Raj Ghatak (Class of 1991)
Raj Ghatak joined City in Old Grammar in 1982. After A-Levels, he began training as an osteopath, but left early to pursue a career in acting. He has gone on to take acclaimed star roles across a range of genres on stage and screen. From the West End - Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams - to EastEnders – playing Dr Suresh opposite Danny Dyer; from Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie to an acclaimed stage version of Life of Pi, which, pre-lockdown, was due to transfer to the West End this summer. Raj won a Best Actor Award for The Kite Runner, and is also the lead in the world’s biggest audio drama ever, The Waringham Chronicles, playing alongside Miriam Margolyes in Audible’s medieval saga.
Do you find it easy being on lockdown?
I tend to be more of an extravert, but I have a home studio set up for voiceovers and I was busy all last week, working on an audio book. And I’ve started decorating, too!
How did you make a reconnection to the school?
I joined Citizens Connect, the CLS alumni platform, and mentioned that I would be keen to help… After that, I gave a talk to the drama department. I hadn’t set foot in the building since I left, which was a very long tome ago. So I was like, ‘This… is… really… weird’.
Did you feel different?
I did. You see the school all the time, when you’re going to Tate Modern or even if you watch the News on London Tonight, but to set foot in the building and then for two of my old teachers to still be there 30 years later was… very peculiar!
When I was at CLS, the main entrance was only for sixth formers and members of staff. This time I got to go in via the main entrance, so I thought, ‘Wow, this is special.’
And then looking at the students and thinking, “You don’t know it but you really are in the best place in the world.” And really having to resist the temptation to grab every student you walk past and urge them to study hard and use all the opportunities they get!
Did you feel more self-assured, coming back as an achiever, as a successful actor? What were you like at school?
I think I was a different type of person at school. But I’m not sure I would consider myself to be really successful now. It’s an ongoing thing. When you are self-employed, certainly as an actor, you might have some aspirations and you might be lucky to achieve those, then the goalposts move and you say, ‘Well, now what?’
The frustrating thing is that in an industry where the rule is that there are no rules, you can achieve something but it doesn’t necessarily mean you can get on to the next rung of the ladder. Or what is perceived as the next rung.
What do you perceive as the next step?
The bulk of my work has been on stage - which is brilliant. I love being on stage. But I would like to do more screen work. But then people who have done predominantly screen work want to get on stage…
Before all this, I’d just filmed two episodes of a series called Ghosts for the BBC. It’s scheduled to be on this summer.
At the end of May I was due to start rehearsals for Life of Pi in the West End. We did it last year at the Sheffield Crucible. So for me – for my agent – it was all about trying to fit in some extra work before rehearsals started.
Plus, I was also down to record a fourth volume of The Waringham Chronicles for Audible. It’s set in the Middle Ages. Miriam Margolyes is the narrator and I play the lead.
So we were really working towards jigsawing all this together… and then the portcullis came down…
How did you come to join CLS?
I was an Old Grammar boy so I was there from age nine or 10. My parents knew the school by reputation and our neighbour’s son was there in the Sixth Form.
I sat the entrance exam and had an interview with Mr Court, the form tutor and Mr Hart, head of the junior school. Then I became a City boy, coming in on the tube on my own to the old building in Blackfriars. The school moved to its current site when I was in my third year. We had orientation days before it opened. They gave us all a map.
People say City has more of an academic and artsy atmosphere than people would expect from a public school...
I think having the playing fields in Grove Park made a difference. There was a demarcation between academic and sports prowess. If you were strong academically, that was recognised. If you were sporty, you had somewhere to go where that was recognised, too. But the two were quite separate.
I used to play table tennis as well as acting professionally. I got dispensation for outside activities so long as I kept up with my school work. So, some days I would do half a day at school then half a day filming then home at 11 o’clock, and I’d do my homework between takes.
The school didn’t make you a table tennis champ or a professional actor?
I’d already acted before I came to the school but my love of table tennis was awoken at the school – they had tables and so that may have started something.
Can you remember your first day at City?
There was a real sense of pride, from us as students but also from Mr Court. He was incredibly proud of us as a class. I remember him being very supportive, always wanting to champion us. He was a very positive influence. If I saw him round the school, all the way up to my last year, he would stop and chat. “How are you? What are you up to?” That kind of nurturing and support really can make a difference, I think.
Were there other teachers who were equally supportive?
Yes, lots. Mr Griffin. Mr Dyke. Mr Pike, Mr Cotton. They were History, English, Geography, Chemistry. Mr Dyke was my form teacher for my fourth and fifth year. He was an English teacher. He was a really hard marker. He used to mark things out of 20: if you got a 17 that was like an A star! Once I got an 18 and I asked him how I could have got a 19 or a 20 and he said, ‘Well, they don’t exist.’
Which subjects did you enjoy most?
I enjoyed Biology, Chemistry, English, French… Mr Allwright and Mr Laidlaw, the teachers still there, are in the modern languages department. I actually spoke to them at the end of my talk recently.
We all remember our good teachers but we also remember the bad ones… An off-the-cuff remark from a teacher, with no spite, can have a strong negative impact on someone but I don’t remember a lot of that at City. I have a form of dyslexia and that presented its own challenges.
My overwhelming memory is that I was always encouraged.
What happened on your last day?
It was an exam. It was a very mixed feeling; my last day there before I went to boarding school for sixth form… after we finished, we went into town and had something to eat…. We signed each other’s shirts - mine ended up in the wash, accidentally…
Which show first inspired you to go on the stage?
I was taken to 42nd Street at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane for my birthday. The sheer scale of it took my breath away. I still remember the lights dazzling my eyes and thinking: “I want to be an actor”.
And then also the film West Side Story, that I saw quite young, remains one of my favourites. To get the chance to be in that in the West End was a dream come true.
Your CV is packed – have you avoided the spells of unemployment that are usually typical for actors?
The thing with the acting is that at any given time, there’s probably about a 97 per cent unemployment rate in the industry. Most actors have fallow periods. You have to figure out what to do in the in-between times. For me, the voiceover jobs are my bread-and-butter money: narrating audio books and doing the audio for English-learning courses.
I’ve never been a waiter but I’ve done a lot of promotional work, handing out free stuff at stations, right up until five or six years ago. Here’s how crazy it can be… around 2013-2014, I filmed the movie version of Mrs Brown’s Boys; Mrs Brown Boys D’Movie. I was flown to Dublin for the premiere. Red carpet. Five–star hotel. I came back to London and the following day, I was demonstrating juicers in John Lewis Oxford Street!
Whereas most people who go to City go into industries with a clear career path, acting is different: some people might say you’re doing really well, and at the same time, others will say you haven’t done much!
Which role do you look back on as your creative high?
Each job brings its own challenge, but the one that comes to mind is Bombay Dreams.
I’m not trained in musical theatre, so to be have a lead role in a groundbreaking musical and to play such a unique character… I played a eunuch called Sweetie and the eunuchs of India dress as women… those within the Asian community recognise that character straight away but in the West End, part of my job was to make that character accessible to people who had no prior knowledge of what that character is…
I did eight show a week for two years at the Apollo Victoria, where Wicked is now. A 2200-seater theatre. A big place. And the thing is that going to the theatre is expensive. There’s real sense of responsibility that people have chosen to come to see a show…
That show broke the mould; we would get a lot of fanmail and gifts and people waiting at the stage door for photos and autographs. That people would take time to write a letter or go out and buy a card, people have busy lives… it was a wonderful humbling thing.
We did a workshop for Life of Pi and one of the cast told me that he’d seen me in Bombay Dreams and that because of me, he’d been allowed to become an actor. And – look, I’m not saving lives; I’m not pretending I am - but in that context when someone says that to you, it means a lot.
But at one point you actually were heading towards a medical career, training to be an osteopath…
Yes, I left City after my GCSEs and I went to boarding school at Epsom College, which had great links with medical schools…
My interests were split between medical sciences and performing arts but I didn’t see anyone who looked like me onstage or in film. So I didn’t think there was a possibility of getting any work as an actor. So I thought I’d go and get a proper job.
That’s why I’m such an advocate for visual representation. If you don’t see it, you don’t know it’s possible.
So, I started at the British School of Osteopathy studied for a few years, but I realised it wasn’t for me.
I still sometimes wish I’d listened to my parents’ advice to finish my qualification before going into acting: when you’re between jobs, you do think if you had a proper job… but the fact that I don’t have too many of those days is a blessing. I am in a career that I love. Every day I go to work I’m doing something I love.