When Ali Fazal sent in an audition tape for Death on the Nile from Mumbai a year ago and heard the film had been postponed, he assumed it wasn’t happening after all. Then director Kenneth Branagh called.
The filmmaker’s follow up to Murder on the Orient Express (2017) is based on another of Agatha Christie’s whodunits, in which detective Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a young heiress on vacation in Egypt. Fazal’s castmates include Armie Hammer, Letitia Wright, Gal Gadot and Annette Bening. Eight days away from filming, in the middle of costume and makeup trials in London, he spoke about how a lead role in Stephen Frears’ Victoria & Abdul (2017) opened doors for him, the demands of building parallel careers in Hollywood and Bollywood and why he should have three times more Instagram followers:
You got into acting because a friend advised you to audition for a local production of The Tempest and now you’re working with Kenneth Branagh, who’s best known for film adaptations of Shakespeare – it must feel like a surreal moment.
I think that surreal moment started with Victoria & Abdul two years ago when I started working with Judi Dench. She’s a pioneer in Shakespeare. I’ve just been lucky. This time it’s Kenneth Branagh, someone who’s famed for his acting across stages, in theatre and in cinema. I’m very very very honoured and excited. There’s obviously a lot of hard work to be put in and I hope I can be satisfactory and do some good work here.
We’re in prep mode right now. All our costumes and makeup trials are happening. We will have various read-throughs over time. There’s nothing new about the story. Everyone knows what Death on the Nile is. It’s a famous Agatha Christie novel. I’m trying to read through the book as well my script, trying to find new things I can bring in from my side. This time it’s a fairly younger cast, as opposed to the first film that was made based on this book (in 1978). So I can’t take much from the book, I’ll have to follow my director. I’ve had some sessions with him and it’s been fun. There’s something new we’re trying with my character. I’m experimenting. I’m going to try and pull it off.
For once, I will be out of my comfort zone. I will not be able to just pull off that one Indian accent
You’ve said it’s a non-Indian role. Is there anything you can say about the character?
It’s a blind casting and that’s what I like about it. The cast has been pretty diverse for this particular film. Annette Bening has joined the cast, there’s Letitia Wright from Black Panther, Armie Hammer and Gal Gadot. Of course Kenneth Branagh is playing Hercule Poirot. It’s a stellar cast. So it’s fun to watch and experience at the same time. For once, I will be out of my comfort zone. I will not be able to just pull off that one Indian accent. Because he’s not Indian. He could be Indian-origin. He could not be. There are 10 possibilities and that’s what I like – the unpredictability of it. Whatever I tell you is based on the book but that would be wrong because that’s not the character I’m playing. If I tell you the name of the character, then the fun is lost.
Let’s talk about your life post Victoria & Abdul – were there more offers from the West after it released?
That period was amazing. Immediately after that, the Academy included me in the fraternity. So I’m an Academy member now and I enjoy all those benefits and share those responsibilities on a world stage. That’s just a great honour, to be validated so young. After that I signed something that will be shot after Death on the Nile. It’s a biopic, a war film based on a true story. It’s gotten delayed a lot. So hopefully it’ll happen next year.
Was getting work at home easier once you’d made a name for yourself there?
Of course things changed. I think everybody in our country looks up to the West and what’s happening there in terms of cinema. And I happened to do a lead part for the first time so I think eyeballs were turned and it gave me some kind of validation. People do take me seriously now, different kinds of work come my way. I can explore great directors in India, who will take chances on me, who will work with me. I look forward to that. There’s such a great canvas with Netflix and Amazon and even great content-driven cinema that’s coming up. Our writers are getting big and that’s what I’m looking forward to because I’m writing something myself for one of these platforms. It’s going to be a huge collaboration so looking forward to that. I’m not finding the time to write, actually. But I’ve delegated work. That project’s my baby and I’ve created it but I don’t want to direct it. I’m showrunning it and each part’s going to be written by different writers. So I’m still preparing the skeleton. I even made a short film but I’m not finding the time to edit it. Woh bechari padi hui hai edit table pe.
Coming back to Victoria & Abdul, I love those scenes of you and Judi Dench just walking and talking but the scene that really moved me was the one in which she’s dying and you comfort her. What was filming that scene like?
It was really funny. We shot it on my birthday. Queen Victoria died and it was hilarious because they called ‘cut!’ and she literally rose from the dead screaming, ‘Happy Birthday’ from where she was lying. It was scary. These guys brought in a cake for me and then we had to go out because you can’t bring outside food into the palace – some crazy rule. One of my friends flew in from India, which was sweet. But it was an intense scene. We spoke of a lot of things because they had a teacher-student relationship. They were friends and yet there was a mother-son thing and yet there was a love between them. It was more of a spiritual thing. I don’t know how much of it came through. It really moved me, that scene. I was actually hoping I wouldn’t cry in it but that happened. I didn’t like that scene finally because I wasn’t supposed to cry. I decided not to but just became very emotional.
After 3 Idiots, you said, “I didn’t have the sense of a career back then. I didn’t have strategies.” Has that changed? Do you have a strategy now?
I have sense. I don’t know about strategy. We actors are constantly doing wrong things and that’s fine, that’s okay. Out of five, maybe one thing will work and that’s the beauty of it. After 3 Idiots, I didn’t have sense. I’ve done projects I’ve regretted. At the time, in my tashan, I was also not taking any money from family. I was funding myself, my college, everything. It’s been an interesting journey. I don’t know how to strategize honestly, I go with instinct.
I remember when I did Mirzapur, there were film directors who told me, ‘Don’t do it, it’s a big mistake. Woh toh paanch saal baad aayega.’ All that shit. But it was instinct, I had to
Something Vulture said about you in 2017 is: Rather than let his burgeoning success distance him from his home, Fazal has doubled-down on his commitment to staying connected with it. Was this a strategic choice?
It’s home. I don’t want to just get up, pack my bags and leave. I believe in the fact that it’s all one world now and you don’t have to do that. We don’t have to travel just to be part of some other cinema. I think the cinema is coming to us. If not, then I’ll try and bridge it – that was my strategy then. I want to keep making cinema and being part of this bandwagon that’s going to be a bringer of change in the industry, with content-driven cinema, with web-driven platforms. I remember when I did Mirzapur, there were film directors who told me, ‘Don’t do it, it’s a big mistake. Woh toh paanch saal baad aayega.’ All that shit. But it was instinct, I had to – it was a great script. Things have to change, we have to pull up our socks and bridge that gap. Then the world will become smaller. The point is to co-exist, somehow.
Is it hard to balance the two? Do you sometimes have to let go of parts you really want?
Yeah man. It’s really hard. I’m not cribbing, because I have work. Toh main unhappy nahi hoon uske baare mein. But it becomes a problem because whatever I would get in Bollywood, I have to slice it by half now and then choose what I can do because the other half is…for instance, I’m in London for the next three months shooting Death on the Nile. It’s all in one go so I can’t do anything else. Bhoot Police, with Saif Ali Khan and Fatima Sana Shaikh, has been shifted to January. Beech mein ek bahut achhi film thi, I had to leave it.
I’m repped by William Morris Endeavour in America and Julian Belfrage Associates in the UK. They’ve been very selective in the kind of movie offers that come my way, scripts that I have to sometimes look at. So I don’t end up doing a lot of them because at the same time I’m handling Indian projects – apna ghar ka kaam.
So many times I’ve also not been in situations where I’ve picked parts. If only. Now I can say I’m consciously choosing certain parts, where I can bring something to the table, make a difference, and the project itself is of some value. I have to justify whatever role I play in my head as the most grounded and humble thing I’m part of. But it depends on the role. I get pulled in by great writing and direction.
I have sense. I don’t know about strategy. We actors are constantly doing wrong things and that’s fine, that’s okay
You were part of a web series, Bang Baaja Baaraat, before web series exploded the way they did. How have you seen this space evolve?
That was one of the first sort of experimental things. They were short 15-minute episodes. That was fun, it was great. I think it’s great that I was part of that shift, the spark before the fire. Now it’s on some other level. The web has almost taken over. It’s probably going to start affecting, or maybe it’s already started affecting, the cinema-going public. It’s a phase we’re going through. I’m happy to be a part of it and that’s why I’m not going to leave it for a career in the West. And I have a career in the West. I have a career here.
I wanted to ask you about your social media – Instagram’s now being used to get endorsements and even land roles. People have teams handling their accounts. You, however, take your own photos and have captions like: Contemplating a bladder release. Might have to crawl to the loo. Have you ever been advised to get a social media team or refine your online image?
All the time. My God, all the time. I’m told to increase the frequency of posting because that engages more people and therefore I will get more followers. Honestly, I’m not even some guy who rejects that. It’s great to be able to have that. If you can generate work from thin air, just with a bunch of followers, I think that’s genius. I’m a science student and a math student so this kind of stuff really fascinates me. I have to train myself to do it. I’m horrible, horrible at it as of now. I probably have one-third of the followers I should have. But that’s okay, mujhe maza aata hai kyunki aap ke liye likhta hoon ispe.