Selva Rasalingam is known for Playing roles in Hollywood blockbusters, The Mummy, Skyfall and Prince of persia: The sands of time amongst others. The British Sri Lankan reveals his life as a multifaceted actor with a wry sense of humour.
Words: Tina Edward Gunawardhana
Photographs: Alice Luker
As the credits of the hit BBC crime drama Luther rolled on the screen one name leapt out and caught my attention. That name was Selva Rasalingam. A frenzied search on Google yielded that Selva Rasalingam a British actor born in Tottenham, North London to a Sri Lankan father and an English mother, had appeared in a wide range of plays and Hollywood blockbusters. Having just passed his 50th birthday, Selva reflects on his wide ranging acting career that has seen him appear in a gamut of roles on TV, film, theatre and radio ranging from Dr Who and Eastenders to Midnight’s Children and The Riots. Selva confesses that like all youngsters he wanted to be everything “from a bus-driver to a racing driver, a guitarist, a footballer, a graphic designer, a geologist, a marine biologist, as well as the Invisible Man, Starsky and Hutch, 007, Superman, Rasputin, Othello, King Lear, and on and on”. But it was his desire to be so many different people that led him to a career in acting.
Selva last visited Sri Lanka when he was nine years old. He explored the country for a few months and holds vivid memories of the rural and urban environments along with the spectacular landscapes and sea. Across the cultural divide, one thing that unites many Sri Lankan parents all over the world is that they don’t subscribe to the notion that acting is a viable career path. They consider it to be more like a hobby and initially it was no different for Selva. He says “My family used to get frustrated on my behalf asking me why I didn’t act in Eastenders and why I could not become James Bond, as though those companies were always asking me and I was always turning them down! So my answers were always very disappointing evidence that I’m no Bruce Lee or Arnold Schwarzenegger (who never got those jobs either – we had that in common!) Therefore I was expected to study network engineering or computer aided design and act as a ‘hobby’”.
When Selva twigged that everyone on the screen (except the footballers) were played by actors he realised that drama was certainly the path he wanted to follow. Watching old films he became a big fan of Laurence Olivier, Peter Sellers, Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Robert de Niro amongst many more who became his role models. Having graduated in 1991 from the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London which counts Daniel Craig, Joseph Fiennes and Lily James amongst others as its alumni, Selva had to survive in an environment where not many roles were freely available to actors of colour. However, fortune was on his side when he says “I was quite lucky. Most of my jobs in the beginning were as often with other European and American companies as with British ones.
For years English theatres wouldn’t look at me. These days however, they do but the roles are often quite stereotypical”. Revealing the funnier moments his mixed heritage has landed him in he says “I’ve turned up for several different roles and was expected to talk in languages I don’t speak”. Coming from a mixed heritage meant that people think that Selva could be from anywhere ranging from Asia to the Middle East to the Mediterranean, which meant that he has been cast in many different ethnicities but least of all his own, he laments. Auditions are very much part of the process for jobbing actors and for Selva it has been no different. “There’s no pattern to getting auditions or work. Sometimes you have to choose between two or three jobs, which you wish had arrived separately.
Then at other times I wonder if I will ever act again!” he adds. Approaching auditions with a sense of pragmatism Selva believes playing a character is always a matter of playing a version of yourself from a particular angle. “It can be an escape and an exploration and therapeutic by turns or all at once. I just try to bring whatever is real and relevant to each role and scene” he says with searing honesty. During his career Selva has attended a good many auditions some of which yielded him plum roles while the ones he missed he puts down to experience. “My first ever audition was to play Heathcliff in a Hollywood version of ‘Wuthering Heights’. I would have loved it, the character is a force of nature. But I’d never been to a film casting before, and I still can’t understand why my agent of the time insisted I go in a suit and tie when Heathcliff is a wild-man, not an estate agent! So yes, I was confused and totally daunted and probably wouldn’t have got it whatever I was wearing because they cast Ralph Fiennes”.
Keen to relate another ‘audition experience’ Selva moves forth swiftly explaining “one of my favourite novels used to be ‘Crime and Punishment’, so I was upset when on a short-list of two to play Raskolnikov I lost out. Then there was a regular part in a big American series planned that I thought I had signed a contract for, only to discover I had signed an ‘option’ agreement, which put me ‘on hold’ along with one other actor while the bosses made up their minds. They cast him instead of me, but the series was scrapped after one episode so I was actually saved from an even bigger disappointment!” he explains. Judging by Selva’s role-call he has played many gritty roles, albeit some of them minor ones. When asked about his role in the iconic film The Mummy, Selva alludes that it was a last minute job by saying “Something had fallen through for them so I was suddenly on a long-haul flight to the Namibian desert, shaved head to foot and sitting on a throne in an extravagant costume surrounded by peacocks and half-naked ‘royal servants’ in a panorama of dunes.
They wouldn’t release the full script so I didn’t exactly know where this was all going. Although we do know now.” It is a cherished dream for most actors to be able to say they have acted in a Bond film and for Selva his moment came in the film Skyfall where he joined their stunt team in fighting and getting shot at or blown up. “They called it the Boot-Camp and most of the others were younger athletes really, and I was so pleased thinking that to have kept up with them, well, I must be superhuman! Then after the first three days of it, and I couldn’t actually walk any more, I realised I wasn’t! But they fed us well and I recovered” he quips. One aspect of Selva that shines through is his rather acerbic sense of humour. When explaining his role in the iconic BBC series Luther, Selva wryly comments “My scenes were only with my wife and my killer so Idris wasn’t in on those days.
He missed maybe the most spectacular death in the series, with a stunt entailing me having my head smashed through the bedroom ceiling. Then at the end he did come in, stepped over my dead body, made some notes and left”. Despite being cast in numerous roles as a hard man, there is one role that has endeared Selva to his fans. That is the portrayal of Jesus Christ in the film ‘The Gospel of John’, unarguably his biggest role to date. The Gospel of John is the first ever word-for-word filmed version of the biblical text. Using the original Jesus narrative as its script, this film sheds new light on one of history’s most sacred texts. Speaking of his role as Jesus Christ, Selva explains “I did some research on the time and place, and then set aside everything that came after Jesus, including all depictions and debates about validity.
I treated the material like any script, taking it at face value and piecing together this person’s life. People have strong and varied opinions about it but most people know of it only second-handedly and in fragments. So to have the chance to play the role without embellishment and in full I hope offers a clearer-sighted view of what is a significant element of social history, be it fact, fiction or something in between.” Imparting some traits of his own to the character, Selva candidly reveals “I wanted to portray a God who discovered how hard life is when you have to set aside God-like ‘superpowers’ especially when you see unfairness and horror all around you. Admittedly, playing Jesus felt like quite a big deal, there wasn’t big money in it and it didn’t make me a well-known actor, although I do understand now why God took the role for himself in the first place!” Apart from appearing on TV and in films, Selva has lent himself to the theatre.
He appeared in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Midnight’s Children as Shiva in 2003. His other work includes playing the role Moazzam in Guantanamo: Honour Bound to Defend Freedom at the New Ambassadors Theatre in 2004, and more recently in 2018 as Older Rasik in An Adventure at the Bush Theatre. Flitting from stage to screen does not faze Selva. “If it’s good drama it doesn’t matter. To work on a film project is about concentration in short bursts and managing your time and energy in between with patience and faith in the work and the project. It’s great if it turns out well. If it doesn’t, ‘cancel and continue’! On the other hand, if you find yourself in a bad stage-play, you can feel as though it’s never going to be over.
But with a good one, you never want it to end. It’s the best thing to be doing, the whole story in one go, as it happens. And in very good ones you can really approach it every time as though it’s new”. The two most memorable roles he has played are the real life roles in Guantanamo and On the Record where Selva played the role of slain Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga at the Arcola Theatre, London in 2011. Explaining how that fortuitous opportunity came about he says “The theatre company Ice and Fire specialises in exploring injustice around the world. ‘On the Record’ was a series of dramatisations using verbatim accounts of journalists who worked in high-risk situations in Sri Lanka, Russia, Mexico, Palestine and Iraq. The assassination of Wickrematunga meant that by the end of the play he is a symbol of journalists speaking truth to power.
We’re back to how especially hard it is to be human when you have a cause against oppression. The play should be re-staged today with new accounts added”. Speaking candidly about the shifting landscape in the UK brought about by an increase in migration and how it has affected the scope for actors of colour in the UK, Selva says “I was lucky enough to be in a great new play recently, ‘An Adventure’, dealing with that experience of migration and notions of integration. It was the opposite of productions in which Asians and black people provide ‘colour’ to a British landscape because it was a story by and through the eyes of a twice-migrant family and their kids, and their aspirations and delusions about the suburban English model of ‘success’, and it also spanned the eras.
I found myself working with some especially captivating actors on an almost bare traverse stage, the audience on opposite sides, immersed in an epic journey from India to Kenya to London across 7 decades, all in under 3 hours that flew by. If more theatre was like this then I would say migration has broadened the scope of casting and the perspectives from which stories are told. But productions like that are still not common enough yet.” Adding an air of mystery to his current circumstances, Selva says he is voicing an elaborate project which he is not allowed to talk about until its release. However he can be heard on the BBC World Service in the show titled ‘Fall of the Shah’. Selva’s wry sense of humour laced with mischief comes to the fore when he explains if he is often recognised on the street.
Given the current situation in London, his story is one that most can relate to. “Recently I was standing in a crowded tube train and noticed a man staring at me. When I looked up he looked away and I thought ‘it’s alright, he recognises me from something’. Then he did it again and again, looking more and more tense and I thought ‘actually no, he thinks I’m a suicide bomber’. He jumped off at the next stop, I was getting off too anyway and saw him go as quickly and as far up the platform as he could before leaping back onto the train. If only he had seen me playing Jesus!” Having trodden the path of acting for the last three decades in an environment where Sri Lankan actors were few and far between, Selva professes that he is happy that more and more actors such as Rudi Dharmalingam, Hiran Abeysekera, Priyanga Burford, Thusitha Jayasundara, Nimmi Harasgama and Prasanna Puwanaraja are “making their way in the business as it will provide more chances for drama that is run by us so that stories are heard from true perspectives rather than those that are projected upon us”. For the younger generation of aspiring thespians Selva offers a pearl of wisdom when he says “Well, my lists go to show that when you fetishise things or ideas or people or yourself, or your ‘selfies’, a soul risks becoming a hoarder’s nightmare of useless junk from screens, adulating superficial imagery and detaching you from reality and yourself. I’d advise against that. Acting depends on being open enough to let people see into you personally, to see who you are. So you need to trust that’s alright, and for that I’d advise you leave plenty of space clear to be yourself.”