At first glance, ITVX’s new sitcom Count Abdullaseems like a near-impossible commission, following the tale of a British-Pakastani Muslim junior doctor who is bitten by a halal-hunting vampire (yes, really). But it’s exactly this unlikelihood that the show aims to contradict, revolutionising Brown representation in the fantastical worlds that the horror genre inhabits.
“Just thinking about that genuinely makes me a bit emotional because I didn’t have that representation growing up and if I had, I think the choices that I wanted to make in my life and career would have come so much easier,” says the sitcom’s lead star, Arian Nik. “It would have opened up conversations and encouragement, and shown a clear pathway of how other Brown boys, girls and non-binary babies can forge their own path to tell their own stories.”
Written by Kaamil Shahand directed by Pakistani filmmaker Asim Abbasi, the six-part series deftly wrestles horror tropes and Muslim stereotypes with the skill and wit that could only come from a creative community that has experienced the effects of this first-hand. While jokes that blatantly address cultural appropriation and Islamophobia could easily feel cringe-worthy or invoke eye-roll responses for brazen woke-ness, the show’s keen self-awareness and sharp writing underpins the comedy, resulting in a surprisingly authentic portrayal of the difficulties many British-Asian young people face while navigating where and how they belong across cultures.
Arian delivers a stand-out performance as the show’s titular character, rooting Abdulla in his own lived experiences while utilising the series’ premise to play into its absurd comedy. The Leeds-born, London-based actor has previously graced our screens in The Bay, Killing Eve and Ackley Bridge and on stage in Kabul Goes Pop, but Count Adbulla marks the actor’s first foray into a leading comedy role, and he shines as the unlikely hero among a sparkling supporting cast including British TV stalwarts Jaime Winstone and Nina Wadia.
Below, the actor shares his first reaction to reading the script, his own love for horror movies and the impact he hopes Count Abdulla will have on casting Brown actors.
Firstly, congrats on the show, we’ve been loving it so far. Can you tell us a bit more about the premise?
Count Abdulla is a comedy-horror sitcom that follows Abdulla Khan, a British Muslim doctor who’s completely obsessed with horror films – he lives and breathes comics, films, TV shows, all of it. He lives at home with his mum and feels the pressure of keeping her happy and proud of him, and also keeping all the aunties and uncles in the Muslim community happy. He’s trying to balance all of those expectations the community has of him, but at the same time, he’s trying to keep his mates happy by going out partying, drinking and keeping up with the girl he fancies… he’s just trying to balance these two worlds. And then he’s bitten.
And does it happen so suddenly?
I feel like when you meet Abdulla, he’s at a crossroads and he needs something to push him – although, he probably could have just gone to therapy. But in this case, he meets Jaime Winstone who plays the halal-hunting vampire, Kathy… and she bites him. He then starts to explore what it means to be a vampire with Brown skin and Muslim heritage, and the nuance of all of that. It’s a comedy, but there’s more to it, and vampirism is merely a metaphor.
I feel like when you meet Abdulla, he’s at a crossroads and he needs something to push him – although, he probably could have just gone to therapy. But in this case, he meets Jaime Winstone who plays the halal-hunting vampire, Kathy… and she bites him.
When were you first introduced to the role, what was the process like of getting it? What were your first reactions to reading the script?
Initially, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. The comedy jumped off of the page, and the political underpinning Kaamil brought to the world of the show really elevated it from your normal sitcom. I grew up in a Muslim family, I was sent to a Church of England school and we practised Zoroastrianism at home, so I was exposed to many different religions growing up and so I really identified with Abdulla’s struggle of straddling so many people’s expectations. I sent the tape off and initially didn’t expect to hear much back, but I really wanted the role. I was on tour at the time and travelled back for my call-back, which I thought went terribly! But a few weeks later I was offered the role and chemistry read with Jaime.
You’ve steadily built a really impressive roster of roles on stage and screen throughout your career so far – what was it like stepping into the sitcom world?
Stepping into a lead role was nerve-wracking, plus I knew every other actor in my casting bracket – whatever that means – really wanted it, so I definitely felt the pressure. The sitcom element added even more pressure for me because what I saw in the script was a young man who is sacrificing his own happiness to meet the expectations of everyone around him. I was thinking, how do I make that funny?
I reframed the way I approached the role to see Abdulla as a bit of a Brutus, in that Abdulla isn’t in control of everything that happens to him, and it’s that circumstantial ridiculousness that brings the humour. I prioritised portraying Abdulla’s truth and trusted the script, the supporting cast and the visual language our production designer, director and DOP were developing to bring it all together. They were all incredible to work with.
What I saw in the script was a young man who is sacrificing his own happiness to meet the expectations of everyone around him. I was thinking, how do I make that funny?
It’s a comedy-horror genre – how are you with horror movies?
My partner loves horror movies, and we’ve been together for nine years now so our TV diet is horror-heavy. Growing up, my cousins and I used to rent DVDs from a guy that would come to the house with plastic wallets full of discs and we would always get the worst ones, The Hills of Eyes or SAW… I was fine watching them then but I struggle more with them now.
But I’ve always enjoyed the genre, so this role felt like the perfect excuse to go back to a lot of our camp favourites, like Final Destination and Buffy. I’m also a big fan of Midnight Mass, it’s the darkest TV show I’ve seen in a long time and it references folklore in a similar way to our show. However, I would say that my taste in horror is a bit different to Abdulla’s taste – I’m quite calm, I’ll watch Sigourney Weaver killing an alien, while Abdulla loves the old Hollywood greats like Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee.
The show has a really excellent cast – can you tell us more about working together on this project and how it felt being a part of a majority-PoC cast?
We had four white British cast members and the rest were from the global majority, and that was probably the most surreal experience because you don’t realise how much you typically have to compromise. There was this shared language and understanding, and it’s not just about being seen or acknowledged, but it’s all the little nuances that you wouldn’t realise unless you had the opportunity to be immersed in it.
We did feel pressure because we knew how rare it was for broadcasters to commission a Brown-led production, so everyone on the show worked so hard to create the best version of that story and that character, and it was so special to work on. Not to mention, everyone who worked on this is so talented, and it was just really, really nice to meet and connect with actors that usually you’re ‘competing’ against.
The show’s premise is of course fictional, but I’m curious to know more about what ways the character’s journey and experiences are more true to life?
It’s so important – in fact, more important than the fantasy narrative was rooting Abdulla’s heritage, culture, religion, and the community that comes with that. We needed to root it in truth so that when audiences watch it, they can see themselves and let go of any disbelief. Then when he gets bitten, it’s a real ‘wow’ moment because we know what it’s like to be Abdulla, so then what would it be like to be a vampire? The vampirism was really a metaphor for being othered, sure he’s got fangs and he has a lust for blood (not halal) and can’t go out in the sunlight but it’s really about how society can make young Muslims feel like outsiders.
I felt like there was so much I could connect with in the character and I could tap into, especially the feeling of being ‘othered’ as we’ve all been made to feel like an outsider at some point.
That’s funny, I never imagined the impact of his religion on his vampirism…
We focused so much more on rooting the truth of his circumstances so that when that’s on lock, the rest of it can happen seamlessly and organically because it comes from the truth of the situation that we’ve built.
Our director Asim had never worked on a comedy before It’s his first project here in the UK and honestly, he’s just so talented, creative and passionate.. We spoke so much about Abdulla’s life, his circumstances, how much of me I could bring to Abdulla, and how much of Abdulla we had to infuse in me. I felt very lucky to have been able to collaborate with him.
How much did your own experiences play a part in your approach to the character?
Sometimes it feels like you become a character, and other times it’s like the character comes to you. With Abdulla, he came to me in that we were both brought up by single mothers so I really understood that level of commitment and love and respect that Abdulla has for his mother Bushra, but also that fear of disappointment, because if you disappoint them then by proxy you embarrass them in front of the community. I felt like there was so much I could connect with in the character and I could tap into, especially the feeling of being ‘othered’ as we’ve all been made to feel like an outsider at some point.
Asim said this amazing thing that made me really believe in Abdulla’s story. He said, “Vampires don’t see their reflections in mirrors, and as Brown people it’s so rare that we can actually see ourselves and our communities on screens on stages or in books.” And I knew, that’s exactly the reason why this story has to be told.
In portraying a vampire in the series, you’re also joining an impressive roster of actors, including Alexander Skarsgård, Ethan Hawke, Jamie Campbell Bower, Gerard Butler, and Robert Pattinson, to name a few! As the list suggests, vampire roles have long been held only for white actors. How is Count Abdulla challenging casting stereotypes on screen?
I think it’s going to completely shake up the way we understand vampire folklore, period. I think so many of those actors have been part of stories where the vampire and the vampirism is rooted in Christianity – so much of it is about holy water and about the Bible, crucifixes and churches. This idea that Kaamill has created completely disrupts that, it throws all of it out the window.
I think it will be the bridge for us to hopefully rethink the way that we cast [fantasy] worlds and how we tell those stories because so much of our culture, so much of Islam, of Pakistani culture, of Iranian culture, so much of it is rooted in mythicism and folklore, but we so often don’t get the chance to tell those stories. I hope our show will spark an opportunity for those other stories to get commissioned, and for us to see more representation in fantastical worlds.
So much of our culture, so much of Islam, of Pakistani culture, of Iranian culture, so much of it is rooted in mythicism and folklore, but we so often don’t get the chance to tell those stories. I hope our show will spark an opportunity for those other stories to get commissioned, and for us to see more representation in fantastical worlds.
I know that activism and increased representation is very important to you – how do you hope that this show will challenge representations of Muslim and Pakistani characters in British TV?
We stand on the shoulders of trail-blazing storytellers who have worked tirelessly for diaspora stories and stories from South Asia and the Middle East to be told. Without their bravery, we wouldn’t be able to tell the story of Count Abdulla I’m honoured to be a part of a show that’s occupying a space that has never been occupied before. I know it will inspire many others to do the same.
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