From his madcap childhood to college in the North, Omid Djalili has plenty life experiences to mine for comedy, says Richard Fitzpatrick
COMEDIAN Omid Djalili looks back at his unusual upbringing, which included sleeping on a couch for the first 14 years of his life, with equanimity. He was raised in an open house. The madcap circumstances are detailed in his autobiography, Hopeful. They shaped his irreverent, freewheeling comedy style and his non-judgemental disposition.
Djalili was born in Kensington, London, in 1965, the youngest of three children. His Bahaist parents had left Iran several years before to escape religious persecution in the Islamic Revolution. In London, they rented space in their apartment, which was near the Iranian Embassy, to immigrant lodgers.
“It was a guest house for sick Iranians who couldn’t get the correct medical care in Iran,” says Djalili. “My mother would nurse them and my father would entertain them. The first stand-up comedy I saw was my father telling jokes over breakfast. The word for ‘eggs’ in Iran is also the colloquial word for ‘testicles’, so he’d say, ‘Would you like your eggs fried, boiled or fondled?’
“It was very chaotic. You had ill people and it was like a party. You’d have a drinks cabinet with Canada Dry sitting next to urine samples. A great cross-section of Iranian society came and stayed. Friends would come round and I was kind of embarrassed. A lot of friends would say, ‘This is a crazy house.’ They would talk about it and, one by one, friends would want to come around just to see how I lived.
“You’d come home at four o’clock in the afternoon and you’d see people in sleeping robes, a guy half-naked in a bathrobe playing backgammon. There was Iranian radio, with daytime TV, with a samovar with tea going on. Then, in the other room, there’s people eating. In another room, there’s someone praying on the floor, and then there’s someone else just weeping in the corner.”
Djalili describes his parents as very well-meaning people. “They didn’t bang on about their humanitarianism. They weren’t like: ‘This is our little service to humanity. We’re trying to help our fellow countrymen.’ They just got on with it. I’m quietly proud of them, although, as a parent myself, I’m horrified as well. I’d never put my own kids through that, but they had this fingers-crossed goodwill that their kids would turn out all right: ‘Hopefully, the kids won’t be too damaged!’ Although, since the book has come out my brother and sister have said ‘You were being too kind’.”
Djalili says his relationship with education is pretty chequered. After school, he studied at the University of Ulster at Coleraine. He played for the university’s soccer team. “It was quite funny, for me, that every time we went away — it was a mostly Protestant team — they always made me share a room with the goalkeeper, who was called Seamus. They just thought, ‘Let’s put the ethnic and the Catholic together.’ Whenever we played games, I was always called something with the word Fenian before it — ‘You Fenian Turk’; ‘You Fenian Arab’. I understood what it meant, finally, but in the beginning it was good to get abuse that you didn’t even know what it was.”
While studying in Co Derry, which was “too crazy” for him, he decided he should study at an Ivy League university in the United States, so he took off one November day, bound for New Jersey. “I left Coleraine on a cold weekday and flew to Princeton,” he says. “I took a few classes and just kind of wandered around campus, a bit like Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. I remember I got a meeting with the vice-chancellor. He very politely said that he didn’t think I would be an asset to their 1986 cohort and promptly escorted me off the premises. When you come from chaos — as I was raised in a chaotic home — my education and careers have been equally chaotic. Hence the stand-up comedy career with the film career, my book career — there’s no rhyme or reason to what I do.”
Djalili, who brings his stand-up to Cork and Dublin next week, performed in the video game, Grand Theft Auto. He dressed up in headgear and motion-capture clothing that helps computers to recognise movements. “You get mummified, like a mummy,” he says. Grand Theft Auto IV became the biggest-selling entertainment product in history in 2008, with sales of $500m in its first week. It made him a hit with teenage boys.
“They warned me,” he says, “‘When you go to barbecues, there will be boys aged between 14 and 18, who will usually smell of groin, and they will just hang around you. They’ll have nothing to say, but they’ll just know that you’ve been a character in Grand Theft Auto. To them, you are a god. I’ve had about 20,000 messages on Twitter from these kids playing Grand Theft Auto. I’ve been hailed as their favourite character.”
Djalili has also probably acted in more Hollywood blockbusters than any other British actor. His films include a James Bond movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, and Gladiator, alongside Russell Crowe and Oliver Reed. Invariably, he’s cast in a nameless, ethnic role. “All the time, I’d be credited as Turkish Man,” he says. One of the chapters in his autobiography is entitled ‘Inside The Ethnic Bit Part Actor’s Studio’.
The pigeonholing grates. During Gladiator, he pleaded with director Ridley Scott to give his character a first name.“He said, ‘No, you are the slave trader.’ I said, ‘Please, Ridley, can I have a name?’ He said, ‘OK, give yourself a name.’ So when I met Oliver Reed. He said, ‘Who are you playing?’ I said, ‘I’m Simon, the slave trader.’ He just pissed himself laughing: ‘What kind of name is that for a slave trader?’ I said, ‘He became a Christian slave trader.’ I kept whipping people and blessing them.”
Omid Djalili performs next Monday at Cork Opera House and on Tuesday at the Olympia, Dublin
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