Irfan Shamji

Photo: Simon Annand

Irfan Shamji graduated from RADA in 2017 and his first professional production was Hamlet with Tom Hiddleston directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh. I taught Irfan when he was in year 13 and it is very exciting to be able to look back on the school days of someone at the very start of what I know will be a very exciting career. Since graduating, Irfan has had roles in Film, Television and Theatre as well as being interviewed by The Sunday Times and the BBC World Service.

Drama at School: Commitment and Craziness

PC: What was your path into acting?

IS: The idea was for me to be an academic, that is what my parent’s wanted. I have two parents who never went to university or really finished secondary school. They came from Africa – Zambia and Rwanda. They just didn’t get that shot at a proper education so it is was important for me to go to university and get a good job, which generally means something like economics or science, doctor, lawyer. There is already an immunologist in the family, my uncle and he goes around the world doing lectures sometimes. At that moment when it was time to pick GCSEs, I picked a few ‘good’ ones but I wanted to do drama and the excuse to my parents was that it would help with my public speaking for when I become either a lawyer or a doctor. Inside I knew I loved drama and it would be fun. I’m not sure if being an actor was even on my mind because before that I thought actors were just people that looked really good, they were like models just saying lines in a cool way. Wesley, the most popular guy in our year, was into drama and he got into the National Youth Theatre and he got me to join but I didn’t get in after two auditions. We did GCSE together, I was following in his footsteps a bit, but then I started to get more into it in class. I would just be weird in classes, acting all crazy and stuff. I realised later on in A level, when I read Stanislavski, that I had started to do that kind of stuff before I even knew about it. I had an instinct for it and I started to watch films differently. I still hadn’t gone to the theatre that much because my family didn’t really do that.

PC: What do you mean by “an instinct for it”?

IS: My imagination was easy to access at that point, when I was up there doing a scene or improvisation I wasn’t that kid who was self-conscious or not taking it seriously. I had always taken it way more seriously than anyone else and I committed to it, I don’t think consciously, it was just that I wanted to do it, I wanted to get up there. I wasn’t really that scared or embarrassed. I’d do some stupid stuff in improvisations, I would get on the floor if I was playing a crazy person and wriggle around or smell the seats of the person who was sitting next to me, just weird psychotic shit because I had watched Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. I found a way to express myself through those things and people would say I was weird but to me that was normal, that was what drama class was for and it was just great. More specifically, when we had devised things and we’d get up to show the whole class, I have a memory of kneeling in the corner, thinking about trying to get into character in some way, trying to feel a certain emotion, I don’t think anyone had taught me that. That is my memory, committing to it a lot and some how finding a way of preparing and also just being comfortable devising things. I tried to have a naturalness in the acting. I remember we had to do this exercise where everyone was walking around the classroom and you had to do different levels of emotion, I would start subtly, there a was a subtlety to the stuff I was doing, it was real. I’m not saying I was an amazing actor in GCSE but it I had an interest in it and it was a bit more complex for me than for other people. I started to learn about actors like Daniel Day Lewis, he was the first actor that I actually learned about, he taught me that acting is a craft. Before then it was that actors were models who could say lines in a cool way. It was my friend Wesley who asked if I had seen Daniel Day Lewis and that he stayed in character for all these months. If that is the first actor that you think about in that way then that shapes the whole way that you think about drama for a few years after. Now after training I realise that that is not the only way of approaching acting.

Copying Screen Actors

PC: Can you think of other specific influences?

IS: I was a huge plagiarist as well, in GCSE Drama we had to devise things and there had been a cool scene that I had just watched Tom Hardy do in The Take on TV or a scene in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I watched that around year 9 and I brought in a scene from that. I just pretended that I was making it up. People would listen and I would direct them.

PC: Had you written out a script from the film?

IS: I hadn’t written it out I had just watched that film so many times that I knew that scene by heart, and I would tell people what to say and do.

PC: I was doing something similar with a difficult year 8 class at the time. I would show them a two minute clip and get them to then use it as a model for their own scene. You say plagiarise, I say model, but that idea of copying is interesting.

IS: You’re not going to do the same thing, it’ll be your version.

PC: So you had learnt the scene and brought it to the lesson.

IS: Yeah, there were certain films that stayed in my head. If you remember in The Assassination of Jesse James there is a scene where Brad Pitt takes a knife to Casey Affleck and he is playing a trick and afterwards he can’t stop laughing. It was that scene that I watched over and over again and it was that scene that I thought was great acting. I wanted to play Brad Pitt’s part.

PC: So you just brought those kind of scenes to the class?

IS: Yeah, because I never felt good at just improvising off-the-cuff myself so if it came to devising I would use an idea that I had seen in a film.

PC: It is really interesting to hear that because we see that kind of thing a lot in drama but I think teachers, including myself, often think that shouldn’t be allowed. We block it out because we say, “That’s not theatre.” But actually I think it is a really fruitful line of creativity.

IS: Especially if you are someone that hasn’t been to the theatre as a young kid and you haven’t been in much youth theatre. I hadn’t had much experience and I didn’t feel comfortable with just getting up and making something from scratch, even now it is really hard. But to have some stuff that you like, examples of good acting, it can be inspirational.

PC: What was your experience of theatre?

IS: My family had never seen a play, perhaps something I was in in year 12 might have been their first thing time seeing a play. It just wasn’t in our entertainment vocabulary, it was DVDs, films and TV. We couldn’t really afford it, I don’t even know if we knew how expensive it was, it was just a thing that wasn’t really in our idea of entertainment. I think in primary school and secondary school we went on trips to see Blood Brothers, I think everyone goes and sees Blood Brothers at some point! The Lyric Panto was good.

PC: How did you know you wanted to be an actor?

IS: It was that GCSE Drama teacher that I can’t remember the name of, she was the first to ask me, because I was hard-working and over-committed, she said to me, “Do you actually want to be an actor then?” It was the first time anyone had asked me. I guess it was because I was putting in a lot of effort, I remember it as if it was someone giving me permission to do it. If I didn’t have that moment I probably wouldn’t have taken it at A level, everything else comes from that moment.

In the Shadow of Grenfell Tower

PC: How did growing up in Ladbroke Grove inform your imagination?

IS: Around that time Ladbroke Grove was a bit dodgy, you could get robbed, especially if you were sixteen, it was a bit scary sometimes. But if you knew the area well it was alright. Creatively, I don’t know, there is the Gate, which I still haven’t been to and there is the Coronet cinema which I didn’t go to much. I don’t know how much it influenced me creatively because there was more sports, football and music, grime and rap that ‘council estate’ kind of life. I think I got it more from watching films and reading novels. It was that kind of escapism maybe. I wasn’t a kid that was allowed out that much to socialise and go to parties, stay out on the streets until late and get up to no good. I found that quite hard in general, I guess I stayed home more than other kids, playing games, watching TV, reading books. That develops your creativity but you lack a certain worldly experience that you feel like other people are getting.

PC: And you’re moving at the moment?

IS: Yeah

PC: With your family?

IS: Yeah, where we lived was right next to Grenfell Tower. I wasn’t there on the night that it happened, I was living in Bermondsey during my time at RADA. But that night my family were there, my mum, my dad, my sister who is twenty and my younger siblings who are six and eight and they all saw it, they were there live and they had to evacuate. My dad took my little brother and sister to my grandfather’s house in Chelsea and my mum and sister stayed to help people who were managing to get out of the tower, so they saw a lot more things and she went around the block helping and she could hear people, she was a lot more traumatised by it. They couldn’t go back in after they had evacuated for safety reasons because they weren’t sure what would happen with the tower: if it would fall down or not. Everyone in that estate, in the blocks next to Grenfell went to hotels, but there was an option if you didn’t want to come back you could ask for somewhere else to live and that is what my mum pursued, whereas my dad was a little more reluctant, he felt that we had lived their for twenty years, it was a pride thing, he didn’t want to take government resources, he didn’t want to scrounge. But my mum saw it and heard it all, so now we are moving this week to a temporary apartment, I don’t know how long they’ll be there, but it is home for now. All that was happening whilst I was chilling with Tom Hiddleston and Kenneth Branagh in rehearsal. It was such a weird contrast, you are in this high profile, exclusive little thing but at the same time you’re watching the news and your area is constantly being labelled as ‘poor’. It was weird.

PC: How have you felt about the labels that were placed on Ladbroke Grove during the reporting of it?

IS: One thing that struck me was that I always new that we were ‘working class’ but what I love about our area is that you are right next door to some of the richest people, so in a way you can say that it is really bad, in that there is a divide, but if you think about it in a different way, success isn’t that far away. As a young, working class kid you could think that I could live just five minutes away and have that house and earn that much money and be successful. On the news, watching them talk about the tower and the estates around it, saying there is some of the poorest people in London live here, it was a shock to hear. I knew that we weren’t that well off but to hear the news say that about you it was really weird. I felt bad because I wasn’t there to help, because all the community got together to help but I was in the middle of rehearsals so I couldn’t leave.

Rootlessness

PC: You speak three languages, do you speak all three at home?

IS: I learnt French when I lived in Congo, I was born in Zambia but I grew up in Congo for a portion of my childhood, you had to learn French there and Swahili, so just to be able to live there I had to know those to be able to communicate. I can still understand it but I don’t speak them as well. At home we speak English.

PC: When did you move to the UK?

IS: I moved here when I was two in 1996 and then spent most of the time here and then went back to Congo for two years around year 3. That probably helped my imagination a lot. Travelling is good especially if you go to Africa. I’ve been to lots of places in Africa: Zambia, South Africa, Congo and Morocco. Some places I’ve visited are properly poor but Africa is full of different cultures, music and food. People express themselves in different ways. I’ve always wanted to express that in my acting here but you can’t really do that, I haven’t really found many ways to do that. Being of a mixed ethnicity, but I look predominantly Asian, I don’t look African, so I couldn’t really be in an African play at RADA, even though I might know more about those places than most people.

PC: In terms of casting, you don’t feel like you would be cast in an African play?

IS: No, I feel like I could be in plays like Barber Shop Chronicles with people from all different countries in Africa talking about their experiences or plays that are set where I have lived like A Season in the Congo. I speak Swahili and when I speak French it is with an African accent. But people look at me and think that I don’t really look African. North African maybe.

PC: How about when you visit the Congo?

IS: In Congo you get called Mzungu which means white man or foreigner? So they look at me and see me as more Asian. But then I’ve never been to India and I can’t really speak Gujarati or Hindi.

PC: Do you have Indian heritage as well?

IS: Yes, my grandparents on my dad’s side but they moved to Africa, and the Indian culture is still strong in them but I never really picked up much Indian stuff. I feel a bit rootless: in Congo, I don’t feel African, I don’t feel Indian and here London is home, the UK is home but I don’t really feel British. Maybe lots of people don’t feel British, I mean, what is that? I feel like I live in a real good multi-cultural city but I don’t feel like it is my city. When I was a teenager, I felt this feeling of rootlessness a lot and I read a bit about Bruce Lee and he talks about being like water, shapeless so I think that if I don’t have a root and I don’t have a place where I call home and I can’t really say I am this or that then what about not being from anywhere, what about being anything you want to be.

PC: Human.

IS: Exactly. I’d think about borders a lot, why we have borders and about national pride and what that means and that is when acting started to become a thing for me, it helped me, you can be anything you want to be. I think loads of actors say that. It was a way of being whoever you want to be. I could always be redefining who I wanted to be.

Fantasies, Failure and RADA Auditions

PC: What happened after you finished year 13?

IS: The rest of that year was pretty shit. I failed all my A levels apart from Drama; I got an A in Drama. But Biology was a U, I had to drop that after year 12, Psychology was an E, English was a D. I had lost my motivation in those subjects. It was a difficult time personally and I felt quite lost, I don’t know if depressed is the right word but I felt quite low and unconfident around that time. So sixth form finished and I had missed the chance to apply to Drama schools, those deadlines had passed. I had no plan so I had a whole year of doing nothing. I had a job on the weekends working in a pharmacy and I watched actor interviews on the internet, Inside the Actor’s Studio on YouTube, fantasising about being an actor. I watched films but still didn’t go to the theatre that much. I found out about Drama schools but that was for a years time and when it came to picking monologues and applying I just picked some monologues off my shelves, old school books. I had Martin Crimp, I chose a monologue for a fifty year old man from one of his plays and Iago from Othello. The first time I said those words aloud was in the audition rooms. It was terrible, I applied for twelve schools and didn’t get a single recall. I hadn’t been going to clubs at all. That year was just a tough year for me mentally, socially. It was a huge failure. I realised I hadn’t even researched how to properly get into Drama school. After doing that I knew I needed to find a monologue that suited me, read more plays and find a good Shakespeare speech that worked for me. I had to go and see more stuff and take classes and get used to being up and acting and not just watching YouTube clips of acting. I ended up doing two part-time jobs and I did two foundation courses, one on weekends and one as an evening class. I did that for a whole year, didn’t see any of my friends and just focussed on that. My parents were telling me to do something else after not getting anywhere with those twelve schools but I knew I hadn’t really given it a proper shot. This was me giving it my best, I paid for all those classes myself from the two jobs I had on Portobello Road. In that sense I am grateful for living in that area, every penny I earned was from that street. Eventually I got into RADA, after gathering a lot of experience in that year from acting classes and auditions. Picking the right monologue was crucial, I picked Red by John Logan about the artist Mark Rothko, I loved the teacher/student relationship, this teacher who thinks he knows everything, he’s got all this experience, he is like a genius.

PC: I know him well.

IS: And then he is telling you what to do and he doesn’t appreciate a thing you’re doing and it is the one time that you’re giving it all back to him. It was a great monologue and it was American, which I liked. The character didn’t have to be from a specific place or look a certain way. That was another struggle, trying to find a monologue that I related to. I didn’t relate to Hanif Kureshi or any of the other Asian playwrights, because I didn’t really relate to being Asian. I couldn’t do African stuff, like I said I don’t really relate to Britishness. I’d find plays and it always seemed like you had to be a white person in the nineties. But this character, all he had was an American accent, he was a young student and ambitious, which is what I was at the time so I could relate to it. Shakespeare was tough as well, I didn’t read all the plays, I wasn’t a huge fan of it but I knew about Hamlet and I knew that that character Laertes was telling his sister not to fall in love with Hamlet. My sister was only two years younger than me, she was seeing people and I always felt like I had to be that protective brother, so I understood Laertes straight away. It was to a person, there were clear objectives, clear actions. I was only then just learning about actions and acting is doing not just emoting. Those were the right things to pick as they got me into RADA eventually.

Training at RADA

PC: What was your journey from mimicking other actors before RADA to finishing RADA and being in the Branagh Hamlet?

IS: You stop mimicking people. When people asked who my favourite actor was I wouldn’t say Daniel Day Lewis or Philip Seymour Hoffman anymore, in my head, quietly I would be thinking that I am my favourite actor. I can’t just try and be greats. You are training six days a week, nine until nine, longer sometimes, you can’t really copy because they will call you on it. They’ll tell you that that was fake or that was something you’d seen on TV. They are really good at training you to be your own unique type of actor. It is up to you to use which ever method suits you, they teach you various things but it is up to you to pick what you like. Also all my references before were all film people.

PC: What was the point when you realised the difference between film acting and stage acting?

IS: I used to act in a more filmic way because I hadn’t experienced the theatre that much. They had to train that quietness, not really showing much, that mimicry, out of me. They were training me how to use my body and voice and that changed me. I could still be more expansive on stage, there are way more expansive actors but because I started out with film and TV influences those stay with me and I have to work really hard to be big, to fill out the theatre and sometimes I think I am being big and I’m not but at least now I know what that is and I can get there.

PC: What was the experience like working with Kathryn Hunter?

IS: She directed us but I wish she was in the show with us, acting with us because I think maybe I would have learned more by acting alongside her. She was very nurturing and kind as a director almost motherly. She is great because she can show you examples, she can do it all herself. When you work with people who are that good and have been doing it a long time there is a lot of freedom to mess up, it is okay not to know and discover things. I was surprised at how much they are unsure as well and they are not telling you each thing has to be a certain way, it is quite free and loose. It is difficult to pinpoint what I learned and articulate it. I don’t think I have had epiphanies at RADA, it is the daily grind of trying to do something, it starts to become easier with time. Kathryn encouraged me to be physical and I think that is the most physical I have been because I had to play five characters and each one had to be different.

Shakespeare with Sir Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hiddleston

PC: How did you get the part in Branagh’s Hamlet?

IS: In our third year they asked us to do a Shakespeare piece for Kenneth Branagh. You don’t know what it is for, usually they could be mock auditions, so I just picked Laertes again as it is the one I relate to the most still. I did that and it turned out that he was looking for a Laertes to be in his Hamlet. Three weeks later I got an offer from him to be in it.

PC: Did they just look at a Shakespeare monologue?

IS: No, they came to the graduate showcase and they liked the monologue that I had written myself.

PC: You wrote your own monologue?

IS: Yeah, again I couldn’t find anything that I thought was the best, that was personal for me, that reflected who I am, or that I could delve deep into. I remember going home and crying, just in despair, I hadn’t got an agent yet, and I just didn’t know what to do. So I just sat down and wrote this thing about my brother, I have a half-brother in Congo that I have never met and I have always wondered about him, what it would be like to meet him. I’d hear stories about the UN in Congo, their presence, I always felt very attached to Congo, the most attached to any place. I wrote this piece about this guy looking for his brother, pretending to be a UN peacekeeper in order to get through, then his brother turned out to have been a child soldier. Ken Branagh came to see it with Tom Hiddleston and they really liked it. That was part of the reason they cast me as well.

PC: What was Kenneth Branagh’s approach to Shakespeare? Did you start with table readings?

IS: That is a good question. No, we were on our feet from day one. We had four weeks to rehearse it and it was in our contract to be off book by the first day. On the first day of rehearsals we just started scene one on its feet. Ken had kind of blocked it already but only a rehearsal room version, it changed many times. By the end of the first week we had done a run through off book. He encouraged us to go at quite a quick pace with it, acting on the line and not indulging too much in the emotion of it, keeping shared lines, respecting the verse and keeping the end of the lines. Diction was a huge thing, clarity, not creating a new word by missing out the end consonant.

PC: Did he articulate a justification for that?

IS: Yeah he emphasised that we’re not just trying to be posh toffs here at RADA trying to articulate everything and speak cleanly, the reason behind it is if you are saying something like “Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead” if you articulate every syllable in there, we see the whole of you and it is clear but if you miss syllables you drop out of focus. It was trying to make everything sharper and HD. It was about the need to communicate. It is what should drive all of it. If you were reluctant to articulate the last T on a word then you lose the need to communicate and fully express yourself.

PC: How did the changes happen as the rehearsals and the production went on?

IS: For me it was to do with what you bring on when you come on, your preparation before hand and finding exactly what is useful. I had quite high stakes stuff to do, you come on and your dad’s been killed, your sister’s gone mad. I took Hamlet as very much an extension of my third year so I would always be trying out different approaches for how to come on stage. Understanding exactly what it is you want, what a scene is about is important. For example, in that first scene I had, where I’m telling Ophelia to be careful around Hamlet and to not lose her heart, I was always concerned with whether I was getting everything across and whether I was being understood, because there wasn’t much reaction coming from the audience. But I realised that the scene wasn’t about Laertes, everyone was hearing what I am saying but they were looking at the effect it has on Ophelia. Understanding what a scene is about means you don’t have to worry about what you are doing or what reactions you are getting. I used to think that the scene was about being a protective brother but it was never about that, it was always about Ophelia and her journey.

PC: How did you approach communicating those high stakes?

IS: I used to think that high stakes means you have to move around a lot and show your inner life in a physical way but one thing I started to implement more was being still, not trying too hard in a way. The audience see you much more clearly when you are still, in film terms it is almost like a close up. If you react to something with stillness people pay more attention to your face. Whereas, if you react with your arms their vision is distracted.

PC: You mentioned that you saw this production of Hamlet as an extension of your third year, I think that is a really healthy way to look at your whole career because you then always attend to every play, every experience with a spirit of learning.

IS: And learning from actors with more experience, actors with different experiences. That was a real contrast with the productions I have done with fellow students, the atmosphere is different. Some of the actors in Hamlet had been doing it for thirty years and it put you at ease because there wasn’t that underlying anxiety that everyone has as a student at drama school.

Life Correlates with Art

PC: What is next for you?

IS: I don’t know, graduate life starts for me now. I have an agent, which was hard. The connections I made during Hamlet were amazing but I need to find my own feet now as a graduate. I have a feeling that I have to start writing my own stuff.. There are so many reasons to do it. That night of despair I had when I went home crying and I was writing that monologue in tears thinking that my showcase was going to be shit and I just had to write something that was personal to me. Those five hundred words got me the Hamlet job. Another reason is that the whole thing about acting is that it is personal, you are meant to reflect what it is like for you, the more personal it is the more universal it can be. As an actor you are just not in control, if you are lucky you get to be in things that somehow align with where you are at in your life. For example, Laertes in Hamlet, someone having to save their family, with Grenfell happening at the same time and friends of mine who were in that building who saved their families, friends who didn’t, I could relate to that in a way, not to trivialise it but life correlates with art.

PC: What advice would you give to your fourteen year old self?

IS: I told you about the teacher that asked me whether I wanted to be an actor and I said that that gave me permission. Well, you don’t need permission, you don’t need someone to ask you. If you feel like you want to do it just do it. Also, don’t worry about whether you’re cool for being interested in something. People thought I was weird for doing some of the stuff I did in drama class, being a bit over the top, over committing. I was the weird one but I didn’t care.