We catch up London born and bred actor, Shazad Latif from on BBC One’s Spooks and Toast of London and chat about his new film The Man Who Knew Infinity and as his exciting new role in the upcoming third season of Penny Dreadful.
The London born and bred actor, Shazad Latif, first made his mark on us with his work on BBC One’s Spooks as Tariq Masood but has since made a name for himself in British drama and comedy while working his way into the world of Hollywood. Most notably, he plays the quirky and just all-round hilarious Clem Fandango in Toast of London, a character who shares many of the same quirks as Shazad himself. We sit down to talk about his new film, The Man Who Knew Infinity, as well as his exciting new role in the upcoming third season of Penny Dreadful. He opens up about his experiences with race in the industry, how he uses acting to overcome his own personal struggles as well as his aversion to technology and Tinder. He’s also made a piece of abstract art for 1883 showing us how he definitely shouldn’t stray too from acting…
Shazad – You were studying at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School when you landed your first big role in BBC One’s Spooks. You decided to leave early and dive right into the professional world of acting. Was that a difficult decision to make?
Well I left early so I’d only completed about a year and three quarters of the training. I’d met my agent 6 months earlier for an audition. One night I went to buy theatre tickets, I think for Jerusalem, and I was tying up my shoelaces as he walked past and we got talking. I told him to come see me in my school production. So I emailed him and he came down. Soon after that he sent me for a test audition for Spooks. I thought he just wanted to see how I’d do in a room. He hadn’t even taken me on. And then he said yes. He said alright this is what you’re going to get paid and yeah it just happened. It was my first job and I didn’t know what was going on. But I was hanging around the school for ages after that, like 3 years after that.
Moving from stage to television is quite a jump.
Well we did a lot of theatre in the school. We were classically trained but my first love was always in movies and television. I was always interested in movies from a young age. My dad used to work in a cinema shoe reel when he first came to the country and my mum loved all the great movies. Film was what saved my life basically. I used to watch hundreds and hundreds of movies. But then I fell in love with theatre when I was 15 or 16. I love both. It’s not like a competition but my first love is movies.
What led you to acting in the first place?
I think because I just had a big passion for screen acting. It meant so much to me. I’d come home and watch a movie. It would just be my thing. I had a passion for actors. I suppose you have your idols growing up and then my friend’s dad was an actor. I used to watch what he did a lot and he was much of a second father to me so I guess that influenced me a lot. He made me fall in love with Shakespeare.
Yeah I did Romeo and Juliet when I was 8 years old and had a really great teacher. I suppose when you’re young and you have a really inspirational teacher or an inspirational moment, that has an enormous effect. Me and my friend, when we did Romeo and Juliet, we did it with West Side Story songs and we had to audition for our parts. We were in year 4 and that was an exciting moment. It made me think this sort of thing is great, this is exciting. It was one of those turning points.
Well you say you had your idols. Could you name some?
Well when you’re young, you know when you’re up to your late teens, you have these people you try to emulate or your idols or your film actors, whatever. Your Pacinos, your Deniros, Sean Penns. And then hopefully you eventually find yourself and just become you.
You’ve worked alongside some big names: Dame Judy Dench, Richard Gere and Maggie Smith to name but a few and that was all in the Marigold Hotel. Do you see them more as teachers or peers?
Yeah I crossed them all off in one film. That was a lucky, lucky hit. I think at that stage when you’re filming, you’re just doing your job. But when you’re having dinner with them you realise ‘these are my heroes’. On set I generally think you’re there for a reason so you show your stuff and just have an energy exchange. A collaboration. That’s what I like it. It’s an energy exchange. Or the transfer of energy between people. That what I love about it.
And you nearly missed the chance to work along those guys in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel due to issues with your VISA. That must have been a tense time.
Yes and I actually recently realised getting a VISA is all about where your grandparents are born and I just found out my grandfather was born in Rajasthan – right where we filmed it. Like I found out a few months ago but if I’d known earlier it would have made things a lot easier. But I almost didn’t get there. But that’s just silly bureaucracy.
And your new film, The Man Who Knew Infinity, is out now in cinemas; Can you tell me a bit about the film? Sell it to me!
The film, it’s about Srinivasa Ramanujan, a very famous mathematician. I play Chandra Mahalanobis who is a great mathematician in his own right but in the film I sort of play Ramanujan’s only friend when he arrives from Cambridge. He has few other people from the same part of the word he’s from. And I got to work with Dev again and he was lovely. And Jeremy Irons, Toby Jones, Stephen Fry. Just another great list of people. My role in this story is just being Dev’s mate. It’s for Dev really. You don’t really get to know much background info about my character but there are some really nice scenes in there.
You’re working alongside Dev Patel again. Do you find you guys have a good working relationship?
Yeah it seems like we work really well with each other. It’s very natural. We just fall into it very easily
The film explores the difficulties many people from Pakistan and India faced when moving to Britain. As a man with Pakistani heritage, do you think you’ve found it more difficult as an actor?
It’s a very strange one. I mean it’s in a strange place right now, the whole race issue. I just think it takes a long, long time. I’d say only now and only just black actors are getting good roles in their own right. Not just playing black people but they’re moving forward. Even people like Denzel and Morgan Freeman, they were getting racism right form the top. It’s hard to see how far we’ve come. But I suppose there is racism everywhere in the world and you should expect it to be in every industry, really. You just hope you don’t come across it that much. But I think with being Pakistani it just takes time to get good writers basically. Now it’s starting where good roles, good scripts are just about starting to get through. A bit lacking. You know you play the terrorist and all that. You want get to the point where you’re just playing a person, you know. And it’s annoying. I think in this country we have an idea of Bollywood which is what we think is Indian movies but basically you ask Martin Scorsese of Satish Kaushik. The very famous arthouse Indian director who, before the Indian Civil War, helped create some of the best arthouse film in the world. They were making very serious movies about class systems and all that. But because of the Civil War, apparently they had to cheer up the population. So they started making movies with music and happiness. It’s sad to see it all changed but we’ve got an idea of where we should be. And if you know your history it just makes things a lot easier.
Do you think you’re getting closer to it?
In the last 2 or 3 years I’ve definitely seen great roles. I’ve played a guy called Rick O’Connor, Clem Fandango. I’m definitely getting roles which are more individual. And I’m very lucky. I can hopefully keep doing that.
Yeah you’ve done some great serious drama with Ordinary Lies and great comedy with Toast of London which is great fun to watch. Now you’re moving into the realm of horror drama with the Penny Dreadful. Do you feel most comfortable in any particular genre?
I don’t know. I don’t think of it like that. I suppose it’s about being adaptable. Being an adaptable actor you should be excited by any particular role that comes along. Of course there are those in which you feel more comfortable. You want to take on these great roles that come at you. You may never get that opportunity again. I think if you’re lucky enough to be a diverse actor, or if those roles come along and people think you’re good enough you have to take them. But you have to be humble. There’s a lot of things allowing me to be diverse which is great.
What is helping you in that respect?
I think it’s thanks to people like John Logan who are writing these characters in this way and say, you know what this character can be from Victoria times because there were Indian people about and there were black people. Again, he’s way ahead of everyone else by doing that. He’s historically researched it and gone ‘loads of people were around back then’. So he’s taken that angle with the character. That makes it an exciting time to be around at the moment. You have far more opportunities. The last two things I’ve done have been period dramas. I didn’t think I’d be able to do that. So I’m very lucky.
Talking about John Logan, you’re playing the well-known character of Jekyll and Hyde in the upcoming season of his show Penny Dreadful – a huge show both in the US and over here. It must have been difficult to play such an intense character.
Yeah I’ve stayed away from watching very recent things with him in it but it is exciting because you’re exploring good and evil in a very in depth way, using such deep psychology. And that’s why the show is still going on. That’s why these characters keep getting used and are being expanded. People want to read and hear about it and watch it. So to explore the light and dark in one’s self is the essence of any role really. But it’s basically one of the original characters who allows us to explore light and dark in such a way.
Do you find yourself able to relate to Jekyll or Hyde most?
I think everyone has that angel and demon in them. It’s about the balance within you. I think some people have a few more angels with them, some people have got a lot more demons. So it is about trying to balance out the scales.
Which has been the most difficult to portray?
In the series, we get to the point where it isn’t full Hyde so can’t say that yet although the whole character has that anyway. I must say it is nice to let go on the se. It’s not easy but I find the straight stuff harder actually. Being more restrictive and stale is actually harder to put across on the screen, i think. But when you get to let go it’s actually quite freeing.
And you expecting more Hyde in the next season?
Can you talk about more about where your character fits into the Penny Dreadful storyline?
He is an old school friend of Harry Treadaway’s character, Frankenstein and they’ve gone to Cambridge together. About 5 years previously. And my character had a colonial military father who’s English and he had an Indian mistress so I’m basically seen as a half breed. He’s already an outcast in Victorian English society. He comes back to see his friends, they start doing chemistry and work with electricity and are having all these experiments. It really sparks their friendship and in so doing that they do a lot of dangerous things. He helps him out with Billie Piper’s character doing some crazy stuff and it all gets a bit intense and heated…
Ooh alright, keeping me on edge. But you said there’s this exploration of the dualities of Good vs Evil. Human vs Animal. Order vs Chaos and the inner battle that goes on between these parts of our selves. In what way is this explored in the Penny Dreadful?
Well John Logan is such a good writer. Everything you read and watch is so layered. Everything you read in the Robert Lewis Stevenson book; John Logan has probably mined every single page and gone what am I trying to explore here? What are we trying to understand about the human condition here? So it’s a fun show but it’s also deep, emotionally, psychologically. That why when I watched it for the first time I just burst through the whole thing in two days. Because the original human character is explored in a very dark way and if you like dark stuff, it’s for you.
Personally I struggle with some of my ‘other selves’. I am constantly fighting the lazy kid within me. Or my more narcissistic side which can’t help but talk about himself. Do you have another side to yourself you battle against or try to subdue?
I think there’s an anger side which I’m working on. There’s an angry side which I’m learning to get rid of or channel in a different way. Into my work or somewhere else so it doesn’t damage my relationships. Yeah I’m working on a lot of things from my past. I think that’s what happens when you start acting. I started exploring that more when the role came along. So I got a lot more than I expected really. In a way it sort of helped me. So there’s maybe an angry self I’m trying to keep in check. Which I’m doing now. I’m I the process of dealing with.
So you believe your characters and acting itself helps you work through your own personal issues?
Yeah I think so because it’s all you’re thinking about for a long period of time so all that focus and energy is going into one place and its leaving other places. It’s going to affect people. How your mind works. What’s on your mind. The stress levels. Your focus is on one thing so it’s a lot of energy in one place so I definitely think it has an effect on who you are and how you evolve.
Are you keen to branch out even further by trying to direct, produce or write?
I do write a little bit. Some stuff with my friends and I’m planning on doing that but I’m not in a rush. So we’re just slowly working on a few things. There’s one thing I’ve always wanted to write and it’s a long process. I’m hoping in about 5 years I’ll eventually have it done. Writing I like because I like movies. I like the idea of creating my own movie.
Is there any you prefer to write about, such as thing long term piece?
I like to write about family dramas. Films like Separation I like. It’s a foreign film, an Iranian film. It’s from about two or three years ago. Yeah family dramas are really intense. Emotional life stories. It’s this kind of stuff I’d like to write about. I have a really weird family history which I won’t go into now but I’d like to write about that.
What’s so strange?
It’s a very dark history basically. It’s very therapeutic. Writing helps me get through stuff.
And you’re a Londoner born and bred – quite a rare species – do you feel London will always be home or is the big bad world of Hollywood calling your name?
I’m going over to LA in a few weeks and I’ve been over there a few times in the past three years. I do love London, I mean I’ve been here for 27 years. But I like to explore. It’s who you’re around which is what matters, really. I think Hollywood can call but I can do things from here. They can call me form here. Technology is good.
So you don’t feel like you have to move to LA to get those big roles?
With this job I sent over a tape and flew to LA In one day and did it. So it’s possible to get big Showtime shows from over here and I suppose it does help if you’re geologically closer. I mean that’s why I’m heading over there. Just to spread it out and do some publicity. Is it highly necessary? I think the way the world works now I don’t think it has to be but I have no problem with going.
Alright well moving into some of the quick and easy stuff now. What are your favourite things to do in London?
I like to walk everywhere. I walk everywhere. I walk to Peckham. I think it’s the best way to see the city. I think you really get a feel of it if you’re really walking through the heart of it, over the bridges and such. I think it’s a good meditative thing to do. I think it’s such a chaotic city. Being in the Western world and being in London is so full of chaos. That walking is such a good thing for the mind, I feel.
Also playing in football leagues around London, in Hackney and Camden. I love to play football. I’m a middle attacker – The creative hub. And table tennis all over London. Yeah sports.
You’ve spoken about your love for sports before. Can you tell me about more about your faves?
11 a side league, 5 a side league and sometimes 7’s. Football and table tennis. Table tennis I love because, again, it’s another energy exchange sport. It’s a very eastern wisdom sort of sport.
Because it’s huge in China and Japan obviously but I think it’s the best neuroscience sport because there’s this hypnotic thing between you and the person. An energy exchange which is rhythmic. The way the ball hits and it’s just really good for fitness. And the way you use sort of Thai Chi movements when you’re hitting the ball are great.
Oh I’m so terrible with that.
Oh I can teach you. I’ll make you better in an hour. It’s that easy.
Well there are all those hipster table tennis bars around Hackney at the moment.
Yeah I’ve taken out a lot of hipsters.
Ahh that’s brilliant. And are there any particular characters you’re dying to play?
More than a certain character I’d like to work with certain directors. With characters it’s sort of hard when you’re someone who looks like me, there’s not really any historical (I mean I love history) people to play unless it’s written in a very creative way. But I guess working with directors, there are certain types of movies I’d like to be in. Right now probably at this moment I’d love to do a movie with Steve McQueen or Paul Thomas Anderson. Paul Thomas Anderson because I just love his absurdity but the way he does it so effortless and natural. And Steve McQueen because of his emotional depth.
It seems like you’re pretty damn busy at the moment. What do you do when you need to get away from it all, apart from walking and sports?
I’ll watch a movie or cook. I love cooking. I love all food. I love curry. I love Italian food. I love tapas, tapas is probably one of my favourites. But I like going on holiday and I like dancing. I go out dancing. It’s a good way to let off steam. I like Rnb and a bit of house. Again, I like good music and when you’re in the club everyone just goes with it.
Where’s your favourite place to travel?
In England I’d say it’s my friend’s cottage in Norfolk. It’s right in the middle of the woods. Right in the middle of nowhere. And that a really nice place where I have no stress and no worries. In the classic English countryside. And then outside I’d probably say my girlfriend’s place in Tuscany in the mountains. It’s just something about being up high in the air. It’s good for the soul.
And when you started off in Spooks you were playing the part of a technician but you’ve said you a bit of a technophobe.
It’s not technophobe exactly. I don’t have a fear or hate, it’s just my fear of probably having an addictive personality. Me being stuck into something. I like human interaction more so the less time I can spend with technology the better. But I know it’s impossible to get out totally and it’s how the world works now.
Because I’ve seen the flip phone you have. It looks ancient. Not having a smartphone means you’ve never experienced the great world of Tinder or Candy Crush.
No well I had one in LA for about three weeks once. But I think that Tinder destroys the excitement of the first encounter which is one of the most important points when you meet someone. That energy exchange is probably one of the most important. I don’t want to offend anyone who uses Tinder but it’s just that moment is taken away.
Do you remember that first moment with your girlfriend?
Yes I can. She’d just come back from auditioning for some film and she’d been naked that day. And I remember her saying it at the bar and, you know when your mouth is just wide open and you don’t really know what to do. You’re just listening and then they leave and for the next few days you can’t really think clearly. I remember that very clearly though.
Any favourite TV show, past or present? – And of course not including any you were in.
Right now I’m just about to finish Bloodline which is unbelievable. Right now that’s my favourite thing. With British TV I really just watch The Office, Extras and Faulty Towers in one go. I can’t really choose between those three. It’s a brilliant type of humour.
Is there anything in particular that draws you towards that humour?
Just people’s awkwardness and how they all portray it brilliantly. And because you just see it every day. There’s an awkwardness about everyone which is beautiful and I think it’s great to embrace the awkwardness or embrace each other.
And earlier you said acting sort of saved you in many ways, what would you be doing if you weren’t acting?
I don’t really know. I guess I wouldn’t mind cheffing as another job. Or playing football. Playing some sort of sport. But I don’t know if I would have been able to have done that. Maybe writing but I wouldn’t have any money. It was acting from quite young. I didn’t know if it would happen but I sort of needed it to so I had to believe it would.
Well clearly you wouldn’t be drawing. Can you talk me through your artwork?
This is a weird creepy guy looking over the wall. I just do the head of Homer. It’s basically the only thing I know how to draw. I usually do loads of different heads like Cowboy Homer or Elvis homer. So I’ll just do a couple more. I like the idea of floating heads. The guy looking over the wall is just an abstract thing. I really liked how simple it was. It’s just creepy isn’t it? It’s just weird.
And I see you like bright colours.
Yeah I like the garishness of it all. This is the Indian sun. The beauty of the Indian sun and the heat which melts off the trucks on the highway and then the floating homer heads. This is probably the weirdest thing I’ve ever drawn. It’s whatever you want to read into. It’s interpretive. I’m just going to leave it like that, just abstract and weird.
Well I’m sure the readers can discuss their own interpretations. But lastly, what’s next? What will we be seeing Shazad Latif doing next?
There’s one big thing on the horizon but I’m not sure if I’m able to talk about it. It’s still between three of us but if I got it I’d be very happy. Other than that I’m just waiting around to see what’s next. Keeping fit and enjoying life at the moment. Going to LA and then Tuscany and Malta for a little House music festival plus a mate of mine lives there. Just taking things as they come at me.