought, ‘Well, why not?’ And they’d say, ‘You don’t look like that’.”
Djalili found himself drawn to the comedy circuit, which he describes as “the home for waifs and strays. I don’t think I’d have had an acting career if it wasn’t for the comedy circuit, because that’s where I felt at home.”
Both TV and stand-up comedy have been good to him; BBC One’s The Omid Djalili Show ran for two seasons, he’s been nominated for a Perrier Award and broken Edinburgh Festival’s box office records.
“I’m very lucky, and I’ve come to appreciate the comedy industry,” he says.
“Even though we are the most mentally ill amongst performers, and stand-up comedy is seen as the least artistic art form, I think it’s the most powerful, and the one way you can develop the most as a human being.”
His latest stand-up show, Schmuck For A Night, will have toured 110 nights by May; during March alone, he will do 18 nights, including five Irish dates.
Doesn’t he find such an intensive tour exhausting?
He laughs. “David Baddiel came up to me after the show and said, ‘Omid, you can tell me: have you got a big tax bill?’ Other comedians think it’s financially motivated. But it’s not; it’s in my blood. I love it.”
Djalili’s great-grandparents were travelling troubadours in Persia at the turn of the last century.
“They were very well-known, and far more poetic and intelligent than me,” he says.
“They might do 230 nights a year around Iran, rolling up and pitching tents and performing in open squares and in the countryside. So I suppose this is my destiny; it’s in my DNA.”
In Schmuck For A Day, he says, he’s moved beyond the narrow focus on ethnicity in his earlier work to take in a broader look at the context of the current political landscape.
Although Djalili holds strong political views — he was the executive producer of Iraq and Out Loud, last years’ award-winning 12-day reading of the Chilcot Report at the Edinburgh Fringe — he doesn’t want to stray into conventional political commentary.
“Political comedians can be very boring; they come on in jeans and a T-shirt and pretend to be hitting some kind of truth,” he says.
“I just think it’s time for a new way of discussing things, because if you lose your sense of humour, you lose everything. We’ve had showbiz entertainers and we’ve had political entertainers but we’ve never had something in between.”
He is, he says, aiming for a fresh juxtaposition: “Imagine Liberace presenting BBC Question Time.”
The show’s title is a nod to Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy, in which Robert De Niro plays a comedian who kidnaps a talk-show host to get his four minutes of TV stand-up fame; “It’s better to be a king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime,” De Niro’s character concludes. Has Djalili inverted this scenario, allowing his stand-up persona to be held hostage to allow a more serious message through?
“In the climate of all the madness going on around us, people are losing their ability to look at things with the sword of truth and the shield of irony,” he says.
“I asked myself how you could make a show that’s predominantly about Trump, and immigration, and Brexit… how do you make that tremendously uplifting? It might sound weird, but comedy is also a service industry, so my manifesto is to deliver a fabulous night; I just want to do a good show.”
His manifesto also seems to include tackling the political divisiveness prevalent in the current climate; offence is laughter-soluble, which is why comedy is such a unifying and universal thing.
“I’m never really set out to offend, but if a comedian never offends, he’s not doing his job because he’s not pushing the boundaries enough and challenging people,” Djalili says.
Having lived in Czechoslovakia just before dissolution, as well attending university in Northern Ireland — “In the late ’80s; you’d walk into the toilet and there’d be a Union Jack covered in excrement in it” — Djalili has plenty experience of divided communities.
“I’ve always felt that when governments divide people they have better control over everyone. That sense of togetherness that laughter brings is what they always want to mess up.”
Djalili is anticipating his return to treading the boards in a more serious vein when he takes on the role of Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof for Chichester Festival in July, and he’s in the process of seeking funding for an independent film he has written.
But in the meantime, he’s looking forward to his stand-up dates in Ireland, which he describes as “the most comedy literate country in the world.”
“There’s something about Ireland; you have this history of storytelling, a history of comedians, a history of influencing comedy. That’s why we always put Ireland towards the end of the tour, because I want to come with the best version of myself.”