Victoria and Abdul Movie Coming Soon in Theaters.
Victoria and Abdul Movie Coming Soon in Theaters
VICTORIA & ABDUL
Print Generic Interview – Stephen Frears
Q: Set the scene for us and tell us about the story you tell with Victoria & Abdul….
A: Well, it’s about a Muslim boy, a servant from India, who somehow finds himself in England and finds himself in the Court of Queen Victoria, where her eye falls on him, and he becomes her favourite. So he gets very close to the Queen, which drives everybody bananas.
Q: Were you worried about asking Judi Dench to return to a role she’s already played in Mrs Brown?
A: Oh, I was nervous. I had no idea if she would play it again. You think, ‘Why would she want to do it a second time?’ Then we organised a reading for her, and she liked what she heard very much.
Q: If Judi had said no to this part, what would you have done?
A: I wouldn’t have made it. I didn’t tell her that, but I wouldn’t have made it. Who else could have played it? Helen Mirren’s not like Queen Victoria. She’s wonderful, but she’s not like that. You take one look at Judi… I mean, I don’t get marks for originality (laughs). But no, I couldn’t imagine who else could have played her.
Q: The Victorian era is defined by conservatism but as your film shows she was actually very open minded…
A: Yes, there’s a much more eccentric and much more interesting woman behind it. It’s very entertaining, because she is the most liberal of them all, and the most progressive of them all.
Q: Was that backdrop of racism a crucial part of the story, in your eyes?
A: Well, it’s there, isn’t it? It’s just there all the time. I made My Beautiful Laundrette. I’ve done all this stuff. A Muslim writer is one of my best friends, so I did know all this stuff.
Q: When do you think you first became aware of the British Empire dark past?
A: I became friends with a Muslim, because I became friends with Hanif (Kureishi), so I really learnt about it through that. When I was a child, the map in the classroom was a quarter pink. We owned a quarter of the world. We ruled a quarter of the world. I was brought up in that world, and slowly I came to see that it was more complicated than that. The whole time, you’re discovering more and more about what was actually going on.
Q: Does that right wing nostalgia surprise you?
A: It doesn’t. No, I can see that Britain was always a conservative country. I just happened to live through its one liberal period.
Q: When you first heard the story of Victoria & Abdul did you find it upsetting?
A: I don’t know that anything particularly upset me. It made me laugh, rather than upsetting me. I mean, the behaviour of the Court was ridiculous, and she was always smarter than they were, so I don’t think there was anything that particularly upset me.
Q: Was it difficult to get a hold of the photograph of them together that we see in the end credits?
A: No, there are three or four pictures of the real Abdul with the Queen.
Q: You were the first crew given access to film inside Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s home on the Isle of Wight. How important was it to film there?
A: It’s not important, it just removes a whole load of problems. ‘Here is this room where she sat in, and here is her bedroom, and here is her study. And there’s the corridor that links this and that.’ It just made it a lot easier.
Q: Was it a long search to find Ali Fazal?
A: Well, there are a lot of Indian actors in England, who were born in England, and for all I know are English – I mean, the other Asian actor is English. I thought that the boy who played Abdul, it should all be much more unfamiliar to him, and I didn’t think that an English-Indian actor could do that. I thought you wanted the real thing, so we went looking, and actually it was not very difficult. We went to a country that has a population of over a billion, so one of them was going to be right (laughs). We had a casting director who’s very good, and Ali was one of several actors who came to see us.
Q: Had you seen him in Bollywood movies?
A: No. Nor in Furious 7. He came to see me in Mumbai.
Q: Do you go to the screenings of your own films?
A: No, I won’t go to screenings because I’m too nervous, but I was there at the end of the screening last night, and it was wonderful – the reception.
Q: Are you nervous even at this stage of your career?
A: Oh yes. Yeah, what if you didn’t laugh at a joke? I’d be furious.
Q: Did anything in the reaction last night (when Victoria & Abdul premiered at the Venice Film Festival) surprise you?
A: No, I’m just really pleased that people get such pleasure from it, and then startled by other people who don’t get pleasure from it. I can’t understand the discrepancy. I’m just a bloke who likes going to the cinema. I like enjoying myself.
Q: There’s a fantastic shot early on, at the banquet…
A: Where do you think that’s taken from?[Josef von] Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress.
Q: You seem to be having a bit of fun at Victoria’s expense there. Is that part of the appeal?
A: Yes, of course. It was always irreverent and cheeky.
Q: Did you take a look at Mrs Brown in the build up to this?
A: No. I know the history.
Q: You’ve covered two very different periods in the Royal Family’s story. How did your approach differ in each?
A: I’ve no idea. A film sets certain tasks and you have to fulfil them. You have to make it believable. Every film has different rules, but you eventually discover what the rules are.
Q: The Venice Film Festival gave you an award yesterday. Do you find that kind of thing meaningful?
A: It’s a very, very nice watch, and I can now tell the time (laughs). What have I got to complain about? I say there should be more prizes. It was very nice of them. Am I supposed to disapprove of prizes? Somebody quoted T.S. Eliot, who said after the Nobel Prize, ‘It’s downhill all the way.’
Q: What’s the difference between dealing with true characters and total fiction?
A: Well, you have a sort of responsibility to the people. It’s almost impossible to describe how you exercise the responsibility, but I suppose you have a responsibility and I suppose you exercise it probably in favour of the person.
Q: Is there another part of Royal history you’d like to detail?
A: I don’t think like that. I didn’t walk around saying, ‘I’d like to make a film about Victoria.’ Or indeed the Queen. I just sit here and people bring me things, and then you discover that it’s what you’ve been wanting to do all your life. I’m very, very passive.
Q: You don’t develop your own projects?
A: Well I have done, and I never think I’m very good at it. I developed the Lance Armstrong thing. But I’m better just walking around with my mouth open, and things just fly in. No, seriously. I can see it’s not very manly, and that you’re supposed to be a sort of heroic, dashing leader of men, but actually, I sit at home and people send me scripts.
Q: Do you turn a lot of things down?
A: Yeah, but it’s not quite the way you think it is. Every now and then something turns up and you think, ‘Oh, that’s really interesting.’ So I really think about them.
Q: I spoke to Guillermo del Toro at this festival, and he talked about wanting to retire soon, to read the 2000 books he has never read…
A: Well, he’s a very sensible man. I wish I could be that grown up. I wish I could say the same.
Q: You don’t have that urge?
A: No, I wish I could say that. It’s a wonderful thing to say. No, I find it very interesting and entertaining. I mean, I can’t quite believe it’s what’s happened. The truth is, someone comes and they say to me, about Daniel Day Lewis, ‘Has he really retired?’ I say, ‘No – he just hasn’t got a good script.’ If you give him a good script, he’ll come out of retirement. I bet he’d come out of retirement. He’s like Frank Sinatra, isn’t he? (Laughs). He retired before, didn’t he? When he made shoes in Florence.
Q: Is filmmaking an addiction?
A: It is sort of, yeah. I like the work, I like the people around me, and I clearly like being the centre of attention. I’m not falsely modest about it. But yes, I imagine that Dan hasn’t had a good script.
Q: Do you ever watch your old films?
Q: Prick Up Your Ears was just screened at the BFI in London…
A: I know, and people have said such nice things about it. Curiously enough, I was with Leonie, who is Joe [Orton]’s sister, the other day. I mean, Laundrette turned 30 years old and the thing for that was a year ago. The idea that you make these films, and then 30 years later, they’re still alive is extraordinary.
Q: When do you leave a movie?
A: I’ve left this one. I can hardly remember what happens. I’m preparing another one, so I have no choice. I started in October. This is a TV film about Jeremy Thorpe, a three-parter, focusing on the crime. It’s a fantastic story.
Q: Is there a type of film you’d still like to make?
A: No, what I really like is when a script turns up and you open it, and then they take you somewhere and you think, ‘Oh, I’ve never thought of that.’ None of these are films that I want to make, and then you think, ‘Oh, this is really in good fun. This is really interesting and I think people will enjoy seeing this.’
Q: Are you an auteur?
A: No, I’m not. See, that’s the difference between me and everybody else in the world. I’m not an auteur. I don’t know what the opposite is, but I’m not an auteur.
Q: Perhaps a craftsman?
A: Yes. That’s quite sufficient for me. I find the conversation about auteurism very uninteresting. I find it an excuse for things. It seems to me that the most important this is doing your job well, but I can see that’s a rather old fashioned view. So I say it more and more provocatively, but I know what I’m saying.
Q: You think directors are too pretentious?
A: Well, you could blame the critics rather than the directors. But people interview you, and they take this auteurist line. You say, ‘Well, it’s not that. I’m just doing my job.’ I grew up watching the work of directors. You look at the work of William Wyler and he did his job brilliantly. I mean there are people who are very clever. Billy Wilder was obviously extremely clever and could write and direct and produce. Not many of us are.
Q: Who do you admire nowadays?
A: I like the French guy, Jacques Audiard. I like the Persian guy, [Asghar] Farhadi. I liked Kenneth Lonergan – I thought his film (Manchester by the Sea) was very good.
VICTORIA & ABDUL
Print Generic Interview – Ali Fazal
Q: Did you know about this story when you auditioned?
A: I had an idea that something like it happened but I had no clue what the story was. I got more interested when I got the first audition script and when I started reading. I remember I had two scenes to prepare – the auditions were over and I did it on one of these (indicates his phone).
Q: Could you talk a bit about the story we will be seeing on screen?
A: It’s a very unique story. It’s about a very unexpected friendship that started in one of the last phases of Queen Victoria’s life and unfortunately, history has just decided to shove it aside. It’s a story about a young Indian clerk who came in to present a mohur (coin) to the queen and then something wonderful happens – they take notice of each other. I think what was wonderful was that they saw the human side of each other despite all those layers – culture, geography, religion, and country. That’s what made it an unlikely friendship.
Q: How would you kind of characterize their friendship? Is it like a mother and son relationship?
A: That’s what throws you off – I guess we’ll never know. There are so many letters – my first time in the Twickenham Studios, I remember Alan [MacDonald, production designer] had arranged everything, done all the research. There were all these letters which she had signed off: “From a loving mother to a son”, or “Queen misses her munshi (teacher). Come back my friend,” or “Come back, hold me tight.” It sort of throws you off, but then it makes you think, “Why am I trying to club it all into one genre?” We’re so used to that. I think that’s what it was – something very spiritual.
Q: What does “munshi” mean?
A: She called him her teacher, her munshi, and so did he – he dubbed her a mother figure, someone who adored him so much and someone he could share things with. They intellectually stimulated each other – they could just talk, and he was honest with her. I think that’s what really clicked, because nobody around her could do that. That was the most important thing, that both of them were just honest. There was no judgment and no protocol. I think that’s what she really liked.
Q: Have you ever had a teacher in your lifewho has influenced you in that way?
A: My grandfather – I’ve had a wonderful relationship with him. He used to be a wrestler in his younger days but of course I only knew him from his sixties and seventies. Now he’s ninety-something – he’s still here, holding strong. It’s a very intimate relationship. Things I’ve shared with him I haven’t shared with my closest friends and the other way around.
Q: Were you intimidated by the prospect of playing opposite Dame Judi Dench?
A: Well, at the time I didn’t know it was going to be Dame Judi Dench but of course I had a fan moment the first time I met her. I sort of got it all out, but not on set. I think as an actor, and from a very selfish point of view, it really works for me when my co-actor is someone like Judi Dench. It makes my job easier.
Q: What was it like to work with her?
A: I couldn’t have asked for more because she makes you look good (laughs). She’s royalty amongst actors. I was this nobody who walks into London for the first time on this movie and it was almost like a parallel with the story. It was so amazing that both of us shared a sense of humour so this friendship happened. She’s so hard not to love. She’s probably the most loved thing in the world if not just Britain. She’s a very generous actor – I think that’s what really helped. With Stephen [Frears, director], there were no formal rehearsals – I think the grilling process during the auditions was enough for him to just tell me to come on set and do my job, but because Judi belongs to a theatre background, she’s all about rehearsal. That was nectar to me. It’s a dream for an actor to be able to do that. I could look for her wherever she was and just say, “Judi, let’s rehearse. Let’s read our lines,” and she’d be like, “Yes! Thank you. Let’s do that.” So we pretty much knew the script by the end of it.I think I knew all of her lines (laughs).
Q: Did you hang out together a lot?
A: Oh yeah! I mean, all the time. It was on the Isle of Wight – we spent three weeks there, so you could just talk and talk. We were in a wonderful place, a new hotel that had just opened. We were there for three weeks and they were kind enough to cook us our own little [food] wish list. We spent a considerable time there. I’d just hop into a van and say, “Let’s rehearse! You need Urdu lessons! Let’s do some Urdu.” (Laughs).
Q: It is true that it was your first time in London?
A: Yes! I’ve travelled the world somehow but not London, and that’s what happens in this film. I’m literally looking at these palaces – Lee Hall [screenwriter] looks at me and says, “That’s what I need! That’s the [facial] expression!”
Q: Did you shoot at the real locations?
A: Yes, some of them were real.
Q: Did that help?
A: It really did, yes. It sort brings in some of the aesthetics of that time – the authentic nature of even one small piece of furniture. It changes everything just to know that they had walked those places, those very floors. That portrait there was Abdul Karim’s and the Durbar room existed because of one conversation between them, and it was there – it was right there and we were in it.
Q: How did you feel wearing some of those very colourful and elaborate clothes?
A: I felt a little obnoxious I think, on day one – it was like all these turbans and it took hours of measurements. Of course, Consolata Boyle [costume designer] is a genius. I call her my costume maestro on this film. She did a wonderful job with Meryl Streep with Florence Foster Jenkins and so with this one I thought, “I’m probably in good hands”.
Q: What was the most challenging part of the film for you?
A: I think the difficult part was just before the film began, to sort of piece together everything and build a character like Abdul. I think Lee Hall has written the script with a very fantastical approach so the events are all maybe not in the exact order but they’re all true. That’s why it says “mostly true” in the beginning because some of [the events] are sort of overlapping. The time is so long – it’s fifteen years. Preparing for that and bringing an honest Abdul Karim to the table was my big challenge. I’ll confess that I lied from the beginning because I said I’d read the book but I didn’t read the book – I started reading it but I didn’t want to read it. I ended up reading nine or ten other books about history. I read Dr. Reid’s autobiography just to get a perspective of that time and to place Abdul Karim in history. It was really hard.
Q: Did you get a sense of what was real and what was fictionalized?
A: All the events that you see – all the scenes, the locations that have been mentioned – are all real. It all happened until the last day, until her deathbed and the moment Abdul was thrown out, the day she died. They threw him out; they burnt the letters – that’s all true. It’s all there in his journals that Shrabani Basu [author of Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant] found during her research so I think the reason why they’ve written “mostly true” is because Lee Hall has taken the liberty of placing some of the events that might have happened before another one, just sort of to keep the timeline all together. It makes it seamless for an audience because it’s really hard to cram fifteen years of this relationship into one hour and forty-five minutes. You see it aging if you really look at the costumes in the film – that’s how you see time. That is something I give Consolata credit for, as well as Alan MacDonald [production designer].
Q: Did you often talk about how some of the themes are very contemporary like racism, anti Muslim sentiment?
A: Well, not at the time, but yes, now that I look back. I mean, it is prevalent. There was racism, and there is now. We’re going through a very weird period. It’s horrible. It’s so sad that time hasn’t changed anything – just costumes have changed. I think today, more than costumes, it’s the ID cards that are scratchier to some people and they don’t like it – the faces, the colour, whatever it is. A lot of people ask me if [Abdul] was manipulative, or if he took advantage of this opportunity, and I say, “This is nothing negative”. It’s okay – that’s what immigrants are doing. You enter a country and you seize the opportunity, you rise up. You have to, unfortunately today, fight for that one little visa stamp – that one little right you can have. I think that’s what’s most unique about the story, that [the characters] saw through that and just accepted each other as humans. In my head when I say it this sounds so cliché – just to use the words “love” and “hope” – but that’s what we basically speak about. This could be today, in 2017.
Q: Did you identify with your character?
A: Well of course. I think we all are trying to climb up and “peak” on the other side. I was doing Bollywood films in India and suddenly I get this wonderful team and to work with legends like Stephen Frears and Judi Dench – I mean, I’ve grown up on these films. So yes, it forces you to draw a parallel, but if you ask me about this person and the way he was, I mean, I guess. I knew my Urdu, so that came in handy – I didn’t have to learn it. I read the Koran. I don’t know it by heart, but I know it, and I see it for the good that it brings.
Q: What’s the biggest difference between making this and doing a Bollywood film,besides the fact that there’s no singing and dancing?
A: That’s what’s changing in Bollywood – it’s not about singing and dancing. I think that is what people associate with Bollywood and we take great pride in it, but international cinema is coming in and making good money. It’s not just superhero films and Marvels that make money in India now. Two years ago Birdman came and made a lot of money – so the audiences are changing, and therefore our cinema is changing. We have good content. But of course the process is different – technologically, I think, we’re slower. We’re a good fifteen years behind and I tell my folks back home, we’ve got to run and get there, but it’s a good time for actors I think. I’m excited to work on this side – some great stuff is happening. I think the international cinema’s opening up.
Q: Where are you currently based?
A: I’m based in Bombay.
Q: Is it difficult for you to go out and about without being recognized?
A: I mean sometimes, within India, and to the smaller cities because of the Bollywood films, I think that there are just a lot of audiences and they love it. That’s how my songs worked, so they love that.
Q: You mentioned that you filmed at Osborne House, which was Queen Victoria’s house on the Isle of Wight. What was that like?
A: It was lovely! It was quiet, so that was so nice. I could just walk down with Judi and we’d have tea and scones. It was the classic English thing to do and I thought that was wonderful. I still have a small Polaroid photograph of that moment. That’s what we did in the evenings. It was very peaceful.
Q: Was it nice to not be disturbed by lots of fans?
A: I loved it. I loved the anonymity – it’s great. It’s a little bit of a change (laughs).
Q: How did you get into acting?
A: I broke my arm (laughs). I was a basketball player – I was at a boarding school in India, near the Himalayas. I was into sports and I broke my arm in a game. I couldn’t play any sports anymore and I remember my friend said, “You know, your English isn’t bad – there’s a Shakespeare play happening, why don’t you try out? It’s The Tempest. This wonderful girl is playing Miranda”. So I thought, “Okay, wow!” That was my first school romance, but it ended up being me getting the part. I remember playing the jester, Trinculo.
Q: How old were you?
A: I was sixteen. I just went on because I started winning these small awards and I said, “Well, that’s interesting. You have to make a fool of people.”
Q: What did your family make of it? Did they approve?
A: Not at the time – that’s actually a very good question. Until very recently, they were like, “No! What are you doing?” Because it’s always like a conversation: People say, “What do you do?” and I say, “Well, I act.” They say, “Oh that’s nice! So what do you do?” (Laughs) It’s supposed to be a hobby; you don’t do it for a living. I say, “No, it’s a lot of work! We do twelve hour shifts.”
Q: What does your father do?
A: He was into oil and stuff – he was a hardcore physicist.
Q: Did he ever suggest you get a different profession?
A: He did insist for a long time but I think he got around it. He’s a proud man. He’s sweet – he’s coming to London for the premiere. I’m excited. It’s the first time I’m doing anything with him – I never really lived with my father.
Q: Have you had any other offers to work in western films?
A: Actually yes! I’m really excited – we’re in talks for one or two things. Fingers crossed.
Q: Your first Hollywood film was Furious 7…
A: I did a cameo in Furious 7. That was my first stint in Hollywood and it’s so weird because it’s the same studio as this. I have a nice relationship with Universal Studios now.
Q: What was it like seeing yourself in such a huge blockbuster?
A: It was bizarre! [Victoria & Abdul] is also Hollywood, but that was something else. It was loud and posh – lots of money and cars being thrown in, and somewhere in there you find yourself.
Q: What kinds of films are you looking to do? Will you be doing any romances?
A: I don’t think there’s anything without romance. It’s the essence of everything – and the essence of destruction (laughs). I look forward to doing anything that can really push me. I love what Stephen did. He doesn’t tell you what to do but he sort of nudges you into something he really wants you to do. He sort of manipulates you, beautifully, but makes you think at the same time. It could be any part – it’s this battle with the head that really stimulates me, I think.
Q: How do people in your country feel about the British monarchy?
A: Well definitely somewhere inside we’re not very happy about it because we’ve been through a hundred and fifty odd years of British oppression – that doesn’t go down very well! We are in shambles because our progress slowed down. We started a fresh economy in 1947. That’s not very long ago but it happened and things are good now – relationships are better. Of course, what are you supposed to say to it?
Q: Do you think there are any good films about India and the British Empire?
A: I think Gandhi was up there. It did a good job, but I think in this day and age we wouldn’t accept it because it’s an English film. They’re talking in English – you wouldn’t identify with that. It was tailor-made for the Oscars at the time and it did the job. But yes, it was a great, great portrayal of Independence and of that time, these world leaders. Of course Sir Ben Kingsley did it wonderfully.
Q: Was filming this in the UK a different experience to making films at home?
A: I think it was different. It was Stephen Frears, it was Universal Studios – it was Judy, England, and most of all it was a true story. The process changed. I think somehow my approach to it was, I would like to say, more profound. It was different in every sense.