'This might be the last thing I ever make on television' | Kayvan Novak speaks to Jay Richardson about  Britain Today Tonight © C4

'This might be the last thing I ever make on television'

Kayvan Novak speaks to Jay Richardson about Britain Today Tonight

Kayvan Novak returns to television screens this evening in the spoof tabloid news show Britain Today Tonight. After roles in films like Four Lions and Cuban Fury, and the co-lead with Bradley Walsh in the BBC One sitcom Sun Trap, he's back performing the multi-character, prosthetic-sporting pranks that made his name on Facejacker and its voice-and-animation predecessor, Fonejacker.

An ultra-hyperbolic, US perspective on the UK, Britain Today Tonight is hosted by nine-times Pulitzer Prize-winning news anchor Douglas 'Digger' Daley and also features Australian action star turned security correspondent Jon Donovan, Scottish investigative reporter Ken Kildoon and heavy-snacking filmmaker Peter P Powers among others.

So, Bill O'Reilly left Fox News just before Britain Today Tonight started airing. Was he intimidated by Douglas Daley?

I wish. But no, I can't claim any credit for that. I mean, if he'd watched the show, then quit and said, 'Well, Digger it's over to you', that would have been nice. Still, good timing.

And of course, Mazher Mahmood, 'The Fake Sheikh', didn't last long after you sent him up in Sun Trap ...

Yes, but then neither did Sun Trap.

You've got form. Sadly, acerbic art critic Brian Sewell has been outlived by Facejacker's outspoken Brian Badonde.

I know, I know. But he'll always be there in Brian. If you miss Brian Sewell, you should put on Brian Bedonde.

When did you have the idea for Britain Today Tonight?

I'd been watching a lot of Fox News stuff and wanted to play a character like O'Reilly, I wanted to play some Americans, because they were something I'd never done in Fonejacker and Facejacker. And I thought an American news show would be a good platform for them. That was in 2014. I'd taken some time out of pranking because it's quite high pressure. I'd thought, 'let somebody else write some scripts for me and I'll be a comedy actor for a while'. That didn't quite work out so I'm back doing what I do best really.

Many writers are claiming the world is currently too extreme to satirise. But for a more cartoonish style of comedy like yours, President Trump must be a blessing.

He is, we lucked out with the timing, with Trump coming in just as we were editing the show. It's perfect for now really. I'm not trying to create a slavish spoof of American news, I'm not motivated by wanting to make an intellectual statement about the state of things, in the way that some satirists do so well. I just want a platform to play characters I feel are current and excite me. Trump just makes them more 'now', so that's good. I would never describe myself as a satirist.

And you're back in prosthetics. Do you have a rubber fetish?

Maybe I do and I'm not aware of it… I choose to put myself into prosthetic because I want the same versatility I had when I was doing Fonejacker, where I could play 15, 20 different characters, that was the freedom prosthetics allowed me. Spending four hours in make-up and then having to be funny for eight hours or however long the shoot lasts is gruelling. But it's something I'm used to and I'm willing to do to get the goods at the end, so it's always worth it.

So is it a real collaboration between you and the make-up artist?

Absolutely. First, I'll have the voice. So I'll be Jon Donovan, 'Digger' Daley, Brian or whoever, then go 'what does he look like?' I'll go on the internet, find some pictures – oh, he looks a bit like Bill O'Reilly or a bit like Dan Rather – I'm constantly taking pictures off the telly, 'Oh, that's a good face, I'd love to look like that!' 

Occasionally, the face inspires the voice. The most challenging mask in this series was making me into a woman. I'd played a woman once before in Facejacker but it was with a hidden camera. Could I play a woman that you'd believe in an open camera situation? Getting Mandi Manners' face right and keeping her features believable, even though I'm 6ft 1in, was tough.

Did you have to perfect your feminine deportment?

Of course, physicality is part of any character. And yeah, I had to soften up as Mandi, holding a handbag in the way some women do, where they hold it quite high, hanging off their elbows. Anything that would give a sense of femininity was going to work in my favour. Because at the end of the day, before I can be funny with anyone, I have to convince them I'm a real person and they can trust me.

Do you have to psych yourself into character?

Like do star jumps or something? You do, because you're going into battle. They're putting your armour on at six in the morning, the prosthetics. You're thinking about the day ahead, the people you're going to meet and it's nerve-racking, you're filled with self-doubt thinking it's a terrible idea. You're paranoid that they're not going to believe you. But you just battle through and try to get into a nice groove and flow.

Who are your favourite characters in the show and why?

I've loved playing Sir Nicholas Charles, who's a kind of spymaster. A kind of elder statesman, who people have respect for because he's the Establishment, is enjoyable. Especially because he needs to know, he's dealing with terrorism and national security threats. He's very serious and straight-laced.

And Jon Donovan because he's got my favourite voice, he's so emphatic. He's a ridiculous person but he loves his job. His biggest fear is that terrorism will end and he'll have nothing to talk about. Who else? Peter P Powers. He doesn't prank anyone, he's just an interim character. But I really enjoyed playing him and if we do any more, I'll get him out and about, into the field.

Fonejacker and Facejacker's characters tended to be outsiders. Whereas in this, they're often the state or media Establishment, so is it a different authority you have to project?

I'm exploring the repertoire of characters I want to play. You could argue that Brian Badonde was the Establishment because he was the world's greatest art critic or Terry Tibbs was the world's best salesman. But one thing that all my characters have in common is that they're all quite manipulative and they take the upper hand, even though they don't know what they're talking about. 

They're all quite high-status and have a good level of self-importance, which a lot of the best comedy characters do, Basil Fawlty, Del Boy, they think they're better than they are.  You're basically projecting a delusion of grandeur, hoping someone will catch you out. 

I don't think it's useful to humiliate anyone or make them angry. It's like a tolerance test on their part. I believe people can see the good in everyone and help them along. A humanity test, I guess, that's what I'm really about. Being ridiculous but looking for acceptance.

You were arrested once filming Facejacker. Any hairy moments shooting this?

There weren't many. As Ken Kildoon, we posed as Arab sheiks at a weapons expo in Olympia. Of course, we hadn't got passes, so they told us to get lost. But there was a Pizza Express that backed onto Olympia, so we dressed up as chartered surveyors, claiming there was a structural defect in the wall we had to investigate, hoping to find a way through the restaurant into the expo. We were standing in the reception of that Pizza Express for 20 minutes, waiting for the manager, all dressed in hard hats and fluorescent jackets, the sound guy with a bag over his boom. And the manager comes and he's basically like 'no, you cannot come in here, get out'. He wanted to see some ID, basically cornered me and said 'get out or I'm going to lock you in the basement'. So we left.

Attempting to infiltrate an arms fair, surely there was some satirical intent there?

It's definitely a topical prank. I always wanted to do something more topical, which is really why I wanted to do this show. I don't want to say there's a message. But the pranks within the show are all definitely inspired by current affairs – terrorism, spying, piracy, gay footballers, doping in sport, the gender pay gap, these are strong themes that are recurring within the news. I didn't want to make them too specific, as we'd film it in July 2016 and by the time it came out in 2017, it would be old news. 

To be honest though, it was more about not getting into the arms fair – it's driven by my character being a useless investigative journalist. I'm far more interested in him looking a fool and having feather-brained ideas than shouting, 'so you sell scuds!' That's not really what I do.

Do you prefer to be in charge of the writing, acting and editing rather than working on other people's projects?

Absolutely. I came to the realisation that I like to have control and to just make a programme from beginning to end. Hopefully I can do that for the rest of my career.

But in Cuban Fury, you were allowed to create your flamboyant character Bejan yourself.

Yeah, that was a really rare opportunity for me, I don't get asked to be in many films. The character was originally supposed to be Chinese. But the writer and director gave me the scope to just make him up. A lot of the jokes in that film were just picked up. I love doing things like that because you feel like you've got ownership of the character and you're working with great people. It's not an opportunity that's arisen much in my career.

You've also appeared in indie films like Alice Lowe's Prevenge and The Pajama Men's Last Sparks of Sundown. Would you like to make a film that's essentially your own vision?

I definitely want to do a comedy film that I've written, that I star in and I've directed. And I will do that. But all these things take a couple of years minimum to get off the page and onto the screen. It's something I'm working towards. But I also want to do something that doesn't involve me, at least not directly.

I'm currently developing a new prank show, where I get kids to do pranks on adults. Being a kid is not something prosthetics allow me to do. I'll create the characters for the kids and then I'll have them on an earpiece saying things and doing things and we'll use prosthetics. It'll be like me doing the pranks but with this troupe of really talented kids, with access to All of the Things you need to do hilarious pranks on the unsuspecting public. We're about three months in and we've got a couple of broadcasters interested but they want to see more before they commit.

Meanwhile, you're adapting your Radio 4 series Celebrity Voicemail for BBC Three.

Yes, I'm really excited about that.

How will you make it visual?

It's something we're experimenting with. I would write the episodes in the same way that I do the radio, which is just to perform, cut it, edit it, so you have 15 minutes of sound. We've thought about animating it but I would like to make it live action. It's a comedy of interruption, depicting what you see in a funny way. Playing with depth of vision - an animated character might be in the foreground, then you'd have a joke going on in the background that the character isn't aware of. There's a few ways of doing it. We'll be filming end of summer.

And you're developing a celebrity interview show for Brian Badonde?

Yes, Brian's going to make a comeback. It needs an element of Brian learning something new. It might work in a studio or it could work, just kind of cold. I'm thinking of something like Desert Island Discs, but not just for music, he asks them about food, movies etc and it's like a retrospective of their careers.

 Brian is about learning things and being a busybody and a know-it-all. That might work better with an audience, it might work better without. It might work better with him interviewing people that don't actually know that he's a character. Or it might work better with them playing along. These things take a lot of testing to become watertight.

After Sun Trap flopped, are you resigned to always being a cult performer?

I don't know, I don't really crave seeing myself in front of the camera as me very much. What excites me is thinking about characters. For me, it's about taking a journey far away from myself, that's really what motivates me. I'm not interested in going to the gym and looking great on camera, that's someone else's career, that's someone else's work pressure, that's not what keeps me awake at night. I would get just as much enjoyment finding six amazingly talented kids, coming up with six amazing characters for them to play, putting them in a real life situation and crafting a show around that, putting that out in the mainstream. Because for me that's a teatime show. That's what I'm aiming for.

I understand that you grew up mimicking Spitting Image characters from an early age. Is it important for you to hang on to that child-like playfulness?

I wouldn't even call it hanging on, it's my motivation. It's a cliché but there's nothing else really driving me, it's what I love. Within that love comes a lot of work. It's been a rocky couple of years but hopefully it'll have a happy ending.

Do you feel like you've not received the profile your talent deserves because you've spent so much time in prosthetics? Or that you're limited by roles for 'ethnic' actors?

You do something like Cuban Fury, you look through your reviews, they're saying you're the funniest thing in it and you think 'here we go, that phone's going to ring'. And it's just never really rung for me. It's easy to feel resentment and ask why am I not more famous and why am I not in Hollywood? But at the same time, I haven't been distracted by bullshitters, telling me I'm great, that I should come out to LA and find myself on set with Melissa McCarthy, sat in my trailer for 17 hours a day, waiting to do my bit.

In the meantime, I could be here, feeling the frustration. But also the possibilities, which I was even before Fonejacker. It's a silver lining. You can waste your time asking why but you need to celebrate any position in this business. You can be chippy or you can raise your game. 

No one asked me to make Britain Today Tonight, I wanted to make it. I haven't been on Channel 4 in four years. But I saw a small opportunity and turned it to my favour. This might be the last thing I ever make on television. It's been a two year journey and I've wanted nothing else.

It seems like you've always been pro-active in approaching commissioners with tasters and ideas …

You need to see the landscape for what it is and act accordingly. Not sit at home going 'oh, it's because I'm brown'. You can always convince yourself that it's about your appearance. I've never wanted my career to be based on the way I look. The best showcase of my abilities isn't me on someone else's set, saying someone else's script and hoping the audience are going to fall in love with me. It's me, sticking shit on my face, doing a funny voice, going out and fooling real people, carving comedy out of that. It's not easy. But I love doing it. I'm addicted to it.

Finally, your character Waj is still alive at the end of Four Lions. What was it like working with Chris Morris and will you do so again?

It was an amazing experience, the best seven weeks of my life really, fantastic. I'll take that experience to my grave. He's a legend but he's also the most intelligent, charming and wonderful man you'll ever meet. We keep in touch, we chat. He's my comedy guru. I go to him, 'Chris I've got this idea, I don't know how to do it.' [Adopts uncanny Morris voice] 'Right, have you tried maybe trying that?

'No, that's great, yes!' So to have him in my life is an amazing thing, a gift I'm very grateful for. I want him to love the show and to laugh. Fingers crossed, he will.

• Britain Today Tonight is on Channel 4 at 10pm tonight

Published: 5 May 2017

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