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Interview with Aki Omoshaybi, star of Burning Men

Written by Simon Ramshaw.

Photo from the article In the second of three interviews with the cast and crew of brand-new British horror road-movie Burning Men, Simon Ramshaw got a chance to chat with one of its leading men, Aki Omoshaybi.

“When young musicians Ray (Ed Hayter) and Don (Aki Omoshaybi) are evicted from their South London squat, they decide to sell their precious vinyl collection and fly to Memphis in search of their destiny. Frustrated by the short fall in funds, they steal an ‘uber-rare’ Black Metal record at a Camden record fair and head out of town to sell it. As they drive north in their beaten-up Volvo Amazon, picking up hitchhiker Susie (Elinor Crawley) en route, they find themselves stalked by dark forces apparently unleashed by the ‘devil disc’ they have stolen.”

Simon Ramshaw: What drew you to the role of Don?

Aki Omoshaybi: Jeremy [Wooding, director of Burning Men], first of all. Second, the idea that it was shot in a point-of-view [POV] style, and also the fact that Don’s character is black and white, straight down the line, kind of like a sharpshooter. So he does, to use language, “piss around,” he just tells it how it is. So I found that quite intriguing, especially opposite Ray (Edward Hayter), who’s a dreamer. Ray just wants to get on with things.

SR: That leads in quite nicely to my second question which also involves Ray and your dynamic with him. How did you work with Edward to create that odd-couple relationship?

AO: There’s parts of us that are similar to the characters, to be honest. Ed quite likes poetry, and he’s very whimsical in that sense, and I am quite straightforward. As soon as we met each other, we formed this brotherly relationship; it was literally like that from the word ‘go,’ debates, laughs, everything. The dynamic kind of formed itself.

SR: It’s good to hear that it was an organic relationship.

AO: Yeah, that’s it, sometimes on jobs, you have to force that kind of stuff, because sometimes you’re not working on a film for that long, so you have to figure out how to connect with the person you’re acting opposite. But with Ed, it was just great from the get-go. There was no pretense, we got on, we argued: it was literally like brothers. [laughs]

SR: Getting back to the POV aspect of the film, I was talking to Jeremy the other day, and he was telling me it’s the first “multi-POV” feature film. What was it like using the camera as another actor?

AO: At first, it was quite tricky, because, as an actor, you’re reacting, so whatever the other character says, you respond. As they say, “eyes are the windows to the soul,” so you connect with people in that way. There’s also normally a lot of subtext, so they say one thing, but their eyes are saying something different. So to try and portray that, straight down the barrel of a camera, was quite testing at times, because it was like a reflection on yourself. You were looking at your own insecurities, like “am I saying this right?” because you’re not there reading the other person’s reaction. It’s 100 percent on yourself.

SR: I was looking at your IMDb page, and it looks like you’ve done some pretty big-budget projects fairly recently, like Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) and Doctor Who (2018). So what was it like scaling down to this very low-budget, very low-key road movie?

AO: It was all hands on deck. It had to be a true team effort. I’m not saying that big-budget movies aren’t teams, but it was just a small crew travelling from London right up to Lindisfarne. You don’t get driven on this kind of set, or you don’t get your lunch chauffeured over to you. It is testing at times, which is a good thing, because I think that if there’s pressure sometimes, that’s when you do your best work. You all have to put in a shift. If someone slacks, you see it, and it doesn’t work, so everyone has to raise their game. And I quite like that.

SR: Sounds like a pretty great experience.

AO: Absolutely, I learned an awful lot from that movie, an awful lot. Not to say that the big movies don’t do the same, but for this one, I wasn’t spending so much time alone in the trailer or in the dressing room, you’re always with someone when it’s this small a movie. You don’t get much ‘me time’ when it’s on a lower budget.

SR: Speaking about learning things on-set, I’ve just discovered that you’ve just wrapped production on your directorial debut, Real. Congratulations!

AO: Thank you! That’s a working title; the other is Greyworm. But we finished that in October, and now it’s in the edit. I have Rebecca Lloyd editing, who was a BAFTA Breakthrough winner for American Honey (2016). I have Pippa Bennett-Warner in it, she’s in the new TV series MotherFatherSon, which is coming out on Hulu. We have a really good cast.

SR: So did Jeremy give you any directorial advice on the set of Burning Men?

AO: Being on the Burning Men set made me decide to pursue my own kind of film. I was like a sponge; everything that Jeremy and the producers said, I took it in. It always about getting good coverage, getting a good team together, and especially a good first AD. From pre-production to shooting, I learned an awful lot from Burning Men. In the last year, I’ve done a short and a feature, and there was no way I’d have been allowed to do the two without doing Burning Men.

SR: What’s the plot of Real? Are you disclosed to say much about it?

AO: Yes, of course I can! I came up with an idea from the Richard Curtis-style of film, like Notting Hill (1999) or Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), and then turned it on its head. I thought, “I’m going to do a romantic drama from a working-class perspective”. It’s normally just upper-class/middle-class comedy, and I realised that you never really see working-class perspective forge that kind of relationship and fall in love. The logline is “Two people at the start of a blossoming relationship”, but if you don’t have money, if you’re living on a council estate, or you’re struggling to pay the rent because you don’t have a job, or if you’re still living with your mum, and the opportunities are not there for you, how do you forge this relationship when there’s not a fancy restaurant to go to, if there’s just a local pub or a café, what do you do? In bigger cities, you get used to all these bars, but in places where there hasn’t been any development or investment, how does it work? I suppose it’s a raw, honest story. If I was to use references, I’d say it’s like an Andrea Arnold or a Ken Loach film.

SR: That sounds great, I’m looking forward to seeing it. One more question: what’s next?

AO: Alongside finishing Real, I’m currently doing a play at the Arcola called Keith? and I’m also writing a drama. But with Real or Greyworm or whatever I’m calling it at the moment, my main task is getting that into the festivals and hopefully getting it a release in the summer.

Burning Men is released in select cinemas on 1st March, with a regional tour across the country. See here for more information.

This article was published on February 26, 2019.

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