After an hour or so with Viveik Kalra, I become flustered by his level-headedness. Here is a 21-year-old actor who should be finishing his degree at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Instead, he’s quit university after winning roles in two big British TV dramas, and now he’s starring in a major film. On the way to meet him, I see his face on a bus, a tube poster and two billboards.
Yet he seems entirely nonchalant about the whole situation. He’s calm and charming, not especially enthralled nor perturbed by his recent weeks’ road-tripping across American film festivals, receiving standing ovations for his first starring role, nor ungrateful for the experience.
“Obviously I’m having new experiences every second of every day,” he says, flatly. “I’m navigating it. I don’t know if I love it or I hate it.” Right now in Cardiff there’s a bedroom in a student house going unused, an acting class that is one person lighter. Meanwhile, we’re here in a fancy west London hotel, eating avocado on toast, talking just about him. Isn’t that… strange?
“Nothing’s really changed,” he says. He admits it’s “odd” and “random” that his friends keep texting him pictures of him on TV or posters, that his face is even on posters. But otherwise he’s not sure. “The audiences are so lovely,” he says, referring to the gushing crowd responses he’s earned. “It’s nice to be around.”
But has there been a recent moment when he’s had to pinch himself? Initially he declines to answer. He doesn’t want to be name-droppy. But then he changes his mind. “OK, yes, I’ll tell you this one,” he says. “When I sat down for my first read-through for Next of Kin” – the ITV drama he starred in last year – “someone walked in and sat down beside me. It was Claire Skinner from Outnumbered. I was like, ‘Holy shit, it’s the mum from Outnumbered.’ And she just asked me for a pencil. It’s moments like that which are, like… Someone who has meant something to you, been in something you’ve seen. I love that show, so seeing her coming in, her swaggy look in brightly coloured Converse, was so cool for me. That was a big one.” If giving Sue from Outnumbered your pencil isn’t proof you’ve made it, what is?
Kalra’s big starring role comes in Blinded By The Light, in which he plays a version of the journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, who has adapted his memoir about his experiences growing up working-class and Pakistani in 1980s Luton. As a kid, Manzoor dreamed of becoming a writer, despite it feeling as if his background would make that kind of life unachievable.
In many ways, Kalra’s story couldn’t be more different. Like Manzoor, he grew up as part of a south Asian family in a smallish town, but Kalra’s was a privileged upbringing in leafy Windsor – a town he describes as “banging”. His family were “super fucking supportive” of his acting ambition, he says, taking him to the theatre and workshops whenever possible, and sending him to Hurtwood House, an expensive boarding school in Dorking, for his sixth form. “It was an amazing, beautiful school, like Hogwarts,” he says. “Shout out to them [his parents] for letting me go there.”
Kalra can’t remember the exact moment he wanted to become an actor, but he thinks it was at some point in his teens, perhaps watching the Borat movie on his PlayStation Portable, reciting parts of it at his parents’ dinner parties. From Hurtwood he got into drama school, and arrived like all freshers: nervous, giddy, slightly taken aback. “It’s such a weird moment that first term – everyone is going mad, getting absolutely wankered with people they don’t know, trying to take away that self-consciousness.”
But he barely got a chance to take part. During his first year he sent an audition tape off for Next of Kin, booked the job, and agreed with his university to take time off. He played a British Muslim teenager who becomes radicalised and travels to Pakistan. His aunt, played by Archie Panjabi, attempts to bring him home.
“It was my first job,” he says. “Not just my first acting job, my first job in life! I’d never had a paper round or nothing. And I was also a big fan of The Good Wife, where Archie plays Kalinda. It was one of the only shows I watched with my family that we all liked. I remember watching Archie and thinking, ‘She’s so sick!’ The next second I was working opposite her.”
Kalra was praised for his portrayal. (The London Evening Standard described him soon after as a “rising star”.) Though he had to learn a lot on the job. “My character was meant to be a sprinter, but I wasn’t really aware that if you go from zero to sprinting you should warm up first. After, like, three strides I tore something. The producer had to quietly get me off set so they could get my double to do it.”
After seeing him on Next of Kin, Gurinder Chadha, the Bend It Like Beckham director, got in touch asking him to audition for her new project. Kalra, by that point back at uni, soon found himself requesting more time off. Then he began shooting in Luton.
As well as being about a boy trying to vault the impediments of his upbringing and renegotiate his relationship with his family, Blinded By The Light also acts as an unusual jukebox musical for the songs of Bruce Springsteen. Manzoor fell under the spell of the Boss while at school, feeling he had as much to say about the Luton-Pakistani experience as he did about the American working class. Kalra filmed scenes in which he runs through the city centre to Born to Run, and chats up his love interest with the lyrics of Prove It All Night, but he wasn’t really a Springsteen fan before taking the role.
“OK, I have to be honest, I’d never heard of him before. I thought Hotel California was a Springsteen song – I haven’t told Sarfraz that, I’m not sure how he’d feel. But Bruce is a proper poet, I became obsessed.”
The highlight of Kalra’s performance comes in a monologue delivered to his on-screen father, as he tries to sum up how there’s room in his life for both Bruce and his family. It’s a moment that punctures the movie’s gloss. “Being working class and Asian in Luton in 1987, a time of racism, Thatcher… It’s like the worst possible combination of factors in any first-world country. So to have a character in that setting, being able to talk about his circumstances, had real weight, especially because people didn’t have the opportunity to talk about race as much then. They were too busy running away from people trying to beat the shit out of them.”
Since completing Blinded By The Light, Kalra has stared in Beecham House, an ITV costume drama set in India (also directed by Chadha), and is currently filming a big-budget sci-fi film called Voyagers, alongside Colin Farrell and Lily-Rose Depp. It’s a deluge of triumphs.
Still, his position in British film is an unusual one. It’s often remarked that there are too many white, public school-educated actors in big roles. Kalra would be unlikely to be classed in the same category. As a British-Indian actor from a comfortable family, how does he reflect on his background now? “I think things are changing, but only because people have realised that people of colour are marketable. I don’t think big studios would be doing films now with people of colour otherwise. It’s a business,” he says, becoming animated. “But I’m very lucky to live in a world where things are changing, and there is more representation. We should see brown people on screen – we exist in real life. It’s amazing that there are films like Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther, which have killed it.
“I remember going to see Black Panther with all of my ethnic friends and some of them had never seen a Marvel film before. That was a ‘holy shit’ moment – I feel represented, like there’s a part of me reflected on the TV screen, which didn’t happen for people for so long.”
As a kid, he remembers watching Asian actors perennially typecast. “It’s fucking endless that you see these stereotypes, growing up. Indian and Pakistani actors were put in these roles while they’re probably really great, nuanced actors!” In Voyagers, Kalra will play a character named Peter. “It’s amazing to have a director who writes a character called Peter and then puts my face and that name together. I’m happy that that’s a possibility.”
This is still just the beginning for Kalra. After this interview comes photoshoots, then British premieres and trips to the US. Then it’s back to finish shooting Voyagers. It’s an intense schedule, not something you’d want to do unless you were sure. But I’m unsure whether this life he’s been thrown into is making him happy. “I don’t think success necessarily dictates happiness,” he says. “Sometimes people at the pinnacle of their career are the saddest. So I’m very grateful, but I think people have their up and their down days. There is this selectivity that you see within Hollywood-ness. You get a glimpse of a person and a world, and that is what’s deemed so attractive to people. But you don’t see your favourite actor or actress get up and take a shit in the morning.”
Kalra’s judicious approach to success is admirable. What can come across as self-assurance is actually the opposite, a mature attitude to his own identity. He realises it’s better to sit back and take everything in for a while before you commit to some version of yourself you later regret. “I think everyone has a degree of not wanting to be too loud or big,” he says, just before he’s shepherded off. “I’m still quite young, so I’m still finding out what I’m like as a person. I think it’s something that retrospectively in 10 years’ time I’ll look back and think, ‘I was this type of person.’ But now I’m just sort of living.”
Blinded By The Light is in cinemas nationwide now
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