Mariayah Kaderbhai in coversation with Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, Adarsh Gourav and Tahar Rahim
Mariayah Kaderbhai: Hi, I’m Mariayah Kaderbhai and welcome to the BAFTA Film Sessions for Leading Actor. This virtual series celebrates the nominees from this year’s EE British Academy Film Awards. Some housekeeping before we start: Join the conversation on social using the hash tag EE BAFTAs. If you have a question please use the Q&A function, if you’re joining us on Zoom, and if you’re joining us via Facebook or YouTube please put your question in the chat. We will try and get to as many as possible during the session. There is closed captioning available now which you can turn on at the bottom of the screen via the cc button.
We are joined this evening by Riz Ahmed, Adarsh Gourav, Mads Mikkelsen and Tahar Rahim. Also nominated this year are Chadwick Boseman for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Anthony Hopkins for The Father. Welcome all of you! Congratulations on your nomination this year.
Mads Mikkelsen: Thank you so much.
MK: I want to start with a question for all of you. The very notion of film as a biography of your own life, the idea that you spend so much time in the preparation for a role and the production of a role in the press and promotion of the film that you’ve worked on, what was it in particular about each of these roles that you’re nominated for that drew you to this in particular, to give up so much of your life to put into these specific roles? Riz, I might come to you first on that.
Riz Ahmed: Yeah sure. I think it usually starts off pretty straightforward. If the script is amazing, and we were really lucky with our film Sound of Metal, Darius Marder and his brother Abraham Marder had been working on the script for about thirteen years. It was one of those labours of love that, one of those films that just wasn’t getting made but he kept working on it, kept working on it for over a decade. The script was brilliant, that was the first thing. After that, a lot of times it’s about the chemistry so I met up with Darius and I just love him. You’ve spoken to him in Q&As before, right? His energy is just like, he’s this big bear who’s just got so much love and heart and it was clear he was going to give it 110% and he expected that from everyone. He said whoever plays this role has to learn how to play the drums, learn American Sign Language. It just felt like such a big challenge, such a big adventure, kind of unique. You don’t often get that kind of opportunity to throw yourself in 110% like that and know that the director is going to do the same and has already done that. So that’s what made it so attractive, it was like that was what the deal was going into it—he’s like I’ve already been doing this for over a decade, who wants to go down this crazy path with me, and he seemed like a good partner to do it.
MK: We’re going to come back to immersing into the role and learning to play the drums and American Sign Language. Tahar if I can come to you next and The Mauritanian, again a role that I think must have been very, very difficult to kind of take on, especially as it’s based on someone living today. What did you have, if any concerns at all taking on this role to begin with? And again what drew you to the film?
Tahar Rahim: First of al it’s Kevin. I worked with him ten years ago and we stayed good friends and he sent me a text saying I might have a nice part for you so when I received the script the title at that time was Guantanamo Diaries so for a second, a very short moment I thought it would be maybe there was you know, endless stereotypical parts you can get you know from Hollywood or Europe and I know Kevin and know he’s clever so I’m like come on it’s you. So I read the script and just technically the part is a real gift for an actor. But while I was reading it I felt so many different feelings inside myself—I was angry, sad and absolutely blown away by Mohamedou, because it’s a true story. I cried, as well, which is very rare for an actor when you read a script to cry. It never happened to me before. When I finished the script I just called Kevin and I said man, I’m in. I really wanted to be part of these people who were doing him justice.
MK: And Adarsh, The White Tiger obviously an internationally bestselling novel, winning the Man Booker Prize. But there’s a little bit of legacy already to take on a role that so many people have pictured in their own heads when they’ve been reading it. What was it in the initial readings of the script that you were desperate to take it on?
Adarsh Gourav: First of all thanks so much for having me Mariayah, it’s an honour for me to be sharing this table with such esteemed gentlemen. I think you know, Tess Joseph who was the casting director of the film she’s one of only two casting directors from India at present who cast for international films. And I got a call from her office saying that you know there’s a film they’re casting for and that’s when they hadn’t revealed the name of the film they just sent me a couple of scenes. I was actually just very, very excited to be receiving a call from her office because it was the first time I was getting an opportunity to audition with her and I’ve secretly always harboured a desire to work internationally but somehow it never came together. So when I got this opportunity I said you know, I’d take it with both hands. When I read the scene, even though it wasn’t mentioned that it was The White Tiger I knew it was The White Tiger because I’d read it as a teenager, the book. So when Balram’s name was mentioned there I said ah this is The White Tiger a film is being made of it. I read the scene, went to audition for it, and I swear when I went to audition the only thought in my head was I need to give a good enough audition that I get called for another audition because even the thought of entertaining, the thought of entertaining the fact I could ever get to play Balram was bizarre because this was such a big film and you know that somebody like me was ever going to get cast for this. One thing led to the next and then five rounds later and a month later Ramin called me from New York and said that you know, they wanted me to play Balram. It was just unbelievable for me, but I guess one of the most attractive parts about the film was of course the story itself, it’s such an extraordinary story of a man from the darkness to the light and the kind of changes that he witnesses on the way and the kind of people that he meets and I guess it was just an opportunity to embody a person that I hadn’t played before, it was something very far from who I am and it gave me that chance to really explore myself as an actor by being Balram. And of course, the opportunity to work with somebody like Ramin who I’ve been a big fan of. I’ve watched Man Push Cart and Goodbye Solo and when I got to know he was directing the film I was very, very excited.
MK: And Mads, for Another Round obviously you’ve worked with Thomas Vinterberg before, but as Adarsh mentioned going from the darkness to the light, Martin is in a way kind of going from a fog to some sort of light in this social—would you call it a social experiment that you’re carrying out? What was it initially that drew you to the role?
Mads Mikkelsen: I think it’s a mix of what Tahar said and Riz. Thomas was the main reason because we’d worked together seven, eight odd years ago and I really wanted to work with him again, and so he pitched me this story about these four high school teachers whose lives had come to a standstill and they try to recharge their batteries through drinking a little. But only while they’re working. And that sounded fun and great so I said yes right away, but I also knew that the story would be so much more about life and Thomas has an ability to place ordinary people in extraordinary situations so we can relate to them and it didn’t disappoint me, the script was absolutely beautiful. So those were the two reasons why I said yes, and then a few days before I started shooting a disaster hit Thomas and his family so it became not only a film I wanted to do, but it became a necessity, became the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life and the turnout luckily is something we’re all proud of.
MK: It turned out to be a beautiful film. I wanted to talk to all of you but I’ll stick with you at the moment Mads, about the idea of process. As an actor I wouldn’t know but I imagine the kind of performing drunk while being sober is quite a difficult feat in itself, and also a kind of ensemble piece, there were four of you doing that together, how did you all work with Thomas to create the illusion that seems very authentic.
MM: There’s a lot of different stages there. I think for most actors playing drunk you would approach a little like you do in real life. You come home from the pub and don’t want your wife to know you’ve been having a couple of pints, that means you’re hiding it. The slightly drunk version is always hide it, hide it, and that obviously gives you away because you move a little more restrained, more precise, too precise actually. Those are the, should we say, the easy ways of playing drunk but then when you get up to the higher levels this is when the danger starts, this is what gives you away if you’re not nailing it it’s just so obvious. What we did, we did a boot camp before we started shooting, and we tested out the exact levels, 0.5, 0.8, 0.1 and we tested out some of the scenes and we filmed the whole thing, we had a great time. We’re four guys, who know each other well, you’ve had a few shots before, it doesn’t seem that odd. It’s normal. When you see the video the next day it gives you away, all of a sudden your hands are doing stuff you didn’t tell them to do, and that little lisp you had forty years ago, it’s back! That was coming in really handy, and the complete hammered stuff we watched a lot of YouTube videos –for some reason it’s always Russian people who film themselves when they’re drinking a lot. We didn’t test that out, we watched and got inspired. We could turn up and down on the volume and that was coming in handy because obviously we couldn’t drink while shooting because there’s a tendency if you drink too much there’s no dialogue anymore.
MK: In my head I’m imagining drinking for twelve hours straight on a set is probably not going to be very productive.
MM: And for safety, it’s a no!
MK: Obviously you’ve done very many English speaking roles and a lot of Danish roles. Do you notice a difference in your style between languages? Is there a kind of—how?
MM: Yeah, it’s hard to put my finger on now. I think that first few times I did it, it was obviously an extra character, me speaking English. I had to get used to how I would do that as a person. So that was first that character, then secondly the real character. The more I’ve done it, the more I can focus on the character, which is the important part of course. I’ve done quite a few different languages in my career, and it’s always the case that you have to get past that part so you can get to the real character, right? I always say, it might be an excuse, I don’t mind having an accent, I find it hard when people put on an accent and we notice it too long. So just have one, that’s my excuse, and then get past it.
MK: And then Riz, coming back to kind of the idea of language, when verbal communication is taken away completely and you have to kind of—that your connection to the world is taken away as it is for your character Reuben in Sound of Metal, a lot of it is finding this new identity, so yeah, I’m going to skip back. I’m going to first of all talk about how much you had to learn, to kind of relearn—to learn to forget, to learn drumming as a process, and then obviously non-verbal communication with American Sign Language, and the hybrid of learning things that you then have to sometimes use and forget in the role if that makes sense?
RA: In terms of process I guess you know, similar to what Mads is saying, there’s always some kind of boot camp. For this one in particular it was a very long boot camp, it was about seven months of every day drumming for a few hours, a drum teacher Guy Licata who was so patient, I was so badly coordinated, I still am, and in particular the kind of drumming we’re doing, double peddling and stuff; I’m left handed and sometimes when you’re left handed you do some things right handed, some left handed, so he kept switching round the drums going ‘maybe it’ll be better if you play them right handed or play them left handed.’ No I’m still crap. It just kept going back and forth. Drumming every day for seven months and also the American Sign Language every day. Then the training with my personal trainer who is also hard of hearing, so it was just a full schedule for a long time but that can be a real blessing as well, because like you were saying, hinting at the fact that they’re both languages—drumming and American Sign Language is both non-verbal communication really. I think when I speak in Urdu or I speak in English or in French, I feel that different sides of me come out in a weird way—you go back to who I was when I learned that language or the different context, and I think learning the drums and learning American Sign Language brought out different sides of me and opened me up as an actor in many ways. Ruben is a character who doesn’t have a lot of dialogue so communicating physically or being in the body a bit more is something that I needed to do for this performance. I didn’t realise when I was learning the drums and learning the sign language that that would do it for me. I thought I was learning the skills, but it always happens when you’re learning skills that it spills out in unexpected ways and informs your performance. And it changes you as a person. Something that I’ve really kind of been thinking about a lot during the film and since the film is what listening really is, because I feel like my mentors in the deaf community that I was immersed with, they’re the best listeners I’ve ever met. Listening isn’t just something you do with your ears; it’s something you do with your body and your attention. My sign instructor used to say there’s a saying in the deaf community, that us in the hearing community are emotionally repressed and the reason for that is because we hide behind words. That’s a very well known saying in the deaf community, and it’s only when I started getting better at sign language, that I was talking about emotional things in my life or the character’s life, I found myself tearing up. Like what you were saying Tahar, stuff I’d normally be able to just talk about I found myself crying, and I asked Jeremy [Lee Stone, ASL coach] what that was and he said when you’re communicating with your whole body you connect to it in a different way, you can’t hide behind your words, you find yourself getting more emotional. It was a real gift and I’m so grateful to all my teachers in the deaf community who didn’t just teach me their language they taught me so much more, they taught me what listening is and what communication is which as an actor is so fundamental.
MK: I imagine so much of acting takes place in the head but then having to let go of that and have it resonate through your whole body must have been quite a liberating experience, and even picking up what you were saying kind of hearing people I suppose all of us have the need to fill those silences, awkward silences, with words that don’t mean anything because there’s a level of awkwardness to situations.
Tahar I wanted to come to you next. Obviously playing Mohamedou, based on a real character who wrote The Guantanamo Diaries while he was in prison in Guantanamo Bay. There must have been a sense of responsibility playing someone real. I wanted to talk about someone that’s living, breathing, playing that person, and perhaps having that person as a resource and if that helps or hinders your process.
TR: Yes of course it helped me a lot to meet him. By the way guys I’ve seen your movies and your performances are great, congratulations. I loved it and the movies as well.
RA: Likewise, guys.
TR: I was saying, yeah, when I have to portray a real life person I like to meet them and spend time with them, not especially to mimic them because when they’re not famous you can take some liberty, except for Charles Sobhraj. Anyway, the responsibility especially with Mohamedou was very important to me. We’re dealing with a real person who’s been held fourteen years in Guantanamo without a single charge against him. He’s an innocent man. To me it turned out to be even more important than cinema in itself. It was beyond that. So the first audience member I wanted to please was Mohamedou. When I first met him on Skype, you know I had read the book, I knew a lot about him but I couldn’t really understand and put myself in his body: How could he be so nice, good? How could he be, you know, have forgiven everybody? I was like now we’re just the two of us maybe he can tell me if he has some anger, and he was like no, no, not at all. He told me something very important that I took for me in my life, or I’m trying to. He said when you forgive people who did bad things to you, it’s a treat you give to yourself. So you can free your mind and eventually change people’s minds. He succeeded; he did it with his guards, with some of the people surrounding him, and some audience members. I had some messages and especially one a guy had sent me texts or a DM or something and he said: I was part of these people who hated everything that was connected with 9/11. I was so stubborn that I even stopped a relationship with a very good friend of mine because he was Middle Eastern and when he watched the movie, he called him back to ask for forgiveness. You understand why I’m saying that sometimes movies are beyond cinema because sometimes it can help people with pre-conceived ideas to change their minds and maybe look at the world in another direction.
MK: You get to see in this case hopefully that you never experience yourself, but those ninety minutes or 120 minutes, you get to experience a life that you’ll never—you’ll get to travel to a place, meet people you’ll never know in your life and it opens up your level of humanity to people.
Adarsh, coming to you. Understanding Balram’s universe, that must have been quite a feat. Playing polarities, playing two sides of an extreme at times, two sides of the human condition, emotional spectrum. How was it to play those two sides and am I right in thinking that kind of you filmed the end before you filmed—it wasn’t filmed in chronology, and you filmed the end, so then having to flip that experience in your head as well?
AG: Yeah, that became really challenging. Actually to start things off, one of the first things I really wanted to do was to drive somebody in Bombay or Delhi to really understand what that feels like, but then who would hire me, who would hire any person who had no prior driving experience. I asked myself what else can I do and you know I decided I should go live in a village for some time because that’s the origin of Balram, that’s where his feet were planted. I actually befriended this guy who used to stay next to my building and I convinced him to take me to his village. I told him not to disclose to anybody that I was an actor, not even to his family, so everybody in the village thought I was this friend, and he’s a writer, so everybody in the village thought I was a friend helping him write a story on the village. I stayed in the village for two weeks with this family who were so kind and graceful to host me. Every day we would just head off on his bike and explore all these spots he had… I would meet his friends, I would go for birthday parties, I would go for some festival that was happening and the idea was just to basically have a very undiluted experience where people could confide in me and tell me about their personal stories, something that I could use for Balram and the way they thought about the world and the way they spoke about people from the city and everything.
MK: In that experience, do you think people are far more open to divulge kind of informational talk about their lives when they think that you are kind of not from a middle class background, if you were from this life of servitude? Did you find that kind of people opened up to you in a different way?
AG: I definitely feel that if I would have told them I was an actor that would have changed, probably changed their perception and I didn’t want that to happen, I just wanted to sort of you know—I mean it’s kind of sad that I had to deceive them now that I think about it but it was something that was necessary to do. Yeah, and as I speak I feel so guilty about it because if any of them end up watching this they’ll be like that guy! But yeah, I had a great time and after that I went to Delhi and I thought that I should work at a small stall so I was working at a tailor. This tailor served some rice, vegetables for forty rupees a plate, and I looked for a tailor where I could get a job because everybody wanted to see my identity card and I wasn’t introducing myself as Adarsh but as Balram, so I had to get a job at a place that wouldn’t ask me for my ID card. On the third day I found this guy and he agreed to keep me on his stall basically cleaning the plates and keeping the place tidy, running some small errands for him, he agreed to pay me 100 rupees a day. I think those fifteen days were very, very crucial for me to understand Balram, you know? To understand how invisible and insignificant in a way that it is. And to do something against your will, something that you don’t really want to do, and there were times I would snap out of what I was doing, cleaning a plate and I’d tell myself what am I doing here?! And I thought that’s exactly what Balram would ask himself. He was in the village working in a stall but knew his potential was beyond what everyone else was doing in the village. So yeah, working at that stall for fifteen days really helped me understand a sense of Balram and thereafter we did a bunch of I’d say readings with all the actors who were cast for the film. It was very gracious of Ramin to ask me if I was interested in doing something like that because that really allowed me to sort of experiment with my scenes, much like a boot camp, to try out my scenes in different ways to see what’s working and what’s not. But something that I hadn’t experienced before that I experienced with Ramin was that despite coming from a place with so much knowledge and being so sure about the world and the characters, he still let all of us actors explore ourselves as actors and never told us how to do a scene. He really trusted us with knowing the people that we were playing and then just allowed us to flow with the scene.
MK: Was there a lot of improvisation involved then?
AG: Lots of improvisation, yeah. A lot of times you would go in completely unexpected directions: Sometimes it wasn’t the best, sometimes it was great.
MK: Mads, I want to come back to talk about Another Round. Just the idea of the central theme of the film, do you think that it’s a very Danish sensibility, the idea of—in terms of the drinking culture, or in terms of how that’s shown in the film? Do you think that is kind of a Danish sensibility?
MM: Not anymore I do. I mean we were afraid that it was too Danish in that sense. It has proven not to be. Obviously the drinking games when you’re graduating are very Danish, but then you will have something else that you can recognise in Italy, America whatever. But the whole idea, the philosophy behind it, the paper that he wrote this Norwegian philosopher that we’re born at least two beers too little in our blood, makes sense. I mean we all know what it does to you, know that it lifts conversation, that it might be even more creative if you dare to pick up the phone and make that phone call, and how many people have met their spouses without alcohol… So there is that positive side of alcohol, we know what it is but we rarely talk about it because we also know what the danger is. The danger we’ve made a lot of beautiful films about but Thomas’ mission was not to create another one of these. He wanted to celebrate it, to a degree. He also obviously wanted to touch on the darker side of it but he wanted it to be a celebration of alcohol and more so a celebration of life. It’s no secret that these characters, especially mine who’s standing on a platform when the train has left and he’s super regretting his past and he’s enormously jealous of the future and he’s simply forgotten to live in the present and embrace life as it is, that’s what the film is about, with or without alcohol. We started out thinking it might have been too Danish but it turns out that every culture can relate to it. Alcohol has been around for 6,000, 7,000 years. I think also the theme, the kick-starter of the film is the experiment with the alcohol, the film itself is about life and I think that might be resonating a lot.
MK: Just with your character Mads and actually with all of your characters, all of you are outsiders to the worlds that you are within. With Martin, even within the experiment he seems like he’s the only one that is not always all in, is on the edge of kind of you know, do I want to do it? And then obviously gets convinced to join in to that, just on the precipice in between both worlds.
MM: Yeah I mean and then he takes charge. Then he’s leading the way. I mean, it turns out to work for him fairly well in the beginning and then really well and if two is good, why isn’t four better? Why isn’t six three times as good? So the classical downfall, he’s leading the way with that. But it is a success to a degree, but what they don’t realise is that they are having their heads stuck up in their own whatever and they forget to look at each other and one of the friends is not in the same position as they are and they didn’t see it coming.
MK: We’re going to change tack completely, but I want to talk about the dancing, because it is just joyous. What—how—was it always there? Was it written in for you? Am I right in thinking you are a trained dancer or have I misheard that somewhere along the way?
MM: Yeah I was a dancer, a gymnast then I became a professional dancer for nine, odd years. This is thirty years ago. It was always there. It was placed in the middle then it went to the end then it was back again, back and forth, and we had a lot of discussions me and Thomas. I wasn’t necessarily against dancing in the film, I just really wanted to be persuaded how we could pull it off. In my world when you make a realist film it can maybe come across quite pretentious if somebody starts dancing. So I always tried to convince Thomas it should be his drunken imagination, a heightened scene somehow. Thomas was super polite and nodding all the time, and he said no, you’re just dancing Mads, that’s what I see. I can happily say he was 100% right and I was 100% wrong. It turned out that we pulled it off, but not only because he was right, but also because the circumstances were so beautiful, all the youngsters were intoxicated by life in that scene and were dancing inside of themselves, so they were not looking at me as a spectacle. They were just part of the scene so we could pull it off, and it was not about the aesthetics of dancing, it was about the inner journey this character’s been through; he’s just lost someone he loved dearly and has just regained someone he loves dearly within the last hour, so we wanted to make a portrait of a man who wants to fly and he wants to drown at the same time, and I think that might be the reason he did pull it off.
MK: Sadness and joy all combined into this beautiful, beautiful piece. Riz I wanted to come back to you talking kind of the idea of being an outsider and obviously you know, you become an outsider of two worlds then you are an outsider to a world that you know, a new landscape for your character. I wanted to talk about how you worked with Darius the director to create kind of a personal soundscape for you to be able to build that character authentically.
RA: Yeah well I guess there’s—I don’t know, I always find that when you’re—the journey a character is going through is also somehow mirrored in what you go through as an actor. My character Ruben is a hearing character experiencing deaf culture for the first time and understanding what it is, and that’s what was happening to me. To begin with, Ruben thinks of deafness as something of a lack, that it’s cutting himself off from others, but then he starts to realise how rich deaf culture is, and that was also my journey understanding the richness of it all. And in terms of really experiencing deafness, sometimes people think the experience of deafness is the experience of not hearing things. That’s part of it but part of it is the experience of deaf culture that I was talking about—that really embodied communication, that collective outlook. Hearing culture is a lot more individualistic than deaf culture where people have to rely on each other to share information. There’s this saying that if you want a secret to get out, tell a deaf person because you know, the deaf community is this kind of unspoken, implicit bond: You learn some information, you share it. The hearing culture tries to keep us outside of information. That was a big part of the experience, going to deaf poetry slams and making friends in that community.
In terms of the technical, physiological experience of it we had this idea of using audio blockers, we took these hearing aids and modified them to emit a white noise and placed them deep into my ear canal. So for those sections of the film where Ruben is losing his hearing and he feels very thrown off balance by it and it’s a very intense kind of experience, we used those audio blockers so I would be doing a scene and all of a sudden Darius would activate the audio blockers and suddenly I wouldn’t be able to hear anything, couldn’t even hear my own voice. There were several days on set we just left them on the whole day and it’s really intense. It gave me a glimpse of what it feels like to suddenly go through that process of hearing loss, to suddenly feel cut off from that sense. As the film progressed and for Ruben he starts to realise that deafness isn’t something that cuts himself off from himself and others, it’s a way for him to connect more to his true self in silence and more to others than maybe he ever has, we didn’t use those audio blockers anymore. By that point, most of the people on set were deaf, we had lots of deaf actors and so both on camera and off camera we were just communicating in American Sign Language at that point, so we didn’t use the audio blockers for that anymore. We tried to take a character led approach on when we were using those technical tools that made me feel off balance or not.
MK: Immersing yourself in a sensory experience, Tahar I wanted to know how you worked with Kevin and so much of what we see of your character is in Guantanamo in various cells or in confinement of some sort, and I wondered if there was sensory things put in place for you to do that or if it was a case of kind of finding that place within your own head?
TR: Yes. I tried to find it in my own head. As an actor sometimes it depends on your life experience you can use what you have in your head, in your guts and what you’ve been through and this time it was just not possible. How could I possibly know what it is to be tortured and treated this way? To be treated as a virus because they would wear rubber gloves and masks and call them by numbers. Mohamedou was 760. I tried my best and I couldn’t find another way—for example I played in a show, I was playing a trumpeter so I would train and train and train over and over and I’d come on set and if I’d worked enough and had enough time it’s ok. This time I couldn’t wear shackles twenty-four hours a day in my hotel room, so I thought why recreate when you can create? Plus I couldn’t do it otherwise. So out of respect to Mohamedou and the people still living this and my director and the audience I needed to get as close as possible to his actual conditions so I could convey authenticity. I didn’t, I couldn’t and didn’t want to sell something so I asked them to turn the cells as cold as possible, I wore real shackles, I got water boarded, but it was intense really. I had to lose a lot of weight in a short amount of time and I only had three weeks to match physically with Mohamedou. The last six days of shooting were very intense because it was all the interrogation scenes and the torture scenes. So you know, when you fast that hard and get so exhausted, it becomes more of an experience than a performance and your spirit flies to some emotional places that are unexpected. I don’t know, I couldn’t do it otherwise and at some point I really felt it, I felt it, but it has nothing to do with Mohamedou because I knew in the back of my mind I would go back to my hotel room when we wrapped. But there was one moment very strange because of course I happened to have some tools to portray Mohamedou, culturally wise. He lost his mum while he was there, I did too and when we had to play that scene it was the last day of shooting when he hallucinates and he sees his mum in his cell. I almost saw my own mum, it was so strange. I said to Kevin I can only do it once, just one take. I collapsed. Yeah, I needed it, I couldn’t do it otherwise. Some actors are gifted enough to live it inside of their head, I just couldn’t.
MK: Wow. I think it’s apparent that all four of you have gone to different extremes in all of your portrayals and that’s obviously why you’ve been recognised. Haven’t planned this but I always think it’s most interesting things come out when actors talk to each other, and I wondered if any of you have questions for each other you haven’t had the chance to ask. I can let you sit with that for a few minutes and I can go on, but maybe think about it, if you think you want to ask about each other’s roles please do feel free to do that.
I also wanted to talk about Chadwick Boseman’s performance as Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, his untimely passing last year left a huge void but his legacy will forever be remembered through his unflinching commitment to all of his performances. There is a Q&A available with some of his co-stars for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and we will post information about that in the chat so you are able to hear some of his cast members talk about him. But just wanted to ask only if any of you have seen Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom if you’d like to talk about his performance please feel free to do so.
RA: I just wanted to say something which, I think it’s really a kind of a beautiful thing really to see how I think Chadwick’s work is being celebrated. I think he’s someone who came to global attention relatively recently and it feels really clear that the choices he made were driven by something beyond cinema. Kind of what you were talking about Tahar, particularly at this moment when we’re in such a divided society, there’s so many political divisions and political problems and actually we’ve lost faith in our politics. A lot of us are looking to stories and storytellers to heal us and give us a story that we belong when so many politicians are telling us that we don’t belong, stories are bringing us together. I think he exemplified that, one of those actors of our generation that made choices in portraying characters that can kind of stretch culture. It’s something I always think about when I take on a role, does it stretch me and stretch culture? He’s someone who’s been guided by stretching culture and breaking the mould. I kind of feel like you know, it’s something that we talk about his legacy and he has his own legacy, but I think for myself and other actors of this generation and younger what lessons can we take on board from his work? Always try to learn from my peers and these incredible actors here, you know Anthony Hopkins’ performance at the age of eighty-three to be pushing himself and doing all these crazy things I’ve never seen him do before, it’s mind-blowing. When I think what I can learn I go back to this thing that Chadwick would often speak about which is about finding your purpose and I think if you can find your purpose beyond the work, that’s bigger than yourself that’s connecting to something bigger, I think that can be really impactful. Certainly with our film, knowing it was connecting through, I don’t know, trying to remedy some of the representations of the deaf community, I’ve found that very animating. So understanding sometimes it’s bigger than movies, you know, is a great lesson to take from his work.
MK: Thank you.
TR: I’m just going to say I didn’t know the man and I wish I could’ve met him and witnessed the way he worked. As you said Riz, he was doing so many different roles and as an actor that’s what you’re trying to find, to find truth and explore different characters and that’s what he was doing so well. His last performance was amazing. I mean it touched me very deeply and when I think about him, knowing what he was going through makes it even more admirable. He’s a real inspiration to a lot of people now and became a beautiful message to the new generations.
MK: Thank you. We have so many questions, so let’s try and get through some of them. OK, so one for all of you: What’s the best piece of advice a director has given you?
TR: One director told me one day: Stay truthful and generous.
AG: It was this thing that Ramin never called action or cut on set. It suddenly changed the whole thing because the moment that started happening, I realised I didn’t feel like the part anymore that I wasn’t trying to be somebody, but I was just there. It felt so normal and cut was when he would just walk in the frame. You’d be doing the scene and then he’d be on the scene walking on the scene, so yeah.
MK: He’s like ‘I was done ten minutes ago I don’t know what you’re doing!’
MM: I have two, one is a direction one is just advice. First one, the advice is take your space, take the room. It’s your room now, don’t wait. Unless of course you’re playing a guy who’s hiding. Sometimes you can be too polite, you can be too nervous, in doubt of a certain thing, but if you don’t take the room you won’t make the scene work.
Secondly I had a director who often said when we were improvising you know, to give us a start and a finish A to Z – he didn’t care how we got there as long as we made him feel like this, he would say, and he would come up with something—make me feel like this when you leave the scene. That was very interesting because it could have been a thousand things but somehow it was one thing and it’s always been very inspiring.
RA: Amazing. There’s—it’s kind of weird because I feel like in many ways Sound of Metal was a new process for me. A lot of the time, I do a lot of interviews with people for hours and hours, listen to the recording, do a lot of research. I did that with this, I had to, but it was also kind of living in the experience and in a way I feel like the best thing a director can do isn’t what they say to you, it’s the process that they create around you, it’s the environment they create on set, it’s that intangible thing that really influences your performance and your work. And really I think it’s kind of a big part of it is shooting in sequence. That’s one of the biggest gifts a director can give you, it’s like coming in and giving direction I feel less and less is the thing that impacts my work, it’s the working conditions, it’s the atmosphere, it’s the vibe they create. With Darius and on Sound of Metal it was one of the most beautiful processes because we shot it in sequence so it became a lived experience, you know. Every goodbye we were saying I was saying good-bye to this actor, man they’re getting on a plane after this, they’re not going to be allowed on set. I’m saying goodbye now to this deaf community, I’m not going to be learning ASL anymore. I don’t know, it’s the working conditions in a way I feel like the best direction is when it’s, when they say less and they just create the conditions around you, just put you in that situation and bring in that supporting artist or actor without telling you it’s about to happen and it happens. So yeah I feel it’s more about yeah, making you their little guinea pig in their process rather than telling you anything.
MK: Well I think the processes have worked out very well for all of you in these roles. We have a question from Paul Westwood for all panellists—oh we might have answered this slightly but he says films are often shot out of sequence, I was wondering how you keep hold of where you are emotionally in each scene while shooting? Do you heavily annotate scripts or trust you’ll remember where your character is? Adarsh I might come to you on this one, we touched on it briefly, but obviously you shot the end didn’t you, first, for The White Tiger and obviously kind of your character was in a very, very different place at that point. To answer Paul’s question, how did that affect your process?
AG: It wasn’t really the end because we kept intercutting between Balram from Bangalore to Balram from the village. But it was very tricky, also because I felt like I spent more as Balram from the village while my preparation was going on and I wasn’t quite sure about how the Bangalore version would land. The way I really go about it is that I make sure that I know the script in the back of my head, you know, completely. I make sure I go through the script a bunch of times, like more than a dozen times and then before the scene I always take some time off and you know I used to sit with Ramin and discuss the craft or what Balram has gone to build at this point, and I would do that every time for the smallest of scenes. I guess that’s very important because it does get very confusing at times.
MK: And Mads for you with Another Round did you shoot chronologically or not? And if not, your character is obviously in a very different emotional state at different parts of the film—
MM: No we didn’t but we did as much as we could and I completely agree with Riz, it’s a gift when you get the chance to do it. For a tonne of reasons you can’t always do that. If you have the chance, do it! But Thomas did his best to make it chronologically. What I normally do, just like you said, you read it again and again, you go back, twenty pages back, thirty pages back before you do the scene and you relive them. Even if you haven’t shot them, you rethink them, take your own little pitch—where is my character, what’s happening—but also what does the audience know, how much can we push this when we see this again. It’s all about trying to get into the flow as if you did it chronologically and the only way to do that is to go back, read it again, get yourself into the emotion, isolate yourself and go and shoot.
MK: That’s actually something I’ve never thought of: Do you all have that thought of where is the audience at this point? Is that something you think about where should the audience be emotionally at this point?
MM: I didn’t mean the audience audience, I mean the script, where is the script, where does the script want us? How did it catch me the first time I read it and I should try to relive that even though we haven’t shot it, that’s what I meant.
MK: A question for everyone: Have you struggled or are you still struggling to leave or get out of the roles you’ve played. Tahar, obviously playing Mohamedou, that must’ve been a heightened emotional experience, how was it in the days and the weeks after, or even the day at the end of the shoot, what was your head like?
TR: Usually I don’t find it hard to leave a character on set and the end of shooting really. You know, you have the wrap party and say bye, but this time it was a whole different gig. I didn’t expect it but he stayed with me for about three weeks and it was so strange because no matter how I tried to get away I couldn’t. It faded away slowly day by day. I remember talking to my wife and I was somewhere else, and she’s like hey tell me what happened and I couldn’t, I don’t know what happened you had to be there in a way. Sometimes on set you do your thing, you’re an actor, you get professional you understand the cameras, and sometimes you don’t know what’s happening. You lose it, sometimes you’re here, sometimes you’re not here and it’s hard to explain. Three weeks. It’s the first time in my life.
MK: I suppose for all of you—maybe it’s going a bit deep—but you spend so much of your life playing other people, how hard is it then to connect back to reality? Is it, or does it depend simply on the last role you’ve done, or is there always a transition period?
MM: It’s a tough one. We all try to leave our characters somehow so we don’t have to force our kids to call us a different way when we work. I think that’s the professional approach but sometimes it’s not as easy. For me it’s not necessarily the character because I’ve played insane characters who are not nice guys but the characters themselves are having a great time. So that experience might rub off on me that I’m having a great time when I come home. If you had a great day at the office, you bring that home, if you had a terrible day you will also bring that home like anyone else in the world. And a great day can actually be being in a scene that is terrible, brutal, heart-breaking to be in, but if it went right you should try to bring that energy back home and not the situation back home. That’s what we’re trying to look for but are not always successful.
MK: Adarsh, how was it kind of leaving Balram?
AG: Kind of tricky you know. As Mads said sometimes you play these characters who do things you wouldn’t agree with necessarily or have done evil or bad in some way. I’ve been sort of lucky that the nicer traits of the characters stick with me sometimes. With Balram he has this thing where any time Ashok wants to sit in the car he runs and opens the back door for him to sit and Ashok would think it’s completely unnecessary because nobody does that in America but Balram wants to do it. I found myself doing that too, I would involuntarily open the back door for people and they would mistake it for chivalry and I’m not saying that I’m not chivalrous otherwise but it took me a few times after it happened I realised it happened because of Balram. I quite liked it, I embraced it.
MK: It’s a good habit to have, a great habit.
RA: How’s your cooking now?
AG: My cooking?
RA: Yeah exactly. But no I just wanted to say that my view on this kind of changed a little bit where I kind of feel like I used to approach it from a more technical point of view. The other actors on this call aren’t British but I think that can go to being the British approach, particularly from the theatre tradition, you approach the work technically, you break down the script, you come on like a craftsman, you do it, you switch off. And more and more I feel like that’s a way of working and you need those technical aspects and that technical ability to be able to separate your life from your work as well—luckily I don’t have kids right now so I come home and call myself whatever I want right now, but I do think that part of the point of this is to lose control. If you are in control of your performance then part of your performance will be dead. I think that exactly what you were talking about Tahar where you were saying you kind of have to let the Holy Ghost take you somewhere that you weren’t expecting. If you go into a scene knowing how that scene is going to play, or even if the director knows how you’re going to play it, then how are you going to be surprised? I think the whole purpose of cinema is to capture something unplanned and spontaneous as it is happening. In order for that to happen you have to be out of control. You have to set all the preparation and conditions in your muscle memory, you know, to be able to go in there and lose control. I think. On some level. So that bleeds over into your real life, it’s kind of inevitable. Something I’m finding is I get crazy kind of cramps or rashes when I’m starting to do roles. I don’t know if you guys get this. When I was doing The Night Of I started getting this crazy rash, crazy rash on my body like what the hell is going on. They had to put make up on me and stuff. It was the tension and stress and responsibility of portraying these people in prison. Similarly with Sound of Metal it was insomnia, crazy insomnia to the point where I thought, I was convinced it was the mattress and in the first week of filming I bough three different mattresses. I said to production I said you’ve got to split the cost of a mattress with me because this mattress isn’t working. Then I went oh I’ll buy the next one myself. I went through three of them then I realised, you know, this is part of the process. Just to finish up I just want to say I hope that a part of each character does stay with you forever, because the journey you go on as an actor—listening to what you were saying Adarsh, about how do I play this guy from the village—every time you approach a character as an actor you think how the hell am I going to approach this guy? How am I going to be tough, deaf punk drummer, how am I going to be a Guantanamo detainee, for Mads maybe how am I going to be an alcoholic is a bit easy… but…
I’m joking, I’m joking, but you always think how am I going to get there, how am I going to do it, and the lesson you learn at the end of every project is that we’re all the same. Underneath the differences that separate us there’s this core of humanity and you relearn that lesson every time, at the end you’re like this is me, this character is me. Hopefully that’s how the audience feel that this character is me. Once you’ve opened up that new part of yourself, I hope it stays with you, you know what I mean? I hope these characters stay with us because then we’re expanding our idea of who we are as actors but also as audiences.
MK: I think you’re completely right Riz. I think why all of your films have done so well and why all your performances are outstanding is because they just connect on very different levels with the human experience and human condition and everyone can kind of impart, take something from all of them that they innately understand, whether it’s empathy or sympathy towards.
I think we may be out of time but I just want to thank you all for sharing so much, thank you for sharing your films, to the people at home who haven’t had a chance to see the nominated films they are available on a formation of platforms in the UK and internationally as well. Thank you so much for your time Mads Mikkelsen, Tahar Rahim, Adarsh Gourav and Riz Ahmed. And good luck!
MM: Good luck.
TR: Good luck to you guys.
AG: Thank you. I wish I could have met all of you in person and given you the tightest hug.
MM: I hope everyone will win.
AG: I’ve grown up watching all of your films and it’s just incredible for me.
MK: You’re showing off how young you are! Thank you all so much.
MM: Best of luck all of you.
RA: Bye guys.