5 minutes with: Tony Jayawardena – 'The West End is a difficult arena to succeed in'

We spent five minutes with the ”Bend It Like Beckham” actor to chat about moving on from a large musical, working with Indhu at the Tricycle and Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play, ”The Invisible Hand”

Tony Jayawardena as Imam Saleem in The Invisible Hand
Tony Jayawardena as Imam Saleem in The Invisible Hand
© Mark Douet

Acting wasn't ever a part of my world. I only became aware of the possibility of a career in it at the age of 16. Even though acting lit a spark for me, my focus was on a much more educational future. At A Levels, one of my friends said he was going to do a drama degree and I stopped for a moment, shocked, and went, 'Hang on, you can do drama for a degree?' From there, that's when I really thought, if this is a possibility, if I can do this then this is something I really want to explore.

Bend It Like Beckham was a story very similar to my own. Having a child that was doing something that was not what that the family was used to, it really struck a chord with me. My family didn't know anyone in the entertainment industry and I was asking to do this thing, act, when they had no point of reference. So playing Mr Bhamra [the dad] was really important to me. And it was lovely to publicly – in this big wonderful West End musical way – get to tell anyone that they can go and live their dreams and be glorious. To be on a West End stage as a lead in a musical was pretty special.

The West End is a difficult arena to succeed in at the moment. [When Bend It closed] it was a shame because I loved it so much but at the same time, I completely understand it. There are so many different factors which contribute to a shows longevity and I'm proud of the cast and the company that I worked with because I know we worked our socks off and we did the best that we could. But sometimes that's just the way that it goes and even though it's sad that it finished, I got a full year's worth of memories from a cracking show. It doesn't mean that that show's life has ended at all, who knows what may happen to it in the future.

The Invisible Hand is set in Pakistan and revolves around the kidnapping of an American banker. I play the head of the group who kidnap the banker and hold him for ransom. As it turns out, it's the wrong banker – we wanted his boss – so we can't actually get the ransom amount. The banker comes up with an idea that whilst we might not be able to get the money in ransom, he might be able to make it for us using his skills and his understanding of the market conditions in Pakistan. So he sells us on this idea and the story continues along those lines. It's quite intense because it's quite a wordy play, there are deep themes going through it so it's tricky to get the balance just right.

Good writing is the best thing to speak in the world, it just flows off the tongue. When I first read the script I got really excited, Ayad Akhtar [the writer] is fantastic. We've been lucky enough to have him in the room with us for the whole rehearsal process. He's just incredibly intelligent and also incredibly passionate. This is not the premiere of The Invisible Hand, it's had a couple of productions in the States and yet here's a writer who is more than willing to change things, to listen to ideas, to make it better because he just wants to tell the best story possible. That I find incredible and very inspiring.

The Tricycle Theatre has been on my wishlist since Indhu [Rubasingham] took over because she's been doing some incredible work. It's been fantastic, a wonderful rehearsal room and such a contrast obviously to Bend It, such a different type of production. I find myself becoming a better actor and a better human being when I do varied work so getting into this kind of a play after having done a big musical for a year was perfect for me. The experience hasn't let me down one little bit.

The Invisible Hand runs at the Tricycle Theatre until 2 July.