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Vanessa McMahon

Vanessa is a novel writer, screenwriter, rep and a film producer. She shares her discoveries and film surprises. :-)



Interview with actor Akin Gazi


Interview with English/Turkish Cypriot actor Akin Gazi, the hot new face of BIG cinema ('The Devil's Double', 2011; 'Black Gold' 2011; and now 'Zero Dark Thirty', 2012). Look out for this up and coming mega talent. He has already been on the side of buses in Qatar... Will UK be next? Read our up close and personal interview below.


ME: How did you get into acting and when did you know that you want to act?

AKIN: When I was a child I loved spending time in my imagination. I saw a world that was beautiful but equally dangerous and ugly. My imagination would swing between these two realms. One moment I was a POW who had to kill a thousand enemy soldiers to escape death and the next I was pilgrim walking on a long journey meeting people and passing wisdom as I went into the desert. So I think I was always into acting. It was not a choice. I was exposed to film at a young age. I had seen ‘The Terminator’, ‘The Lost Boys’ and ‘Predator’ before the age of ten. In fact, I know most of the script of ‘Predator’ just by the sheer number of times I’ve seen it, not a point to be proud of! This love of cinema was married with doing all the school plays and a love for performing live and just pretending to be other people, having fun… …I avoided drama school as I knew the decision to be an actor would not be supported by my parents. We are Turkish, and well, in my family no one had really ever done it before. When I was 23 I satisfied my fathers desire for me to get an education by completing a BA in English & Drama. I told my parents that I wanted to be an actor. My father predicted a life of eating beans on toast, always struggling with money and said I should be a teacher, but for me working in a school would not work. Five years was enough time spent in that institution. I made a short film with my uncle called: ‘The Mexican Whistler’ about British painter Walter Sickert being the true identity of Jack the Ripper and wrote a one man show to be performed at a small theatre. I joined Spotlight, wrote letters, got headshots, did short courses and started getting paid work and then an agent.

ME: What was your film that was your first big break?

AKIN: It depends what a ‘big break’ means, but for any actor I think just to be working is a blessing, to be working on great projects is something else and then choosing the projects you work on is the next thing. It was a big break to work with Lee Tamahori. I had seen ‘Once Were Warriors’ (1994) and it went deep into the truth of violence in the home. It was filmed beautifully with great performances and it left a big impression on me. I met him and he offered me a role in ‘The Devils Double’ (2011). It was my first feature film role and a true story of a shocking nature.

ME: Do you have a film that you are most proud of that you have worked on? And can you speak about ‘Black Gold’ (2011) and what was that like working with Tahar Rahim, Antonio Banderas and Jean Jacques Anneaud?

AKIN: ‘Black Gold’ was another intriguing story. Based on the novel The Arab by Hans Reusch the fiction follows loosely the true story of Ibn Saud and the foundation of the Saudi Arabia with the discovery of oil in the 1930’s and the implications for the people and leaders in the region. The Middle East is where the main war for oil is being waged, nations are scrambling and killing each other for oil, the war in Iraq, the intervention in Libya, the collusion between the US and the House of Saud. The film asks the question is it a curse or is it a blessing to have vast reserves of oil? I met Jean-Jacque Annaud for a casting, we spoke about many things for half an hour then I read a scene from the novel. Six months later we met again and he offered me the role of Saleeh. I eagerly awaited the script for a further 6 weeks, then read the introduction of my character as a man born to ride sat in his horse’s saddle, carrying a falcon. I immediately booked horse-riding lessons! I had only been on a horse once in Malta for a gentle stroll a day after eating stewed horse for the first time! I still feel guilty about that; it might have even been a relative of the horse I was riding. I hope not!... …I arrived in Tunisia full of excitement working with international talent. Tahar Rahim was an actor I had watched in ‘A Prophet’ (2009) and was blown away like so many others with his performance. He found the truth in every moment and I was to play his older brother. Jean Jacque Annaud was a director who had made ‘The Name of The Rose’ (1986), ‘Enemy at the Gates’ (2001) and ‘The Bear’ (1988) (told from the perspective of a bear, my personal favourite is the scene where the bear licks some magic mushrooms and has a trip had me in stitches). Working with him allowed me to find the heart of the character. Antonio Banderas is a very humble man for such a world superstar, his passion for theatre and cinema is endless – the cast also featured Mark Strong, Frieda Pinto and Riz Ahmed……The cast and crew shared the experience of the first revolution of the Arab Spring, whilst in Tunisia the people had rose up against dictator President Ben Ali, leader for 23 years. The self-immolation of Mohammed Boazizi sparked the nations anger after unemployment, corruption and the lack of freedom of speech also all contributed to the uprising. It was strange as we were making a film about the discovery of oil and warring tribes, a revolution of ideas, a defining moment for the Arabs, and in reality the same thing was happening around us. To a certain extent the Arab Spring has been hijacked by a combination of outside players vying for influence, resources and other political economic interests while the people bang the drum for change. It seems most revolutions end up betraying themselves, but the Tunisian Revolution has had much less outside influence than say in Egypt or Libya, for lack of oil and close proximity to Israel and Iran.

ME: Can you speak about your role in ‘Black Gold’? Do you have any comments on the experience making he film?

AKIN: I played Prince Saleeh, destined to be King, whose father Sultan Amar (Mark Strong) is defeated by the less religious more modern King Nesib (Banderas) in a battle for the Yellow Belt, a stretch of desert. Saleeh and my brother Prince Auda (Tahar Rahim) are forced to live with Nesib in an enemy kingdom, and 15 years later oil is discovered in the Yellow Belt, which means war again. Jean Jacque described Saleeh as a rock, like a mountain, a warrior with a love for falcons and a hot temper. I built relationships with my horse Inar and falcon Noor, I had a great rapport with Tahar and it was dream to be able to spend time in the desert, it strips you down and keeps you humble. I learnt to ride a horse and handle a falcon, the falcon reminded me of my father Amar, I found the role through understanding the falcon – the grace and the expertise in hunting, the speed and courage, its mapping of an area, its connection to Arab cultural tradition. It was easy finding the reality on set with lush costumes, amazing sets and locations, set design. Annaud was impeccable for his attention for detail and the importance of authenticity… …Saleeh represented the Arabs who could not evolve with the changing times, caught in an intellectual wasteland where tradition counts for more than progress. It’s a difficult line the Arab world faces today but the Arab Spring is calling for change but what we find is those Arab nation’s with oil are caught in a deeper web. If we can’t evolve we die. The film was important to me because it was made in part to challenge negative stereotypes of Muslims and Arabs, a huge problem in the media. In ‘300’ (2006) the Persians are depicted as monsters, a harsh example but since 9/11 it seems the predominant way Arabs and other Muslims are portrayed in negative lights. The word Muslim has become synonymous with the word terrorist as Islamophobia seems to be fashion. ‘Black Gold’ aimed to challenge the negativity with the portrayal of a wide range of people, good and bad and everything in between. For this reason was I most proud to be involved in the project, its heartbeat was the challenge to this stigma.

ME: Can you speak about ‘ The Devils Double’ (2011) and opinions/ anecdotes, thoughts about the film?

AKIN: The true story of Latif Yahia being forced to be a body double or bullet catcher for Saddam Hussein’s psychotic son Uday. It was a great story that interested me as that part of the world always does, that region is my ancestral home and I remember seeing Saddam hung quickly after the illegal war in Iraq. It caused me to look deeper into the history of Iraq. This story was about dictators and as figures they have always interested me so preparing the role was an opportunity to find out more. I played an Iraqi war hero whose wife is raped and commits suicide on their wedding day by Uday Hussein. Two years later he meets Latif Yahia and the chance of revenge is presented. We filmed in Malta and it was hard work, Dominic Cooper was playing both lead roles. Lee Tamahori had asked me if I would step in to give Dominic someone to play off when he was in a scene with himself! It meant I had to learn three roles, be able to mimic Dominic’s movements exactly due to having to film everything twice. In effect making two films at once. One set up with Dominic as Latif, me as Uday, then vice versa as well playing Saad in the film. It was a master class for me. I was on set almost every day for three months, and it allowed me to grow as an actor, even though the only role on screen was the unfortunate Saad. It often got confusing on set as to who was who and when but Lee was so focused, so pumped up that he dealt with it, we all did… …The real Latif Yahia was on set some of the time, his stories about Uday and Saddam fed my imagination and helped to create the performance on screen.

ME: What is your goal as an actor today? What's your dream in this business? Who are your idols?

AKIN: My goal is to keep working hard and keep learning, to be involved in projects that challenge the status quo and help tell stories that push our understanding of our reality and our imaginations. I want to work with people who inspire me and want to tell stories that challenge our own ideas of ourselves and make us laugh, I would love to be involved in comedy, laughter is medicine and we need lots of it. I admire the work of John Cassavettes, Abbas Kiorastami, Martin Scorcese, David Lynch, Fatih Akin, I want to work with these people in no particular order. Cassavettes is obviously not with us anymore so we can do a film together in Heaven, if he is listening, let’s talk.

ME: What are your favorite films and what makes a great film for you?

AKIN: Too many films to mention that have had an impact on me. I recently re watched ‘El Topo’ (1970) by Alejandro Jowdorowsky; I think this film was so far from anything else for being weird and by stretching the imagination like Dali on acid. Every moment keeps you in anticipation for the next image, the next piece of music, and the next oddity. It pushed the boundaries and I’m sure it inspired filmmakers like David Lynch. His films stand up; ones that come to mind now are ‘Mulholland Drive’ (2001), ‘The Elephant Man’ (1980) and ‘Blue Velvet’ (1986). Lynch puts your dreams and nightmares up on screen and reminds me best that cinema is the collective daydream. ‘Boy’ (2010) by Taika Waititi was an amazing film, outstanding on every level, made in New Zealand it tells a universal story and should be seen by everyone. ‘A Fistful of Dynamite’ is another great film. Leone got the best out of James Coburn and Rod Steiger with his close ups and frame by frame painting giving the actors great presence and a platform to shine, its one of the most touching examples of friendship I’ve seen in a film. I could watch this film again and again. A great film for me is a film that takes you into another world, that makes you forget you are watching a film that makes you love or despise the people you watch. Sometimes I just want to laugh or switch off, a film for everyday of the week so it also depends on my mood as to what makes a great film.

ME: What do you feel about the indie film industry today and where it headed? Are you still passionate about it or is it a great challenge? And can you speak about your upcoming role in ‘Desert Dancer’ (2013) and about the film?

AKIN: My next project will be ‘Desert Dancer’ with director Richard Raymond focusing on the true story of Iranian Afshin Ghaffarian, a dancer who can’t dance as its banned in Iran. The film will be set around the time of ‘The Green Movement’, a mass protest against the election rigging and persecution of the Iranian people by the Islamic Republic. I will play Ashfin’s uncle, a huge positive influence on his life. I can’t escape revolution and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

ME: And last, but not least, can you speak about your experience recently filming with Oscar Winning director Kathryn Bigelow on ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ (2012)?

AKIN: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is shrouded in mystery. At the casting I had no information. All I knew was that it was a feature film shooting in the new year. It was very much like playing charades with the casting director. “Can you tell me what the project is, who is directing, can I read the script?” ‘No’ was the reply to all my questions, but I read a scene from ‘All the President's Men’ that went down on tape. Months later my agent called asking if my passport was in order and that Kathryn Bigelow loved my tape and was offering me a role in her next film. Three days later I was in Amman. The opportunity to work with the director of ‘Point Break’ and ‘The Hurt Locker’ was a very welcome surprise! I play a Turkish Intelligence Agent interrogating an Al Qaeda suspect in an Istanbul prison. It was an adventure and a great experience working with Bigelow, she is very much an actor’s director, allowing space for improvisation whilst at the same time getting exactly what she wants. She is only the second female director I've worked with; the industry needs to look at itself and improve on this in-balance. I look forward to seeing the film, which I’m sure, will be controversial as it will explore and depict the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. I love American culture and the people, as such a powerful nation it has a responsibility to do the right thing and after the tragedy of 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan/Iraq, I pray we can find a way to peace.



Interview by Vanessa McMahon

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