Kayvan Novak is no stranger to fearlessness in the name of comedy. As the alter-ego creator of the BAFTA-winning, prank-call telephone-terrorist Fonejacker, he once played a character named Irish Mike who, whilst working for the 'Tweak Your Mum by Her Nipples & Tell Her That You Love Her Wildlife Awareness Ltd', inquired of a stranger “Are you a bird lover? Have you heard about the tragic plight of the wrinkled ball sack?”
It seems almost logical that the next step for the West Londoner would be a role as a suicidal jihadist in the hot-button satire, Four Lions. “I'd heard that (writer-director) Chris Morris was making a comedy about suicide bombers and maybe I could play one. I thought 'absolutely'!” recalls the handsome 32-year-old, doing promotional duties to coincide with the film's sold-out run as part of the 2010 Sydney Film Festival. “When I finally read the script and learnt he was considering me for the part of Waj, and I could see how many potentially funny moments were in there, I thought 'I have to get this part.' ”
After a year of auditions and script-meetings, Novak was certain that this most incendiary of topics would be treated with the utmost respect – but in a very funny way. “He'd put, like, four years of research into this, which made me realise that this was not going to be a whimsical thing,” says Novak of working with the first-time film director. “It makes you really just trust him and makes you think that, yeah, I'm going to be part of something that is really great and really funny.”
Though born of Iranian heritage, Kayvan Novak is not especially well-versed in Middle Eastern religious dogma (“I was born in London! I'm as Western as you get.”), but he was able to judge how close to the mark many of Morris' scenes were by the reactions of his fellow actors, including Riz Ahmed and Adeel Akhtar. “We were, sort of, waiting for them to be outraged... but they never were, so we figured everything was alright!” he recalls with a giggle.
Frankly, he is convinced it was Fleet Street editors with one eye on sales figures who tried the hardest to drum up controversy. “The only 'outrage' that ever eventuated was by newspaper or television interviewers speculating about 'Will this cause outrage,' ” he says, meeting my gaze just long enough to let me know there really is nothing in this line of questioning. “All I could say was go and see the film and you will probably be disappointed with how uncontroversial the film really is. I've watched the film with Muslims and they have been pissing themselves; Asian people in the street and at airports really just being so enthusiastic about the film.”
In Waj, the buffoonish offsider of militant leader Omar (Riz Ahmed), Novak soon realised his role was crucial to the film – not just in terms of laughs (though he provides many, including the soon-to-be-immortal line “Rubber dinghy rapids, bro”) but also in terms of the film's subtle humanity. “Waj is an innocent; he's a baby. He really relies on Omar to guide him and that ultimately undoes Omar, in a way. Waj's innocence and ignorance, the fact that he can only see things purely, in his heart; ultimately, it's that purity that enlightens Omar.”
When it is pointed out to him that the strength of his performance is in capturing the humanity of the group's fundamentalism, he seems genuinely surprised. “Oh, good, thanks... well... pat on the back for me!” he laughs.
Many critics have noted that it is the everyman qualities of the four young men that is the film's real strength. “Ninety percent of the people who watch the film not only tell me it is very funny but that it is also very moving,” says Novak, who has travelled with the film to US festivals including Sundance and South-by-Southwest. “Although they are five quite highly stupid people, they are quite human people. Apart from having jihad on their minds, they are also concerned with their appearance and what is for tea and what was on the tele.” He credits his director for the truthfulness in each character. “Chris can take a subject as taboo as suicide bombers and present it in a way that completely encaptures you. Although these four people want to destroy Western civilisation, you are on the journey with them and you kind of care for these people... bizarrely.”
Kayvan Novak had to overcome a little trepidation on the home front when he announced to his parents he had won another part in a major movie (past credits include Syriana and The Blue Tower). “My dad was quite political in the Seventies. He has a definite opinion about politics and things going on in the world. He was nervous because he didn't know Chris Morris' work, but I was explaining 'No, Dad, this guy's brilliant, trust me.' ” Ultimately, Mr Novak Snr was convinced, but Kayvan Novak is sure there is still some lingering doubt. “When a son tells a Dad to trust him,” he smiles, “it goes against every instinct in his body to do so.”
There's nothing political or inherently ethnic in that; it's perfectly human.
Watch 'Four Lions'
Friday 7 May, 7:35pm on SBS World Movies / Streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Director: Chris Morris
Starring: Will Adamsdale, Riz Ahmed, Arsher Ali, Adeel Akhtar, Kayvan Novak, Julia Davis