Comedian Omid Djalilli comes to Playhouse

Omid Djalili
Omid Djalili
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LAID low by the dreaded lurgy, apologies are in order when finally I catch up with actor, writer, TV star and stand up Omid Djalili... three days late.

Thankfully he understands. It triggers a memory, in fact. “I had it myself, it’s appalling,” he sympathises, regaling me with how, during the publicity tour for his autobiography Hopeful, he fell very ill.

“I was in Harrogate back in October and had such a bad virus – I hadn’t cleaned my hands after shaking hands with people after a book signing. I was so bad, they said the only thing to do was to get a doctor.

“I asked, ‘Will they come?’ They said, ‘No, you’ll have to call 111.’

“I actually rang and said I think I have Ebola... they got there in three minutes. It was like something from the film Minority Report.

“They yanked me out and got me to hospital, did tests, then the doctor came in and said, ‘What made you think you had Ebola? You’ve got a virus.’ He gave me two paracetamols and told me to f*** off.”

He laughs and I get the impression that he may have just spun me a tale. Either way, fully recovered and eager to get back to the Capital, Djalili, widely recognised as one of the UK’s most subversive and funny comedians, tours his latest show Iranalamadingdong to the Playhouse tomorrow, following a hugely successful spring tour which brought him to New York, San Francisco and Washington.

Iranalamadingdong focuses on the overcoming of fears, relationships and the perils of celebrity and getting older.

“A lot of men in their forties try to do things to prove themselves. For me it was a choice of going on tour, learning to ride a unicycle or understanding Judaism,” the British-born Iranian quipped as he hit the road.

Today, however, he reflects that his last visit to the Capital, when he played Red in a critically acclaimed Fringe production of The Shawshank Redemption, was a very different experience.

And one that he was at first reluctant to accept.

“I had a plan when I was about 22,” he explains. “I remember thinking, ‘I have ten years in which to do a Hollywood film’. I wanted to do that. But then, as I grew older, it seemed silly to have such a limited viewpoint.

“Instead, I’ve always picked projects that excited me. I think Shawshank was one, and again, I always say no to things first.”

He continues, “I always need someone to twist my arm, like the last thing I did, a silly documentary about spices.

“I said, ‘I hate chillies so I won’t do that’. But they said, ‘No you hate them, and most people hate them, and it’s going to be quite scientific...’

“So they pulled me around by making out it was some kind of amazing definitive Phd thing about chillies – I was going to be like the Stephen Hawking of chillies.”

Djalili swithers when asked if that makes him a reluctant celebrity.

“Yes. No, I guess I wouldn’t say I was reluctant, but I always have my own things that I want to do and they always get put on hold.

“I get roped into things, like Shawshank; it was Owen O’Neil, a comedian, who said, ‘You have to do this!’ “I said, ‘You have to be joking, to play the part of Red.’ I didn’t know anything about it other than that Morgan Freeman played it in the movie.

“‘But in the book, Red is a short, dark, ducker and diver,’ he said. ‘The way he is described is just like you. He’s not black at all. They made him black to offset with Tim Robins in the film.’

“So again, they convinced me,” he laughs, adding, “Marketing. They wanted to sell tickets. I think they just wanted me to get up there and be the fall guy, but actually, it was pretty well received.”

In an ideal world, Djalili reveals, his dream would be to produce and direct his own movies.

“Writing and directing. I just want to do my own thing. That’s why, when I was asked to do my book, I loved it. That was so my own thing, just me and a computer. That’s where you tap into a specific kind of creativity and evolve as a person.

“It’s not about pleasing anyone... in my case, I even pleased my adolescent kids by doing Grand Theft Auto. I didn’t even know what it was. Now I think it is the single most disgraceful thing I have ever done in my life.

“To these smelly 16-year-old boys who smell of groin, I’m a hero, but to their parents I’m a disgrace. I go around apologising at dinner parties.”

None the less, he can’t wait to return to the home of the controversial video game.

“Edinburgh is always my favourite gig, always a delight. I first did the Fringe for a laugh really. We used to go up because my wife had family in Liberton at the time. That was in ’93 and ’94. Then they started giving me awards and it seemed to become such an important place. But it also became like a focus, as soon as you finished one show they wanted to know what was the next one, and the next one...

“It took me about seven years to realise that it wasn’t the be-all-and-end-all. It had become the only thing in my life. Everything was focussed on the Fringe and all I seemed to talk about was Greyfriars Bobby – I even took people up there, like a tourist guide.

“The last time I visited, I did two shows, Shawshank and my own stand-up show in the evening, I was Mr Edinburgh, and I wasn’t knackered. There’s something about the Festival vibe, you’d think a bloke in his late-40s would collapse but, actually, I quite enjoyed it.

“The energy of Edinburgh is like none other. I never feel tired when I am there.”

Omid Djalili: Iranalamadingdong, Playhouse, Greenside Place, tomorrow, 8pm, £26.90, 0844-871 3014