ALEXIA EVRIPIDOU meets a London born Turkish Cypriot who could well be the closest thing the island has to a Hollywood star
With an air of confidence, Hollywood actor Tamer Hassan energetically strides into our offices, extending a friendly hand and an aura of self certainty. Offering him the prospect of a cooling drink on this sticky warm day, Tamer jokes “oh, is it homemade lemonade? In Hollywood they always make a big deal about offering it”.
Shamefully I escort him to the smallest and hottest office space in the building and coincidentally hand him homemade lemonade in a plastic cup. It was a colleague’s birthday, we were lucky. Not exactly the Hollywood greeting Tamer is accustomed to but nonetheless, the charismatic actor looks unperturbed, genuinely interested to be here and ready to talk.
Hailed as one of the biggest Cypriot exports to Hollywood, English born Tamer is the second child of four. Raised into a working class Turkish Cypriot family originally from Nicosia, his mother was a seamstress and his father a carpenter. Rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful from the film industry is not how Tamer started out – as a boy growing up in the rough and ready tower blocks and estates of multi cultural South East London, Tamer dreamed only of becoming a professional boxer. Having achieved the undefeated amateur title earlier on in his life, he was shortly forced into a career U-turn, due to injury.
Today, the charismatic actor had taken a week out of his busy schedule to visit the motherland and set cogs in motion for what is geared to be a huge, glitzy international film festival here on the island. The Golden Island International Film Festival (GIIFF), of which Tamer is a patron, is due to be held November 7-13 and is open to film and documentaries from all over the world, especially local talent.
Proud to be Cypriot, Tamer enthuses passionately about Cyprus, film work, the upcoming festival and the abundant talent on the island. “Let film unite. I believe that as an island, as Cypriots, we have so much talent here; actors, producers, directors. Politicians have the best intentions but film is different, film is a release. Football and film unite people”. His primary love, sport, makes the first of several guest appearances in the interview, as does passion. Passion seems to be part of Tamer’s DNA. He cares deeply and genuinely, about the things that matter to him. Tamer describes himself as a God fearing man who is learning the art of meditation. His work in films and charities matter dearly, but above all, It’s his family that he does everything for.
Dark, handsome and with a rich, heavy South East London accent, Tamer looks and sounds every bit the smooth villain and gangster he likes to play in films, of which there have been many. Several boast proud cult followings. Tamer’s accidental climb to fame began in the popular UK TV series Eastenders, a far cry from later Clash of the Titans or Batman Begins. He experienced his first film break throwing a punch at Orlando Bloom’s character in the Calcium Kid. Since then his work has seen him kick-ass in Kick-Ass, Sucker Punch and Layer
Cake, even having a role written for him in The Football Factory. He has also wrestled with a naked Viggo Mortenson in a bathroom on Eastern Promise and hung out with Richard Gere in The Double. He is currently staring with Kiefer Sutherland in the popular American TV series 24. Overall, not a dull life.
From humble beginnings, Tamer first came to visit Cyprus at about age 11. Having experienced racism in London, he’d anticipated that the visit to his roots would be the place where he would fit in. He soon discovered that he was also different here but chooses to see it as a positive learning curve “I realised that you can be beaten by things or you can learn to adapt” and adapt he did.
The sport lover, who had his dream stripped from him moved on in life; he got married and joined the restaurant and nightclub world in London. In sport, however, Tamer had found a form of acceptance, one that he still has today. “If you are good at something, it doesn’t matter where you are from, what colour you are. If you are good at something and you are an asset then you are accepted, so I drove myself to be good. I never do anything half heartedly. I give 120%”. As a result, he spent many years competing in boxing, playing football and rugby. He’s now the owner and chairman of Greenwich Borough FC and runs Eltham boxing gym.
A man who likes to keep busy, having his fingers in many pots, it was one of these pots that threw him into showbiz. Tamer had invested in an Acting Agency, which he helped out of trouble. His nightclubs and restaurants were often frequented by actors and producers that enjoyed Tamer’s entertaining personality. “I never used to sit by the bar smoking cigars, I loved to entertain, to host and mingle with the customers; make them laugh. They kept suggesting I give acting a try”. One day an agent needing a gangster/thug looking actor convinced Tamer to go for the audition against his will. He had never done anything like it and was terrified when he got there. He figured he’d give it a go. 45 minutes later, they stopped the casting, called the agent and offered Tamer the role in Eastenders.
Initially he refused to go, trying to convince the agent to come up with an excuse. Eventually he was convinced by friends to “give it a go”, an attitude often repeated in Tamer’s life, “what did I have to lose?!” The next morning, he got up showered and was picked up by a chauffer, taken to the studio, had his make up put on, wardrobe fitted, given copious amounts of food and was chauffeured back to the hotel. This went on for a week until he was given a nice fat pay cheque at the end.
At the point Tamer thought “what a nice way to make money” and went back, spoke to his wife. Once again thinking “I’m going to have a go at this”. It sky rocketed from there. He had fallen in love with every aspect of the industry.
Over the years, Tamer has explored writing, producing and directing, but acting is his main joy. With his specific look, Tamer is often offered intense character roles such as gangsters, thugs and those that involve violence and aggression. Does he worry about being typecast? “I don’t believe in typecast,” he says, “it’s about paid jobs and demographics.” He’s known for cult movies too. He knows the world of these movies because he grew up in it. But he’s also done other movies like City Rats where he played a suicidal alcohol office worker and was critically acclaimed. He chose City Rats because he wanted to show his versatility. The low budget film had cost $150,000 and grossed $7million.
Every opportunity he’s had to diversify he’s taken. Tamer defends that he loves the roles he gets and couldn’t think of anything worse than playing a romantic lead. He’s quite fond (as in passionately fond) about driving the cars, shooting the guns and riding the horses. He absolutely loves it. Questioning what he would do if Bollywood came knocking, he laughed heartily and says that he would jump at it, “not that you can tell, but I can sing and dance… they call me snake hips”. He is nothing short of energy and drive, although there was no special showing of the famous snake hips for me.
The late Bob Hoskins was a dear friend of Tamer; Bob took him under his wing. Together they shot a film in Paris called Unleashed at a point where Tamer was beginning to feel a little vulnerable and considered going to acting school to compensate for his lack of training. Bob advised him not to, he saw Tamer’s lack of formal training as an advantage. It gave him the freedom to connect with real emotions and reactions without having been trained how to react to things. He took it on board and developed his own style.
Tamer loves to talk, not in the sense of listening to the sound of his own voice, but more with excitement about life and the amazing opportunities that arise when you say ‘I’ll give things ago’. He gushes with enthusiasm and respect for all the people he’s worked with, from the biggest directors to the smallest actors. The industry is important to him as is Cyprus, which is one of the main reasons he wants to promote GIIFF.
“When you go to the cinema, you want to leave your problems behind you. Leave the politics to the politicians, film is for us, for the people. It’s about joining together and collaborating as film makers. When I work on a film, the team is from all over the world, we work together as a family, irrespective of where people are from”. Tamer insists that it is not about identifying our differences but about working together as an island and a people to help our local talent and to make Cyprus bigger on the film map. It doesn’t matter where in Cyprus “it’s about venues, organising a big and successful film festival. It doesn’t matter if its north or south. Our island is small, it doesn’t mean our thoughts and our beings are small”.
Ironically, as a self declared ‘geezer’, Tamer is big on spirituality, karma and meditation. A dedicated humanitarian, he works tirelessly to raise funds for different charities. He started his own charity called Water Aid, which raises money to give people drinking water. “I can’t believe that in this day and age there are children without water”. A frightening but very real concept.
Inspired by this unlikely do-gooder, I ask him if he has a mantra that sees him through life. A nano second pause, a small breath in, a drop in his voice and I see a more vulnerable side to this man’s man. He confesses that 15 months ago, he went through a very difficult point in his life; struggling to find work, he was aggressive and angry; as he puts it “I had reptilians inside me”. One day, he met a man who introduced him to meditation and he hasn’t looked back since.
Things were that bad at one point, he jokes about when he went for a casting for a Turkish ex-boxer, and didn’t even get that. The more bitter and angry he became, the worse his life and career got. “Now, if something doesn’t work, I’ll find something else to do, I’ll put my attention to raise money for the charity or start writing etc. It’s the mediation that has allowed to me to do this”.
It seems however that the real secret to his motivation is his family, his wife of 26 years, his 23-year-old son and his 13-year-old daughter. They are his rock.
Ending the interview, I felt obliged to throw some random quick fire questions Tamer’s way. Firstly, which first three words would best describe him?: “Driven, passionate and talented”. What’s his favourite food?: “Sheftali kebab and zalatina”. And finally and most importantly, which superpower would he most like to have?: “X-ray vision’. With the vital film star questions answered, I felt satisfied.
Tamer Hassan has nothing short of determination for making this festival a special and unifying experience. He invites talents from north and south of the island to get involved in this excellent opportunity, and as he says “why not give it a go”.