*Danny Sapani is a versatile actor that who has laid a formidable foundation in film, television, and theater with his numerous riveting performances. Sapani trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama; and is known for his deeply soulful role as the elusive, mysterious ‘Sembene’ in Showtime’s Penny Dreadful.
Presently, he can be seen as ‘Berber the Moor’ in FX’s medieval drama The Bastard Executioner, created by Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy/The Shield).
Sapani’s character is an educated noble of Moroccan descent; who contends with his forced conversion to Catholicism all the while maintaining his deeply devout Muslim belief. Eurweb had the privilege to catch up with Danny Sapani to discuss his roles, career and how he is leaving his mark by helping others.
Your character ‘Sembene’ in Penny Dreadful once said, “He believes in everything.” Your character ‘Berber the Moor’ on the Bastard Executioner is a devout Muslim forcibly converted to Catholicism. Do you hold any religious convictions? Can you relate to the religious conflict of ‘Berber the Moor’?
I understand the relationship that people have with faith and how important it is to believe in something, especially in relation to identity. Although, I hold no religious convictions of my own, I relate strongly to the spiritual views of ‘Sembene‘ in Penny Dreadful. I subscribe to the idea that conviction and holding firm to one’s beliefs is a powerful force that can move mountains.
‘Berber’ has strong spiritual convictions that enable him to survive. In continuing to practice slam, he is taking an incredible risk but it is part of who he is that is the measure of the man. It is what [remains] of his cultural identity that he will risk his life to preserving, for it’s the thing that is being challenged most.
‘Sembene’ was a character of few words, filled with regrets and carried his secrets. Does ‘Berber the Moor’ have any hidden secrets?
Apart from the fact that he’s practicing Muslim in a Catholic world, the secrets of his past are yet to be revealed. He clearly lived a very different life before he come to Wales as reflected in his adept skills with a scimitar and the fact that he can read which indicates he is of noble birth.
Do you ever draw upon your Ghanaian roots when playing a character?
Yes. My mother’s family [come] from a royal line and my father’s family are lay people, so I have class and cultural conflicts within my make-up. Ghana is also my way into African culture and history, which enables me to identify closely identify with many of the characters I have played and understand the time [period] they [would exist].
You play ‘Danny’, the villain in the Bollywood film Singham 2. Describe the Bollywood filmmaking style and did you enjoy the working with a different culture?
I absolutely loved my time on Singham 2, filming with Hari the director and Surya the lead actor who are both highly regarded within the Tamil film industry. Hari approached me initially; he is a very instinctive director. We spoke on the phone, and two weeks later, I was on a plane bound for Tamil Nadu to start a six-week shoot. Being a non-Tamil actor [in this film] was a fascinating window into a creative cultural sensibility so different from my own. Though, I was thrown in at the deep end; I had a lot of support. I had to dig deep from all my experiences working in the theater and on-screen to get the balance right. Music, dance, slapstick comedy, high drama and action all have an equal place in a story of an epic scope and length. The speed and the frequency at which most Indian films are [created] is unique. When we launched the film in London, the audiences went crazy. The film was also shown to packed audiences in Tamil communities worldwide for over 100 days, a completely incredible experience.
You stated that you had a foundation of playing this villain due to the roles you performed in theater. Which characters you depicted on the stage helped you prepare for this role?
For my villainous [portrayal], I was inspired by most of the Shakespearean classic characters such as ‘Macbeth’, ‘Othello’, ‘Anthony’, and ‘Brutus’. They are all brilliant stories whose characters are often dealing with huge life and death conflicts, and they are most likeable whilst being massively flawed. Essentially, this is a great training ground for understanding the emotional complexities of the human spirit; where positive, emotionally-driven intentions can lead to negative devastating outcomes.
How has your background in theater helped you to transition to film and television?
It’s been quite a challenge if I am honest. In the theater, everything is live, real and [an actor must have the] ability to capture the audience emotionally. [I have to rely] on many factors such as eloquence, body language, an ability to effect the air and the intensity of the moment. [I’m] also reliant on the other actors and a very small production crew. Film and television require a different set of skills with the same intention. [I’m] surrounded by massive technical crews, [I have] less control and the acting itself is disjointed, so you don’t have the narrative to carry you through. There are long rehearsals in the theater versus none on film, although there is always the potential to improve in the edit. Both processes rely heavily on trust; trusting that everyone is on top of their game, whilst appreciating the challenges that every other department faces to achieve their ends.
On stage, you have played ‘Othello’, ‘Jason’ from Medea, ‘Marc Antony’, ‘Macbeth’, ‘Ephraim’ from Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, which character did you enjoy portraying the most?
I genuinely loved playing them all but if I had to pick one to do again it would have to be ‘Macbeth’. The conflicts he faces, the emotional journey he goes on, has been an endless source for every part I have played since.
Are you attracted to emotionally dark characters or more so conflicted and tortured characters?
In the end, it is all interpretive as when you play the character you believe their intentions to be pure, however dark. My ambition is always to get people to understand, even if they don’t agree; to relate to others, regardless of how damaged. We are all the same in the end, despite our differences.
You recently wrapped on your new film Jadotville in South Africa. Can you tell us about the character you play?
In Jadotville, I play ‘Moise Tshombe’, a Congolese businessman/politician who becomes a self-styled military dictator. He stands up to the UN; with the help of ruthless western government forces. They are hell-bent on maintaining the imperialist status quo and mining interest of the country. He is cultured, educated and murderous, and that is a frightening combination.
What can the audience expect from this film?
This film is a brilliantly realized historical piece with a great cast, directed by Richie Smyth. It was great to be filming in Johannesburg, South Africa again since Singham 2 which also filmed in Durban.
You once stated you considered yourself a troubled child because you were searching for your voice. Would you say that is a leading reason you are a staunch advocate for children’s charities?
I was very lucky to have had the support growing up that millions of children around the world don’t. I believe that every child, everywhere, deserves a fair chance. The work that UNICEF and Save the Children do around the world is invaluable and relies upon our support. I am a patron of WAC Arts which empowers young people to change their world through training programs in the creative arts and I am about to become one for Alone in London, a charity that supports homeless children. I am an alumnus of both organizations, and I am truly grateful for the chance to give something back.
Catch more of Danny Sapani in The Bastard Executioner airing Tuesday nights at 10pm ET/PT on FX.