‘Victoria & Abdul’ Star Ali Fazal Talks Love, Hope, and Dancing with Judi Dench

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It has been a whirlwind few months for Ali Fazal, one of the stars of Stephen Frears‘ new film, “Victoria & Abdul.”

The Indian born actor started primarily in Bollywood films, before landing a role in “Furious 7” in 2015. While a lot of his work is still centered in India, Fazal landed his biggest role to date, opposite Dame Judi Dench in the historical drama, “Victoria & Abdul.”

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Fazal to discuss his role in the film, the backstory about the little-known Abdul, and what he sees as the most important message of this tale.

First he described what it was like to meet Dench at the beginning of filming, and what their relationship was like on set.

“She just gives me the warmest hug and it became so easy after that. We shared notes on India. She loves India. She has a great sense of humor. I think that was something really awesome. It wasn’t intimidating after that. We got on set. Stephen never kept formal rehearsals. So for me and Judi, it was like trying to just run around finding time. I’d walk into her [trailer] whenever we could and just sit and do our lines. I’d teacher her some Urdu. She’d teach me some Shakespeare. It was great.”

“Victoria & Abdul” is based on a biography by Shrabani Basu. Fazal gave a bit more insight into how the story came to light.

“Bertie (King Edward VII) managed to do a lot of damage. He did manage to destroy a lot of the exchanges between [the Queen and Abdul] that were all in English. Their letters…in English…were all destroyed. The one thing Shrabani did manage to find [was] his journal, which was in Karachi. Which his family kept all this time. But what she did find from Queen Victoria were the Urdu journals. When they destroyed the stuff, they didn’t know what Urdu was. They thought it was gibberish. So [Shrabani] went to Windsor Castle when she started researching this man and she said ‘Can I have a look at the Urdu journal?’ She thought it was one journal. And they brought an entire trolley of 13 volumes.

“I get goosebumps when I talk about it because it’s all her handwriting. And it takes a little more than just wanting to learn a language at the age of 67 to 70. For 13 years. It shows a relationship. It automatically leaps out and says this is clearly a little more than just a teacher and a student. Because as you grow older, your capability, your grasping power goes low. And for this woman, everything reversed. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen those letters. It’s her handwriting. I’ve seen the letters. He wrote impeccable English and she wrote Urdu. It was nuts.”

Fazal talked about the fact that he was unfamiliar with the story until he read the script.

“I knew there was something about an Indian man and Queen Victoria. But this is the last 15 years of her life. This is the last 15 years of the Victorian Era, I guess, all the way to her death, and nothing. So it’s almost very conveniently been brushed aside by both sides. It’s unfortunate. I should have grown up learning about this in my school books. We don’t know. And the book comes out, and still not many people know…

“So when the script comes in, I’m thinking ‘Oh my god, I’ve got to do more research. I’ve got to start placing him in history.’ I did start reading the book. I told everybody I read the book. (He laughs.) But that was a conscious choice to just stop because I thought the script was something very interesting and Lee Hall had a very fantastical approach.

“…this man doesn’t exist. I mean, almost nothing. Just a few photographs, a few mentions, and none of the history books talk about him. He was just one of the servants. There’s one autobiography that I came across, which was Dr. Reed’s, her doctor. And chapter 6 says ‘Munshi Mania.’ So it’s very interesting insight on the other side. How this man was disrupting the royal household.

“So I read the book when the shoot got over. I finally read it. But I did use [Basu’s] research, the journals, the Urdu letters.”

He described some of the production aspects from design to costumes.

“[Production Designer] Alan MacDonald…was the reason I could make Abdul. Because he took me through from the ink in the pens for both Judi and me, to the letters, to the writings, ledgers, everything. And costumes…

“There’s no timeline. It’s the costumes that tell you the time. It’s the costumes that tell you the time because it takes place over 15 years, but it could be 5 days. It’s seamless. I like that.”

We talked about his preparation for the role, and how to get into the mindset of a historical figure with very little information.

“I think you try and find something. Common ground from that time to today, from my own life. Because I have to put a lot of myself in it. I mean, I guess you do that in every part, otherwise you’re just lying. Yes, there was little. But it was almost mathematical the way you’d look at his photographs and you’d see, ‘Okay, in this photograph he’s put on weight. Here he’s wearing these particular medals which he’d gotten at particular times. He’s gotten back from India, so his pomp had already come in.’

“There was this very pompous phase that he had. And before that there was this servitude. But it was always this glaze that he was in because of this relationship with the queen.

“Sometimes you wouldn’t like him because he neglected his friend. He could have sent him back. He didn’t. He accepted all these people as his staff. His staff was essentially the people who came with him as his friends, you know?

“But in that madness, that love, whatever you call it, there were just so many things that he didn’t think of and I think the idea was just to bring in some sort of honesty.

“So the most important thing for me was to get along with Judi, and to be able to bring some innocence there. And I think it’s the innocence of both of them that literally carries on right til the end. No matter what they go through, no matter what changes, no matter the age. There was something so poetic.”

To round out our discussion, Fazal shared what he hopes audiences will take away from the film.

“We’ve tried war, we’ve tried politics. All these ideas. I mean, it’s so sad, right? 130 years down the line. Not much has changed. The costumes have. But it’s the same. So I hope they take love, or something positive. The fact that two people from opposite sides of the spectrum come in and are just able to talk to each other and see through this bullshit, this protocol, the rules, the clothes. You know? The etiquette. Or whatever the new political etiquette is I guess today… But, you know, there’s hope for progress, and I can only hope that there’s hope.”

Be sure to check out my review of the film here.

Check out the newest Oscar Predictions and see where “VICTORIA & ABDUL” ranks!

CLICK THE CATEGORY TO SEE THE OSCAR PREDICTIONS:

MOTION PICTURE | DIRECTOR |
LEAD ACTOR | LEAD ACTRESS | SUPPORTING ACTOR | SUPPORTING ACTRESS | 
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY | ADAPTED SCREENPLAY | ANIMATED FEATURE |
PRODUCTION DESIGN | CINEMATOGRAPHY | COSTUME DESIGN | FILM EDITING | MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING | SOUND MIXING | SOUND EDITING | VISUAL EFFECTS |
ORIGINAL SCORE | ORIGINAL SONG |

“Victoria & Abdul” is now playing in theaters nationwide.