Shazad Latif: In conversation with Britain’s next big thing

20 May 2021 | Updated on: 27 Sep 2022 |By Zoe Gunn

The Pursuit of Love star talks period dramas, Hollywood parties and never being typecast

If Shazad Latif isn’t quite yet a household name, he’s almost certainly a household face. You know him. He’s that guy that you saw in that thing on Channel 4/BBC/Netflix (delete as appropriate) a while back. Maybe it was as MI5’s resident Q, Tariq Masood, in Spooks. Perhaps it was as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in Sky Atlantic’s Penny Dreadful. Alternatively it could have been as Ash Tyler in Star Trek: Discovery on Netflix. Regardless, it seems likely Latif has graced your television screen at some point over the past few years.

Well now is the time to commit his name to memory. When we meet over Zoom in early May, he from his plant-filled home in Archway, Latif is simultaneously starring, chameleon-like, as both a Syrian ISIS member in indie-flick Profile and a bumbling, Hugh Grant-inflected love interest in BBC period drama The Pursuit of Love. There are also leading man turns opposite both Lily James and Dumplin’s Danielle Macdonald in the pipeline.

Despite his brink-of-stardom status, however, in (virtual) reality, Latif is the sort of laidback guy you’d quite like to go for a pint with. In fact, he’d probably be quite up for it. While admitting to little interest in the clothes, watches and cars that come with fame (at one point during our interview I complement his shirt and he twists the collar up to the camera, having no clue where it came from (Mr P if you’re interested), he happily confesses to being the first at the bar and a great lover of a Hollywood party. Here he talks lockdown, being the leading man and why meeting your heroes isn’t always a bad idea.

Image: Pip Bourdillon
Your new film Profile is out in the US now. Tell me a little about it.

It’s a very unusual suspense thriller all done on laptop screens and phones. It’s a cat and mouse love story between an ISIS recruiter and a journalist, based on the true story of a journalist called Anna Erelle, which is a fake witness protection name, who went undercover to investigate ISIS and almost got sucked in herself.

The film is about social media and the way we interact with people online. How do you see social media as a force in our world?

I’m not a big user of it. I’ve been forced to finally get on social media because of my career and I’ve seen a ton of benefits, but I’m not a big fan. There are incredibly good things about it but I think it’s down to usage and intention. How much you use it has to be balanced; what do we use it for and what is our relationship to it? Are we addicted to it? There are some really, really great things around social justice but, on the other side, the dark side, it makes us vain and forces us to compare ourselves to seemingly ‘perfect’ people.

Profile is about how we can be manipulated online and how, really, the internet is a whole other world. You don’t really see what Bilel [Latif’s character] does off camera. For Kane [the journalist], you see everything she types and everything she does but, for him, it’s just what’s going on between them. There’s this weird seduction going on, it leaves it up to the audience to figure out. You don’t know which bit’s true and which bit’s not and it’s all about the unsaid, which is where the suspense comes from.

As you said the whole film happens on a screen, which is how so many people have lived for the past year. Do you think Profile is going to hit slightly differently now than it would have before the pandemic?

When I first read the script I thought it was really relevant but I also thought, ‘It’s not going to work, you can’t have the whole film on a screen’. It’s a testament to Timur, the director, and the producers and editors, how incredibly orchestral they made the whole thing. You never get bored, it’s so fast paced and it’s a proper thriller. Now I think people are going to relate to it even more and, whether they watch it on the small screen or the big screen, it’s going to be just as brilliant. It’s just a well made, well crafted film.

How has lockdown been for you?

It’s just been one of those incredibly strange times hasn’t it? I’ve tried to keep my mental health straight, I’ve been doing some cold swimming to keep the exercise going. I’ve also been trying to write some stuff – any sort of outlet has been so helpful. Also just being, as much as you can, around the people you love.

We filmed Pursuit of Love from July to October last year. It was only us, The Witcher and Jurassic Park filming at the time. We were the test cases so luckily I was able to work and luckily no one got got ill. I can’t really complain too much.

Pursuit of Love is your first experience of a classic BBC period drama. What was that like?

I just love the fact that Emily Mortimer took it in a completely new, spunky direction but it’s still retained all the elements you want from a BBC period drama. I think it pleases both sides. There’s a lot of that Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola, Wes Anderson vibe.

It’s got an amazing cast as well.

Oh yeah. I only really spent time with Emily Beecham, because I play her husband, but Lily James is a very close friend of mine, she’s like a sister to me. I’ve worked with her twice this year which is very fun and weird. There’s also Andrew Scott and all these other fantastic actors as well. It’s what you dream of really – being in a lovely stately home surrounded by really cool actors.

You’ve got some more romantic comedies coming up this year. Did you ever envision yourself as the leading man?

I don’t know. Hopefully I’m getting to a place where I can start choosing my roles a bit more but until now there’s not been much planning going on. You have to take what you can get but I like to mix it up. I’ve done horror, sci fi, leading man, weird characters. The joy is in stepping into other people’s worlds and seeing things a different way.

I’ve never been typecast and that’s the dream. I suppose as far as being mixed race, being an outsider, it’s hard to fit into certain roles. You know, you’re too white or too brown or this or that, so by default I ended up being told, ‘Well, you can go out in to space then’. You just try and navigate it the best you can. I want to keep changing things up and keep working with the best directors in the business, if they’re out there listening.

You’ve been able to work across film and TV with relative ease. Do you have a preference?

My first love is film because that’s what I grew up being obsessed with but then I fell in love with theatre and now there are film directors doing whole TV series. It’s the Golden Age of television and there are so many crossovers that the lines are blurred. The quality of TV is so good that it doesn’t matter – as long as you don’t get optioned for 25 years.

Latif with Emily Beecham in The Pursuit of Love
You started your career on stage in Bristol, would you go back to theatre?

I’d love to, it just weirdly hasn’t happened that way. The opportunity has arisen like three times and I didn’t get those auditions. Maybe it’s the type of work that’s out there, maybe I just haven’t seen the sort of roles that spark my interest. I’m a big fan of Shakespeare but I also love Arthur Miller-type family dramas.

You’ve worked with some massive names, including Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Richard Gere and Maggie Smith. Do you ever get nervous?

You always feel nervous when you first meet them but by the time you get on set it’s fine. You have to do what you do – it’s a job, you have to show up. The strangest part is that first introduction because these are people you’ve seen growing up. There’s that fan thing of seeing people you’ve watched since you were a little kid in the 90s and you’re like, ‘Wait, I swear she’s from Sister Act 2’. It’s one of the perks of the job, isn’t it? Getting to meet these lovely people and work with them.

I did meet Daniel Day-Lewis while I was a strangely obsessed drama school student. I was coming back from my second ever job and I think he was going to a premiere of Nine. Weirdly I was listening to The Last of the Mohicans soundtrack, and I sat down on the plane and saw him sitting a few rows in front of me. For the whole flight I was like, ‘Well, am I going to go up and talk to him? You know what, forget it. You’ve seen him. That’s enough.’

I was pretty obsessed with him because we went to the same drama school. As the plane landed, I sort of scuttled to get closer to him and when we got to baggage claim I tapped him on the shoulder and was like, ‘Mr. Lewis, Mr. Lewis’. Amazingly he spoke to me and we talked about drama school and it was just very lovely. That was one of the moments where I was like, now you need to become your own boss. You need to kill your idols at some point, you need to get rid of that mindset.

Who would you love to work with?

There are so many. Benicio del Toro and Joaquin Phoenix, that would be great. I’d love to work with Denzel Washington, I mean, come on, that would just be incredible. I’d love to work with Meryl Streep for my mum. My mum’s obsessed but she’s also one of my favourite actors, she’s everyone’s favourite actor. I’m also a big, big movie buff so I’d love to work with Paul Thomas Anderson, Asghar Farhadi and Steve McQueen.

Everything is opening up now which will mean the return of red carpets and premieres. How do you find that side of the acting world?

It’s way harder than being on set. On set I can be myself and that’s a safe place where you’re with your acting family. The other stuff is quite anxiety ridden. Premieres, finding clothes to wear, doing shoots, making sure you don’t slip up in press interviews – all of that extra stuff you don’t really get told about. On the other side, it has a lot of perks. I love to party and have had some amazing invites. I went to a really cool SAG party in LA a couple of years back. I mean they’re all fun – especially when it’s free booze.

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