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.”
He had been doing accents since he was three. As a child he loved comedy, and would recite by heart sketches from Blackadder, Fawlty Towers, Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse, The Two Ronnies…
When the parts he was being offered narrowed in range, he decided to use his facility for voices. He phoned up numerous agencies and offered his services as a voiceover artist. They weren’t interested. He then rang up in character as a Texan actor looking for work. Great, they said, come and see us.
Then he took it a step further. He phoned up the BBC as Kevin Spacey, saying he’d like to do Richard III for Radio 4. A short while later a thrilled executive returned his call to ask when they could meet. It was both exhilarating and frustrating. “For doors to open like that [is great], but you’re so far away from yourself! It got to this stage where Kevin Spacey is about to do Richard III for BBC Radio… but Kayvan isn’t.”
And that was the genesis of Fonejacker. He went into a studio, recorded thousands of prank calls, put together a pilot, and Channel 4 loved it. Many of Novak’s characters were outsiders – foreigners who couldn’t be clearly understood, didn’t get British culture or were on the make. Although some critics accused the show of racism, it was anything but. Without being overtly political, Novak was presenting us with some of the crudest stereotypes and looking at how the public responds to them.
Fonejacker won a Bafta, and Facejacker was nominated for one, but by the end Novak was exhausted. “I’m so glad I didn’t give up and quit because I wanted to. The second series of Fonejacker almost killed me. It was incredibly intense. Generating comic material can sometimes get the better of you.”
But out of adversity has come opportunity. He’s delighted that Neil Webster and Ben Palmer (who have worked on Would I Lie to You and The Inbetweeners) have come up with SunTrap for him, which takes him back to his acting roots, and makes the most of his facility for mimicry. Novak plays Woody, a dodgy investigative journalist, down on his uppers, who gets many of his stories by adopting different disguises.
He is particularly pleased that the casting has been colour-blind – not a hint of a terrorist or doctor. It’s strange, he says, but when he was growing up he didn’t label himself in any way, he just fitted easily into London’s rich melting pot. But since becoming an actor he has been more aware of his ethnicity.
“As an ethnic actor I still feel I can’t be in Downton Abbey or in period dramas. The opportunities for me as an actor are narrow, but I’m lucky enough to have people like Neil and Ben creating roles for me that have nothing to do with where I’m from.”
He points out that there are a number of black and brown British actors who have had to go to America to find success. “Look at The Wire, for example – one of the most amazing shows out of America, and the two leads are English.” But he’s not convinced that this is actually a sign of America being more liberal – it might be just another form of stereotyping. “I think that’s them thinking the best trained actors come from the UK, and the prettiest from Australia.”
Does he think it’s harder to be brown than black as an actor today? “Possibly…” But in the end, he says, it’s better to be thankful for your luck than curse your misfortune. “Look at me. I’m starring in my own BBC1 series, I’m not the guy to ask. You can blame the industry, blame the landscape, blame the politics of it, but that’s just a waste of energy. You’ve just got to think, how can I move my career forward?”
SunTrap begins on BBC1 tonight (Wednesday 27th May) at 10:45pm