Omid Djalili: interview

Hobnobbing with Robert Redford, having your jokes nicked by Bill Clinton – life is sweet for Omid Djalili. Time Out meets a stand-up with the world at his feet

  • Omid Djalili: interview

    Face time: Comedian Omid Djalili does Paul McKenna

  • Omid Djalili opens the door to his gorgeous house in Richmond with a huge, warm smile.
    ‘Tim from Time Out?’ I nod.
    ‘Come in,’ he bellows by way of enthusiastic welcome, throwing his arms open. ‘I’m just getting myself some lunch, can I get you something?’

    He turns on his heels and scuttles off down the hall. I follow his baggy red shorts and yellow T-shirt towards the kitchen. The sound of his bare feet slapping on the floorboards stops as he reaches the fridge and starts pulling out grapes and peppers, ham and houmous, celery and cheese, piling them on to a large plate.

    We make our way into the living room for the interview, where he climbs on to a giant couch and lies back like a Roman emperor, chomping away as we chat. He’s the very picture of contentment. So he should be. Djalili is one of only a handful of British comics who’ve managed to transfer their stand-up success into a flourishing TV and film career. And we’re not talking about any old movies either, he’s appeared in some of Hollywood’s highest-grossing films, such as ‘Gladiator’, ‘The Mummy’ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End’.

    It must be nice being one of the country’s most high-profile and popular comics?

    ‘It’s better than people thinking you’re a cunt,’ he laughs. ‘It hasn’t always been like that though. I can recall really dying in Jongleurs back in 1999. The promoter said, “Don’t worry, everyone has a bad night. Besides they’re all pissed, no one’s going to recognise you or remember a thing tomorrow.” However, the next day I was on a plane to Glasgow and this guy tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Here, you were at Jongleurs last night. You were shit.” ’

    Djalili winces at the memory and pops another grape in his mouth, and then that lovable grin appears again. ‘He was sat behind me and I could hear him saying, “I could do it better than him.” I was like, “Fucking shut up! It was just a bad fucking night.” He wasn’t pissed, he was there and he thought I was so shit it actually encouraged him enough to think he could do stand-up. I was trapped on a plane the whole way to Scotland with him and his friend. Every time I went to the loo they averted their gaze. It was excruciating.’

    But that was nine years and – in some ways – a whole other life ago. That was before he became a bona fide film star with a legion of loyal fans who flock to his live gigs up and down the country. One of his most endearing features though is the fact that his success still seems to be a source of surprise and joy to him. When he talks about working with megastars such as Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt he looks like a kid
    who’s just found the key to the local sweet factory.

    ‘I’ve been very lucky in my career. Just to have been in some big movies has been great, although I’ve not really starred in them, just had cameos mainly. Having said that, when Tony Scott – Ridley’s brother – introduced me to Robert Redford, he said “Robert you must meet Omid – star of ‘Gladiator’ ” as a joke. And I said I wasn’t the star and that it was just a small part. And Redford said to me, “Don’t ever say small part. It’s much better to have a small part in a big movie than a big part in a small movie.” ’

    Djalili is without doubt the best name-dropper I have ever met. Though there’s no pretentiousness when he talks about his friendship with the late Heath Ledger or the time Bill Clinton saw his act at the palace of the Amir of Qatar and subsequently stole some of his jokes. These are just the everyday realities of his life. And he obviously enjoys moving in those circles. Who wouldn’t?

    ‘The people at the high end of the industry are very good to be near. If you’re around good people the way they think affects the way you think. If you hang around drug dealers or junkies, you’ll become a drug dealer or a junkie. But if you hang around with high-flyers and people who are honest and focused you’ll find that a) they’re very nice people and b) they just want the work to be as good as it can be.’

    And this is an important part of the Djalili philosophy. ‘They’re not really in it for the money. Someone like Ridley Scott – he just wants to leave a mark on this world. I know in my stand-up I don’t really think about fame or anything like that. I just think about how much joy can I bring to people and then gain the joy of bringing joy. It’s all about joy multiples.’ He laughs, then I laugh, then he laughs some more. The theory appears sound. After an hour in his company I feel decidedly chirpier and ready to take on the big bad world with renewed vigour. So that’s the secret of his success then, a positive mental attitude and surrounding himself with high-achieving friends that he trusts. Or is there something else?

    ‘A builder came up to me the other day and said, “You know what, mate, you’re my favourite comedian.” I couldn’t help but wonder what it was about me that he liked. Was it that I give him a window into an ethnic world he’s not privy to? Is it the way I undercut political commentary with Godzilla impressions and belly dancing, exposing an impish absurdity? Was I bridging some cultural gap, showing him that people from the Middle East actually do have a sense of humour and that we’re all the same underneath? In the end I had to ask him and do you know what his answer was? “You’ve got a funny face, mate. I just have to look at your fucking face and it makes me laugh.” ’

    Omid Djalili is on at the Hammersmith Apollo, April 18 & 19

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