Daniel Ahmadi, star of new independent feature film Zoo-Head, talks to us about landing the lead role, the dramatic side-effects of the weight-loss he underwent for the part, and what he's learned about the industry - and his place in it - since the film's completion.
Hey Daniel, thanks for taking the time to speak to us today. First questions, what is Zoo-Head and how did you get involved?
No, thank you so much for having me. Zoo-Head is a fast paced sci-fi drama-thriller. It is about Charlie (my character) who is addicted to a powerful hallucinogenic with memory-crunching side effects. He is forced by the authorities to enter a radical, experimental rehabilitation treatment which is supposed to recover his memories and put his mind back together before he became an addict. Unfortunately, things don’t go to plan and the system crashes, leaving him trapped in horrifying memory loops.
How I got involved is really strange. In July 2015 I was writing a script with another guy but we didn’t have a director. I posted an advert on Facebook listing the film and hoping we could find someone. Navin Dev, the director of Zoo-Head, messaged me saying he really liked the idea and would be willing to direct it. We spoke on the phone for nearly an hour and then the following week we had coffee to discuss the film. Anyway to cut the long story short, the film fell through but he told me about Zoo-Head and said I would be perfect for the lead, although at this point he hadn’t fully written the script. Fast forward to the 31st of October 2015, and the script is finished; I immediately read it and fell in love with it.
Cut to December and I’m having drinks with him. He tells me how a few named actors are showing interest in Zoo-Head. My heart sank, I knew for an independent feature film, as a director it would be very hard to turn those actors away. So I was a bit down knowing that I probably wouldn’t be a part of this amazing project. I tried to start 2016 right, carried on working and didn’t think anything of it. In February 2016 I get an email from Navin asking me to audition. I couldn’t believe it so I did a self-tape, then a week later I had to do another self-tape. On the 22nd of February, whilst I was in Copenhagen celebrating my friend’s birthday he sent me a message saying I got the part.
When did the film shoot and what was your experience with the rest of the cast and crew during production?
We shot on the 26th of March and finished filming on the 11th of April. No disrespect to any other productions I’ve worked on but the cast and crew of Zoo-Head were the best I’ve worked with in my career so far. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, Navin is on his way to becoming one of the great directors of his time. I’ve never met someone so calm before in my life. He didn’t raise his voice once whilst on set. Our DOP, Felix Schmilinsky, is an absolute genius. The way he shot Zoo-Head was incredible. Being surrounded by such great actors forces you to raise your game. Hussina Raja, Brian Potter Jr, Jason Wing, Ross Mullan and Roik Rajnak were fantastic to work with. There was a massive bromance on set between me and costume designer James Blakemore-Hoy but what happens on the set of Zoo-Head stays on the set of Zoo-Head ;) All joking aside, everyone involved, they know who they are, were amazing.
I understand you lost a lot of weight for the role - how did you go about that? And are you back on the jaffa cakes now filming is over?
Well I didn’t have much time, so what I did for the first two weeks was have only two tiny meals a day, along with doing an hour of intense cardio. During the last two weeks, I cut my calorie intake down to one meal a day, eating only either an apple or a bowl of noodles. Haha yes! Now I’m back to eating whatever I want!
What advice would you give other actors looking to gain/lose weight for a role?
Don’t be an idiot like me haha! Know exactly what you are getting yourself into. Know the side-effects so you are prepared to take them on when filming is finally done. What I mean by that, for example with my weight loss, my hair became very thin, my skin was incredibly dry and I got large blue veins underneath my eyes. It cost a lot of money to remove them. Not knowing all of the effects (mentally and physically) stopped me from getting back to my normal self. I only got back to looking and feeling like myself in February this year.
You've been part of a number of short film projects, how did Zoo-Head compare to your work on those?
Zoo-Head was a lot more professional and A LOT more intense. We were doing 12 hours a day (9am to 9pm) for 16 days. The cast and crew were always on it so you had to be constantly prepared, making sure not to disturb that energy on set
Did any lessons learned working in short films help you when shooting the feature? Likewise, what were the biggest lessons you learned after this shoot?
This is going to sound very generic of me but it’s the honest truth. No matter how big or small the film you are working on is, anytime an actor is in front of the camera, he or she is learning. So to answer the question, yes, 100%. All the short films I have done enabled me to tackle this project.
The biggest lesson I learned after this shoot was the realisation that, albeit this is a low budget feature film, I am able to take on the responsibility of playing a lead. I also learnt, thanks to Navin, that I am a method actor, something I didn’t even know if it wasn’t for Zoo-Head. He trained at Drama Centre, a drama school known for its method style approach. I had always wanted to go there but never made the cut. Funny how life is, not getting in but then later on being guided by one of its former pupils on this amazing journey.
Lastly, a long time ago a friend at the gym asked me if I would ever lose weight to be in a film. At the time I couldn’t give him an answer. All that hard work at the gym, how could I throw it all away? This then got me thinking; am I in this industry for the right reason? Well now I can answer him and answer myself. Yes, I am in it for the right reason
What's it been like seeing the completed film and screening it with audiences?
I remember being shown the film and I just couldn’t believe how good it looked. I got home and told my mum it looks like a film and she said it is a film and I was like no no no you don’t understand it looks like a film! It’s something I would pay money to watch on the big screen. For something on such a low budget it looked incredible, I was really amazed. Being
able to show the finished film to my friends and family is something I will never forget. I don’t have the words in my vocabulary to truly express how beautiful that moment was.
For those who haven't see it yet, what can audiences expect from Zoo-Head?
All I can say is it’s a roller coaster ride, so pay attention to everything going on or you may just miss something. More importantly, be prepared to fully understand exactly what an addict goes through. People often see them as criminals. They are not criminals; addicts are simply human beings who have lost their way in life. I was lucky enough to talk to a few addicts at a rehabilitation centre and believe me, they are good people.
What's been the best experience you've taken away from your time involved with the project?
I’ve experienced so much on this project that it is difficult to name one. But I have to say one of the best experiences was watching Navin direct. In the nearby future I’d like to direct my own film and Navin was the perfect example of what a director should be.
Visit the film's official website for more information.
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