Edinburgh-born Scottish Iranian actor recalls his journey from Muirhouse to living the dream, all thanks to Les Miserables
'Can you hear the people sing?' A refrain known the world over thanks to Cameron Mackintosh's smash hit musical Les Miserables and one that changed the life of Nicholas Karimi when it convinced him to follow his dream.
The Edinburgh-born Scottish Iranian actor, who stars in David Grieg’s new play Adventures with the Painted People later this month, reveals that it was another Capital working-class success story, Pilton-born West End musical theatre legend Jeff Leyton, that gave him the belief that a boy from Muirhouse could succeed in show business.
"Jeff was one of the catalysts for me becoming an actor," the 37-year-old confirms, recalling the day he first met the man who holds the record for playing Jean Valjean in Les Miserables more times than any other performer.
"I was 11 when Les Mis first came to The Playhouse. Jeff was playing Valjean. My mum and gran who knew him were going to see the show and I wondered, 'What is this thing?' So I went to see it with them and was blown away. I could not believe these people on stage actually got paid to do this. That's how I met him and when I told Father Peter Johnson who ran the local youth club I knew him, he asked if I could contact him as he wanted to arrange a club trip to the show. So a bunch of about 10 of us from Muirhouse went to Les Mis - we got backstage and everything. I ended up seeing it three times during that run. When it came back, I went to see it twice, Jeff wasn't in it long on that occasion, and then I went to see him in London, when he went into the Palace Theatre in the role, by which time I was at drama school."
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Nicholas moved to London to train when he was 18. He’s back in Scotland right now rehearsing in Pitlochry, but as we chat the conversation keeps returning to his early days in Edinburgh growing up the son of an Iranian father and Scottish mother, from Drylaw.
He recalls, "There was a place called MFAC, the Muirhouse Festival Arts Centre, across from the old Muirhouse primary, my school. We used to go there to do stuff like spray-painting but they also had after-school drama classes. That was the only exposure to performance theatre I had before going to see Les Mis. Then in second year, at Craigroyston High, we went to the Lyceum to see Romeo and Juliet but it wasn't until I watched Baz Luhrmann's version at another youth club that I thought, 'That's really what I want to do.'
"At the time I didn't know, but I am dyslexic, and I remember when we did Macbeth in third year we each had to read out a paragraph. I was terrified, the words just didn't make sense to me on the page. Luhrmann's film was the first time I'd seen Shakespeare and understood it."
In fourth year at secondary, Nicholas shared his dream with his English teacher, Margaret Hubbard. "She also ran an amateur theatre group in Falkirk and took me along. In my first show I was an ensemble member in Fiddler on the Roof and then I did a school musical, playing Bill Sikes in Oliver! That was it, I’d got the bug."
Being of mixed heritage didn’t always make life easy for the young Nicholas but he reflects that being of Iranian descent proved both a positive and negative aspect of his childhood.
"My heritage is massively important to me now. It has become more important to me since I've been in London, living in a multicultural society. Growing up in Muirhouse I didn't really feel like I was different until people started pointing it out to me. Teachers who knew my heritage would point out how amazing and culturally diverse it was, but like many kids at that age, ignorance overcomes everything, so at football matches and stuff we'd get taunted. "P*** was always the thing that was thrown at us and I'd get confused by that and ask, 'Why are they calling us Pakistani? We're not Pakistani, we're Iranian.'
That confusion came from their cultural ignorance and need to use of any kind of racial slur to get the rise out of us. It was constant. I suppose part of that came from the assumption being that because Iran was somewhere they hadn't heard of, it must be bad.
"Then the Gulf War happened and, because Iran sounds like Iraq, we got caught up in that too, I remember my dad actually stopped going out as much because people would assume he was Iraqi."
Today, Nicolas says he "sometimes feel very Iranian" while at others, he doesn't.
"Before the pandemic I was rehearsing a play called Welcome to Iran. I had a troubling time with it because there were people in the cast who were full Iranian, half Iranian, whose mother's were Iranian and spoke the language, while a lot of people like me, whose fathers are Iranian, very rarely speak Farsi," he explains, “I had a bit of an identity crisis with that, questioning, 'Am I Iranian?' The other actors were like, ‘You are! What is Iranian? Is it someone who can speak the language, no it's not, it's someone who has been brought up with an element of the culture in them.' That was me."
In Adventures with the Painted People, to be performed in Pitlochry's outdoor amphitheatre, Nicholas plays a Roman. A compelling love story, exploring the value of the lessons of history and the power of writing; Lucius is a cultured Roman official who is captured by the Picts and about to be sacrificed. Eithne is a wise Pictish woman who wants to record her people's history in writing, a skill they do not yet have.
She makes a deal, she will rescue Lucius, in exchange for him teaching her to write. So, they must flee, not by road, the Romans have not built those yet, but down river...
"Lucius is a Jack of none and master of absolutely none," says Nicholas, of his character. "There's not many things he is good at. He feels he is in a place where no one knows he is there and he needs to find himself. He does so in the most unlikely places. He aspires to be a poet but let's just say he has a long way to go to become the poet he wants to be."
It’s the latest in a number of roles that Nicholas considers he is extremely lucky to have landed while much of the entertainment industry is still shutdown due to the pandemic – expect to see him on a screen near you soon.
"I was lucky enough to do a couple of things during both lockdowns,” he says, “a film and a BBC drama based on a book, that's all I'm allowed to say at the moment."
However, he still has one ambition to fulfill he reveals when asked how his singing voice is... "I can sing but it's better in the shower,” he laughs, before admitting he'd love to “have a go at” musical theatre. Following in the footsteps of Jeff Leyton perhaps, " You know what, I don't think I could do a Valjean but maybe a Javert... and Bill Sikes, that's another one I'd like to do."
Now, Jeff Leyton and Nicholas Karimi as Edinburgh's Valjean and Javert, the tickets would fly out the door.
Adventures with the Painted People, Pitlochry Festival Theatre, 10 June-4 July, www.pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com