“My agent put me up for it, said it was a new kind of edgy ‘drama comedy’. I went up and auditioned for it, gave a terrible audition and thought ‘that’s the last I’ll hear of this’,” begins Kayvan Novak, describing his first memories of Sirens, a new series that premieres tonight on Channel 4.
“I was having an off-day, as you do. And then I went back, redeemed myself, had one more audition, met [co-stars] Richard [Madden] and Rhys [Thomas] for the first time and thought they were great. It was great to work with them for three months.”
When you think about how the emergency services are portrayed on TV, your mind probably leaps to frothy pre-watershed fare like Casualty, but Channel 4 is looking to change all that with Sirens, a show that’s thematically closer to Skins than Holby City.
The series follows the complex and intertwined lives of a trio of flawed ambulance crew members played by Thomas, Novak and Madden. But these chaps aren’t your usual soap opera stock characters: Thomas’s character, Stuart, is an emotionally damaged depressive, Novak plays a good-natured walking id called Rachid and Richard Madden’s Ashley is an articulate Scotsman who’s not averse to drawing the curtains and dialling out for a rent boy.
It’s a very frank series, replete with scenes of sex and medical gore that are bound to send some viewers scrabbling for the smelling salts. But it’s funny, too. There’s quite a bit of Curb Your Enthusiasm-style social awkwardness on show, and a good pinch of physical comedy thrown into the mix alongside the heavier life-and-death stuff – such as when an excitable Novak appears naked on screen save for a strategically placed colander. How does he cope with such blush-worthy moments on set?
“It’s all kinda fun, really. It’s a bit nerve-racking, but once you get into it, it’s fine. And it was only a small colander,” he confides, while chomping on a falafel in Soho’s Groucho Club.
Novak is perhaps best known as the man behind the E4/C4 programmes Fone- and Facejacker, both of which see him decked out as a bewildering cast of characters who pull pranks on members of the public, and he seems pleased that a role in a series like Sirens was “an opportunity to do something that wasn’t out-and-out comedy”.
Indeed, the series’s emphasis on serious drama meant that the actor had to bring his early TV acting experiences to bear on Sirens.
“I think a lot of comedians are desperate to show their serious side, but I got that off my chest early on in my career,” he says, before reeling off a list of his early non-comedy roles in programmes like Trial & Retribution: “Terrorist, pimp, yoga teacher, doctor. But I was lucky enough to get experience playing those parts. No complaints.”
So how does working on a predominantly dramatic series differ from a surreal sketch show, in terms of performance?
“I think the script and the show dictated a straighter approach [than Facejacker] because I’m on screen a lot more. You can only get away with big characters in small measures, but for a character on such a long journey, you want to keep it more real.”
But when asked if Sirens represents a return to straight acting, Novak is quick to correct any such assumption: “My first love is doing my own comedy stuff. I’m really committed to doing comedy. I tick that clichéd box of being the class clown. I’ve always done impressions and characters, so I’m very lucky that I get to do that as a career now.”
And with filming on Sirens over, Novak’s currently in the States, slathering on the make-up and busily putting together the second series of his beloved Facejacker. But beyond that, what does the future hold for the erstwhile medic?
“I want to do everything. I’ve got my five-year plan; I know what I want to do… I want to do a Facejacker film. I want to explore the characters more, maybe do a Terry Tibbs chat show. We’ll see. I thought that if I’m gonna make it, I’m gonna do it doing something funny. And I’m doing all right.”
Sirens starts tonight at 10:00pm on Channel 4 and C4 HD.