'Colette' Star Ray Panthaki on Helping Remove Racial Casting Barriers

Credit: Joseph Sinclair
Ray Panthaki

The rising British talent and BAFTA Breakthrough Brit has two major projects ahead (both starring Keira Knightley) and is prepping his directorial feature debut, which he's casting as "non age, race or gender-specific."

“I’ve been planting seeds for a very long time, and suddenly they’re all sprouting,” says Ray Panthaki.

The rising Brit — an enthusiastic ball of energy when speaking to The Hollywood Reporter in London’s central Soho Hotel — has some impressive seedlings to point to.

Earlier this year, the 39-year-old — whose career has so far spanned two decades and includes 2002 zombie hit 28 Days Later, Ali G Indahouse opposite Sacha Baron Cohen, and recently a principal part in the ITV/Netflix detective series Marcella — saw Wash Westmoreland’s Collette, in which he stars alongside Keira Knightley and Dominic West, receive rave reviews at Sundance.

He has also just finished shooting another major project in Official Secrets, from Gavin Hood (Eye in the Sky, Ender’s Game) and starring Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith and — again — Knightley.

“It’s a real ensemble piece — you’ve got all these great actors coming in and doing their bits, and all telling an important story,” says Panthaki, who likens the film to Spotlight.

Heading back to the buildup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Official Secrets chronicles the real-life story of celebrated whistleblower Katharine Gun, a former translator at British intelligence agency GCHQ who famously leaked information about the U.S.’ illegal attempts to push for war.

“It’s extremely important to get out to the world, because it was a big thing and then people kind of forgot about it,” he says. “In the world we’re living in now, it’s really important for that story to be resurrected.”

Whereas Panthaki’s casting as BBC correspondent Kamal Ahmed might seem like a solid choice, his role in Colette — a period piece set among the literary society of early 20th century Paris, in which he plays French writer-playwright Pierre Veber — doesn't seem such an obvious role for a British-Asian actor (Panthaki was born in London to second-generation Indian parents).

“When do people like me get to do a period film? I got to dress up in all the garb, it was amazing,” he laughs. “Respect to Wash for going, ‘Why can’t he be in a period piece?’ Let’s just get the best person for the role.’”

Panthaki also praises another “forward-thinking director” in Danny Boyle, who cast him as a young soldier, Private Bedford, in 28 Days Later.

“I remember going into the audition room and seeing 10 white guys and thinking, ‘I’ve been brought in for the wrong casting,’” he laughs. “But that set me up early on, and got me thinking that I can do and achieve anything I want, and it doesn’t has to be defined by that thing.”

"That thing" is now changing across the industry as a whole, and Panthaki is lining up to be part of the change. Although he admits “we’re not quite there yet,” he says the best thing for him is to just “keep creating.”

On the subject of creating, Panthaki has slowly and quietly been adding additional hyphenates to his resume.

Among his growing list of producer credits are Noel Clarke’s cult 2006 London crime drama Kidulthood, in which he also starred, and — more recently — 2015’s Convenience, which he made through his own Urban Way Productions banner.

A low-budget dark comedy Panthaki describes as a “20p movie” (for "20 pence" — it actually cost $105,000), Convenience told the near-slapstick story of a pair of amateur criminals who try to rob a gas station and end up working there for the night. The film, which was later picked up by Netflix, also had Panthaki starring alongside Adeel Akhtar (The Big Sick, Four Lions), putting two Asian actors in lead roles undefined by their race, a factor he claims confused the industry.

“We struggled to sell it, because people didn’t know where to place it,” he says. “They’d say, it’s not East is East or Bend It Like Beckham, we don’t know how to market it. And I’d be like, no, it’s Kevin Smith’s Clerks, more towards that.”

Had it been about weddings or terrorism, he feels Convenience might have stood a better chance.

“I actually think we missed a trick. It came out a year and a half too early,” he says. “If it had come out during the diversity moment, it would have gained some press, I feel.”

Panthaki is now moving towards the director’s chair. Having cut his teeth with the 2013 short film Life Sentence — a story about London’s knife crime problem that he took took from script to screen in just two weeks having persuaded La Haine cinematographer Pierre Aim to be his DoP for the five-day shoot — he’s now prepping his first feature. And again, it’s a film that, like Convenience, he’s looking to help give the industry a much-needed nudge.

“It’s a love story that I’ve been working on for years,” he says. “It’s written for a guy and a girl, but I’d go into meetings and say, ‘I’m casting this non-age, race or gender specific.’ And they’d go, ‘You can’t do that.’ And I say, ‘Read the script again and tell me which line of dialogue I’d need to change'.”

The film — which Panthaki says has financial backing (although he’s turned money down) and he hopes to shoot later this summer — is all part of his goal to stick to his principles rather than follow the dollar signs.

“It would break my heart to walk on set on the first day having been forced to cast two actors who I never felt were completely right for it, but made the business side happy,” he says. “I can’t live and breathe that, so I’ve got to be convicted in my choices, and if it goes wrong I’ve got no one to blame but myself.”

These convictions and choices were given a major endorsement in 2014 when Panthaki was selected to be one of BAFTA’s Breakthrough Brits, the British Academy’s scheme that plucks a small handful of emerging names each year to take part in a mentoring program with industry figures.

“That was the thing that really flipped things for me,” he says, pointing to the years of graft that can often be frustrating without any real industry credit.

“People didn’t know that I was pivotal in getting Kidulthood made, or that I produced this movie or that I was behind that, and you’re always questioning yourself as an artist anyway. And then this acknowledgement from BAFTA comes along that goes, ‘We’ve been aware of all your work.’”

The Breakthrough Brit honor also helped open a lot of doors that might otherwise have stayed firmly shut, or at least required a stronger shove.

“Where else are you going to sit down for a cup of tea with Barbara Broccoli and talk shop, or hang out with [Christopher] Nolan … there were all these amazing people I got to meet,” he says, adding that he’s “forever grateful” to BAFTA for their support.

“It really was an amazing moment for me, it gave me this confidence to go, right, any time you’re questioning what you’re doing, you’ve got something to fall back on, the greatest film establishment in the country.”

With this supportive force behind him, Panthaki says he’s gotten out of the mindset of being a “working actor” and feels he’s reached the point where he can make the choices that matter to him. The buzz surrounding Colette — which Bleecker Street will release on Sept. 21 — and Official Secrets looking like it may have the star power and topical tones to the hit the right critical notes, these choices may soon start to get more impressive. But he’ll still be sticking to his guns.

“You’ve earned your stripes, you’ve done it,” he says. “But I’ve turned down too much and too much money to not do it my way!”