Interview: Omid Djalili

He’s had nasty letters, but at least one rabbi is a big fan. British-Iranian actor Omid Djalili tells us how he’s trying not to offend anyone playing Dickens’ Jewish pickpocket

You have to admit it was an odd piece of casting. Having come to terms with Mr Bean (aka Rowan Atkinson) playing Fagin in the West End production of Oliver!, we have had to adjust to a British-Iranian comedian in the role.

Omid Djalili stepping out as Fagin the Jew is up there with David Bowie playing Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ. Only Jackie Mason being cast as Osama bin Laden could be as controversial.

“When my agent told me they wanted to see me for the part, even I was convinced it was a joke,” says Djalili, settling back on the sofa in his huge dressing room at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. “I thought the whole thing of me playing this part was a wind-up from day one, which is why I didn’t look at the script or the song-sheets they sent me. So when I met Cameron Mackintosh, I wasn’t exactly prepared. In fact, I read really badly, but they must have seen something in me because they called me back three weeks later and this time I’d done some homework.”

{josquote}An Iranian playing Fagin has nothing to do with the Iranian plot to wipe Israel off the face of the planet{/josquote}

The success, or otherwise, of Oliver!, Lionel Bart’s 1960s musical, depends heavily on the performance of Fagin and after three months Djalili is getting the kind of cheers that suggest he has the measure of the character. “I don’t think I’ve made him overtly Jewish — have I?” he asks with a smile.

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