‘We all need to push for more stories that cater to everyone’: Bally Gill – Interview

By Olivia Emily

1 year ago

We caught up with the star of Allelujah

Arriving in cinemas this Friday, Bally Gill is the breakout star of Allelujah, appearing opposite Jennifer Saunders, Dame Judi Dench and Russell Tovey. Based on Alan Bennet’s play of the same name, and quintessentially British as a result, the film is centred on the geriatric ward of a small Yorkshire hospital threatened with closure. We caught up with Bally to chat all things Allelujah, what it’s like to work with Judi Dench, and taking life as it comes.

Interview: Bally Gill On Starring As Dr Valentine In Allelujah

Bally Gill in dappled light

Image by David Reiss. Styling by Olga Timofejeva. Hair and makeup by Charley McEwan.

Hi Bally, thanks for chatting with me today. You’re currently shooting in Vancouver – how is that going?

It’s good, thank you! I’m doing a project out here with Disney/ABC/Hulu. It’s going really well. I’ve grown my own moustache, as you can see. This is not a choice. This has been put upon me. But we are finishing soon – we’re finishing in the next three days, the episode that I’m in, anyway.

Cool! Is this your first Disney project?

It is, yeah. Although you never know who’s in collaboration with someone else. In America it’s Hulu, but everywhere else it’s Disney. It’s cool – they make some really amazing stuff! And also because I am a bit nerdy, I like all the Star Wars series that they make and the Mandalorian, all the Marvel stuff that they’ve started to produce. I’m very grateful as always to be filming.

What kind of show are you filming?

It’s a detective true crime thriller, I think. Based on real-life events.

What do you think of Vancouver?

I love it, to be honest. I love it out here. I’ve never been on this side of Canada before. I went to Toronto last year for the film festival – for Allelujah [which debuted at Toronto Film Festival] – but never this side. I’ve really enjoyed it! It is so picturesque and so scenic. There are mountains at the end of my road. Although, because of the scheduling and stuff, I haven’t been able to see loads of it. But I’ve got family here as well, which is nice; I saw them yesterday, which is really lovely. I only really get to see them every 10 years or something like that. So it’s been a real sort of warming and lovely journey. But I need to come back and do it properly, like when I’m a tourist and not working.

Speaking of Allelujah, this is your big-screen debut! How does it feel?

I’m still trying to process it, I think. I keep seeing see clips of other actors in it or talking about it, or Richard Eyre [the director] speaking about it on programs. Judi [Dench] was on Graham Norton recently, and I still pinch myself when I see a snippet of it, because I can’t believe it’s actually happened. And now I can’t wait for it to actually come into cinemas, because we filmed it at the end of 2021. So I just can’t wait for people to see it, and to enjoy it as well. It’s an incredible story, and it’s amazing to have been a part of it with all of these incredible actors. Just a dream come true.

Can you give us an elevator pitch?

It’s set in a hospital in Wakefield, and the government is trying to close it down. In an effort to save the hospital, we’ve invited a local news crew to come in and document the doctors, the nurses, people that work at the hospital, as well as the patients. But what actually happens is something more sinister, more dark, gets unearthed – something that shakes the foundations of what we’re doing.

You play Dr Valentine – can you tell us about your character?

Dr Valentine is the most incredibly warm, lovely human being possible. He’s from India, so he has this outsider’s perspective on the NHS – maybe it’s a bit idealistic, not as pragmatic. But he’s the person, if you were in that situation, you would want to be treated by. He is everything that we would want in care, personified in this human being. He’s at the forefront, fighting to keep the hospital alive. He really cares about people, and about the elderly that he is looking after. So you see his journey throughout the whole piece, and the trials and tribulations in learning about the care system in Britain as well.

Would you say you are personally similar or different from Dr Valentine? Do you feel like you’ve absorbed any of his personality traits in playing him?

I used to think I was really like him. I used to think he was just me. But we recently had a death in the family and needed to go through that sort of similar care. And actually, when it’s someone personal, you realise that you haven’t got a lot of those things that he has. He’s very brave. He’s very courageous. He listens intently. I wish I had a lot of those attributes when I needed them. I would love to lean into more of his traits.

How did you find filming? Who did you enjoy filming with most? 

All of them were incredible. Everyone says that, but I worry that if I say one person, the other people might get a bit upset! But honestly, all of them are incredible. You come in with expectations or preconceived ideas about these icons of British TV and film and theatre, so I started being really respectful and mindful of everyone, but actually was so lovely, and welcoming, and so down to earth as well. I would just be chilling with Judi Dench in the green room, or with Jennifer Saunders or Russell Tovey or David Bradley – people that I studied, or looked at their body of work, or that I grew up with as well. There are people in Allelujah that I looked up to when I was a kid, so getting to work with them was so… I just feel so grateful.

Do you have any funny stories from filming?

There was a scene that Richard asked me to do. David Bradley was sitting in one of the hospital beds, and all Richard said to me was ‘just walk past David, just look at him, give him a nod, and then walk over to another patient.’ I hadn’t really met David at this point. So I just walked past him, and he was in his bed, and he just had the most grumpy face. And all I could think was that’s Filch! He’s looking at me – like, Filch is giving me that really, really horrible look from the Harry Potter films. And I just burst out laughing. I wrecked the whole take. And they were all like, ‘what’s wrong with you? What are you doing?’. It was just like my childhood was hitting me in waves.

Any quirky ways you get into character?

I’m quite traditional, quite boring. I just did a lot of research and accent training. Although, on set, there was one thing put upon me: in rehearsals, I didn’t have all of my doctor costume on – you know, the T-shirt, the lanyard, the stethoscope – and I wasn’t doing my accent, and the other actors were like, ‘We just can’t see it, we can’t see that you’re Dr Valentine’ and ‘you’re not going to do it like that are you?’. And I was like ‘no, no!’, so I put my costume on, started doing the accent, and they were like ‘Oh, thank god. He’s here. The doctor’s in the room.’

You previously starred in shows like Sherwood, Slow Horses and This Is Going To Hurt – what has your favourite role to date been?

I really loved Sherwood. Again, it was a great ensemble cast, with Lewis Arnold directing. I loved spending a lot of time with Adeel Akhtar, who’s one of my go-to guys with his incredible body of work that he’s got; I love all of the stuff that he’s done. And getting to play this father-son relationship with so much in it – like, he kills my wife, which is an emotional ride, you know! I chased him across the busy dual carriageway! It felt very theatrical in terms of our prep and the conversations we had with each other, and in terms of Lewis making sure we were embodying the same world.

What’s a role you’d love to play?

James Bond, go on! Judy has advocated for me, so I think I’m in with a win. I think it’s coming soon.

Any roles in the pipeline that you’re excited about?

There’s a couple, but when I’m on a project I find it hard to look to the future. I just try and enjoy the moment as much as I can. But I’ve got a few things potentially. You might see me with a goatee sometime!

What’s a role that’s different to everything you’ve done so far that you’d love to do?

There’s loads! Especially in theatre, there’s loads of stuff that I would love to do. I’d love to do some more Shakespeare potentially – to do Hamlet, eventually, at some point. But yeah, in terms of TV and film, we just got started! I’m looking forward to the journey of it. I’m open and just letting it flow.

Who is an actor that you’ve learned the most from so far?

All of them! I steal stuff off all of them. Karen Fishwick – who was Juliet when I was Romeo in Romeo and Juliet – I learned so much from her. Playing these characters for a long time – it was about a year and three months that we played these characters – and going through that journey together over a long period of time taught me a lot. She’s definitely someone that I respect and admire. But then there’s also Adeel, for instance, or Judi, or Jennifer… Everyone has their own thing, their own style, their own vibe of how to do this job, and I’m always searching, I’m always learning from everyone. And it’s sometimes not even the actors that I’m learning off of: it’s like the creative team, the producers or the directors. Eventually that might be something I want to go into – actually telling the stories rather than being in the story.

Bally Gill, Richard Eyre, Alan Bennett and Judi Dench behind the scenes of Allelujah

Bally Gill, Richard Eyre, Alan Bennett and Judi Dench behind the scenes of Allelujah. (Pathé UK)

Would you like to be a writer then? Or maybe a director?

I’d love to direct something, and write something, too. I think sometimes I find the writing process a little difficult. After the first or second draft, I kind of go, ‘OK, cool. I’m just gonna leave that to the side for a second…’. And then I jump back into the acting field, and try to do that as well. I find it hard to compartmentalise, but I wouldn’t mind jumping into directing or producing a little sooner than writing. Writing is so vulnerable; acting is vulnerable, don’t get me wrong, but writing is another level of stress that I probably do not need to add to all the white hairs that I currently have. So I might park the idea… I’ve said it to you now, but I’m thinking I might park it for a minute.

You’re one of very few male South Asian actors breaking into the industry right now – what has it been like navigating the media space?

Good and bad. There’s loads more opportunities for South Asian actors. But, in terms of the stories and the parts that we get to tell, we’re still not that far forward. It’s really tough, because ‘South Asian’ is such a wide spectrum. There’s so many different subsets and sections of what South Asian people are: who we are and what we represent. It’s really tricky to get the diversity of stories told on TV and film and in theatre in the UK. I’ve been very grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had, and for everyone who’s come before me. But we need to push a little further: we all need to push a little further and certain doors need to open for us to really have a wide variety of stories that cater to everyone. You know, to have a superhero film about British South Asian people, or a crime thriller, or a scary movie. Being able to tell those stories and tell them diversely, and also for them not to be a risk. Currently, it’s a risk – that they won’t sell. That’s something that is the next phase. I’d hope I’m a part of that – if I’m not, that’s okay, but if we just push it for as long as we can, keep scratching at the door a little bit, eventually it will open.

You’re currently filming in Canada – do you get to spend much time at home?

Yeah, and I feel quite blessed. I live with my partner and we have a lovely place in the west Midlands. Home is a massively important factor for me. My family and my partner, they’re what keep me grounded, keep me rooted and keep me sane, sometimes. I lean on them a lot. And I do appreciate when I am at home if I’m away for a long period of time.

Do you live in the town or the country? Which do you prefer?

A tricky question: I would say I live in town slash countryside. I grew up in Coventry, and then did the London life for a few years, and Birmingham – but now I have a big appreciation for nature, and going for walks and being healthier. The bustling city is not my vibe anymore. I got tired! Tired of the rat race, I think. 

How do you make your living space reflect you?

You know what, I love plants. I’ve got so many plants at home, and I’ve left them with my partner to look after, so hopefully she hasn’t killed half of them. But I love plants. And I just like a chill vibe. Usually I try to make my working space as relaxed as possible, so ideas come and flow.

What’s your relationship with social media like? 

People are pushing me to be better at it. I’m not obsessed, but sometimes I have had to delete Instagram, because I was looking at it too much. They got me with the algorithm. But I’m trying to use it in a more positive way.

How do you find balance in your personal and work lives?

I’m terrible at it. It bleeds over in this industry. The hours are always so unpredictable. You move to another country for a while – for months or even years sometimes. Normally when I’m at home, though, I really enjoy my home time and my family time. But I have spent years learning to be appreciative of home life, relaxed life. My natural default is work work work. Like Rihanna. I’m trying to find a healthy balance. Losing a family member this year has put it a bit more into perspective for me. 

What’s your favourite thing to do to wind down?

A little bit of everything. I find it hard to watch anything when I’m working, but there’s so many things on my list. The Last of Us, The White Lotus, The Woman King, The Whale. But other than watching, mainly communication. Talking. Chilling.

Did you always want to be an actor?

Nah. I had no idea for years. I was just going to copy what my sister did. But she ended up working in genetics in and lab… I remember her distinctly saying to me, ‘You’ve got to pick your own destiny.’ So I said, ‘OK, cool. I’ll be an actor.’ And she said, ‘Umm, don’t think so! I meant pick something reasonable!’

But then I told my dad, and he was like, ‘OK…’, because I was quite shy as a child, but then he said, ‘So how do we go about that? Should we write to the local theatre group?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know! Yeah, go on then!’. 

If you could give advice to your 15-year-old self, what would it be? 

Don’t worry too much about things. I think loads of people suffer from anxiety. I was quite anxious as a young person: anxious about going to school, my education, the future, what we’re going to do… I’d say pick something that you’re really passionate about, and that you enjoy doing, and then follow it up. I ended up doing that, anyway. So actually, I’d say the choices you made are the right ones. So trust yourself! 

How can we all live a little bit better?

Just be kind to each other. Be really mindful, and be really grateful for what you have. Check in with people: you don’t know how long people are going to be around for. You don’t know when our time is up, so just really enjoy people, and your loved ones and your friends. And do things as well. If you want to go on holiday, go exploring or travelling with your loved ones or just by yourself or whatever, just go and do that. Life’s too short. Go crazy! In moderation. Stay safe.

Quick Fire

I’m tuning into… The Last of Us

What I’m reading… Will Smith’s autobiography

The last thing I watched was… White Chicks

What I’m most looking forward to seeing… The Whale

Favourite film of all time… I love James Dean films, so probably Rebel Without A Cause

Band/singer I always have on repeat… Six60

My ultimate cultural recommendation… Travel. Experience people, cultures, faith, religions, cuisines… Embrace all of it!

Cultural guilty pleasure… I don’t have any! Food is my guilty pleasure. And cups of tea. Obsessive amounts. I’ve had to switch to decaf because I get the shakes. 

What’s next for me is… Returning to England. Going on holiday to France. Potentially going somewhere in the Middle East for a film opportunity…

Allelujah arrives in UK cinemas on 17 March 2023.

Featured image by David Reiss. Styling by Olga Timofejeva. Hair and makeup by Charley McEwan.