Anglo-Malay actor Jamie Zubairi makes a name for himself on stage and screen
IT was in the notorious part of west London that I first met him; a nasty character from the underbelly of society, making threats and hurling insults at me. But that was Jamie Zubairi the voice-over artist. I was also playing a character from a similarly murky background. We were both in a studio, doing voice work for a movie.
Since that encounter, the Anglo-Malay actor, artist and photographer had played various other roles that had seen him as Inspector Chen in a BBC Radio 4 drama of the same name, as Dr Daniel Zainuddin in the long-running series of EastEnders and just recently as Dr Wyatt in Witness for the Prosecution, a play by Agatha Christie.
It is hard not to miss the fact that the actor of mixed parentage, Malay father and English mother, seemed to be playing the role of doctors a lot lately. The first was in 2010 as gynaecologist Dr Harvey Posner in the TV medical series Holby City and last year, he was also a doctor in the play Parliament Square.
Jamie, or Zooby as he is popularly known, was, after all, born in an army hospital in Aldershot in 1972. Not that it has anything to do with the roles in his acting career. His mother, he said, was a nurse, but from what I gathered from our conversation over curry laksa in Oxford Street recently, there was nothing to suggest that anything from his background had a hand in his landing these roles.
“Our parents, who were then in Malaysia, packed us off to England in the late ’80s to get us acclimatised for further education here. We went to Oakham school in Leicester. I studied Literature and Arts. I was good in art, but I also knew I wanted to be an actor, but I just didn’t know how to go about it,” said Jamie about his dual interests that he would later apply in some of his own works.
The career path, taken by the former student of Victoria Institute, who grew up in Klang, certainly took a lot of detours; one that had probably put him in good stead in preparing him for what was to be his calling in life.
The teenager, whose debut was as a non-speaking crow in a play The Whale in a youth theatre in Oakham, recently received critical acclaim for his performance in a new film, Tides, directed by Tupaq Felber. According to one review, in the film about a group of friends trying to navigate their relationships and middle age after a recent loss: “It is also worth pointing out a hugely understated performance by the brilliant Jamie Zubairi, whose level-headed approach is felt through the film.” Jamie is also the co-writer for this black and white movie.
In his final sixth form year in 1992, he joined the Leicester Youth Theatre and was given the role of Hiawatha, the legendary North American Indian chief, in a production that was taken to St Petersburg. This was the turning point in his life when he knew for sure that he wanted to be an actor.
“By the time I came back from Russia, I wanted to be an actor. I really loved it.
“I applied to do drama at Melton College, which was really quite near my former school. Actually, I could have gone there much earlier,” he laughed.
“I was like the half-Asian boy trying to learn what is a very white man’s world,” said Jamie, who admitted to not being that much aware of his mixed identity.
“I didn’t have much awareness of that. Wide-eye wonderment is usually how I operate and it got me by,” he added.
His enthusiasm and perseverance took him to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA), where he received a full grant to study. His first break was a role in a Christmas pantomime of Hensel and Grethel.
“The pantomime is a very English tradition and I enjoyed working with the Royal Stratford Theatre because there was a community of Asian and Afro-Caribbean and they honoured the different cultures and communities there,” he explained.
But being comfortable in the roles for actors of colour did not initially take him and others very far. British East Asian actors were very much underrepresented.
“When we are being represented, it was usually by the orang putih. How come this is allowed? When I do play a role that is not ethnically specific, with a western name, it could be a character that was maybe a second or third generation British. It was still very much about the looks, especially for roles in movies or television,” he said.
Actors of colour were usually given roles as illegal immigrants, prostitutes, maids and even dogs, in a very much controversial move that forced the changes recently.
After drama school, although Jamie from his looks and voice could pass off as an English person, he was asked to change his name to one that sounded more English which would promote more work. However, that only lasted six months.
“There was a real prejudice against us at that time, in the mid-90s. I changed back my name after graduating because all my work was an ethnic minority. I got to be seen for all the ethnic parts. I have played Russians, Spanish, Portuguese, Indian and Chinese,” he said.
“But that is the whole argument about actors — we play roles, we don’t play ourselves, which is fine until you are representing otherness. Because, as coming from the other, we should be part of our own storytelling. And this is important. This is why in 2012, I wrote a play which had a Malay man in it. He was called Dollah, an accountant living in London. He was made redundant and would have to go back to Malaysia. But he had very strong pulls to be in London. It was like — where do I belong? Am I Malaysian? Am I British?”
It wasn’t difficult to see that Jamie had written this play called Unbroken Line based loosely on his own identity tugs.
“It was my own exploration of who I am and what I am in the guise of comedy. I am hoping to redevelop it with a lot more cultural references and hopefully open it in Malaysia,” said the actor who slips into Malay and English comfortably.
Dollah will hopefully reincarnate in Malaysia for the Malaysian audience of a work by a Mat Salleh Malay.