Omid Djalili might now be known to millions for his roles in Hollywood blockbusters and West End appearances, but he started his career in fringe theatre, moving on to the theatres of Central and Eastern Europe in the early ’90s, and then the alternative comedy circuit. And although he’s swapped dingy pub rooms for the big theatres, it’s still live on stage doing stand-up where he’s at his best.
Djalili is hitting the road again with a new tour, ‘Schmuck for a Night’, taking in more than 90 towns and cities over the next eight months. We talked to the multi-award winning comic about keeping his mind sharp, being shot by a Rolling Stone and reading the Chilcot report in its entirety.
Before his 108 date 2016 and 2017 UK Tour Omid Djalili discusses his acting career and what to expect on his new tour, Schmuck for A Night with Ben Williams.
The new show’s called ‘Schmuck for a Night’. Why Schmuck?
I like the word ‘schmuck’. It means ‘fool’ or buffoon. You have to be a schmuck to do comedy in today’s climate. I’m embracing the schmuck in me to take on the big issues of our day. Plus, it’s a word that ends with ‘uck’ which can only be a good thing.
We found the show mellower than your other tours. Is that fair to say?
I’ve become less frenetic. I used to dance every two minutes in between the stand up. I can’t even remember why. It was mentioned to me that when I danced audiences were laughing at me not with me. So it was either stop dancing or ban my manager from the gigs.
Are audiences disappointed about the lack of dancing?
Right. You touch on Brexit, ISIS and Trump in the show. It’s a long tour, will the show change while you’re on the road?
Well, I think the show will change even while I’m on stage. It’ll be so current sometimes audiences won’t laugh until they get home and turn on the TV.
Are you looking forward to that challenge?
Of course. Although, my main challenge is getting the audience in a good mood again after my support act Boothby Graffoe has been on. Sometimes people haven’t finished boo-ing until a few minutes into my act. (Laughs)
You produced a show known as the ‘Iraq Out & Loud’ project at the Edinburgh Fringe, which involved reading the Chilcot report in full, 24 hours a day. How did the idea come about?
I was on the phone to Boothby in July when I said, “we should do a show at next year’s Edinburgh Festival where we just read the Chilcot report 24 hours a day.” He mentioned it to a promoter called Bob Slayer, and rang me back and said, “there’s a guy called Bob who’s mad enough to do it this year.” So while Bob was building a shed to stage it in, we were contacting all our friends in comedy to read it and kick the idea off. It took 285 hours and 1444 people to read it. I read too. It was a truly one off experience.
It was a great idea. The Edinburgh Comedy Awards judges certainly thought so, awarding it the Panel Prize.
At my age, winning an award? What a pleasant surprise. Though, I’ve found when an idea is really good it’s no longer your idea. The idea belongs to the collaborators. In fact, the idea felt like it belonged to the comedy industry. Comics do nutty things all the time at the festival. Sometimes it’s a 24-hour show, sometimes mad benefit gigs, but sometimes an idea really captures the Zeitgeist. Comedians are very adept at smelling bs – by which I mean sensing when we’re being fobbed off – so it was important to us that the readings were a simple, non-political, people-powered, public service.
Did you find anything funny in such a serious report?
Yes. It was in the final moments of the readings – after 285 hours and 1444 people – the very last paragraph of the Chilcot report is: ‘How to read the Chilcot report’ [laughs]. It was a great punchline.
You were involved in another project about similar subject matter, as executive producer on the documentary ‘We Are Many’ about the 2003 protests against the war in Iraq. Are you proud of the film?
It’s not comedy but you could easily say it’s my crowning achievement so far. I’ve worked on the project for the last five years, countless edits, screenings, meetings, discussions… the fact that Universal Pictures bought it, that it’s been so well received and hit number one on iTunes in about ten different countries, you could say I’m very proud of it. A film promoting worldwide public opinion as a ‘Second Superpower’ has got to be doing good.
Will the film and the Chilcot report reading make a difference, do you think?
You can never quantify the impact of such things, but certainly it felt like they were important projects to be part of. In this life you’re either a problem or a solution. I’d like to think these projects – which raise more questions than answers – are firmly entrenched in the solution camp. Or at least trying to be!
Your stand-up isn’t particularly political or agenda-based, though.
Well yes and no. I’m not party political if that’s what you mean. I have no party political agenda. But I’ll talk about what’s going on around us trying to contribute to the discourse… in fact that’s what the show should have been called: ‘Schmuck Talks About What’s Going On Around Him Trying To Contribute To The Discourse’.
You’ve just been cast in The Nutcracker with Morgan Freeman and Keira Knightley. How is that going to feel filming and then showing up at a theatre to do stand up?
Am I? What are you my agent? News travels fast! (Laughs) You’d think it’d be weird but it has never phased me. Once in Barnet years ago I was late so didn’t change and came straight to the theatre from the set of The Mummy at Shepperton Studios and walked straight on stage in my film costume. I went on stage in full 1930s Egyptian prison warden garb. I even heard a crowd member say “well at least he’s making an effort.”
Away from stand-up, you have an impressive acting CV and have worked with Russell Crowe, Brad Pitt, Robert Redford, Johnny Depp, Mike Myers, Sarah Jessica Parker… Who’s been most fun to work with?
That’s a tough one… (thinks) I’d say, and anyone who’s worked with him as an actor would agree, Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones, was probably the most extraordinary. He played the father of Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean 3’. His character shoots and kills my character for no reason. This seemed to bother him. In fact, he shot me about 14 times and after each take he’d come up to me and say, “listen, you do know I don’t mean this?” After every take. It was almost like a joke but it wasn’t. Bang! and he’d shuffle up and say “nothing personal mate, I hope you realise”. Then after another take, with the same sincerity and intensity “it’s all acting. You know that. You’re not upset with me, are you?” Once he shot me and just said “forgive them Lord, they know not what they do”. The final time he shot me he just stood over me and mumbled “we’ve all got issues… it’s all about mummy innit?” How right he was.
Omid Djalili: Schmuck for a Night’ will be at Leicester’s De Montfort Hall, Leicester on 6 April. For tickets go to demontforthall.co.uk or call 0116 233 3111. Omid will also be at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall on May 5th 2017. For tickets visit https://www.thsh.co.uk/whats-on or call 0121 780 3333