“There’s so much money on that show, it really shows,” Amit Shah says, his voice rising with enthusiasm. “When I found out about His Dark Materials, I didn’t recognise the name, Dafne Keen. Then I remembered watching Logan on a plane and being mesmerised by the little girl. Dafne’s incredibly professional for the age she is. I mean, she’s only thirteen or fourteen, but she’s so professional with her work.”
Shah worked with Keen on the sprawling His Dark Materials, a spectacular TV series that has set audiences and critics alike. Shah’s currently starring in The Courier, a chest-thumping thriller that’s sure to excite cinema audiences this January. Typical of an action film, it might not excite the critics as much—but that’s by the by. At the very least it’s refreshing to find a Christmas action film that isn’t another Star Wars.
“It’s not Shakespeare,” Shah admits. “It’s pure escapism and it works on the screen. When I first got the script, there was a page at the beginning that said ‘this film is fast!’. That really set the tone and pace for the film, because it is so fast-moving, so much is going on, a lot of action. And I liked the gender reversal idea. The traditional eighties action films show the man coming saving the lady, whereas this time it’s the female doing all the action stuff and I play a damsel type.”
The female in question is the indomitable Olga Kurlyenko who has proven one of cinema’s most exciting finds since breaking out into mainstream consciousness in 2008’s sober Quantum of Solace. She played a Bond girl to Daniel Craig’s earnest Bond, yet The Courier shows an actor more than capable of filling the tux when Craig empties it next year.
“She can definitely play that type of role,” Shah chuckles. “I don’t know if she can go back to Bond, but she’s definitely able for the action stuff. She’s such a good actor. I mean, she can do comedy, she speaks seven languages or something, she looks 25; though she’s much older. She’s got the makings of being a great star. We worked together before, we were both on Johnny English, but most of my scenes were with Emma Thompson and she worked mostly with Rowan Atkinson. We became very good friends during The Courier, most of our scenes were together and I think she’s just fantastic at what she does.”
Shah’s excellent at what he does, too. Portraying the unnerved Nick Murch, burdened with the task of testifying against the pernicious crime boss Ezekiel Mannings (Gary Oldman), Murch finds his life bottoming into graver and graver danger. “I was quite daunted when I first met Gary. The first thing you think is ‘Oscar Winner!’ but he was very friendly, very professional. I knew his son from working on Ordinary Love. That stars Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville, so that was something we could talk about. Very nice man, a really down to earth guy.”
Oldman stamps across the screen, villainous in spectacle, an exacting eye patch peering over the camera’s calculative position. Oldman’s flamboyant, non-clandestine appearance is a sharp, circular opposite to the more subdued decor crime films traditionally opt for. Director Zackary Adler should know, his past métier involves biops about The Krays. “Zackary loves gangster movies, he really enjoys crime stories. The Courier is raw at times, the violence is brutal at points. Very violent in places. The film was a step-up for Zackary, a new challenge and a different challenge. He wanted to rise to the occasion as a director and as a storyteller. Ultimately, Zackary is a storyteller. And a very good one at that.”
Storytelling is key to good acting. Shah’s worked with a number of great storytellers. There’s his co-starring role in Lasse Hallström’s charming The Hundred-Foot Journey, his inspired appearance for Graham Linehan’s Count Arthur Strong, a meaty performance in the underrated Final Score and even a foray into Shakespeare as King Lear’s Oswald. Philip Pullman still remains one of Britain’s finest children’s authors, his greatest trilogy an inspirited investigation into the chimerical and sensual. The latest television adaptation of His Dark Materials captures the polemical permutations much more successfully and masterly than the 2008 film did. “I never saw the feature. I know there was a stage version, but I didn’t catch that one either. But I think you might be right, somethings work better on television than film,” Shah says.
“The twists and turns of these books are hard to capture in two hours. Much easier in an eight-part, ten-part or thirteen-part television series. I was very impressed with how BBC and HBO handled His Dark Materials. I’ve just finished The Witcher, there were talks of that being a feature. I think it works better as a series. I worked with Henry Cavill, who is a lovely man. But I think he only saw me as my real self just once [laughs]. I was in heavy prosthetics during the shoot, under so much of it. I’ll recognise myself, but I’m not sure others will. If I met Henry on the street, he probably wouldn’t know who I am [laughs again]. The Witcher has come out the same day as The Courier, so that’s a heavy binge ahead of me.”
The Witcher, The Courier, His Dark Materials and Ordinary Love. Shah’s worked on each of them, circling dates into what appears to be an even busier calendar. What with one year coming to a close and another soon to begin, are there any projects we should be aware of? “Projects? Well, The Witcher is out. Last Christmas is still in cinemas. It stars Emilia Clarke. I’ve kept in touch with Emma Thompson, who wrote the script, since Johnny English. Paul Feig directed it. I was recently in a short called The Orgy. It’s not as sordid as it sounds! The director is hoping that could break into a t.v. series, so I’m hoping something could come from that.”
Signature Entertainment presents The Courier in Cinemas and on Digital HD 20 December 2019.