In July, Tony Jayawardena will be playing Imam Saleem in The Invisible Hand at the Kiln Theatre running from the 1st to 31st, a role he will be reprising after being in the cast of the sold-out run in 2016. Earlier this year, Tony was part of Living Newspaper at Royal Court and, having played Saadi in Christmas at the Snow Globe in 2019, he returned last year for the show to be streamed online. Other shows for Tony have included Hobson’s Choice, White Teeth, and he played Mr Bhamra in the original West End cast of Bend It Like Beckham the Musical at the Phoenix Theatre. In 2018, Tony joined Channel 4 drama Ackley Bridge as Rashid Hyatt, and continued his role as the science teacher in the most recent Series 4, and last year, he could be seen playing Sir Sonny Ramphal in The Crown and Mr. Michaels in The Duchess. Recently, Tony has taken part in a COVID Relief video for India alongside a number of musical theatre performers, which was organised by Irvine Iqbal. Speaking with us, Tony talks about his upcoming production of The Invisible Hand, being an original cast member of Bend It Like Beckham the Musical and playing Rashid Hyatt in Ackley Bridge.
You’ll be opening in The Invisible Hand at the Kiln Theatre in July playing Imam Saleem, can you tell us more about this and how do you think it will feel reprising the role you played in 2016?
Yes, theatre is back at long last and I’m thrilled to be heading back to the Kiln. It’s been incredibly hard for everyone during the pandemic and from speaking to others in my industry I know how excited everyone is to get back into the rehearsal room. The Invisible Hand is a brilliantly written four-hander so there is a degree of comfort in returning to a play that I already know is high quality. Add to that the familiar faces at the Kiln and in the cast, it makes the re-entry far less daunting.
It’s been five years since I played Imam Saleem and returning to any part is always a fascinating exercise. I don’t want to just copy what I did before and I’ve had five years of changes in myself that I’m bringing to the room. It will be interesting to see what those changes will bring artistically and how the show will evolve in this new time which is so different from 2016.
What was it like being part of Living Newspaper at Royal Court Theatre earlier this year?
The Living Newspaper at the Royal Court was a wonderful whirlwind of a project to be involved in. I was a part of three “articles” in that particular edition, all rehearsed, performed and filmed in a week. I got to sing in my dungarees, play a capitalist ghost and a fascist dictator! All the articles were written at the time about relevant issues and it felt very cathartic to rage against the machine.
You performed as Saadi in Christmas at the Snow Globe in 2019, how was this and what was it like returning to the show in 2020 for it to be streamed online?
Christmas at the Snow Globe was a drop of pure joy! It was written by Sandi and Jen Toksvig and I got to play Sandi’s identical twin brother. We put the show together in just five days and we had a giant christmas tree, magic, fairies and even snow! All my friends with children came to see it and honestly it was one of the most joyous shows I’ve ever been a part of. When we couldn’t reprise the show the following year because of the pandemic, Sandi re-wrote it as a film, we got it done (in five days again!) and put it online.
In 2019, you played Hari Hobson in Hobson’s Choice, was there anything that drew you to the role and what was the character like to play?
Tanika Gupta’s reimagining of Hobson’s Choice changed the setting to 1980s Manchester and the Hobsons became a South Asian family who were forced out of Uganda in the 70s and made it to England. It was amazing to see how well the adaptation worked. Family issues are universal, I find, and Hari’s problems with his daughters are generational stories that everyone can relate to. Add to that the problems of being an immigrant family in the UK and it made for a beautiful, tragic and funny journey that I could personally relate to. It was challenging to play Hari’s harshness and his alcoholism but those kind of challenges are what makes me get out of bed as an actor.
What was it like playing Samad Iqbal in White Teeth?
White Teeth was back at my old friend, the Kiln Theatre. I loved the show but the biggest thing I take away from that production is the people. We are still friends to this day and we meet up regularly. It was one of those rare occasions where our group became so close and got on unbelievably well. I have friendships from that show that will probably be with me for the rest of my life.
Do you have any stand-out memories from your time in Bend It Like Beckham the Musical in the West End?
Doing Bend It Like Beckham fulfilled a dream I’d had since I was a boy. My parents used to take us to West End musicals when we were kids. I remember watching Michael Ball in Aspects of Love and really falling in love with theatre. And then, there I was, playing a lead in a West End musical! Ten-year-old Tony was crying his eyes out. It was incredibly hard work, but it was a beautiful show and I think my mum came to see it about twenty times!
You joined the cast of Ackley Bridge in 2018 as Rashid Hyatt, what is the show like to work on and how is it having Rashid as your first continuous character in a series?
In 2018 I turned forty years old and, all of a sudden, I became romantically viable, casting-wise. I came on board Ackley Bridge as the new biology teacher and as a romantic interest for Kaneez Paracha (played by the wonderful Sunetra Sarker). It was wonderful to be a part of a continuous drama. To be able to grow a character over weeks or even years was not something I’d had the opportunity to do before. Also, this was a chance to play a Pakistani, Muslim man whose main storylines didn’t revolve around his ethnicity or religion. He is just a decent guy living his life and I jumped at the chance to show this representation. It’s rare!
Last year, you appeared in a couple of episodes of The Crown as Sir Sonny Ramphal, what was this like to do?
The Crown was great. I’m sure you can imagine, it’s such a massive hit, worldwide, I had relatives in Sri Lanka messaging me about it. I got to film in Spain for a week and worked with some incredible people. I’m not adverse to being a bit starstruck and there was ample opportunity on this show.
Playing Sir Sonny Ramphal was huge fun, mainly down to his unusual accent. But also playing someone who had an important role in our history, and someone who’s still alive added to the interest and pressure.
You also appeared in The Duchess last year as Mr. Michaels, can you tell us more about working on the show?
I only had a couple of days on The Duchess but Katherine Ryan was a treat and I loved the finished programme.
How is it filming feature films such as A Street Cat Named Bob?
Again, I was only on A Street Cat Named Bob for one afternoon so not much to say. I played a nasty pie shop owner and playing nasty characters can be a lot of fun, and this was.
Do you have any favourite TV and theatre shows to watch?
I’m still a huge fan of musicals, Fiddler on the Roof is a lifelong favourite. Of the new shows, Hamilton and Come From Away are great. Favourite TV shows – The West Wing and The Wire.
Where does your love of acting come from and is it something you always wanted to do?
My love of acting started with the theatre. As I mentioned, my parents took me to the theatre, but when I started doing productions at school it was where I found my voice. I loved working with a group of people to tell a story in an environment that had different rules to the classroom or the playground. In essence I had found a home, where I felt encouraged, appreciated and valued. And when I figured out that I could actually do it as a job I signed up, and I have no intention of ever leaving.
Recently, you’ve been involved with a COVID Relief video for India, how was it being involved and can you say more about it?
India is suffering hugely at the moment with the COVID pandemic. My friend and colleague Irvine Iqbal wanted to do something to help so he got a bunch of his friends together from the musical theatre community to sing a charity song. The wonderful people from Everybody’s Talking About Jamie let us use the song It Means Beautiful and we hope it will raise awareness and money to help with this crisis. You can check out the music video and get all the info at https://youtu.be/R5ZC-01sjXs.
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