I recently got the chance to talk to Eliyas Qureshi about his role in Sacha Baron Cohen’s new film, ‘The Dictator’. Here, Eliyas talks about what it was like working with the cast and crew on-set and how he got into acting in the first place…
Hey Eliyas. Thanks for taking the time out to talk to me about your new film, ‘The Dictator’.
What’s the general plotline surrounding the film?
‘The Dictator’ is the latest comedy from Sacha Baron Cohen, co-starring Anna Faris, John C. Reilly, and Ben Kingsley. Cohen plays Admiral General Hafez Alladeen, the ruthless dictator of the oil-rich African nation of Wadiya. When he comes to New York to address the United Nations, his uncle (Kingsley) has Alladeen abducted and replaced by a dumb goat herder (also played by Cohen) who promises to bring Democracy to Wadiya. The real Alladeen escapes and sets out to overthrow his body-double so he can regain his supremacy and be the “beloved oppressor” once again.
Tell us a bit about the character you play in the movie…
There is a scene in a restaurant in “Little Wadiya” (otherwise known as Queens). The owners, staff, and customers were all previous citizens of Wadiya who left the country because Alladeen sentenced them to death. Alladeen, unrecognizable as the dictator, walks into the restaurant not realizing it is a den of angry Wadiyans, including my character, all eager for the death of the dictator.
How did you get involved in the project in the first place?
Nothing too interesting about how I became attached to the project. My agent called me about the audition, I went and got the role. Pretty much the usual drill for actors.
What makes this film different and unique compared to the other Sacha Baron Cohen films – ’Borat’ and ’Bruno’?
‘Borat’ and ‘Bruno’ are characters that Cohen originally created as part of his TV series ‘Da Ali G Show’, first broadcast in the UK and later brought to the US – (through HBO). Both were fictional characters but many of the participants in both movies were real and had no idea that Cohen was playing a fictional character. This movie is completely fictional, featuring actors and a brand new main character that I think Cohen plays really well.
The film stars Sacha Baron Cohen, Sir Ben Kingsley, Anna Faris, Megan Fox and Sayed Badreya – what was it like working with the cast and crew on-set? Any good anecdotes?
My scene featured Sasha in the restaurant. I knew he was a gifted comedic actor; however, what I didn’t realize was how much improv he does. It was really hard to stay in character and keep a straight face because you literally had no idea what he would do next. In one of the takes, he grabbed my chest and commented on how large it was. I couldn’t help it, I started laughing. I did ruin the take but he is just that funny.
Let’s talk a bit about you Eliyas. What made you want to get into the industry in the first place?
I’ve been in the US for 15 years, but I was born and raised in Mumbai (Bombay), India. As a young boy, I was fascinated by Bollywood movies, classics like ‘Mother India’, ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ and ‘Sholay’. I would often skip school and go to the movies or go to a neighbour’s house as we didn’t have a television in the home then.
When I was in my early 20s, I started modeling and acting in India and continued to pursue acting when I relocated to the US. Back then, I really thought of acting as this idealized glamorous thing. The bubble of fame and fortune burst very quickly and the only thing that keeps me going in the film industry is the love of it. If I didn’t love it, I would have quit a long time ago.
You’ve been in a number of well-known projects – which actors/actresses have been your favourites to work with so far and why?
I would say Michael Douglas. I loved working with him on ‘Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’ because he is a genuinely nice and down to earth guy. One day I was standing around. I had not eaten anything yet and I was hungry. Michael, who was eating, looked at me and asked me why I wasn’t eating. I said: “I’m trying to get into character”, (I was playing an angry NY cab driver) and if I eat I might feel lazy”. He turned around and said: “Nonsense, always eat before a scene, never do a scene hungry” and offered me his roll.
I got to know him because we were doing a scene in a cab and we would be sitting in the cab waiting between takes so we would talk at length. In particular, we had a conversation about the 26/11 Mumbai attacks in 2008. He had been to Mumbai a week before the attacks happened and stayed at the TAJ hotel where most of the attacks occurred. He was very empathetic and extremely knowledgeable about the incident and it really touched me. I would love to work with him again.
If you were stranded on a desert island, what three ‘personal’ things could you not live without?
My I-Phone – (let’s just assume there is a charger, electricity, and a signal), my water distillation machine – (I have a small water distillation machine at home) and my running shoes.
If you could have dinner with three guests – (living or dead), who would you choose and why?
Akira Kurosawa: he was a brilliant director. I can watch his movies for hours – (interesting how ‘Sholay’ is similar to ‘The Magnificent Seven’ which is inspired by Kurosawa’s ‘The Seven Samurai’). He never rushes a scene, just let’s it unfold. For example, the opening credit scenes in Ran are just breath-taking. Set in medieval Japan, soldiers are sitting atop horses but he frames it so that you see the whole mountainside and you get a feel for how large the warlord’s kingdom is visually without any words spoken.
My two other picks would be Marlon Brando, because he was an acting genius, and Nikola Tesla, because he was just plain genius.
What is your favourite word?
Abundance: when I feel negative or depressed, I remind myself how much I have and how lucky I am.
Eliyas is currently in post-production on a film called ‘The Spirit Of Mumbai’, starring alongside Pooja Batra, Stephen Grey and Monika Gaba.