Good question,” says Kayvan Novak, as if he’s been wondering the same thing. I’ve just asked the Fonejacker creator where he’s been. “It’s been a transitional period for me.”
It’s nine years since the Bafta-winning animated comedy first appeared on E4, and three years since its follow-up, Facejacker, last aired. There has been the occasional acting role (notably in Chris Morris’s Four Lions, the ambulance drama Sirens and BBC4’s Asylum, which he co-wrote) as well as parts in the odd series (including Skins, Doctor Who, Rev and the voice of Brains in Thunderbirds Are Go), but little to write home about. But now Novak is back in SunTrap – a new BBC1 comedy series, and his first conventional lead part.
Fonejacker and Facejacker were huge cult hits. In the first, Novak made prank phone calls as a variety of characters, from dodgy car salesman Terry “Talk to me” Tibbs to Nigerian “business- man” George Agdgdgwngo. The show was beautifully animated, politically incorrect, subversive and extremely funny.
In Facejacker, Novak translated the characters into live situations – rather than hiding behind the phone, he appeared in the flesh, heavily disguised with prosthetics. So, for example, he visits his old art college disguised as pretentious art critic Brian Badonde and attempts to oust his former teacher from his class. Or as Terry Tibbs he hosts an episode of Come Dine with Me that results in the house being burnt down after an elaborate fireworks display goes wrong.
His prosthetics in Facejacker are so accomplished that it’s a surprise when I see Novak in the flesh – a handsome 36-year-old who morphs into a young Robert De Niro when he smiles. Not an impression – he bears an uncanny resemblance to the actor.
So where has he been? Well, he says, things haven’t always been easy. After years of struggle he thought he’d finally made it. Kids would stop him in the street, high-five him, tell him he was the Fonejacker fella and that they loved him. But not all TV executives felt the same.
He did a pilot for a Terry Tibbs chatshow and that didn’t work out. He was asked to create new characters, and struggled. “I said OK, I’ll do some new characters, but certain characters are so good and just work in any environment.” He pauses. “Why did Barry Humphries play Dame Edna for so many years? Why is Steve Coogan still doing Alan Partridge? Because there are just one or two characters they love doing. I’m lucky enough to have six that I’m crazy about.”
Novak is the son of Iranian parents – his father is a retired accountant, his mother a primary school teacher. He talks about how they worked their butts off so he could go to the north London private school Highgate, how he disappointed them by getting expelled in sixth form because he was bunking off and getting poor grades, how his father begged him not to bring up the expulsion in today’s interview (It’s not Kayvan’s fault, Dad – I brought it up).
Last night, he was chatting with his mother about “the ups and the downs, the lucky breaks, the frustrations of showbiz”. He says he’s sure he would have given up if I hadn’t been for their love and support. But it’s struggle that has made him what he is today. If he’d had it easy there would have been no Fonejacker.
He went to an arts college to complete his A-levels, and then on to drama school in London. He soon found himself working on films and TV shows, including Syriana, starring George Clooney, Spooks and The Government Inspector. There was only one problem – he was usually cast as a terrorist, with the odd Turkish pimp or doctor thrown in to spice things up.
At first he thought he was lucky. “I had a niche. And my niche was that I was brown. So it’s like, great, I get to go up for all these ‘brown parts’. I call them ‘brown parts’ because that’s what they are. That’s not to be resentful because I loved playing those parts – I got to meet so many cool actors.” But, he says, it soon began to pall. “Playing the terrorists, the pimps, the doctors – it got to a point where I wanted more and I thought if I’m going to make it in this industry I can’t keep doing these parts because I’m just repeating myself.”