A truly improbable friendship between the elderly Queen Victoria and a young Indian Muslim man is explored in the new film Victoria & Abdul. In the 1890s, Abdul Karim landed a position as the queen’s royal servant, confidant, and teacher, which he held for years, following a fortuitous encounter at a royal ceremony.
Ali Fazal portrays Karim in the new Focus Features film. He co-stars alongside Dame Judi Dench, who played the long-reigning monarch once before in Mrs. Brown, earning a Best Actress Oscar nomination in 1997. This marks Fazal’s first English-language starring role, after a highly successful career in India and a supporting role in the smash Furious 7.
Boxoffice spoke to Fazal about his preparation for the part, which included handwriting lessons, and the moral the film offers modern viewers about combating religious intolerance.
How did you hear about this role? What was your audition like?
I was sitting with a business associate. She told me about this audition that had happened the week before, that they were done and had left. But I recorded the scenes on my phone and sent them.
A month later I got a call. “Stephen Frears [the director] is coming down.” They started the whole audition process. It was this long process of reading, then I went to London and the studio, then reading again with several other actors. I guess I would have done the same if I were looking for Abdul. It was fun, but it was long.
When you went to the studio to audition, was that the first time you’d been to the U.K.?
Yes. It was weird, because it was the first time I’d been to London. I’d traveled a lot, but just hadn’t been to London.
So in the scene where Abdul is seeing the Scottish highlands for the first time and he looks amazed, was that actually your first time seeing the Scottish highlands?
That was me! It was real. I remember Lee Hall, the writer of the film, he was there. And when I saw the palace for the first time, I was just looking up at the ceiling the whole time, because it was just so huge. He came to me and said, “That’s exactly what we needed. That’s Abdul.” That [facial] expression was because it was my first time.
What else did you do to research the role?
For starters, I lied about reading the book! [Laughs.] I started reading it. I thought I should read the book, but then I stopped. [The film was based on journalist Shrabani Basu’s book Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant.]
Because of that decision, I also ended up reading 10 or 11 books on the Victorian era. There were a lot of things happening in the world. I visited his grave in Agra [India]; I found the time to do that. It was a very moving experience. This is probably my first time speaking about it! And of course, knowing my lines.
When you said that during the Victorian era a lot of things were happening, a lot of things are happening now. What message do you think that world can offer in today’s era?
It’s a can of worms. There was racism, there is racism, and unfortunately there will be for some time. But there’s hope. That’s what the film, I believe, talks about. In the middle of all that madness, all the obstacles, these two people came to meet. From different cultures, from different strata of society, they intellectually stimulated each other.
That’s what really matters, because I think they saw each other at a very human level. They appreciated each other for that innate human spark that each of them had. The Queen lived a very boring life, and it took an Abdul Karim to become her teacher and get her out of that, even though she was almost queen of the world.
I think it does send out a strong message. It’s weird that the times are pretty similar. Sad, in fact. Not much has changed over the last 150 years.
You and Judi Dench are also from different cultures. What was it like working with her? How did you first meet her?
It was a fan moment, that’s what it was. [Laughs.] We met up for lunch. The production house set up this very nice lunch, sort of retro, like a blind date. We just sat, with the director and the producer and everybody sitting around the table, just chatting away. We hit it off. She broke the ice. She’s so generous and so sweet that I opened up. We were all partners after that. Stephen didn’t want rehearsals before filming started. We just had one reading with the entire cast, and that was it.
How did that affect the filming of the movie?
Because of the kind of cast it was—Judi, Michael Gambon, Eddie Izzard, Olivia Williams—these are people who over the years of rehearsals and scripts, they know their stuff. I remember when I left India I spoke with one of the greatest actors I know. He told me, “Just know your lines and don’t bump into furniture.” That’s exactly what Judi said. And that’s what we did. We just tried to get into it.
It didn’t really affect things, because we had been through the script a couple of times. I mean, I had been through it several times before, because of all the readings and auditions. I guess that’s why they took so much time in selecting people for those parts.
Do you have a favorite story or moment on set?
There are so many. That big scene, which happened to be one of the first scenes me and Judi were shooting together, where I’m presenting her the mohar [a type of ceremonial coin]. There were about 200 people in that whole place. Judi’s sitting, I’m standing. It’s our first day. Judi says, “Well, Stephen, how was that?” Stephen just walked up and said, “Well, Judi … act better.” [Laughs.] That’s just the way Stephen says it, you know? It was hilarious. I thought it was just amazing.
I love that he was telling an Oscar winner to act better.
It speaks volumes about their relationship, the ease that they have with each other, and the chemistry. [Stephen Frears had previously directed Dench in Philomena, for which she was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar.] His words are very measured. It took me awhile, a week or a week and a half to warm up to Stephen Frears. But that man is a genius.
We’ve seen other recent films about a royal’s relationship with somebody “common,” like The King’s Speech or A United Kingdom earlier this year. What do you think it is about that theme that connects with audiences?
It’s the fact that it’s not really about royalty. That’s one very easy and literal way to show the dichotomy that exists even today, and has existed forever. Sometimes it takes the story of an underdog. We love that. We love the rise of the underdog. We love this relationship building between him and someone you wouldn’t really expect to step out of their comfort zone, especially when it’s royalty. People think, “Wow, if the Queen can do it, maybe I can see through the racism and hate and violence. Maybe I’ll try that for a change.”
You’re playing a real person in this movie, Abdul Karim. Which elements of your performance were based in fact, versus parts you invented yourself?
A lot of it was from his journals and the letters that went into detail. They speak volumes about their relationship. I believe a lot of things are there [in the film] the way they actually happened. Like the first time when he came back from India with his wife and his mother-in-law, or the last time they spoke to each other, with Dr. [James] Reid right there in the room. That’s just the way it happened. So a lot of things [in the film] really did happen. Although we made some moments lighter in the film than they really were in real life.
One of the books I read was actually by the doctor. He wrote a biography, and it had a chapter called ‘The Munchi Mania.’ It was the first time I read the perspective of somebody else, rather than Karim or the queen. It helped me see the atmosphere from that time.
I read that you did extensive handwriting and voice work for the role. Can you talk about that?
That was the hard part. Little did I know, Abdul’s handwriting was impeccable! Just classic old-school English writing, cursive and joined and italics. So I had to match that. He also taught Queen Victoria, which is something that I had known before, so that came in handy when teaching Judi. The hard part was how to hold the pen, since it had sharper edges back then. You have to be really delicate and get used to it.
ALI FAZAL AT THE MOVIES
What is your favorite moviegoing memory or experience?
One of my favorite moviegoing experiences was a weird one. It would be in a small town in the north of India. The movie was [1995’s] Mortal Kombat. I remember my mom took me. [Laughs.] It was just action packed. At most cinemas in India, you wouldn’t have this movie playing. Now that I think about it, bringing a four- or five-year-old kid to watch Mortal Kombat? [Laughs.]
What is your favorite snack at the movies?
Popcorn with caramel and butter.