April 21 2016
Actor tells us about the challenges of making ‘Desert Dancer’ and working with UK dance supremo Akram Khan and co-star Freida Pinto…
By Suman Bhuchar
www.asianculturevulture.com (ACV): Can you please tell me what were the issues for you playing the lead character Afshin Ghaffarian and articulating his passion for dance?
Reece Ritchie (RR): The key challenge in the whole film was the dance.
The process of working with the incredible Akram Khan (who choreographed the relevant sequences in the film), took the pedigree of the film to a whole other level and it became clear very quickly that the discipline of dance is quite different to the discipline of acting.
Dance is in general – move first and think second, whereas actors are a lot more cerebral, we like to think that we can think our way into and out of any problem that we are presented with. I mean we intellectualize a lot. As an actor there are a lot of things thrown at you, so we are used to being very tactful on set and as a professional dancer like Akram you don’t need those tools because you say everything with your body.
So, the key challenge for me was turning off all of my ‘actor’ instincts that have worked very well for me in the past. Once you discover this new way of working, it’s actually really liberating because suddenly all you have to do is move and it just becomes about the physical ability and agility of your body, as opposed to having to come up with an intellectual reason why or how I do anything.
ACV: The director, Richard Raymond says you have a good understanding of dance, because you trained in martial arts?
RR: Yes. I was a martial artist recreationally from the age of about seven to 18. I did Wing Chun, and it was great for hand eye co-ordination and I always had a sense of rhythm – we were in a house full of music when I grew up but I think the void between that and professional dance is quite vast and I still had to sign up for this regime, all day, every day. It was physical torture to get my body into condition where it could do what Akram needed it to do.
ACV: Did you rehearse for a long time then?
RR: We trained as professional dancers for nearly half a year. I remember when Akram came in he said: ‘Ok, I will see you in two weeks’ and I was so confused. He put his second in command in charge of reshaping our bodies, so that we could perform the things that he was asking us to do. The first entire fortnight was stretching us and breaking us to a point where we were agile enough — and I already considered myself agile and fit – we had our work cut out.
It was really, really enriching experience – but it was one of the most difficult things I have ever done.
ACV: What sort of dance did he teach you?
RR: Afshin Ghaffarian is self taught, so it was quite an interesting scenario because Akram said to me: ‘We need to get you to a place where you are actually technically more able than what the actual Afshin was’.
The reason, for that, is I have to do a take 10 or 15 times. We are shooting in the desert and we have the elements to work with – and also much better to reduce your technique or disguise your ability then to create it, if it’s not there on the day. So, he didn’t pull any punches!
ACV: So when you said he (Afshin) is self-taught did Khan make you do contemporary dance (Khan is best known for Kathak, which is a North Indian classical dance)?
RR: I struggle to categorise Afshin because it was the reason he was dancing – it was a formative thing. It’s why he had to move, it’s why he had the impulse, not so much a case of him having to fit a convention that already existed, so if he felt he had to move in a certain way to express something he did it. His style I would summarise with the word ‘irregular’ and ‘raw’.
We didn’t want to beautify the dance but we definitely wanted it to have clarity, so every detail we put in the film is intended and considered. Ultimately the medium of film is very different to performance art and stage, so we might have to punch in on a real close detail on my finger or an eyelash that you wouldn’t get in a live performance, so we had to consider the medium and the platform we were using.
ACV: Has anything changed physically then?
RR: I looked physically different, and my posture changed and the way I moved changed.
ACV: You look so much like the real Afshin?
RR: I grew my hair and lost quite a lot of weight; he’s lean, I am not fat. I had his lean complexion, I studied him for a long time, it wasn’t as if I was doing anything directly intentional just an osmosis watching him, listening.
ACV: Did you get to meet him?
RR: I met him a couple of times, I have been to Paris, I watched hours and hours of interview footage and I went to watch his graduation performance in Paris – a performance that I watched a million times on YouTube.
ACV: What came naturally to you and wasn’t so difficult?
RR: I don’t really know if there’s anything easy about this film. We didn’t have much money, we were shooting on film which was a huge achievement, and it’s a first time director. Richard saw me in ‘The Lovely Bones’, that’s why he approached me for the part.
When he first approached me he didn’t have a script, he didn’t have any money, he didn’t have any credits to his name and everything was going good for me at the time – I’d come off the back of ‘Prince of Persia’, I’d just worked with Peter Jackson and I was doing ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ with Judy Dench, things were going good, so I didn’t have any reason to take on this unfunded (project).
ACV: What persuaded you to do this film, then?
RR: He was incredibly passionate, and I kind of warmed to his passion and identified with this raconteur and then he sent me seven hours of interview footage he had recorded of Afshin Ghaffarian. I was bored at home one day and I watched the whole back to back. I was fascinated by this guy.
Then I called my agent: ‘I have to play this part, no one else can play this character,’ because Afshin and I were born almost in parallel universes, we were born at the same time, we were growing up at the same time; he looked like me, but because I was born in England and he was born in Iran, our circumstances were so vastly different that shaped us in two very polarised ways.
It sparked something in me – while I was watching Michael Jackson videos as a kid and studying the ‘Moon-Walk’ he was having to hack YouTube in order to watch any form of dance.
ACV: What was it like acting with Freida Pinto?
RR: Freida was absolutely devoted to this film. We all took risks on this movie. I think that is what’s fundamentally special about this project. Everybody who got involved is taking a risk. I was astonished as to how dedicated she was to her training.
ACV: What has been to the response to ‘Desert Dancer’ as the film was released in the US last year?
RR: The response has been nothing but positive. I just hope people watch it – because the people we have reached love it, as it has something to offer audiences that are not run-of-the-mill and secondly that people are inspired to revolt against the manacles that they have on them in their lives.
‘Desert Dancer’ is a film that flies in the face of oppression and self doubt, so my hope is that you actually leave the theatre going ‘what are the restrictions that I put on my life, how can I break through those barriers and grow personally?’.
AC: What is coming up next for you?
RR: I’ve just done a movie with Harvey Keitel and Gabriel Byrne ‘Lies We Tell’ by an Indian director and producer, Mitu Misra and Santosh Sivan as a director of photography. Being an actor can be quite a passive existence and I feel I have more to give than just waiting in the trailer and someone telling me I can go to set and talk. I want to be able to imagine and create and write and coordinate and direct.
‘Desert Dancer’ releases in the UK on April 22