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I TALK TO Youssef Kerkour

"They're two people that are so wrapped up in their own shit, they don't notice what's right in front of them. Incapable of being honest both with themselves and the world around them."

Youssef Kerkour first came to my attention in 2019, playing Syrian immigrant Sami in Channel 4 comedy Home, who hid in a British family's car in Calais before moving in with them and adapting to British life. Since then he has starred in some of the biggest shows on television including Dracula, Gavin & Stacey, Sex Education and Stay Close.

This week he's teaming up with Katherine Parkinson, who made a name for herself in Doc Martin and The IT Crows, in ITVX's new comedy-drama Significant Other, playing Sam and Anna, two lonely neighbours who have each hit rock bottom and are brought together in the most unexpected ways.

Having swallowed a cabinet full of pills, we first meet Sam as he waits to die, until he's interrupted by neighbour Anna who is having a heart attack and needs to wait with him until help arrives.

Both lonely neighbours have lost all faith in love, and across the series embark on a hilarious, obstacle-filled relationship. Along the way, they discover that even when life seems to have passed them by, there are still surprises to be had.

I recently caught up with Youssef Kerkour to discuss the way in which he picks his roles, why he believes a scene was cut from the final episode, why Home didn't open as many doors as you might have thought and so much more.

What was it about Significant Other that drew you to it?

I've found it very hard actually to talk about the show when you try and market it and sell it to people because anything that is close to life can be one of the most rewarding viewing experiences because you literally feel like you're just being picked up and taken away. You just exist in this little world for a little while. So when the episode finishes, you just have to see the next one because it's like, no, no, no, I want to carry on.

For me, that is all I want from my television. That's literally it. You've probably heard me say this before, but I'm going to say it again because it's important. For me, looking back, I'm one of those struggling actors and I've struggled big time. I've done every job under the sun and I know what it's like to come home at night, tired after a long day.

You have your dinner and you've then got this little golden window of time where it's like, now I can just sit down in front of the telly and watch something. But there's a clock ticking. As soon as you do that. It's finite, because you need to go to bed, in order to get up again the next morning and do it all over again.

Bills are expensive. Life is fucking hard and it's getting harder. So I know what it's like to sit down there, pick up the remote and choose something. And if you choose my show out of the plethora of stuff that's out there, for me, that is sacred. So it's like, what do I want when I sit down and do that? I cannot waste 15 minutes trying to find something to watch.

I want people to know that it's going to be it's going to have every flavour in every bite. It's going to get a bit of suspense. You laugh at it, you cry at the truth of it.

And is that what's going through your mind when picking which roles to play?

101%. I talk to a lot of young actors and people who are starting out and I always say, "Who's your boss?" "Who do you think your boss is in this?" because right now you think it's your career and your future and eventually you're going to start to think it's it's that producer or that creative that you've just latched on to going, wow, I've got a connection with them. Now we're flying. I've got my Scorsese or I've got my De Niro. But that's not who your boss is.

Your boss is that is that schmuck sitting at home on the couch who probably reads different newspapers than you do. But your job is to entertain them. Now what do you do now? How do you do that? Because we're all different.

That is a worthy way of thinking about it and I think about it all the time. So the beauty of it is, you can take any script and turn it into a great one. If there's the will, if there's the communal will to make something for the viewer that is special, then you can make anything great.

Great projects. Great roles. But you're like, this is never going to happen. I've heard about this director, I know about this production company. It's never going to happen.

So that's a long roundabout way of saying talking about this production has been very hard because it's just a real slice of life.

I can tell you about little things you're going to see, but that not what's going to sell the show. What's going to sell the show is that you're going to sit and be transported. And the creators of this one are pretty spectacular.

Speaking of which, some of the team behind Significant Other you've worked with before, haven't you?

Yeah, that's right. Absolutely. I wanted to work with Nicola (Shindler) again after Stay Close. I had wanted to work with her before Stay Close when my friend Nick Murphy who would direct for her, used to just talk about it all the time, even just randomly. So I thought, OK I want to watch this.

The idea of working with Katherine was just wonderful. I'd seen her in The Honorable Woman and she plays against that comedy Katherine Parkinson that we see.

that going, "Oh my God, that woman can act." and then I see her in the theatre and I'm like, "Yeah, this woman's amazing. She's incredible. And she's clearly in this comedy thing. So I wanted to work with her.

And then David (Sant) and I just have a shorthand which we perfected in season two of Home and my God, I can't tell you the experience on this set, that little trio, that Katherine, David and I trio that we did, beautiful man. It was beautiful.

We would talk about the scene and the shot would be constructed, the shot itself would come to life as we were talking about it. So as a result, you have all these moments of heightened tension, any time the emotion gets highly charged, all of a sudden the frame just goes like that and you see this beautiful tableau where the city comes in and it's gorgeous, you know, because they thought about what it would look like.

The first moment they actually embrace and hug, for example, they then punch back to that beautiful alleyway in the building and the light. It's bringing the city in to make it a character.

You really feel that as a viewer. The city - as clichéd as it may sound - really does feel like. a third main character.

No, no. It's good. It's not clichéd at all. That's part of the synopsis, that the city is the third character, because it's two lonely people in a city who are wrapped up in their own problems, but they're also in a big city, so they don't notice the person living next door.

You're just anonymous. It is a bit of a treaty of loneliness as well. The city, filming in Manchester is exactly what you'd think. It's wonderful I've played The Royal Exchange five times, I think, so I know Manchester quite well and it is just one of the most exciting cities. It's changed a lot over the last 10/15 years.

I wish I'd bought a flat there 20 years ago. It's now as expensive as London, really. But it's stunning, it's a stunning place. It's got so much character. And also the people that just make it just wonderful. If you're fortunate enough to go to Manchester, you should.

This is a very different will-they-won't-they story, isn't it? When I interviewed Katherine Parkinson, she told me that she wasn't sure if they are meant to be together. What are your thoughts?

The same. There's a scene that's been cut towards the end and this is a slight spoiler.

There's a pancake motif that kind of comes into play a little bit in the show where we're making pancakes and eating pancakes, and this represents something warm and lovely, which of course it does, as my 24 stone will attest, and there's a moment where towards the end, just as the climax is about to happen, where we're reaching the apex of the will-they-won't-they?

Just as there's a little bit of growth in both of our characters, I spot the maple syrup in the fridge and she opens a cupboard and sees a bottle of maple syrup. In the script is, each of us in turn looks at the maple syrup and smiles, in our own kitchens.

Katherine and I both, instinctively - and that's probably why they cut it - didn't want to make it an "Aw" kind of scene. We shot this on separate days and the director was trying to get us to do what was in the script, which is they see the maple syrup bottle and they smile.

She and I both looked at it and both played that subtle ambiguity of looking at the bottle and kind of softening inside. But maybe we're not. Maybe we are. Maybe we're not. And that came to represent, for me, how we were both playing it. Constantly thinking that we never want to go too far in one direction, because maybe they're not actually right for each other. How do you sell a show like that?!

Who is your character Sam, then? How would you best describe him?

He's left his wife and two kids. He's left them because he wants something better. He keeps talking about how he was choking. It's a self-centred, self-involved, selfish decision that he makes. Some might call that a mid-life midlife crisis, but really, it's somebody that never knew how good he had it.

Kéllé Bryan, who plays his ex-wife Shelley, is everything you'd want in a wife. His children are beautiful and wonderful. He's got a lovely, wonderful home. But he can't see that because he's up his own ass.

There are many people like that. I'm sure I was like that at one point in my youth. I've tried very hard over the last, you know... years to not be like that. So I wanted to play somebody who chose to go back in time and recapture his lost youth.

I asked the costume department for a lot of like, Nirvana T-shirts, grunge things, things that he thinks are cool because that's what was cool when he was younger. But I wanted to play somebody that didn't have the strength of character to stop at the 20/21 fun years. So he carries on, regressing on his own to adolescence.

So he's basically a 13 or 14-year-old, reacting to what's going through puberty. He's angry. He doesn't know what the hell is going on and he hates it because he's going to nightclubs and none of the girls are talking to him. No one's interested. He realises that he's not the party animal that he thought he was.

He actually had something great. Now that he tries to backtrack, the doors to his house are locked metaphorically and literally.

There's an incredible scene around the dining table, which I won't spoil. What was that scene like to film?

Very easy to do because of the kids. The actors playing the two children were so emotionally available. They would look at me and they acted like... and it's hard to go there, but you know what it's like when your parents have a blazing row and you just shrink. And they acted like they had been in that shrinking place for like, five years. This was just another crazy ass row and I couldn't believe it.

I was like, these actors are incredible. Oh, my God. The maturity. They were so emotionally advanced. I just took one look at them and it broke my heart. This meant when we reset and I had to come in with all that energy, that was very easy because it's a wonderful counterpoint to that. It's actually very easy when you've got talent like that to work with.

Love stories on television tend to focus on younger characters, Anna and Sam are both said to be in their mid-40s. Was that also refreshing to play?

I think it's very important for people to see themselves in any stor and this is a good example of the type of love story that we've not really seen before. I take my shirs off and I'm all jelly rolls down there, you know what I mean? Nine out of ten actors that I know that have to do a scene like that, would prepare for it in a very different way. You know what I mean? It would be three months of training.

I see it all the time. I'm around it all the time. And I thought, no, let's show something else. Let's show a very hairy back. Let's show a big belly. In our show, there's a functionality to sex and to kissing and everything.

It's people who've done it many times, so it's about the functionality of it, the practicalities of it, which is very boring and unsexy. But there is beauty to functionality and it's when it all comes together, you think about it and go "that's actually a really beautiful moment." 100% true to life.

There are a few scenes I wanted to talk to you about. First of all, the scene where Sam is reading his sorry letter out to Shelley, in which he just keeps repeating the word "Sorry" over and over again. I can't imagine that was quick to film and without corpsing.

That took a good half a day. It was very funny and also Nicola Shindler, to her credit or detriment, said the more sorry's the better. So there were some takes where it just went on and on. Kéllé was corpsing a lot. I was corpsing a lot and had to take a breath half the time.

There are a lot of sorry's where it sounds like Sam's coming to an end but it just carries on.

Also, the scene where you climb out of the window. How much of that was you? How much was a stunt double?

So everything was me apart from the long shot. The reason being, there is a ledge there, which is what I was standing on, but because I'm such a big fat bastard, my foot was only half on the ledge. And I'm wearing Crocs! And then it started raining!

So there was a scaffolding built, which they then covered in green screen. Tha was a first-floor ledge, that was a first-floor window and the fall was about one-and-a-half metres onto a crashmat. I've done stunts before, so I felt confident and stuff, but then I thought you're going to take the scaffolding away now and shoot me on the wide and there's a stunt man that needs work, so...

Then the moment Sam's just had sex with Anna and he immediately gets up and starts hoovering...

That's his way of running away from what happened. They're two people that are so wrapped up in their own shit, they don't notice what's right in front of them. Incapable of being honest both with themselves and the world around them.

First of all, it's wonderful to watch. But there is a theme recurring with these characters who can't face and can't be honest with the world or with themselves. So that moment before the hoovering is a moment of genuine honesty and truth between the two of them. And it comes in and then it's over in a flash.

So now it's like, "Oh shit, I've just been very vulnerable with you. I need to run away. How do I run away? I'm just going to. Just going to go and get the hoover." And that's typical of the comedy of the show as well.

What were some of your favourite scenes to film throughout the series?

Oh, there are so many. We were looking forward to that scene a lot because we knew how awkward and funny it would be. Anything awkward and difficult we were looking forward to. I absolutely loved eating, making or eating pancakes with Katherine. I mean, who wouldn't? I got paid to do that.

I just think any scene where we don't say anything to each other - no talking, just making pancakes and eating them - is so brave. And such a respite from the stuff that's come before. She's just been on a horrible date with Mark Heap, who's a great actor. A lot of fun. And then Shaun, also known as Barry from EastEnders comes in as a perfect third wheel.

So she comes back defeated and I'm defeated as well with my day. And we just make pancakes together and eat them. That was just lovely to do. It's a moment of connection, but again, we did it properly. We were ambiguous about what it was.

In season two of the Israeli show, they have a completely silent episode.

Speaking of which, Katherine mentioned to me that you'd watch the Israeli series that Significant Other is based on before filming, whilst she didn't.

Yeah, that's right. Katherine didn't see it while she was filming. I had watched two or three episodes and I stopped myself because the creators were acting in it and they are so in it. Their performances stick with you, you know. It's very understated. It's very real.

I felt myself getting drawn into it and thinking, this is actually the show, so I had to stop. It took a good two or three months to unsee all that.

Are you hopeful that Anna and Sam's story can continue?

1000%. You have a few of these jobs in your career, where you come away from it and everybody from the grip to the executive producer goes, "That was really really special." We all had such a wonderful time making it. Everybody was so focused on delivering something that people would love. That we were doing right by the audience and not taking the piss. You have that a lot. Shows that take the piss.

We were all experienced enough to know that instinctively we didn't want to do that and that was reflected in our working environment. So with that alone. we all want to do it again.

There's so much more story to tell. The Israelis only did two series. We've already talked all the way to season four. There are loads of ideas. It all depends on whether we have an audience, you know, ITV have a tried and tested but very frustrating principle of waiting at least a month after launch, so who knows?

Without obviously giving anything away, what was your reaction to what happens in that final episode? Because I didn't see it coming.

I didn't see it coming at all. The characters don't see it coming. The audience hopefully don't. It kind of makes sense. It's kind of like, yeah, this is obviously what's going to happen.

It's very hard to talk about it without giving anything away. But I just think it is dramatically wonderful and provides for a lot of roads in season two. Also, we tried to wrap it up into a bit of an awkward bow, the way our characters do, just in case, but there is a lot more story to tell.

When you accepted the role of Sami in Home, could you ever have imagined the way that show would be received and the doors I imagine it opened for you?

I knew Home was special. I was so concerned with doing right by Rufus (Jones), doing right by Adam Tandy and doing right by the audience which would be made up of people of Sami's background. I was so focussed on that when we were filming.

I'd been in the game for almost 20 years by the time I did that and I've always known what kind of actor I was. I'm also a very practical person. I know the roles available to me as a big, large man with a beard and Rufus and Adam taking that chance on me...

It's well-documented that I told Rufus early on, "Listen, they're never going to go for me as a refugee. I'm the guy that traffics the refugees. I'm never the one that them. So they're going to want a replacement and when they do, you need to replace me because this show needs to get made. It's really important." And he just went, "You're my guy" and I'll never forget that.

In many ways, I've always known that if I was given an opportunity like that, I'd get a chance to flex my acting muscles and it could lead to more and better things. Even still, I'm still very practical about it. Believe it or not. It's still a struggle, man. You don't get a role like that and doors just open because you get a BAFTA nomination. At least, they don't for me.

I'm a different type, you know. I'm a different type of character for people on screen. So it's still not an upwards thing. In many ways, it feels like it has always felt. It's still a struggle. It's still a hustle. There's still a lot I have to do that others around me don't have to do. And those are the cards that I've been dealt.

But, there's no doubt about it, I never would have imagined that I could get a lead in a show like this for example. I give it all to, well, to my higher power, of course, but also to Rufus and Adam who were champions on that show. I'll never forget them for that.

That's beautiful. So what's next for you? I notice you're also in Man Like Mobeen which launches the same day as Significant Other.

Same fucking day! Haha. I love that show (Man Like Mobeen) I play Megalodon, who is Mobeen's nemesis.

I was filming in Manchester, got the call and then schedules conflicted so I had to say "Guz, I'm sorry. I'd love to do it. But I can't. The schedule is messed up." because he and I have wanted to work together for years and he went "We're going to make it work. It's you! It's you or no-one."

And my God, we had so much fun doing it. They're so good. The BBC don't give Guz Khan much money to make his show, I'm sorry to say, he's not supported in that way. He's supported with love. But he's not supported by the bigger powers that be. What he manages to make and do on that shoestring budget, is incredible.

Some of the shots in this series! It's a departure. Akaash Meeda, who's the director, is different from the other previous directors. A different DOP. It's a new team and it's a new flavour of Mobeen. It's a bit more serious, because he's in prison. Some of the shots are worthy of the greatest cinema shots out there. Really, really cool, groovy things going on in that show. Lots of fun, man.

Significant Other launches Thursday 8th June on ITVX and you can read my interview with Katherine Parkinson here


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