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Actor Irfan Shamji: ‘It’s affirming to know people like Kenneth Branagh think you’re good’

Irfan Shamji. Photo: The Other Richard Irfan Shamji. Photo: The Other Richard

The up-and-coming actor has experienced a gilded start to his career, starring in a production of Hamlet at RADA with Tom Hiddleston, directed by Kenneth Branagh. As he takes on his latest project, he tells Holly Williams about his lucky break and why reaching the Hollywood star’s level of fame would not be such a bad thing

When Irfan Shamji was in his final year at RADA, he strode into the headteacher’s office in a foul mood; his classmates were getting agents, and he wasn’t. The teacher turned his laptop screen around – and on it was a contract for him from Kenneth Branagh. Shamji was to play Laertes to Tom Hiddleston’s Hamlet in the production at RADA directed by Branagh himself, which played to balloted audiences last September. Not bad for a first gig.

“It was joyous,” Shamji says. “It’s affirming to know they think you’re good enough to be part of that group. And the banter was amazing. Actors who’ve been doing this a while have amazing dressing room banter and as a newbie I’m just there listening to the jokes.”

He is still pals with Hiddleston after the pair bonded in stage combat rehearsals. “I was quite familiar with it,” Shamji says of sword fighting. “But he’s Loki in The Avengers… Some of his ideas were superhero-level.”

Working with Hiddleston also gave him a glimpse into what it’s like to be Hollywood-famous; people would stop and stare as they walked out of the theatre. “It was like the world had gone into slow motion. How do you deal with that every day?”

How would he feel about reaching that level of fame? “It’s a small price to pay for doing great work. Maybe you can’t go out to get your lunch, but there’s a lot of good he can do with his position: get small projects started, help writers out. I wouldn’t mind that.”

Irfan Shamji and Tom Hiddleston in Hamlet. Photo: Johan Persson
Irfan Shamji and Tom Hiddleston in Hamlet. Photo: Johan Persson

Shamji’s next project probably won’t prevent him nipping out for a sandwich, but it is one he’s proud of. He plays Harry, a young man caught up with a grieving family during one long, strange day, in Joe White’s play Mayfly at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. He relates to his character – “He’s self-effacing, and introverted; he wants to express himself but doesn’t know quite how” – but it is being in Richmond that’s really pleasing him. Shamji spent a year doing acting classes at Richmond Adult Community College and now, he grins, “it’s nice that I’m back here for real”.

For all the apparently gilded start to his career, Shamji is far from the Hiddleston-type figures associated with a privileged, private school upbringing. He was born in Zambia, and raised in Congo; his family moved to the UK in 1994, when Shamji was two. “It was the height of the Rwandan genocide, and it was spilling over into Congo,” he says. “My grandfather is Indian, which meant he was eligible to have a British passport, and the British passport was the way out.”

Not that coming to the UK was an easy ride. “Both my parents work in retail, long hours, grind jobs; you don’t get a chance to save, you’re just trying to make ends meet,” he says. “But they wanted to do it for their kids.”

The family lived, until last summer, in a council flat right next door to Grenfell Tower in West London, the block where 71 people died after a devastating fire broke out. Shamji wasn’t there during the early hours of June 14 when the blaze broke out – he lived with friends while at university, although he has since moved back in with his family in their temporary accommodation in Royal Oak.


Q&A: Irfan Shamji

What was your first non-theatre job? Working in a chemist.

What was your first theatre job? Working with Kathryn Hunter in this play called Untouchable – it was part of the RADA festival. I hadn’t graduated yet, but I did get paid for it. She’s a goddess.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? When Dave Chappelle said he wanted to be a comedian, his dad told him: “That’s great son, but know your price. Know what you want, and how much you’re willing to give. Just know your limits.”

Who or what was your biggest influence? Philip Seymour Hoffman.

What’s your best advice for auditions? Assume you’re not going to get it, take the pressure off, and see if that changes how well you do.

If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? Maybe a teacher.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I don’t.

His family had to evacuate their flat. His father took Shamji’s three younger siblings, aged 20, eight and six, to their grandparent’s house, while his mother stayed to assist victims. “If [the tower] fell over it would have fallen on us,” he says. “No one in our block was hurt, but it was traumatic for everyone. My mum stayed to help anyone coming out, [giving them] blankets and water.”

The disaster struck while he was rehearsing Hamlet, and it felt strange to be in that very different world, as his community was being torn apart. “Part of me feels quite guilty about not being there,” he says. It was also “weird” hearing his home talked about on TV, often in a faintly patronising fashion. “I know in our circumstances everyone’s not super well-off. But hearing it was the poorest area in the borough… it’s weird to hear that reported about your home, a place that you thought was all right.”

Shamji attended the nearby Holland Park School, and it was there that he fell in love with acting, taking drama at GCSE. Still, it wasn’t exactly what his parents had in mind for a career.

Irfan Shamji with Kathryn Wilder in Hamlet. Photo: Johan Persson
Irfan Shamji with Kathryn Wilder in Hamlet. Photo: Johan Persson

“I told my parents I’d do acting just to help with public speaking,” he says, adding with a laugh: “My public speaking isn’t great still, but my acting’s all right.”

When he first applied to drama schools, he received 12 rejections. “To any parent that is like: ‘What is your son doing?’” He gave himself a year, working in shops to fund evening and weekend drama classes. “It’s a blur, because I did evening classes every day almost, I didn’t have much of a social life. I was possessed by it.” The graft paid off.

Not that he always felt quite like he fitted in at RADA. When it came to his final-year showcase, Shamji got frustrated at choosing a monologue, as nothing seemed to represent him. So he wrote his own. “I have a half-brother I’ve never met who lives in Congo, so I just used my imagination: what it would be like to meet him,” he says. “It was kind of my way of saying ‘fuck off’, because it can feel like a cattle market. I was like, I’m just going to write my own thing and act the shit out of it. It worked: Kenneth Branagh was watching and he liked it.”

Indeed, Branagh has rather taken him under his wing; after Hamlet, he gave Shamji a tiny part in his film, Murder on the Orient Express. This is typical of Branagh’s actor-manager style, he likes to work repeatedly with members of his company. “He’s trying to build a community,” Shamji says. “He really loves the tradition of acting – and I love being around him because of that. I feel like I’m near Gielgud or something.

CV: Irfan Shamji

Born: 1994, Zambia

Training: RADA

Landmark productions: Hamlet, RADA (2017)

Agent: Gardner Herrity

Mayfly is at the Orange Tree Theatre in London from April 19 to May 26

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