"It felt like a spiritual test," says Ray Panthaki.
I know what you're thinking – did actor Ray Panthaki also have to choose between a Thursday evening HIIT class or post-work pints? The answer is, unfortunately, no – it was a trade-off between going on a three-week Ayurvedic panchakarma detox in Austria or cancelling it for a film role. Relatable content, I know.
As someone who probably needs to hoover out their insides, it's perhaps a predicament I should find myself in more often. However, since finding out it involves weeks of drinking straight ghee, being alone with your own thoughts and a hefty dose of meditation – I'm less convinced. Panthaki, on the other hand, was game. So much so, he turned down the role.
But why do I bang on about detoxes, you ask? It's because there's a certain irony to the whole situation. You see, Panthaki has recently starred in BBC's Boiling Point – a TV adaptation of Netflix's high-octane, one-shot motion picture that captures the unfurling chaos of a kitchen in a London restaurant. It's quite literally the antithesis of a tranquil Ayurvedic retreat, cultivating a tension that can only be likened to getting trapped in a lift with your arch-nemesis.
Returning as a TV series, this time it's not filmed in one take and explores its characters more deeply, including Panthanki, who plays Freeman – a sous chef battling frustration as he works under volatile head chef Andy (Stephen Graham), a man struggling with addiction and debt.
As quite the multi-hyphenate, TV makes up just a slither of Panthaki's career, starring in theatre alongside writing, directing, producing and founding his own production company, Urban Way. It's somewhat impressive he found the time to squeeze in an interview with us – but we did at the Soho hotel on a Tuesday afternoon to talk Boiling Point, detoxes and death-row meals.
Square Mile: Is acting something you've always wanted to do?
Ray Panthaki: It really came from a place of being an incredibly shy child and feeling insignificant. There was a kid in my class who was an actor, and he got loads of attention, so I went home one day and said to my parents that I wanted to be an actor. My parents obviously thought that didn't make sense because I didn't even talk to anybody. Anyway, I found some drama schools and tried out, and in a room of extroverted kids, I did think, what am I doing? But there's something so mesmerising about it all because what came from a place of wanting to be seen and significant as a shy kid became a love and a passion. There's almost something divine about it.
SM: What's a career highlight?
RP: A highlight, I would say, is Boiling Point [the film]. It felt really nice to get nominated for a British Independent Film Award, and because the industry vote on that, it was nice to be acknowledged by your peers. It was a really proud moment.
SM: … and lowlight?
RP: A really low point was when I got a really huge role, like game-changing, and two days before flying out to LA to shoot this career-changing film, my visa didn't arrive in time, so the studio had to recast. It was so hard because this film became a juggernaut, but I'm proud of myself that I overcame it and built resilience. When you go through your whole career experiencing rejection, and then you are hit with the promised land, and it gets taken away, that's hard. It does make you stronger, though. When that door closed, so many more have opened since.
SM: You've just spent the past few weeks on an Ayurvedic detox – how was that?
RP: It was amazing, and I feel super zen. It was something I had wanted to do for a long time, and I just never found the time because I was completely in the rat race of work, work, work. I've always got so much going on, and it's been like that pretty much my whole life, so a couple of months ago, I was like, no, I really need to take time out and stop, I have to do this.
And then, inevitably, the day before flying out, I got a call about a new role, and it was tempting. It almost felt like a spiritual test, but I thought about it and said no, you need to do this retreat. It transpired that it was the right thing to do because I feel amazing. The space to be silent and not get distracted by life has enabled me to remove this creative block and tackle the writing I've needed to do for ages.
SM: Is saying no to work something you find hard?
RP: I have always considered myself really focused on this journey and what I want to do, and to choose art over commerce every time. But there were times when I would literally sleep on sofas rather than do something I knew wasn't right for me, even though my agents were saying I needed the money, and you do get to a point where you have to say yes. Don’t judge an artist until they can afford to make choices. I feel like the industry has changed, and weirdly 25 years into my career, it feels new to me. I feel like the industry and climate have changed around being a brown actor, and having the opportunities I know now, I can say 'no' and not stress that another job isn't going to come up. Whereas before, I would have to say yes, and that's why I'm at a point where I feel excited, I feel like I'm just out of drama school.
SM: How has the industry changed in the UK and the US?
RP: The primary thing is colourblind casting, and that means the playing field is closer to being level, and there are more opportunities – America was always way ahead with that. It's also really changed in that multi-hyphenates, like myself, are being embraced way more. I started making films in my acting career, not because I had a passion for filmmaking, but because I was never going to get the roles I knew I could do unless I started making them myself. Back then, there was resistance to that because people wanted you to stay in your own lane and pick to be an actor, writer, or director.
In America, it's different because I think they look at whether your talent can make them money. However, the plus side of that, is there’s an exchange that takes place and they’ll give you the opportunity to be whatever you want as long as you can back it. So I think with that said, the US is far ahead in terms of embracing people who want to do it all. I do feel like the UK has caught up now, and being a multi-hyphenate is more accepted than it was when I was starting out. Now I can finally be considered a storyteller in all of these forms.
SM: Why did you start your own production company, Urban Way?
RP: It started from wanting better opportunities and showing the industry what I could do. I said, 'I'm going to start making films because I have the ability to know a good story', and luckily I had the ability to make people believe that as well. It was very much never intended to make some big commercial business out of it. I wanted to make art every few years and change the game somehow – I was happy making films that made no money if I'm doing what I want to as an artist, and I didn't want to make decisions based on earning people money.
I believe if you continue to make the art you want to, it will eventually monetise itself, and that's where we're at now. I have finally found my business partner (Daniel), and it's going incredibly well. We have some amazing projects in the pipeline, like real prestige movies as well as some more experimental, low-budget stuff.
SM: Would you say your career has taken off later in life?
RP: Yeah, I would say so. And I think that is an amalgamation of a number of things. I feel like the industry has changed and evolved, so that's helped. I feel like when I got my BAFTA breakthrough, that shifted things as well. So yeah, it definitely happened later, but when I was younger, I didn't have opportunities; it's been a steady progression. I guess that's the reality of it.
SM: You've been based in London your whole life – do you like that?
RP: Yeah, London is home, and I love it. But I also really love LA, I think it's a spiritual thing, like when I get off the plane, my shoulders sort of drop. It's where my soul feels at home. I also feel like now because the industry is full of opportunity and I can afford to say no, for the first time, I'm like, ok, I want to travel to places that have always been on my radar – but I've never done that previously because of work. Thinking back, I remember flying back from a family holiday to India for an audition, and we'd literally just got there. In my mind, I had to go back because I thought that audition would change my life. Now I feel freer to take some 'me time' and have learnt to give up that craving of wanting it so badly. Stepping back is just so much more beneficial. It's the first time I can say that I want to travel.
SM: You've just finished making the television series Boiling Point, did you feel pressure because of the film's success?
RP: When I was first approached about it, I was like, why would you go there again? But then I heard Phil's (Barantini) vision and the ideas he wanted to do, on top of knowing how everyone really loved the movie and wanted to know more about the characters – that made me want to do it. And when I heard the ideas, I thought… this has got legs.
SM: In terms of preparing for your role as a sous chef, what did you do?
RP: In the film, you didn't have a lot of time to rehearse, so a lot of the time, it was learning stuff you could blag, so it looked like you knew what you were doing – the basics. Tom Brown, who owns Cornerstone in Hackney, was also our guy on the ground, and I worked in the restaurant for the night and got involved in the open kitchen for the role. When it came around again for the series, I went back, and it came back to me – it's like muscle memory.
SM: Was the kitchen at Cornerstone as stressful as that in Boiling Point?
RP: I think the way Tom runs Cornerstone is like a group of mates or family, there's banter going on and familiarity. There wasn't a sense of stress, but I think that's because, like on set, in kitchens, the stress always emanates from the top and who is leading. Tom is really good at managing it all, and it's quite harmonious. I know from learning and talking to other people after the film that a lot of kitchens aren't like that though.
SM: On the topic of food, what's your favourite restaurant?
RP: That's a hard one. Probably Cornerstone again, I think what Tom does there is incredible. There also used to be a Chinese restaurant called Mr. Kongs that my dad used to take us to. It was such an unassuming Chinese restaurant and no frills, but if I ever bought visitors, I'd take them there.
SM: What's your death row meal?
RP: It would have to be sushi for starter, like from the best, followed by a McChicken sandwich meal.
SM: … and for pudding?
RP: I'm not a sweet guy. Like a double cheeseburger on the side, probably.
The new series of Boiling Point is out now on BBC.