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He who played Osama

Born and brought up in London’s Southall, British-Punjabi actor Ricky Sekhon was hand-picked by Kathryn Bigelow to play Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty. An email chat with t2

You auditioned for the film but didn’t know that it could be for the part of Osama bin Laden!

I was obviously shocked to know that I was chosen to play the role! But I was very happy because this was my first big break, not in terms of the longevity of the role but in terms of viewership.

You apparently were unsure whether you could pull off the role…

Yes, I was really unsure in the beginning when I got to know that I was playing the world’s most notorious terrorist. I did not have much to research on except for a few YouTube videos, but journalistic inputs really did help me to prepare for the role.

What were the physical and psychological challenges of playing bin Laden?

I had to lose a lot of weight — around 15-16 kilos — and that is very unhealthy. Psychologically, I had to understand and listen and observe how older people talk and walk and their body language.

You are 29 and bin Laden was in his 50s when he was killed. How did you adapt your body language to play an older man?

I spent a lot of time hanging around, kind of loitering, outside Regents Park mosque in London. I just wanted to see, you know, physically how older gentlemen would interact with each other, to get into relationships with each other, with children and just try and really use that…and try and take from that as much as I can.

Besides YouTube videos and news reports, what kind of research did you have to do to understand bin Laden and his world better?

My friend Tara, who works for the Institute of Ismaili Studies (in London), gave me a list of books to read about bin Laden and al Qaida. I bought a set of Rosetta Stone CDs to learn some basic Arabic. As I said, I had to shed a lot of weight. In the movies, image is everything and I was playing a very ill man. While on vacation in Jamaica, my friend and personal trainer Henry had me running up the hills in the morning heat and eating only eggs, lean meat and fish.

Not having any dialogues in the film must have been tough…

Even after all the preparations, I was still nervous when I arrived last May on set in Jordan. Playing a dead person was more difficult than I had imagined! Holding my breath for more than 30 seconds felt like an eternity. Through the stillness, I could feel my heart making my ribcage vibrate. And being dumped into a body bag was not as fun as having, say, an on-screen snog, but being carried in it was kind of reminiscent of being in a hammock. I got so comfortable in the bag that, by the end of the shoot, I was known as Osama bin Loungin’!

What was the experience of being directed by Kathryn Bigelow?

It was great experience. It was a very creative and hardworking team under the direction of Kathryn. I really look forward to work with her again. I had so much to learn from her.


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