Finally playing the “nice guy” in Channel 4’s Home, Youssef Kerkour talks dealing with culture shock, the balance of comedy and drama, and getting into the mindset of a refugee.
Kerkour has been working as an actor for almost 20 years and at six foot four he is used to playing the “killer” on screen, after roles in Strike Back and Nightflyers.
However, in Home he plays a loveable gentle refugee from Syria, who is looking to build a new life in the UK.
“As an Arab on screen I’d spent most of my life either killing people or being killed,” said Kerkour, “then I get this script about a refugee in the UK and he’s humanised.”
Kerkour was so in love with the script, written by Rufus Jones, that he took part in an unpaid reading for the BBC.
“I said no to the reading at first. I did readings when I started my career but I don’t tend do readings now,” he explained. “But I wanted to go to the audition just to tell [Jones] I love your politics and how you’ve treated an Arab character.”
The chemistry Kerkour had with Jones was so good he ended up getting the part, but it wasn’t until two years later that the first pilot was shot.
Kerkour thinks this was in part due to the attitude towards refugees at the time, “they were being called cockroaches,” said Kerkour, when he thinks back to the media stories.
“People were saying the children coming into this country were not actually children and to send all the kids back, all this horrible stuff. So, the BBC passed, but I wasn’t surprised because it was a really big issue.”
The series eventually found a home at Channel 4 and explores what would happen if a family returning from a holiday in France found a Syrian refuge hidden in their boot.
New couple Peter (Rufus Jones) and Katy (Rebekah Staton), and Katy’s son John (Oaklee Pendergast), find themselves in that very situation after returning home from Calais to Dorking.
Upon opening their boot, instead of finding their luggage they find Sami (Youssef Kerkour), a refugee who is hoping to claim asylum in Britain.
Forced together, they soon all learn the importance of home and the people who help make it.
Kerkour doesn’t think of Sami as a refugee. He said, “the word refugee is a title and something a lot of refugees are trying to shake off.”
Instead he refers to them as people who live in exile and said that they are often “more aware of how precious life is” and “they rely on the decency and kindness of people.”
With the topic of immigration and refugees being such a sensitive one, Kerkour was conscious to not alienate people and wanted to work out how to reach viewers don’t believe that refugees should be welcome in the UK.
“I didn’t want to offend anyone to the point that they tune out,” he explained. “I don’t believe anybody’s willingly evil or nasty, I think people parrot the headlines they read, but everybody’s inherently decent.”
In making the character of Sami as authentic as possible, on set advisor Hassan helped provide inspiration for the series.
Although Kerkour already spoke Arabic, having grown up in Morocco, Hassan helped him learn Syrian Arabic and specifically a Damascus accent.
“The key is to try and retain the emotion and truth of what you’re doing while you’re trying to put on an accent,” explained Kerkour.
“Every time Sami speaks Arabic it’s in moments of heightened emotion, so I’ve got to do the accent but not focus on it.”
Kerkour’s accent was so convincing, he received messages on social media asking if he was from Syria. For Kerkour, the thing that touched him the most was when people messaged to say how much they loved the show.
Kerkour has found the reaction to the show to be overwhelmingly positive, which gives him hope for refugees coming into the UK.
“Every time a fan online says how much they love the show and love Sami, they’re giving implicit acceptance of refugees in this country, the implication is you are welcome here,” said Kerkour.
Although Kerkour has never been in the same situation as Sami, he knows what it’s like to start fresh in a new culture.
Moving from Morocco, to New York, to London, Kerkour found himself suffering from culture shock.
“If you meet one or two people that are welcoming, you break out of your bubble, if you meet people that are unwelcoming, then you retreat further into what you know,” he explained.
Coming to London, Kerkour found it hard to make friends initially and there some aspects of UK culture he didn’t quite understand, for example panto.
“I thought panto was a person” Kerkour laughed.
Part of the success of Home, Kerkour thinks, is down to the balance Jones has created between comedy and hard-hitting moments.
“I think the brilliance of comedy is that you can reach places that drama can’t,” said Kerkour.
He believes, “the highest form of an audience’s experience is where you laugh as the comedy of it while crying at the truth of it.”
During series two, Sami is waiting for the decision to be made by the Home Office about his asylum status. After speaking to other asylum seekers, Kerkour learnt that being in this state of limbo often made people anxious and paranoid.
“That kind of pressure pulls and tugs at your identity. We decided in the first episode we need to see Sami lose his shit, then if we nail that for the rest of the episodes he can be all nice again, but at all times people are aware that’s what’s inside this guy,” Kerkour explained.
When it comes to the fate of series three, “that is definitely above my paygrade,” Kerkour laughed.
When Kerkour found out what Jones had planned for series three he was so excited he told Jones “lets film it on our iPhone if we have to”.
While Kerkour crosses his fingers for a third series, he added, “I just hope I have time to grow my beard back.”
Home is now available to watch on All4.
Youssef Kerkour was nominated for the Comedy Performance - Male award alongside Ncuti Gatwa and Alex Murphy & Chris Walley at the RTS Programme Awards 2020 in partnership with Audio Network. For more information on the awards, click here.