‘Recently appeared in ‘Boy’ at the Almeida Theatre
Growing up did you always want to act, what inspired you?To be completely honest, no. I never harboured ambitions of being an actor growing up. I was never interested in school plays, nor was I even aware of the professional theatre on offer in my hometown of Bradford, Yorkshire. I’m aware that confessing such a thing is cavalier when being interviewed about a precious and burgeoning new career in acting, but please bear with me…I come from an impoverished, working-class family of four. Growing up, money was definitively tight. My parents moved to the UK from Pakistan in the 1960s with nothing to their names. They suffered through acerbic poverty and brutal discrimination – and were quite simply determined that their children never suffer the same shameful fate. So, long before “New Labour” extolled its virtues via slogans and soundbites, Dr. and Mrs. Baig were there to instill in me the paramount importance of “education, education and education” – above all else. Ergo, my nascent horizons were defined by the merits of sterling grades, university prestige and vocational ouvres in fields such as medicine, law and accounting.Acting wasn’t even near enough upon the horizon to be a joke. Of course, no-one is laughing now..!
What draws you to acting?
People. The quotation “be kind – everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” is attributed to Plato, but it has lingered with me for much of my adult life.
I often felt like an outsider growing up. As a poor, Asian child reeling in the wake of Thatcher’s Britain, there were intrinsic barriers to everyday life: materialistic sacrifice was a norm; racism was unavoidable and evergreen; personal sensitivity was a luxury. I grew up feeling like an outsider looking in. And painful though it was to come to terms with my own identity, the process taught me the immeasurable value of being an “observer”. Yet by comparing and judging myself against others, I came to the conclusion that we are more alike than we are different – a realisation which was affirmingly human.
Acting allows me to draw on that endless well of human community on my own terms. By channeling my own doubts and demons into characters I can showcase on a stage, I both expiate my own wrangling insecurities while championing the vital and communal values of the wider human struggle. In essence, the personal becomes the universal. We all face the same challenges, deep down, whatever our circumstances – acting is just honest about it.
You came to acting slightly later than most, what made you make the definite change?I come to acting having worked as journalist for ten years: initially at a local Bradford newspaper (the Telegraph & Argus) then – following a scholarship that propelled me to London’s prestigious City University and its world-class journalism school – at Sky News, BBC News, Al Jazeera and most recently CNN, where I continue to work as a writer and producer in addition to acting. Many have asked me why a journalist would be drawn to acting. My answer is simple: at the heart of both industries is storytelling. Whether you’re playing a soldier fighting for the uncertain future of his nation, or interviewing a young girl who has risked her life and future to escape North Korea, the values of each craft is the same: to honour the voice of someone who has no other opportunity to express it. I adore journalism and am so grateful CNN has supported me as I’ve pursued my acting career, continuing to offer me work despite my taut and evolving schedule. Special credit must be given to my bosses and contemporaries there: Rob North, Sara McDonald, Alireza Hajihosseini, Vicky Bennett, Charlotte Parson, Connie Lee, Clare Hayes, Leroy Ah-Ben, Zharina Arnaldo, Melissa Mahtani, Nina dos Santos, Maggie Lake, Luke Henderson and Gayle Harrington for their patience and understanding. But proud though I am of the stories I can showcase as a journalist, acting allows me to truly get under the skin of other people’s stories. Journalism is by virtue impartial and objective: acting is wild and personal – and I relish its imperfectly real qualities.
You recently appeared in Boy at the Almeida. This play has quite a honest look at allot of peoples lives that doesn’t often get portrayed, what relevance do you feel Boy has in the current climate?
Boy has given a voice to the voiceless. Through the story of Liam, playwright Leo Butler and director Sacha Wares have penned something new: a ballad of the unknown metropolitan soldier. He moves through our world, silent but solitary, unknown and undemanding, fierce yet fragile. He is a part of us all, yet a part we don’t always want to acknowledge. He is, as Oscar Wilde said, “Caliban in the mirror” – the reflection of a society we will one day be ashamed to have harboured.
What drew you to Boy? what do you think the message audiences take away?
It’s truly an honour to be part of this story. This spectacle heralds a brave new era in theatre: one defined not by narrative harmony or aesthetic mores, but by truth: a truth that can be ugly, accountable, unapologetic and political. It’s exactly what drew me into theatre in the first place – to lay bare the plight of the unsung warriors – the unsuspecting walking wounded – who stagger among us all.
The play has a fab diverse cast which represents the society we live in, do you feel as a actor of ethnicity that you get the same casting opportunities as some of your counterparts?
Growing up, seeing an Asian actor on mainstream television was so rare that, when it happened, it would be accompanied by a confused flurry of excitement as the entire family gathered around the television to witness such a vague breakthrough. Things changed in the 90s with shows such as Goodness Gracious Me and the introduction of Asian actors on soaps like Eastenders. But ultimately, those roles were defined by ethnicity. Even now, some of my friends – educated and internationally-minded people though they are – assume that I am certain to default to “terrorist” roles in terms of casting.
I would have believed them too if it wasn’t for Sacha, who cast me in five roles in Boy – none of which were defined by skin colour. And enormous credit too to the show’s brilliant casting director, Amy Ball, for doing something I would once never have imagined possible: casting a diverse and unique company of actors in a play that does not centre on race. Together, I believe they have broken new ground – and if nothing else, they have inspired me to believe that I can be worth more as a performer than the myopic limits of casual precedent. Hopefully this can signal a new and more inclusive era in casting.
Arts in schools is currently being taking away and reviewed by the government and their is a disparty in what children will have access to, what would be your message to keep arts as an intergal part of the curriculum
My message is simple. For all those who may doubt the merits of the arts – who may indeed denounce creative endeavour itself as futile in an increasingly competitive world driven by technology and finance – please remember that imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge polices the present, but imagination liberates the future. Imagination is the first step towards human betterment. New realities begin with new dreams. And the arts do something no other field can possibly do: they support those dreams. The arts are the scaffolding of the dreaming mind, the closest thing mankind has to peering into his future and determining his place therein.
You attended DSL, what do you think about the situation of young people not being able to afford audition fees? Do you have any thoughts on the current situation of drama school audition fees?
It’s unacceptable. Rising and exorbitant fees are an intergenerational crime. Is there no other way? The only way I was able to pay for training at Drama Studio London was because I had saved perniciously over a decade and was willing to sacrifice a mortgage for the chance to pursue a wily but unrelenting new dream. I supported myself, to the last penny – but I had to wait ten years to achieve that. I don’t come from the kind of background which would have invested thousands in acting training – let alone continuing that support as I looked for work after graduation.
People often say the fees are less here compared to America – but where are the scholarships and support mechanisms to match the U.S.?
We need more respect for arts training at a governmental level to truly support underprivileged new artists.
Obviously having had the experience of training at a top London Drama school, what advise would you give to other actors looking to train or auditioning.
Training is not always essential, and it certainly won’t make you a more talented actor, but it can help hone technical skills. Training is respected in the industry – but if it’s too expensive or prohibitive, there are alternatives – such as joining Casting Call Pro and working on student films to build up a showreel to approach agents with. But ultimately, we need a culture that doesn’t idolise full-time training – that can offer more respected, part-time alternatives to talented students.
What keeps you motivated as an actor in this tough industry?
There is no plan B. And I am not just doing this for me – but for people who may one day look up to me and say, “well, he did it – so can I!”