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Four Lions - Nigel Lindsay interview

Nigel Lindsay in Four Lions

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ACCLAIMED actor Nigel Lindsay talks about working with Brass Eye creator Chris Morris on new jihadist terrorist comedy Four Lions and finding the character of Barry, a confrontational former BNP member who finds himself at the forefront of a terrorist plot.

He also discusses some of the potential controversy surrounding the movie and its creator, Morris.

Q. How was working with Chris Morris again for the first time since your Brass Eye days?
Nigel Lindsay: Lovely. He’s an indefatigably hard worker. He works really hard. And he’s a genius in my opinion. When you’ve been working hard for five weeks, getting up at 5am every day, and you think you can’t be bothered to do it anymore, there’s just no way you’re not because he sort of leads from the front, by example. It’s really quite military the way he works.

Q. What makes him such a genius in your opinion?
Nigel Lindsay: Well, genius is a term that really shouldn’t be used, I suppose. But I really admire his spirit… he decides that he wants to do something and he makes sure it gets done. And he never, ever asks anyone to do anything that he won’t do himself. He works as hard as any of us. He’s a brilliant improviser so that on set, during a take, I’ve never been shouted at to say a line before. There was a bit where Waj [Kaycan Novak] and I… it’s not in there now.

But when Faisal [Adeel Akhtar] gets blown up, we were discussing where he is. Waj is supposed to say: “He’s in paradise now brother, with all the birds flying around?” And I was supposed to say: “Yeah, he is but we’ve got other things to do.” But when Waj says the line and I’m about to answer, Chris shouted out: “Disagree with him!” And then he shouts out: “Talk about rivers of milk!” So, you just go and try to improvise. Waj then comes back and asks: “Can you drink the milk?” So, it all comes from Chris just shouting random things out.

What I love about Chris is that he’s a director with a capital ‘D’. You listen to what he wants, but he’s very collaborative at the same time. I never felt I couldn’t improvise anything. There are some directors who are quite dictatorial on set, and he’s not like that. He allows you to express yourself and that’s all you can ask for as an actor.

Q. And he keeps you on your toes by the sound of things…
Nigel Lindsay: You’re not treated as a child. But at the same time, you do your job properly and you’re going to get on fine.

Q. How did you go about finding the character of Barry? Was he an easy person to empathise with?
Nigel Lindsay: [Laughs] To empathise with? Well, obviously when you play any character you have to sort of like them. I love Barry, but Barry doesn’t like himself very much so that’s where you start from. The reason I got asked to do the job in the first place was that I was in the theatre, playing a part called Lenny in The Homecoming, which is a famous Pinter play. Lenny is a psychotic pimp, basically, and not a particularly likeable man. I think Chris saw something in Barry that was similar… he came to see the show, just coincidentally, and asked me to have lunch the next day.

I concentrated on where Barry’s anger might come from and I decided in my head that his wife had kicked him out because she was having an affair with someone and he’d probably been living in his shed at the bottom of his garden for a few weeks. He’s a very angry man. So where else did that come from? Well, he thought he should be a master of the universe… but he has absolutely no masterful qualifications whatsoever, so he’s constantly frustrated by the fact that no one understands what a genius he is – and I could certainly relate to that [laughs]. So, you look for parts of yourself.

Q. Was there also a lot of research? Chris is very methodical with that, I believe…
Nigel Lindsay: We did so much improvisation and so much rehearsal work beforehand, but I did find a couple of fantastic characters on the Internet. Chris told me about a guy who used to be a member of the BNP who would stand on the street haranguing Muslims. But then he decided to go and buy a copy of The Koran in order to verse himself in Islam, so he could insult them better. He accidentally converted himself. So, I thought about him. And then we found another guy who used to be a janitor in the mosque where Abu Hamza, the guy with the hook, was, who ended up serving seven years for incitement to terrorism… the janitor. He’s a European convert. I watched him and he’s quite a fiery and charismatic public speaker and you can find scenes of him on YouTube haranguing the police outside the mosque. So, yeah, you gradually build a picture up of these people and I found that very helpful.

Q. Were you surprised, through research, at just how close to idiocy some of these characters really are?
Nigel Lindsay: Yes, absolutely, I’m the same as everybody else. Suicide bombers are scary, scary people and you have an image of these dark and dangerous men. But you actually find out that they are human beings just like the rest of us. There is a group dynamic… and I think what the film tries to do is show that when you get a group of blokes together, a mess up is going to ensure – you’re going to f**k something up.

It just so happens that these guys are a terrorist cell but they could be organising a stag night. I think that what Chris found in his research was that, I think, Mohammed Atta and the guys that did 9/11… they had this. They called him the Ayatollah, or something, because he was so dictatorial. But the others were more laidback. There’s a group dynamic in whatever you do.

Q. I believe you lived in student digs with your co-stars to create that dynamic. How long was that for?
Nigel Lindsay: Six weeks! It’s hysterical because before we went up to Sheffield, I was given the address of where we were going to be, and Google Earth had just come out, so I thought I’d have a look. So, I put in the address and there was a building site with a concrete mixer outside, and I thought this must have been taken two years ago. But when we got there, that same concrete mixer was outside my window! It was a building site… there were guys working there every day. But what that did was… there were certainly no airs and graces on the set.

I did a film straight after [Cosi], with Richard E Grant, and that had trailers and that sort of thing. There weren’t any trailers on Four Lions. We were all living on a building site together. The make-up truck was also the costume van, where we got changed. But it engenders a great spirit among you. It was absolutely perfect to create the dynamic we needed for this film. In fact, I became the irascible angry older man on set and the boys would take the piss. I thought I looked really hard as Barry and they called me Papa Smurf [laughs]! We had a laugh.

Four Lions

Q. What was it like when you first saw yourselves in the outfits that you wear for the marathon sequence? Was it hard to keep a straight face?
Nigel Lindsay: Listen, it was hard to keep a straight face most of the time! But we were all slightly envious of each other’s costumes. I wanted to be the ostrich. Kayvan wanted to be the turtle… we were all looking at each other’s costumes and wondering whether they would be easier to run in. Mine [the turtle] was awful because if I had the head on I couldn’t see or hear anything. But also, it had no feet to it. So, it was like wearing socks and Chris had us endlessly running through the streets in these costumes. It was also guerrilla filming, so they don’t know there’s a camera about.

I had to hide in a van in Sheffield city centre during market day and, on a given signal, burst out of it and start running down the street. He’d also invented this thing called smooth running, which was running with the explosives on our back, so you had to do that – and the district was suddenly confronted with this 6ft Ninja Turtle running down the street in this weird way. It was a nightmare… I couldn’t run properly.

Q. Do you think people are more ready for this kind of comedy now? That terrorism isn’t quite so taboo as it once was?
Nigel Lindsay: I don’t think that there’s any subject that is taboo from comedy and I don’t think there ever was really. All I would say is that people should see the film first. It’s like Life of Brian… Life of Brian is arguably more controversial than our film because it’s sort of taking the mickey out of the religion of the country. But they’d say they weren’t… that what they were doing is saying that Brian was mistaken for Jesus. I love Life of Brian and I couldn’t see any controversy. I don’t think this film is particularly controversial. There will always be people who will try and stir up controversy.

But all I know is that we’ve had religious Muslims see the film, we’ve had ex-Guantanamo Bay prisoners see the film, we’ve had families of victims of 7/7 see the film and so far, universally, they’ve laughed and said that they don’t find it the least bit offensive. I think Chris knows that he courts controversy but he doesn’t do it on purpose. He takes subjects that he wants to discuss and is very brave about discussing them. But in order to pre-empt… people try and make a controversy out of it. It’s like the Gordon Brown thing, where he called that woman ‘a bigot’, I felt really sorry for him because he had an unguarded moment – which we’ve all had – and yet… he was wrong to say it, but the press jumped on him like a pack of wolves and tried to make something of it because they wanted a story.

This, inevitably, they’ll try and say it’s controversial and they’ll try and get Muslims to say they’re offended, but actually if they watch the film it’s a funny film.

Q. Do you think he learned from the controversy that followed the paedophile Brass Eye episode?
Nigel Lindsay: I think if anything that would have rared him up to do even more controversy. I spoke to Chris about that paedophile thing and his whole point was that, obviously, he doesn’t think that paedophilia is a good thing… what he was trying to show was the way the press react and stir things up or demonise something. If he had wanted to make a comedy about religion, he would have made a comedy about religion. He would never shy away from anything. But he has a story that he wanted to tell – and the jist of it was that aren’t blokes idiots when they get together?

Q. I meant in terms of how he handles the press. He seems to have been very clever in the way he’s marketed this…
Nigel Lindsay: Chris has a healthy disdain for the press. He really does. He’s actually done more press for this than I thought he would. I don’t think he has a game-plan when he comes to the press at all. It’s not the way he handles them. He tries to do as little as he possibly can and let his work speak for himself.

Nigel Lindsay

Q. Did you go to Sundance with the film? And how was it?
Nigel Lindsay: Yes I did and it was fantastic… what a laugh! We got a lot of skiing in, which was great. The slopes are completely empty because everyone’s watching films. Riz had never been on skis before, and neither had Arsher [Ali, who plays Hassan], so they were on snowboards and we had such a laugh. But it’s a real buzz to sit in a cinema at the Sundance Film Festival, a packed, packed cinema, and listen to Americans try and figure out what Nectar cards and mini Baby Bells are. But once they got past that… the first 20 minutes were also slightly tense because they didn’t know whether they should laugh. But they really got into it and so it was a really nice feeling about sitting in the back of the cinema watching your film play in competition.

Q. Did you get to meet Robert Redford?
Nigel Lindsay: Apparently I missed him by 30 seconds… but I’ve met Paul Newman twice and he was so nice… so lovely. I did a play on Broadway and they come and pay homage to British talent. It’s like they think you’re a British theatre actor so you must be good. So, you have people like Meryl Streep going down on their knees praising you… people like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, they all come and see you. You get quite blasé… they come into your dressing room and say: “Robert De Niro is downstairs…” And you’re like: “I was going to go and meet a mate at Starbucks!” But it’s unbelievable… it’s fantastic. It’s a real tradition in America that if you go and see a show you go back and meet the actors afterwards. You do in England as well but only really if you know them.

Q. You’re going back into theatre…
Nigel Lindsay: Yes, I’m going back into the theatre to do a play at The Royal Court about boxing. They’re going to take all the stalls out and put a boxing ring in. So that should be fun. Rehearsals start for that on Monday.

Q. What’s it called?
Nigel Lindsay: Sucker Punch. It’s by Roy Williams. I play the trainer. It’s about two young black kids. I’m really looking forward to it, actually, because I wasn’t sure about going back into theatre. I’ve done so much. But when they told me they were taking the stalls out to put the ring in, I thought ‘ooh’. I know that the two young kids who are playing the two young boys have been training with a boxer called Errol Christie since January. When I grew up Errol Christie was a British and World Champion. I didn’t want to do it [the play] if the boxing looked shit, but these guys have been doing it since January and rehearsals don’t start until May. It opens on June 11 or 12.

Q. Will you work with Chris again?
Nigel Lindsay: I sincerely hope so. If he’ll have me! I’d love to work with him again.