The Version Interview... Sam Otto on Channel 4's the State.
A compelling, fictional story based on extensive research, new Channel 4 drama The State follows the experiences of four British men and women who have left their lives behind to join ISIS in Raqqah, Syria in 2015.
As they experience more of the reality of life in Raqqah, witnessing horrific atrocities carried out by the regime and the bloody aftermath of air strikes, their journeys diverge – into disillusionment and despair on the one hand and increasing commitment to the Caliphate on the other.
Tell us about Jalal
Jalal is a young British Asian Londoner who was born and raised in a Muslim family. He’s very bright, intuitive and creative, and he likes to study and learn about the environment he’s in. At the same time, he’s a moralist, a bit naïve and a bit of a romantic. From a working class background, without many opportunities, I think he’s got caught up with the wrong crowd, which is maybe why he wants to do something important, rather than wasting his time just kicking about not doing much. His life has been changed by his brother going to Syria: his focus on his faith has deepened and an obligation to his family has become an obligation to his religion, which leads to him deciding to go and join the Islamic State, in order to pursue what he believes is a pure version of Islam.
How did you research for the character?
I felt a big sense of responsibility to tell the story of this character truthfully, because I don’t come from that working class, Muslim background and don’t speak Arabic. Ryan and I met at the audition and we wanted to let the chemistry run, so we decided to work together on developing our characters. We explored a lot of London, going to a mosque quite a few times and spending a lot of time with our Arabic coach learning verses from the Quran and how to pray, which was an insight into a world I’ve never experienced. We went to the London Mela which is a celebration of Asian culture in Wembley, where our characters come from, and I spent a lot of time watching videos of some radical Islamic preachers to begin to get an idea about how somebody might get these thoughts in their head. One random event, a cab ride with a driver from Whitechapel, which is the heart of the Muslim community in London, was really instructive. We got chatting and he told me about guys from his area who aren’t really that pious and don’t do much but get caught up in little groups and then begin to have more radical thoughts about Islam and start thinking about maybe going to Syria. This is exactly what, I think, is part of what is going on for Jalal at the beginning of his story.
What journey does he go on?
I think Jalal has a strong, idealistic view of what the Islamic State is and should be. He’s very shocked by a lot of the things that actually happen when he’s there and starts to become disenchanted with it very quickly. From very early on he starts to think “is this really what happens here?” and “is this what have I’ve got myself in for?” And then eventually he gets to the point where all this terrible stuff happens, and pushes him to change his views. Ziyaad gets really immersed in it, and they start to get separated in their friendship as this wedge is driven between them. They go off in very different directions with Ziyaad becoming more and more attached to some ideologies which Jalal sees as hypocrisies. Eventually, he gets to a point where he no longer wants to be a part of it, but is trapped within it and can’t escape. So, he does the only thing he thinks he can do and that is to try and protect the people he cares about.
How did you feel about taking on the project?
Well firstly it’s written by Peter Kosminsky! But also, I was so excited because this is why I wanted to be an actor; why I love being an actor, because it can be about telling powerful stories and really making people think about things and move people in a certain way. Yes, it’s controversial but that’s also what makes it important. It’s so well written; characters are so human and real. A lot of people will probably think, before they’ve even watched it, that it’s dangerous territory, but by the end of the final episode, as they’ve come to know these characters, and followed their journeys, will realise how crucial it is.
What was it like working with Peter Kosminsky?
He’s clearly got an incredible mind and a genuine passion for this subject. That’s evident in the way that he directed us. The fact that he has written it meant he had a massively strong vision about how each scene should look. And because everything has been based on so much research, all the characters feel incredibly vivid. His style of shooting was great for me. It’s less about hitting marks or continuity and more like “do what you feel is right in the moment”. And he was so flexible with changing or adding a line if you felt like the character might act a scene in a different way. He obviously has an amazing reputation in the industry and on this subject matter but he treated everyone with respect even though we are really young guys. It’s been a massive learning curve for me and a privilege working with him.
And what about working with Ryan?
I think I’ve made a friend for life with Ryan! We’d both just graduated from drama school and were so excited to be part of this project. They’d cast it in such a way that it’s very much me and Ryan as well as Jalal and Ziyaad. There was so much of ourselves we could use in our characters so we kept saying stuff like “ah you know that’s what Ziyaad would do, that’s what Jalal would do”. Just doing this together makes you so close because it’s been such an incredible journey to be going on, learning so much together, bouncing off each other on and off set, so yeah, I couldn’t have asked for a better guy to be doing this journey with.
What do you hope viewers will take out of the series?
Well I think the idea is just about presenting truths of what really is happening in Syria. I hope people see it and think “that’s truthful and that’s really enlightening”. Because so many have stereotypical views about the kids that go and just see the situation in black or white terms. Hopefully people will see that the biggest victim group of the Islamic State’s regime are in fact Muslims, and that Islamic State itself is a tiny little group within the vastness of the Islamic religion. I really hope that people who might be considered Islamophobic will come to see that true Islam is a beautiful religion and its followers are wonderful people, because that’s what I’ve experienced through doing this. It’s opened my eyes so much and I really hope it opens other’s eyes and minds about this whole thing.
And what’s next for you?
I’ve absolutely loved being a part of this and I feel in a way that I can’t ever really top it. I’d love to do something completely different to be honest after this, simply because, if I was to do something similar I would just end up comparing it, and I don’t want to do that, because it’s just not going to be better than this. So something completely different – maybe a musical!