An interview with Ryan McKen, who plays Ziyaad Kader in The State
Tell us about Ziyaad
Ziyaad is a guy who’s very direct; very passionate, strong and loyal to his best friend Jalal. I think he’s on a search to find himself, really. He’s quiet, but can be very intimidating at the same time. He is very proud, so he doesn’t like people challenging him or taking the mick out of him. I’d say that he’s a character who is very observant. He likes to watch. He’s not the smartest guy in the room, but he’s emotionally intelligent. So he’s very quick to ask questions, to understand the situation, even if he doesn’t quite get it as quickly as his best friend does. He’s come from a world of street life and gang culture and he’s going on this journey because his best friend was doing it and his best friend’s older brother had done it. So I think initially he goes along because his best friend was going and he wants to be there for him.
How did you research for the character?
The first thing was Peter telling me to bulk up because he wanted Ziyaad to have a presence. I had four months to do it so I found a personal trainer. I had to eat five or six times a day and go to the gym, sometimes twice a day. By the first day of shooting I’d put on two stone. I wanted Ziyaad to have a physical presence with a different walk, a different attitude to him, almost like bear-like. I tried to find an animal for him, a grizzly bear kind of thing. Then I went with Sam to the mosque and we learned how to pray, how to perform Wudu. I felt like I had a responsibility to do it right, to respect the religion, to find out what it really represents and find a relationship to Allah through the character. I also read a book called the ‘The Future, The History and The Evolution of Islam”, which explains how the religion has progressed to the twenty first century, to understand its origins and where my character fits into its current existence.
What journey does he go on?
I think, when he first goes out there, he’s not quite sure what he’s going to see; I don’t think he’s quite ready for the reality. When I was doing my research into the character I had stages which I felt like he went through: the fantasy stage which is very much “I get to dress a certain way, I get to use certain items and weaponry, so I feel like a superhero.” Then there is the reality, which is “well actually people are being mistreated, they’re dying, this is all very serious stuff”. And then there is the search stage. Ziyaad comes from a culture of drinking, smoking, going out clubbing, meeting girls. And then when he gets out there, he starts to take his religion very seriously. It’s almost like how does he want to be represented, how does he want his name to be remembered? So I think he changes very much so along the way, over the course of each episode.
I think over the course of the show the duo start to part, because this is the first time in Ziyaad’s life where he feels he belongs and he’s good at something, so he starts to embrace many things. Jalal stops to think and analyse where Ziyaad feels that if he’s told “this is the way which it needs to happen, and older, more respected people are telling me, then who am I to question that?” So I think that starts to separate our journeys, separate the brotherhood between them.
How did you feel about taking on the project?
I was a bit nervous at first because I was very concerned about how the characters were going be portrayed. I didn’t just want it to be about “they’re terrorists”, with lots of shooting. When I read the script, it was very human, I could relate to Ziyaad in many different ways; his cultural background and his search for finding a meaning and a purpose and a search for belonging. So that’s what struck me. I didn’t know much about Islam before the show. I didn’t know much about the religion. Only really what I’d read in newspapers or seen on TV and that’s a very different portrayal based on what the research had showed me. So I was very interested in diving into that side of things - the religion and what it meant. And so as it went on I became very serious about making sure that I’d do this right. I wanted people to, when they see him, to stop and think, and to see, how sad it is that he doesn’t feel like he belongs in his own country. I felt a responsibility to do it right.
What was it like working with Peter Kosminsky?
I didn’t really know much about Peter before my audition. And then to get a chance to be on set with him is magical because he puts you at ease immediately. Somehow he just manages to get you to do things that you didn’t think were there. He really invests time into each person he works with and I definitely feel like I’ve become really close to him over the course of the shoot and that he really values your input and the journey you’ve made from the audition to being on the set. In drama school, I always used to really second-guess everything I did. But on set I’ve felt really open, really safe. And I think that’s because he creates that environment for his actors and he has a lovely energy. Everyone does; the whole crew. Make-up, costume, production, backstage -everyone helps you being the best you can be and it’s amazing to be a part of it.
And what about working with Sam?
For me, what was important was the central relationship between Ziyaad and Jalal. So I felt it was really important for us to bond, for us to do our research together. He’s a great guy and he’s one of my best friends now. When we were on set, because we’d taken the time to get to know each other, it was so much easier to do the scenes, so much easier to find the emotional journey, because we had become so close.
How was working on set for the first time?
The make-up and costume really helped me get into character. I went to our production base as Ryan and then as soon as they put the big beard on, I immediately felt different. Then when the weight of the costume, the webbing and armour, I felt different. The boots made me walk differently. And then you arrive on set and you see everything - it’s almost like you just switch into the character’s head space. The whole crew helped me become this character. Make-up, costume, production, backstage everyone helps you to the best you can be and it’s amazing to be a part of it.
What do you hope viewers will take out if the series?
I think what it will do is really make people think for themselves. Rather than dehumanize these people I think that this show allows you to see into the psyche and the conditioning and allow yourself to think about if you were put in the same situation in the same environment under the same conditions, how would you respond? Because it’s easy to say: “oh these characters are stupid, how can they fall for it?” because people are quick to judge. I think it will make people have different reactions but the discussion is what I think is most important.