At a rust-bitten south London swimming pool, Kayvan Novak is making ShortList nervous. “Woohoo!” he screams, bouncing higher and higher on a creaking diving board as we trade awkward grins with the photographer and harbour secret worries about damage, fertility-troubling groin injuries and a sodden expensive suit. But we shouldn’t be surprised. Fearlessness is becoming a hallmark of this fast-rising actor’s work.
Having won a Bafta for his daring vocal acrobatics in prank-call show Fonejacker and a British Comedy Award for his turn as dim-witted jihadist Waj in Four Lions he’s about to embark on his first major acting role. He’ll be ditching the costumes and daft voices to play one of three hassled paramedics in impressive new Channel 4 comedy drama Sirens.
Was it good to finally whip off the moth-eaten balaclava? “Definitely,” he says as we share a cab to the pool earlier that day. “One of the reasons I did [Sirens] was so I could do something that didn’t rely so heavily on disguises. But I feel as if I’ve created my own reputation, and having to put that in someone else’s hands is quite nerve-racking, really.”
Filmed in Leeds last summer, the rowdy six-parter also stars Rhys Thomas (Bellamy’s People) and Richard Madden (Game Of Thrones) and does for hospital workers what Teachers did for the Department For Education.
Did he have any qualms about stripping off for a sex scene in the first episode? “I wish I’d done a few more press-ups before it, to be honest,” he smirks. “But it was all right. I had a very small colander to protect my modesty. The sort of thing you’d use to drain half a portion of fusilli.”
This latest role caps off a great couple of years for the 32-year-old British-Iranian. But with embarrassing voiceover work, frustrating auditions and Holby City bit-parts in his recent past, things haven’t always been this good…
A LASTING IMPRESSION
Before Fonejacker was made into a Comedy Lab pilot for Channel 4 in 2006, Novak was a jobbing actor whose miniscule role in George Clooney’s political thriller Syriana stood out as the highlight on a haphazard CV. But the limitations of the roles he was offered frustrated him.
“You go to drama school, get an agent and find that the parts are all terrorists, pimps and gangsters,” he sighs, gazing out of the window. “I could never really flex my comedy muscles, but I’ve been doing the voices and stuff since I was a kid. Comedy was just in my bones.”
Novak describes chasing his family around to show them his Spitting Image-inspired impression of Prince Philip with a childish glee. But his clowning habit got him into trouble at London’s prestigious Highgate School, and he was expelled at the age of 17 for constant misbehaving.
“It was the happiest day of my life,” he says firmly. “I hated it there and being expelled completely changed my path.” His teachers seemed to think that he was too easily distracted and, occasionally, we’d be inclined to agree with them.
“Has Megan Fox really got all those tattoos?” he blurts unexpectedly as we drive past a lingerie advert billboard. “I’ve got a theory that the more tattoos you’ve got, the more boring you are,” he says with a smile. His mischievous nature paid off in the end, though, after he made a series of prank calls to the BBC that changed his career forever.
“I wasn’t getting anywhere with TV producers as an actor, so I started calling them up as other people,” he explains. “I called up the BBC as Kevin Spacey and they were so convinced that they offered me a role in a Radio 4 version of Richard III.”
His uncanny knack for impressions (he breaks into an eerily perfect Liam Gallagher when we’re talking about his love of Oasis) eventually became Fonejacker and the spin-off live-action series Facejacker. Catchphrases from both shows still echo around the UK’s playgrounds, pubs and offices, and Novak is about to fly to the US to unleash his Facejacker creations (including stammering art critic Brian Badonde, wheeler-dealer Terry Tibbs and hapless Ugandan scamster Augustus Kwembe) on unsuspecting Americans. Sacha Baron Cohen is an obvious influence. Would he like to make a Hollywood film as well?
“I’m not obsessed with breaking America, but Sacha’s done it very savvily,” he reasons. “Ricky Gervais too. Basically, I’d love to make a film that allowed me to play different characters without it ending up like that Lenny Henry one, True Identity.”
He’s got a tough act to follow after his last cinematic outing. Chris Morris’s Four Lions tap-danced through a minefield of potential controversy to wring laughs from a story about a band of misguided terrorists. What was it like to work with a comedy great like Morris?
“He’s just a lovely, funny guy,” says Novak. “But he’s like a real-life Sherlock Holmes. He’s always deducing stuff and his bullsh*t sensor is always on. You can’t outthink him so I always dumb down when I’m around him.”
Novak might have won an award for his role in Four Lions (currently residing in his agent’s office while his Bafta sits on his parent’s mantelpiece) but he’s still smarting about losing out on a Best Comedy Programme Television Bafta to Harry & Paul at last month’s ceremony.
“I mean, I grew up on Harry Enfield,” he reasons. “But it just seemed like the old guard keeping their heads in the sand. It smacked of that. I’d like to think that I represent the future of comedy.”
He didn’t let missing out on another gong ruin his night, though. He whips out his phone to show us pictures of the beer can-strewn chaos in his hotel room the morning after the ceremony. “It was a great party. We filled this luxury bath tub with cans of cheap Polish beer.”
When he’s not acting, making comedy shows or infuriating chambermaids with mess, Novak obsessively watches cookery shows (“Keith Floyd’s a hero. The loose, anarchic way he made his shows actually inspired my comedy”) and indulges a petrolheaded passion.
“I love classic cars,” he beams. “Alfa Romeos, Porsches, Ferraris. Sometimes I go on car websites for hours on end. Here, I’ll show you my car.” He scrolls through his BlackBerry like a man searching for photos of a beloved child or pet until he hits his pride and joy: a red 1987 Porsche Carrera.
The humble saloon we’re in today is nearly at the location of today’s photo shoot, so we start to wrap things up. With tabloid intrusion and super-injunctions rife, does he ever worry about the side effects of his growing fame? “I’m tapping their phones,” he laughs. “I don’t really have a public profile and I’m happy with that. I’d rather let the work do the talking. There’s too much of people being plastered all over the place for no reason. I don’t crave the limelight.” That may well be the case, but if the awards, plaudits and scene-stealingly funny roles keep flowing, he may well have to get used to it.
Sirens begins on Channel 4 on 27 June at 10pm
(Images: Jay Brooks)