| Interview: Omid Djalili

Interview: Omid Djalili

Nine months ago, British stand-up Omid Djalili was appearing in front of 15 million Americans a week, courtesy of Whoopi Goldberg’s high-profile sitcom. As the janitor of a down-at-heel Manhattan hotel, he was the Iranian Manuel to Whoopi’s Basil; a prime-time showcase that could have established him as a major star. But now, 22 episodes later, that particular dream is over. After ratings slumped to around five million, NBC decided to pull the plug. A second series was not commissioned. Blame vicious competition from the ratings juggernaut that was American Idol; blame management changes at the very top of the network; blame the American public for having no taste. Either way. Djalili’s back home. “It came as a real shock,” he says of the cancellation. “I was very upset because not only was it a very good vehicle for me, playing No 2 to Whoopi, but it was also good to see a Middle Eastern character with such a high profile. “It was a good little show, tackling multicultural current affairs which no one else was doing. And it would have been good to see how it developed. “Axing it was the wrong decision. It shocked and surprised everyone. We were doing very well, getting around six-and-a-half million when a show like Seinfeld struggled to get one million when it started.” Still, the show made him something of a star, recognised by the maitre d’s of the best restaurants and requiring him to don a cap and glasses to disguise himself on the street. And, perhaps most importantly, since Whoopi aired, “I’ve had lots of interest from other networks.” Not that Omid hasn’t been here before. He had already been signed by NBC to work on his own sitcom when President Bush saw fit to invade Iraq – giving Hollywood cold feet about the idea. Whoopi was his consolation prize. “Iraq put paid to my pilot,” he said. “They said they liked me and would have given me a deal at any other time, But they still wanted to use me as a performer. “So they sent me scripts for 15 pilots, and they were so bad it was depressing. I couldn’t believe they didn’t do mine.” “Luckily Whoopi saw my tape, and was interested in using me. The character was a Russian handyman, who we made Iranian. Whoopi was great to work with, really actor-friendly. Because she used to be ad rug addict and homeless in Central Park, she’s very empathic, like a mother.” The public profile that came with the role also helped when it came to performing stand-up in New York. It was in Greenwich Village where he presented an extended version of his Perrier-nominated, 9/11-influenced show Behind Enemy Lines as part of a short British Invasion series. “I was so nervous doing it,” he said. “Normally I’d be able to turn up, bang it out and go home. But in New York my mouth went as dry as a crisp the moment I went on stage. “There was a frisson. I’d be told before I went on, for example, that there was someone in the audience whose cousin died in the World Trade Center attacks. “But it was selling well – I could have continued there forever. But I had to come back to the UK to do promotion for The Calcium Kid. But that film died over here, so it wasn’t really worth coming back.” Now he’s touring his stand-up show round Britain for the very last time. “I’ve had my heart in this show for two and a half years,” he said. “This is my chance to put it to bed.” Djalili’s also keen to do something more serious on stage – inspired, perhaps, by his finally breaking out of the Hollywood stereotyping that tends to cast him as Swarthy Arab Bad Guy #2. His next role, in the Andy Garcia movie Modigliani, is as Pablo Picasso. “I’m tired of being this funnyman,” he says. “And I’m getting excited about my next project.” He says it’s a secret, but seems to be bursting to talk about it. All he’ll reveal for now is that it’s a one-man theatre show. “The subject that I’m doing, and the fact that I’m doing it, will make it controversial,” he says enigmatically. “But I’m still trying to keep it entertaining.” There is one thing he has promised: no belly dancing. That same guarantee does not, however, apply to the current tour, which kicks off in Eastbourne tonight. Steve Bennett June 3, 2004

Published: 13 Jul 2006

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