After a very short and intense period of success in the independent film industry, British actor Zaff Malik recently made his Hollywood debut as Gathon, the leader of the Black Army in David and Goliath, a re-telling of the Biblical tale of David and Goliath with special effects to rival the recently-released Noah. The film opened in select theatres in the US on April 3rd.
Training to be a professional actor with the tenacity of any military general, Malik has experienced a whirlwind of recent success, including the independent horror film Nyctophobia, commercials for Jaguar Land Rover and TD Waterhouse and an appearance on the enormously popular UK show Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway. He has also played characters in TV shows for the Discovery Channel and National Geographic. In May he will be in Cannes to gain interest for Gemma’s Tale, a new British thriller which he will act in and have a hand in producing.
Zaff very kindly took time out to chat with us about his role in David and Goliath, his path to Hollywood...and an incident involving a fish!
What inspired you to begin your journey of being an actor?
I started later than most in this game. I went to University and became a white hat hacker, being paid to test the security systems of large corporates to ensure they were safe from Cyber attack. I eventually took the entrepreneurial ropes with both hands and ended up running two computer security companies with the latter in Cybersecurity. A decade or so passed, a few white hairs appeared. Then, after reading many articles on being courageous and going for whatever you had a burning desire for, I woke up one day and had it set in my head, enough was enough. I had to satisfy my longing for the art form that I had a desire for, since my late teens.
I started taking regular classes in London in the evenings and at the weekends. But I still had a business to run, a four hour round trip to get to classes and customers to satisfy by getting up at the crack of dawn the next morning. Get to grips with acting classes and getting into character, didn't come so easily.
Alongside this I was working in short films, initially with students, learning the ins and outs of life on set. I got little sleep, the bags under my eyes got larger, but slowly, things started coming together. Whilst others at the acting school stayed there year upon year, within a few months of starting, I was working on a short film every 6-8 weeks. I thought to myself, I must have been doing something right. Then I got my first major TV project for National Geographic. They were looking for someone to play an MI6 spy for a drama on UFOs, they just happened to pick me. I remember being so over the moon, driving down to the former USAF base in Rendlesham, now Bentwaters Parks. I couldn't sleep the night before, a mixture of nerves and working on a big, commercial set and sheer excitement. They were filming Fast and Furious 6 there at the same time and the scale of the sets and amount of powerful vehicles they had made me appreciate what a serious game this was. It just became cemented in my mind from that moment.
A few months later a well known acting agent took me onto their books. I left the drama school, I didn’t need them anymore and I wasn’t learning anything new. I took risks, I needed to get away from the ‘safety blanket’ of the cosy, ‘protected’ environment of the drama studio. Another TV drama for the U.S. TV cast me, I was getting asked to appear in better quality short films. When I did a mobile phone app commercial for Wobu.me shot on a Red camera which offered cinematic quality, it got shared all over the Internet and my followers tripled in just two months. The major break happened with David and Goliath, the Hollywood feature film. The Director Tim Chey was impressed by what I did in my Skype audition with him and the crew. Within hours they told me I had the role and they would be in touch with the next stage and filming dates. I hadn't actually realised the scale of the film. Only when I got home after completion of my scenes some time later that I read about it and the $50 million budget, I had to sit down to take it in then almost keeled over. Ever since then I have been on a path that’s been rising.
To be fair, Gathon’s not exactly the nicest of people. How did you go about stepping into the shoes of a character that’s so far removed from who you are in reality?
As soon as I knew I had it in the bag, I began working out for the role. I’m usually at the gym a few times a week anyway. Now I had to think about a character that was used to throwing his weight around. I don’t exactly have a large intimidating frame, so I had to think about increasing muscle mass in certain areas of the body that would give me a more physical presence. I was assigned a personal trainer to help push me in lifting much more weight than I was used to and focus on the large muscle groups of the body. The arms would be exposed in all scenes so I couldn’t leave those out. I had limited time to do this and was put through an intense mass building program. There was a purpose to my madness, all this pounding of heavy steel in my bare hands caused changes in my mind and body and I used the time directly after a workout when my body felt its strongest, to help put me in the shoes of a warrior. The feeling of power, strength, superiority.
That went so far, now I had to think of applying it. I drew on moments in the past when I had encountered arguments with partners, family, strangers and thought about how it made me feel. I then worked on using those in addition to research on the character, then finally in private rehearsals to channel those thoughts, emotions and go to the corners of my mind to find that aggression. Emotion takes a while to alter, going from one state to another. You could say, it would have been a bad idea to come over and do something irritating to me directly after I had just rehearsed, not sure what I would have done!
Any interesting ‘behind the scenes’ moments from David and Goliath you’d like to share?
There were a few things that happened that I can talk about, the rest, well, we’ll leave that for a face to face shall we!
There was a dead fish that was used in the scene where Gathon (my character) drags a lowly fisherman to the Armour Bearer (Goliath’s right hand man) to decide his fate. The fish was fresh that morning but handling it by the tail and grabbing the fisherman by the neck with the other hand without inflicting too much pain became a bit of tricky. It was the fish’s fault, it became more slippery as the day went on and the set got hotter as the hours of the takes and different scenes went on. It got to the point where, when we started our scene and at various other points the fish just slipped out of my hand. It was almost like it was alive and like one of those flying fish that jumps out of the sea. It just kept trying to escape. The smell left on our hands was pretty rancid by the end and took a day to dissipate. I didn’t fancy having any fish on the menu that week!
Of the more humourous moments was when I was half way through my scene and my warrior helmet slipped forward over my eyes. Wardrobe had a shortage of helmets as they were in another part of Tunisia for the large battle scenes. The only helmet they had for me was a touch too large. I held it a bit further back on my scalp, repeated the scene again – “Cut” the director shouted, as the helmet slipped down onto my nose, it was like a Monty Python sketch as we all tightened our lips for as long as we could then eventually burst out laughing. We then repeated it with the aid of a contemporary product. You know it as Velcro, something so simple yet vital in the wardrobe’s armoury, saved the day on set.
What’s on your actor’s ‘bucket list’- who would you love to work with in the future?
I loved Christian Bale’s take of Batman. Yes it was a dark version of the comic book superhero (one of my favourite superheroes) and it has divided critics across the globe. But the way the psychologically challenged version was played by Bale was a masterpiece. It’s the fresh, new way he approached it, which took me. I would love to be mentored by him, to work alongside him and garner his methods for achieving character complexity. Nolan the Director, now I would like to have a chat to him about how he sees the world over a coffee. He appears another man of artistic vision living in an alternate world, full of groundbreaking ideas. I think we could exchange notes. I think both their pieces of joint work in the two Batman films will stand the test of time for my lifetime at least.
I have a new British Feature Film, a thriller earmarked for 2016 – Gemma’s Tale (on my IMDB). The producer is in talks with a named actor right now. I am looking forward to joining up with them to make my mark in a film that should generate interest across a number of territories. The financier from Hollywood is talking a number of million dollars for the project, so I’m sure we could make it a show piece for that.
Last year you competed for the title of Britain’s Manliest Man to raise awareness about men’s health issues. How important was this experience for you?
After my father’s death I felt powerless in not being able to help him more during his time of suffering. If you didn’t know already from my biography, my father died of cancer when I was only fifteen and it was a path of suffering for him, a battle for almost two years. It was difficult to see him in pain, struggling with the limited resources there were a few decades back. I always wished I had the maturity and know how to be able to help him more. I grew up quickly and learnt this wisdom well before others usually do or need to. ‘Britain’s Manliest’ seemed the ideal vehicle for me to use my new found knowledge on health matters and my position in the film industry to help others by raising awareness of the issue of cancer especially in men. Men, because we are useless at coming forward and sharing our concerns with loved ones or Doctors. I would have done anything to change that at the time. Being part of that competition I felt a real sense of reward that the public would read the material and may tell their family and friends about the early signs of the disease, preventative checks and hopefully lives could be saved. That’s the only aspect of winning that interested me. I feel that if my father had not tried to ‘man it out’ he would still be here today.
You’ve worked incredibly hard to achieve what you’ve achieved thus far. What advice would you give aspiring actors?
I am one of those people that, if I get a new idea and road to follow in life I grab it and throw everything at it. It becomes my passion. I kind of want it there and then and want instant rewards. What I learnt at the start, over a period of a year or two, the hard way, was the TV/Film business wasn’t like that. Other actors told me, I read it in books and in articles and I didn’t want to accept it. The fact that, it takes time, a lot of time, you have to pay your dues, no matter what background you’re from, you’ll be pushing yourself day in day out to levels you thought weren’t possible. Only others experienced in the business will get this and know this is normal.
Outsiders will tell you to slow down, stop being so self centred, but if you want to make this work and work well you will have to ignore them. Rejection rates are high and you will suffer many setbacks, that can be soul destroying especially in the early days. Your mental health is very important and you need to have other hobbies outside of acting to keep you sane when you start feeling like you can’t cope with the pressure. Ensure you try to do some mental exercise, like meditation this is harder than physical exercise and takes some training to do it properly. I have to keep reminding myself of this, regularly.
Eat healthily, exercise three to four times a week, get plenty of sleep, ultimately keep your body in peak condition just as a professional athlete does and that will help your mind too. Your body will serve you far better and you will be able to give your work that much extra if you make it number one. You will be called selfish if you have a partner, get used to it.
Oh yes, I almost forgot, when starting out, some film/TV productions don’t always have the healthiest food on offer on set, so plan in advance and take some with you. In my day bag I always have nuts, seeds, fruit and water just incase. Sometimes even a ring-pull can of tuna with spices etc, keeping those muscles fuelled with amino acids and nutrients and keeping you lean.
Only a small percentage of actors actually go all the way and make it into the well known TV shows and major films, you need a level of determination and passion for this career that many don’t realise and possibly some don’t possess. But what I have learnt is, if you keep at, keep going, even when beaten down, get up and carry on there is a good chance you will succeed. Sometimes the saying is very true, it’s all in the mind.