Arsher Ali interview for Complicit
What was it that attracted you to Complicit?
I get offered quite a lot of roles that sound like this one - it's what's out there at the moment - terrorist-type roles. Generally I either laugh at the script and throw it away, or I won't even bother looking at it. But I did have a look at this one, because I knew that Niall was directing it, and I'd met Jolyon, the producer, a few times as well. So I read it, and I thought it dealt with some really interesting issues. So I went in and auditioned, and fortunately they liked what I did. It was great, because we had a couple of weeks' rehearsal as well, so me and David and Niall and Guy had time to work on a few things. We decided that my character would have a few more dimensions, instead of being just another bearded, evil terrorist.
So you play Waleed Ahmed - explain a bit about him.
Without getting too involved in the politics of it all - I'm careful not to get into that, not least because I'd quickly be out of my depth - he's got some pretty extreme beliefs. I sort of got the impression that he has these really strong convictions, but that could have been anything in his life. He could have been a bin man, and he would have been the best bin man ever. He would have fully committed to it. I think he was a bit lost, and through outside influence was taken under someone's wing, and found a group of people and threw himself headlong into what they were doing. Obviously he had some kind of belief in religion to begin with, but someone has shown him the dark side and taken him into those murky depths of extremism.
What did you do in the way of research for the role?
There's not much that you can do that doesn't get you on the radar of the CIA. Research is a funny thing - a lot of actors like to harp on about their research, and tell everyone how much homework they did. But it's not always necessary. Sometimes it's a hindrance if you research too much, because you don't allow your imagination to fill in the gaps. So I didn't do too much, really. I just wanted to react to the situation, and to what David was doing. Sometimes actors turn up and bring in their homework, and try to work it in. It's much better if people come in without preconceptions and are open to doing things. You end up with something more real.
David said that you and he kept a certain distance from each other during filming, so as not to compromise the hostile dynamic between the two of you on screen. Was that an important factor in your performance?
I think it was. I'd just come off doing Beaver Falls, and that was all about the dynamic between all of us - we didn't have to go off and get into the right frame of mind, because we were good friends off screen too. So when it came to this, I think David and I both organically fell into limited conversations. We were friendly enough - I remember we were both watching the European Championships, watching England play in my trailer. There were little things like that, when it was okay to do that. But most of the time we both fell into keeping it distant, and saving our stuff for when we got into the room.
So did you, to an extent, stay in character during the whole period of filming?
I'd obviously changed my appearance quite a lot - I'd got rid of a lot of hair, and asked make-up to put a knife scar into my eyebrow, which involved shaving the eyebrow. So in terms of staying in character, every time I saw myself in a mirror I realised how different I looked. Whilst filming, yeah, it's important to stay in character on set. But I wasn't in the dinner queue going "You're all non-believers, get the hell out of here." But yeah, in between takes, it's important to stay in character in between takes.
After you'd finished your last scene together, everything became much friendlier - was that quite a relief?
Yeah, definitely. When you're a young actor and you're still learning your trade, and you've got someone opposite you who's done loads of big movies, it's quite a feeling. And when I started at the RSC, the History Cycle had just finished, and David had been such a big part of that. So when I found out I was going to work with him, I was so excited. The one thing I wanted to do the whole time was talk to him about the History Cycle. And we talked about it literally after we'd filmed that scene, when it all became okay to talk about stuff. It was nice, because I wasn't sure how David felt. Because I was playing such a fucker of a character, such a mean character, you can't help but think sometimes that someone must hate you just a little bit. But when we did finish that scene, it was really nice to shake each other's hand and have a good chat and find out that he didn't hate me.
How did you find the experience of filming with David?
It was great. He was up for listening to changes and trying stuff out, which I really enjoyed. I guess I was lucky to have someone like David, who is open to reacting to whatever's happening in the moment, and isn't precious.
Some of the shooting was done in Morocco. But, with all of your scenes being interiors, did you even go out there?
No, I didn't. In some ways, I was quite glad I wasn't needed there. I had just come back from filming Beaver Falls in Cape Town, and there's only so much heat I can deal with, without getting hypertension or whatever. I was always the one who'd have these little fainting spells on set in South Africa. I looked on my iPhone, at the weather app, for where in Morocco they were going to be filming Complicit, and it was 46 degrees. I immediately started to clench up, wondering how I'd handle it. Then I found out I didn't need to go, and was quite happy with that.
Beaver Falls was about as far removed a subject matter as you could get from Complicit. Were they very different filming experiences?
Yeah, definitely. That was quite a pull for taking on the job, the fact that it was so different. I do tend to always be seen as doing comedy, and there's only so much you can do within comedy to show that you can do something else. In terms of filming, those really long scenes that we did in Complicit - by the end of them, I had knots in my stomach, I was tense all over. It was exhausting as well, because you kind of have to stay in that intense mind-set, whereas with comedy, you can just mess about with your mates, and it feels less taxing. Obviously you have to have a focus, as well. But one is very easy and relaxed and fun, and the other is much, much tougher.
Would you like to keep that sort of variety going in your career - moving between comedy and serious, high-brow drama?
I would love it, if it was a choice, but obviously, when you're a fledgling actor trying to carve your niche, it's not really up to you - you get whatever comes your way. But given a choice, God yeah, I'd love to move from light comedy to much more serious stuff. I think that's a lot of people's idea of a dream career.
Looking at your Twitter feed, you spend a lot of your spare time playing Football Manager. Is that a good way to wind down between jobs, or is it becoming a dangerous addition?
Do you know what I'm looking at right now? I'm looking at my Mac Book, and it's on the screen right now. It's a killer, it really is. I don't play it on set. I will admit that, when we were doing Beaver Falls, the whole tone was lighter and easier, and I had it on in the trailer now and again. But it's ridiculous. I'm the guy who can play this absolutely all day, and forget to eat and stuff. It's so addictive. You start to create stories in your own head. I haven't played a game as immersive and addictive as that. I both want to strangle the guy that created it and shake his hand.