Eva Birthistle and Atta Yaqub in Ken Loach's Ae Fond Kiss
Atta Yaqub is young and handsome and very bright, the epitome of the well-educated, second-generation Scottish-Asian, who might take his pick from a number of promising careers. Recently he has been working as a youth counsellor, giving advice to young people from Glasgow's ethnic minorities, and he clearly believes in the importance of what he has been doing. But he also believes in "going with the flow". And a few months from now Atta Yaqub the youth counsellor is very likely to have evolved into Atta Yaqub the film star.
The 25-five-year-old with the looks of a young Omar Sharif is the latest in a long line of amateurs plucked from obscurity by distinguished English director Ken Loach and handed major roles in his films, following in the recent footsteps of Martin Compston, the ex-Morton footballer who starred in Sweet Sixteen and went on to a regular role in Monarch of the Glen. Yaqub has a leading role in Ae Fond Kiss, which revisits the age-old theme of forbidden love most famously explored by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet, but with the two main characters turned into a Scots-Asian disc jockey and a young Irish schoolteacher, living in Glasgow.
Yaqub currently occupies that strange hiatus between having completed a first starring role and the release of the film. The slightly surreal nature of the situation is heightened by the venue for our meeting - Leicester, rather than Leicester Square, specifically a portacabin in the car park of a multiplex where British distributors have been showing their forthcoming attractions to the press. But the advance buzz is more than promising. Reviewing Ae Fond Kiss at its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, The Hollywood Reporter said: "The biggest surprise here is that Atta Yaqub, who plays a second-generation Pakistani from Glasgow, has never acted before. He commands the screen with startling ease and has a sexy presence."
East is East and Bend it Like Beckham proved films with Asian characters can appeal to mainstream white audiences. And, with its emphasis on a love story rather than a political issue, there are high hopes this could be the film to extend Loach's appeal beyond his loyal arthouse following. Yaqub could be on the point of becoming Scotland's first home-grown Asian film star, but he admits he is more than a little nervous about his mother's reaction when she sees the film. "She will be shocked," he admits. So will some of Ken Loach's regular fans. This is not after all Paul Verhoeven, who gave the world Showgirls and Sharon Stone's crotch in Basic Instinct, this is Ken Loach, politically-conscious, serious-minded director of such politically-conscious, serious-minded British classics as Kes and Sweet Sixteen, the story of a Greenock teenager struggling to survive while his mother is in prison.
At the age of 68 Ken Loach has discovered sex. And the sex scenes in Ae Fond Kiss are so good they will put many Hollywood directors to shame. Hollywood has turned out some very odd and unconvincing couplings in its time, prompting concern about the precise anatomy of the participants, whereas Loach's sex at least looks real. And it is in its own way it is extremely daring. Ae Fond Kiss was made mainly in Scotland for a start, and, despite Young Adam, we are still not quite used to this sort of thing. "It's a story of their love for each other," says Loach, "and part of that is they just enjoy getting it on together."
While Loach seems a little shy and awkward talking about sex, his debutant leading man is quite the opposite, possessed of an easy self-assurance and social confidence. He has already assured his mother that he had a body double. That is a joke... I think. Yes, he confirms it is a joke, but he is clearly amused to think there was any doubt. Yaqub seems genuine when he says he was totally relaxed about the sex scenes, largely because he felt so comfortable with his co-star, Irish actress Eva Birthistle. He is clearly proud of a film that explores the sensitive issue of inter-racial romance, a subject with which he is personally familiar. "My two brothers have seen it and one of my sisters and it was so emotional for them, seeing their brother on the screen, and just the fact that it's such a beautiful story."
Paul Laverty, the former lawyer from Glasgow, who has become Loach's regular writing partner in recent years, was inspired to write Ae Fond Kiss by the atrocity of 9/11 and its immediate aftermath. He was in the US at the time and noted the sudden profusion of American flags on houses and cars, he heard of a Sikh murdered at a petrol station in Arizona, just because he was Asian, and he received an email from Scottish-Asian friend in Glasgow telling him her niece was scared to go out at night and that a girl at her school had had her headscarf ripped off.
So far, so worthy, so Ken Loach. After all, his past subjects include the Spanish Civil War, the exploitation of Los Angeles's Hispanic office cleaners and the privatisation of British Rail. But Ae Fond Kiss seems more commercial. The sex helps of course. And, although they both belong to ethnic minorities, the protagonists here are actually quite middle-class and they are played by two extremely attractive young actors. Unusually for a Loach discovery Yaqub looks like a movie star, tall, slim, olive-skinned, with jet-black hair. That will do no harm either when it comes to wooing audiences into the multiplex. Icon, Mel Gibson's company, which is distributing the film, certainly has high hopes that Ae Fond Kiss will reach beyond Loach's usual UK audience.
The film is essentially a reworking of Romeo and Juliet in a contemporary Glasgow setting, with the warring families, replaced by religious and cultural barriers, though Loach is wary of the Romeo and Juliet comparisons that have readily attached themselves to the film, from pre-production right through to the world premiere in Berlin, and insists he and Laverty were not consciously reworking Romeo and Juliet.
Yaqub plays Casim Khan, an accountancy graduate, from a Glasgow Asian family, who hopes to open his own nightclub and whose parents have arranged for him to marry a cousin from Pakistan. Roisin Hanlon (Birthistle) is a young Irish woman, teaching music in an RC school in Glasgow, where Casim's sister is a pupil. They meet by chance at the school and a relationship develops from there, though Casim keeps it secret from his family. The schoolteacher was originally Scottish, but Loach decided to consider Irish actresses too, attracted by the inherent irony of an immigrant who is treated as a native, while the male character, a native, is treated as an immigrant.
Blonde-haired, green-eyed, rosy-complexioned, Birthistle, a 30-year-old Dubliner, was a regular on the RTE soap Glenroe in the late Nineties, co-starred with Robson Green in the mini-series Trust last year and was selected for this year's "Shooting Stars", a European initiative to highlight rising talent. Atta Yaqub's resume, on the other hand, consisted of the single role of The Lion in a school production of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe when he was in sixth year at Shawlands Academy. But Loach was determined to cast someone from within Glasgow's Asian community. "Of all the people we saw he was far and away the best," says Loach. "You could see why Roisin might be attracted to him, you could see there's a kind of gentleness about him and he's also engaging and very warm, so the audience would experience the story through him and sympathise with him."
Yaqub's father worked his passage from Pakistan to Britain on the QEII and got a job in Glasgow on the buses. Yaqub studied Technology and Business Studies at Strathclyde University and took a post-graduate qualification in Information Management; he is the star of Glasgow Ansar, a Glasgow Asian football team; and a counsellor with the Pollokshields-based Youth Counselling Services Agency, which provides advice and guidance on everything from drug abuse to literacy and numeracy.
His good looks brought an approach about modelling work and next thing he knew he was parading up and down the catwalk at London Fashion Week for Red or Dead. It was through his modelling agency that he was offered the chance to audition for Loach. It was no surprise that he figured in Scotland on Sunday's list of the nation's most eligible bachelors at the end of last year. You get the impression he could turn his hand to anything, and yet there is no sign of arrogance or that overriding determination to reach the top at all costs. "There was never a burning desire that, 'Oh yes, I want to be the next Tom Cruise.' I just always go with the flow," he says.
Yaqub can relate to Ae Fond Kiss's storyline of love across the cultural divide. He went out with a white girl for four years, but even after all that time when he was walking along the road, hand in hand, if he saw another Asian he would suddenly disengage himself. "She wanted me to tell my parents about us being together and at first I couldn't understand that... It wasn't well-received. It was, 'Oh, why do you need to tell us? You could have done what you had to do, and if you wanted to go on with it, it would have been away from us. You could have done your own thing.' So in order to cut out all the arguments with her and with my parents I just decided to be honest. Perhaps it was a mistake at the time, but I think looking back now it has made me a better person."
He maintains many Scots Asians lead two lives, a home life, where they are the dutiful son or daughter, and a second life, where they are increasingly ready to mix socially with white youths. "My secret life has become more open, partly because of the film. However Asian people that I hang around with... the parents would be thinking they're at their friend's house, but they won't be, they'll be in a nightclub; they're supposed to be going in the afternoon to college, but they're away with a girl, not white, it could be Asian."
Yaqub was not the first in his family with a white girlfriend. "My brother actually ran away with a white girl many years back," he says. "This was when things were really strict. After a few years, when he had been away, my mum agreed to her coming over - 'As long as you're happy basically'. She wanted us to be happy." Yaqub says his brother and his girlfriend were driven apart by tensions within her family and he admits his own family is unusually liberal. The balance of the family was obviously affected when his father died from cancer. He is currently single, but thinks it unlikely he would marry a white woman, because as a Muslim he would want to bring his children up in the faith.
In the end it was not the sex scenes that caused most anxiety, but the scenes of Casim driving his car. "Rebecca actually said, 'Oh Atta, we need to have a copy of your driving licence.' I was like, 'OK. How?' She said, 'Why don't you just fax it through.' I said, 'Rebecca, I can't drive.' She said, 'OK...We're going to have to sort this out.' And she made a few phone calls and the next minute I've got a driver picking me up, nine in the morning till six at night, a whole week of intensive driving. I had to pass by the end of it and I passed, thankfully."
With such a busy life, it is perhaps no surprise that Yaqub had never found the time to learn to drive. Business studies graduate, youth counsellor, model and film star by the age of 25, one wonders what is next for the multi-talented young Scot? "I'll retire by the time I'm 30," he laughs. "No - the acting thing, I am going to give a full-on bash." He has already filmed a small role for the television soap Doctors, but otherwise is holding his breath and waiting for the release of Ae Fond Kiss and the offers which will hopefully follow.
"I'm going to really go for it," he vows. "I think it's too big an opportunity to miss and I'm so thankful to Ken and God, for having this ability and talent, and I just really want to give it a crack, and if it works it works, and if not I've got things to fall back on." "Ken and God" - I wonder if he meant to put them in that order. Both he and Birthistle just laugh when it is pointed out. Yaqub has to dash to catch a flight back to Glasgow, stooping to embrace his co-star before he rushes off... ae fond kiss, and then they sever, but one senses this parting is not forever. They may well be bumping into each other at celebrity premieres and perhaps even the odd awards ceremony in the coming years.
Brian Pendreigh is author of the Pocket Scottish Movie Book.