Bally Gill & Judi Dench on set for Allelujah

Bally Gill on the Industry, Allelujah and his Process as an Actor

Bally Gill is an actor best known for playing Romeo in the RSC’s 2018 Romeo and Juliet, Neel Fisher in the BBC drama Sherwood with David Morrissey and Adeel Akhtar, and leading role Dr Valentine in Allelujah alongside acting royalty Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi and David Bradley.

Long before any of that, I got to know Bally in the various audition waiting rooms of London back when we were both starting out as actors. We’d be up for the same roles and inevitably, after a while, we got talking. As I sit down to interview Bally, we reminisce about one memorable audition for a Welsh comedy musical set in a curry house. We were asked to play a Bangladeshi man with a hybrid Welsh accent who was ‘a bit street’ and could sing. The only problem was, neither of us is Bangladeshi, Welsh or particularly good singers…but as actors we’re used to saying yes when opportunities come along. I never found out who landed the role in the end but, alas, it wasn’t either of us.

Fast forward to today and Bally has achieved an enormous amount and worked with some of the greatest actors of our time. Although, personally, I think he’s owed one Welsh comedy musical, so if anyone’s looking…

What route did you take into the industry?

Now, there’s the embarrassing story and then there’s the story I like to tell people, but I’ll give you the embarrassing bit: I wanted to be in the Harry Potter films. I don’t mean I wanted to be Harry Potter or Ron Weasley, I just wanted to be at the banquet table. I wanted to have the food, I wanted to have the cloak and the wand….I just wanted to be an extra.

So I was about sixteen or seventeen and my dad and I were on our way back from London after seeing a show and I said to my dad on the train, “I want to be an actor.” And he said “What! Are you sure?” I was the shyest person at school. I’d never done any plays, I never put my hand up in class, I never even wanted to be late or the whole class would look at you.

My dad said, “There’s a theatre in Coventry” – we used to go and watch the pantomimes there – “I think you should go and have some classes.” At the time, The Belgrade were offering taster sessions so my dad wrote to them and got me in. From there I met a teacher – Tracey Street, she’s incredible – who got me to think about drama school. I went to Birmingham Theatre School for one year and Rose Bruford after that.

At school, we didn’t have a drama department. I’d never read Shakespeare. People would say, “What’s your favourite Shakespeare” and I only knew the titles. I always felt like I was a little bit behind on everything.

When I was auditioning, Central School of Speech and Drama had their own list of monologues and I went down the list of classical speeches, knowing that I didn’t know any classical texts, and the only one on there I wanted to do was the Romeo speech, “But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?” But I was so petrified to do that speech at that school that I did two years where I paid for the auditions and cancelled both times. I was so scared of that speech.

Many years later, I ended up having to do it for the RSC. I had to do that speech every single night and I still had the same fear but it ended up being one of my strongest moments in the whole play. It’s weird how life works out.

I saw you in Romeo and Juliet in 2018 and when I recall your performance it’s that speech that I think of. It was a brilliant and refreshing version, it’s really stuck with me.

Bally Gill - Romeo and Juliet (RSC 2018)

What was it like starring in Allelujah?

It’s a bit bonkers because I remember doing the self-tape, it was three scenes, and all I knew was that it was Alan Bennett and Richard Eyre, and the character was from India. I had about four days and I filmed it every single day. I ended up picking the tape from day three; by then it was in my body.

Richard rang me and said “We want to offer you the part. Do you know who else is in it?” – I didn’t have a clue – “Well, we’re thinking we’re going to have Judi Dench for this character, we’re thinking about Jennifer Saunders for this character, Derek Jacobi for this character…” All I could hear was white noise after Judi Dench. I got quite nervous about it after that.

What I loved most about Richard was that he trusted me. He trusted this guy who had never done a feature film, who had done mostly theatre and a few bits of TV, and he didn’t treat me any differently to the more experienced actors.

Every day on set was amazing. We were staying in East London and driving to Woolwich to film in a hospital. Sometimes it could be an early call – 4am or 5am for makeup and hair and then we’d spend a couple of hours on each scene. In terms of the camera, the shots weren’t extremely difficult; we wanted it to be on the ground, earthy, gritty storytelling.

It was a very relaxed, chilled-out shoot with not a lot of stress. I would have done that gig for the rest of my life with those people, to be fair.

You have these amazing two-handers with these incredible actors – on average, how many takes would you get per shot?

You know what, not a lot. I would say we probably got about two on average. The other actors, they didn’t need them. I’m looking at them thinking, “They got it in one!” But then Richard would say “Do you want another one?” I’d always want to say yes. At the same time, I know I’d be nitpicking my own performance. “Oh, maybe I could have done it better here. Maybe I could do this.”

There’s one shot at the end of the movie which I only ever got to do once, that was petrifying. But from general feedback it came out alright, it hit the mark, so I was happy with it.

I suppose we didn’t need too many takes because we had so much rehearsal. When you have so much rehearsal and you’ve spoken through it all and gone through the scenes, all you need to do essentially is put the camera there and play it, and for Richard to fine-tune certain things.

Some of the outdoor scenes ended up taking a little more time because there are other components that you can’t really factor in. People are walking in the back who aren’t part of the production and they’re looking over with their dog and you’re like, “Carry on, carry on. You can be in it, but don’t look at the camera!”

But yeah, it was a dream, honestly. It was such a dream. I felt very fortunate.

How did your pre-production experience for Allelujah compare to other TV jobs that you’ve had in the past?

I did a piece on the BBC, ‘Sherwood’, with Adeel Akhtar – I’m a massive fan of his work. That was one of the biggest jobs that I had done for TV with a throughline and a recurring character. We had loads of rehearsal for that one too.

But sometimes when you’re a day player, it can very much feel like ‘say the lines, go home’. I don’t like that. It’s one of the hardest things to do because the production is going at a lick, they’re shooting out of sequence, and you’ll have to come in and relay information. You’re not a part of the conversation. I hate it because, much like you, coming through drama school we’ve done a lot of theatre and it’s collaborative. We’re part of the process, we’re part of the creative team. We talk about it so I can understand what I’m saying, why I’m saying it, who I’m saying it to. Some directors want to have that, some actors want to have that, but I know I need that. When it’s series one and you don’t really know what the world is, you don’t know what the style is, it’s tough.

Sometimes you don’t even get the script, you just get your bit and you don’t know the relevance of the lines you’re delivering. I was on a shoot where they didn’t send me all the scripts and I was trying to fill in the blanks through hair and makeup. They helped me to piece it all together! Also, there’s a lot of pressure; you don’t want to hold up the production, you want to have your lines on point, you want to create a character. Some actors are very good at it and they just make bold choices and they go for it. I do struggle.

We did a project recently in Toronto and I didn’t have a lot of time. I’d been given the part on Saturday and come Tuesday I was flying out. It was this love story where I’m supposed to be in love with this character and I’m thinking, “This is not enough time!” I didn’t even audition for the part, I auditioned for something else.

Your brain is going “I’m going to have to make some leaps and connections here”. I think they gave me the name of the other actor so I DM’d her saying “We’ll be working with each other, do you want to have a conversation? Do you want to run the scenes?”

Sometimes the other actor doesn’t want to do it and that’s cool as well. Each person has their process. But I always find that I end up being good friends with the people afterward; you end up connecting with them. I think that has to bleed into the work. The fact that we’re good friends or that we have an understanding with each other enhances the relationship on screen.

What are your most important steps when preparing for a role? Give us an insight into your process.

It’s always different, it depends on the role. In Allelujah, for instance, I played a doctor, a geriatrician. I spoke to a bunch of people, got loads of contacts through my sister who used to work in the NHS and I would contact them and just talk about their average day-to-day. YouTube was quite big for me for that particular role too.

To get the vibe of things, sometimes I work with what the character would wear. For Allelujah – I haven’t told anyone this! – I ended up buying a stethoscope to wear around my neck. I had an inkling that’s what they were going to do with the character from artwork I’d seen and from the stage version. So I had that around my shoulders and asked myself, “Now, what does that mean? How does that feel? What does it represent?” It’s nothing to do with aesthetics it’s just pure feeling, and it’s only for myself, nobody else.

Besides that, you’re excavating the script and trying to find you. You do the whole Stanislavski thing, “What’s my objective? What’s my obstacle? What am I trying to do?” For each character: “What do they say about me? What do I say about them?”

I do a lot of recording the lines and playing them back; I use the app Line Learner. I’ve also started to film myself a little bit more. At drama school, we practically did three years of straight theatre and my performance style is naturally quite theatrical so I really had to learn how to do TV and film. Self-taping and filming myself have helped in making the transition. I might set up a close-up or it could be a long shot and I walk into the scene. I like to look at physicality – ‘How do I walk? What’s happening with my shoulders?’ It could be the smallest detail, the camera picks all of that up. And that’s not to say that I’m pre-making choices, I’m just seeing what the possibilities are. It’s a good starting point, it raises your awareness and helps you to see how you come across on film and how you sound, especially if there’s accent work. You have to record yourself to hear if you’re getting it right. Finally, it reminds you that there is a camera. It’s good to know where the camera is and how you can work with it and work within the frame.

I love experimentation. It doesn’t have to be right. The performance will never be perfect. You always strive for it but it will never be perfect. Give in to that. Being a perfectionist, I used to struggle with that a lot but it’s just about having fun and exploring.

Bally Gill & David Morrissey - Sherwood (BBC)

Over the course of your career, do you feel like you have faced challenges that you attribute in any way to being South Asian?

Ah, Kieran, we could talk about this for hours. The short answer is yes, but there’s also probably a counterargument that a lot of the opportunities that I’ve had might have been because I was South Asian. When it’s working out for you it’s amazing! But when it’s not working for you, in those dark moments when it’s quiet and it’s been quiet for a while, it can be tricky.

Since Romeo and Juliet in 2018, I’ve only done one other play. I had a massive gap where it felt like the theatre industry didn’t really know what to do with me. I’d done Romeo and Juliet and I’d just won the Ian Charleson award for Best Actor and after that, I didn’t work. Later on in that year I did a play for Indhu Rubasingham at the Kiln but I haven’t worked in theatre since.

We had lockdown during the pandemic of course so no theatre. I went off and did some TV and filmed Allelujah in 2021 and then literally for the next year I didn’t work, again.

I’m wondering, “Is it the projects, is it the parts, is it me? Is it the industry not quite knowing what to do?” To be honest with you, there’s not a lot in terms of auditions and parts to keep you on that upwards trajectory. There’s just not enough. I’ve found this industry so tough.

In Coventry, I came from a very South Asian area. I didn’t really think about race too much. I didn’t really think about being Indian because everyone around me was Indian and we never talked about it. We didn’t talk about being Punjabi, we didn’t talk about race. Actually, when I got into this industry I had to find the vocabulary to be able to describe my experience. The industry obviously sees you a certain way, “You have this skin colour, we don’t care if you come from this background, you just look like this and you could potentially sound like that”. I know you probably know what I’m talking about!

Absolutely! I remember one audition many years ago where they came out and said, ‘Oh, are you going in as Asian or Mediterranean?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know! Is one more likely to get the job?’ You do feel like the industry doesn’t know what to do with you.

I find it quite challenging if I’m being honest. At the same time, I can’t criticise it too much because some of the things that I’ve achieved could have been from positive discrimination. It’s hard to equate what components got me to the position that I’m in.

I love being a Punjabi Sikh South Asian man, I completely love it. But sometimes it feels as if there’s no career trajectory. I’ve come through theatre, I’ve come through Shakespeare, and I don’t know many South Asian people that have made their career through doing Shakespeare. It can feel like an unwalked path. You see successful Asian actors and you wonder, “Okay, so what’s the route?” For me, it was the first Indian Romeo that they’ve had in this country. “Okay, that’s quite a landmark, now what’s the trajectory? What are the parts for me now?” And you realise in theatre, there’s not a lot. I look around at all of the major buildings doing Shakespeare and the majority of main characters are white so I really thank my lucky stars that I got to play a lead role at the RSC. I haven’t auditioned for a lead in Shakespeare since.

In TV and film, casting roles for South Asian actors can feel like a tick-box exercise. It’s usually characters that don’t affect the story. It’s usually a character that’s on the side who doesn’t particularly have any relevance to the main narrative. That’s when it feels disingenuous from the producers, from the director or whoever is making the decisions.

And I’ve been a part of them, I’ve done them and, don’t get me wrong, I might have to do them again in the future.

You want a story that’s universal. You want a story where we can be superheroes. It doesn’t have to be that we’re fighting for being South Asian. A lot of the experiences that we have in life are not because we’re South Asian. We can be in a story and not talk about the political issues of being a certain race. I think sometimes the stories that we are being given, the stories that we’re told by the gatekeepers that we can tell, have to talk about being brown. They have to talk about how tough it is to be brown, fighting adversity, strict parents… The producers only give us money if we’re talking about that type of brown person. I get it because there are those stories out there, there are those people, but there are other stories too. There are more experiences that we need to showcase as well. I think it just needs to be a bit more spoken about.

What are you up to now?

Recently I’ve been pulled towards filmmaking and writing. I want to write something that is a little bit more complex than the stuff we audition for. There’s a lack of stories about South Asian people in the West Midlands. My experience with my parents, the way that I was brought up, my own reference points, I don’t see a lot of that. I don’t see the complexity. I don’t know where the story is, but I know that there’s something diverse and developed that is not stereotypical that can be explored.

I want to do something in Coventry and I’d love to do a bit of what Martin Scorsese was doing when he first started out. He put people from the community into his films. I’d like to do something in that vein that uses the people of the area to tell their story. A story not riddled with stereotypes, it’s just, “We exist. This is what happens.” We don’t have to slam the message over your head and say “This is it. This is the experience” because it just is.

I think that’s where the true storytelling is told, from those communities.

Finally, what do you prefer, stage or screen?

This is a tough question. I feel like I prefer stage. I miss the togetherness of it. The collaboration. It’s like you’re part of that family, isn’t it? I miss it, to be honest. I’d love to do some theatre now.

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