It’s A Kind Of Magic: EP Talks To Ali Cook, From New Film, ‘The Call Up’

The Call Up’ follows a group of elite online gamers when they each receive a mysterious invitation to trial a state-of-the-art virtual reality video game. It’s a dream come true and impossible to resist.

Arriving at the test site, the group step into hi-tech gear and prepare for a revolutionary, next-level gaming experience that brings modern warfare to life with frightening realism. At first it’s a unique and exhilarating experience, but what starts out like a dream encounter with cutting edge technology, quickly takes a turn for the sinister.

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Lisa had the absolute pleasure to speak to Ali Cook, who plays Edward, a rich city boy, who uses gaming as a distraction from his busy life.

EP: Thank you so much for speaking to us – You’re also a magician aren’t you – in my research I watched your appearance on ‘The Slammer’, and you escaped from your version of Houdini’s Water Torture Cell [Ali laughs] and you were chained, and the tank was locked and strapped shut, and yet you managed to escape – and I’m not going to ask how it’s done of course, but it’s incredible isn’t it – is it an easy transition from magic to acting? Is it all about illusion, do you think?

The trick that killed Houdini

AC: That’s a good question! A very famous magician, Robert-Houdin in the 19th century said, “A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician”. So I heard that when I first became a magician, then I began doing acting classes, and I was doing so many shows I didn’t have time to go to acting school – magic pays very well bizarrely, because there’s not many of us – so I used to do classes with a lady called Dee Cannon who was the head teacher at RADA, and I used to just cram in with her when I wasn’t doing gigs. But the original intention was just to be a better magician, and magic has been really good to me, I’ve had a great time being a magician, that was how it started. And then I was doing a show, and a guy who was studying under Stephen Frears saw me at a comedy club, and he asked me to be in a short film, and that’s when I started acting.

EP: Ah! I might have seen that short film – Is that ‘The Date’?

AC: Noo! That was just a bit of fun!

EP: That was so sad!

The Date - Award winning short film about a magician on a first date

AC: [laughs] No, this one was called ‘Stricklem’ and it was directed by Andrew Saunders. And it was shot on film too, and Andrew Saunders really is a phenomenal director, and I’m sure people will be seeing more of him. He was at the National Film And Theatre School, the NFT School.

EP: So he’s a name to watch out for?

AC: Yes! I still think it’s the best thing I ever did, and it was the first thing I really did.

EP: Is it on YouTube? Can I look it up later on?

AC: If you look on his Vimeo it has a clip of it, and I’m basically bullying somebody as we walk down a hill. It was a scene from a larger short film, and I still think it’s the best thing I’ve done, in terms of my acting.

EP: I’ve been reading your blog as well, and I really like your ideas regarding illusion. Do you think we actually do have the power to choose our own destiny? Or do you think it’s all about circumstances pulling together? Like the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon?

AC: Oh yes, well that’s the eternal question! It’s the Forrest Gump answer isn’t it! I think sometimes things seem to happen, and you’re like, “There’s NO WAY that could happen!”

EP: Like all the ducks line up and you think…

AC: Yeah! But unfortunately none of those happen enough for anybody…

EP: A lot of it’s down to in retrospect isn’t it, you go, “hang on…”

AC: Yes! The guy who wrote ‘Black Swans’, Nassim Taleb, he said that, “Humans go looking for the answer retrospectively”: which is plausible, but I don’t know, I think we do have intuition, and I think occasionally, something seems to kick into place for everybody.

EP: It’s like the gut instinct isn’t, like gamblers and investors say they feel it, that this is a sure thing.

AC: Yeah! Whether that’s good or not, who knows, but there’s another famous quote from a magician, which is, “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary, for those who don’t, no explanation will suffice”. And I think that pretty much summarises the whole issue really, and it’s very hard to convince a person one way or the other, once they’ve made up their mind, people are essentially a believer in something, or they’re not.

EP: I’m going to go off-piste here, but, you would get that in your magic shows wouldn’t you? People who are utterly convinced that, “It’s all a trick” and then there’s the ones who are like…

AC: Yeah! It depends on the mind-set. I remember years ago when I first became a magician, I did a show and this girl – this is really weird – she’d come out of some religious cult, maybe six months ago – and I showed her a simple card trick, and ran out of the room, because she’d thought I was using the power of the devil. She’d had that indoctrinating as a child. People wouldn’t believe me, but it happened.

EP: Bearing all that in mind – going back to my notes – in acting, if all of a sudden you were only offered roles set in war zones, for instance, what would you attribute that to? Because you’ve done ‘Kajaki‘, and now you’re doing ‘The Call Up’, which is basically…

AC: A war film…

EP: Yeah! Do you get thousands of war films in your inbox and you have to go through them all and choose one…

AC: [both laugh] I wish! I think at the current age I am, I look like somebody who would be a soldier, especially when my hair’s short. I think that’s what it comes down to. And also one of the big things in ‘Kajaki’ was that everybody had a regional accent, which was actually very tough in ‘The Call Up’, because I had to spend a lot of time eliminating my regional accent, which is easier said than done, and you have to practice every day and really work at it. I actually really like playing soldiers. I like war films. I used to entertain the troops out in Bosnia and Kosovo when I was younger. I’ve certainly seen that life, to an extent, when people are stuck out on a post, I’ve quite a bit of experience there. Also when we made ‘Kajaki’, we trained with the Paras as well, which was a fantastic experience.

EP: Well that’s sort of answered my next question, which was, ‘The Call Up’ is about illusion really isn’t it, on a grand scale it’s about a Virtual Reality game that ends up being more than just virtual – but with ‘Kajaki’, you’re actually in a war situation, but it’s pretend war situation…

AC: The commentary in ‘Kajaki’ is, “Look what we as a country sweep under the carpet, and look what’s really going on with these 19 year olds, in a country we don’t try to mention much in the news”.

EP: It’s kind of like the modern Vietnam, isn’t it.

AC: And what was so powerful about ‘Kajaki’ was that it wasn’t about, “should we be there or not”, because it was people trapped in a land mine area, land mines had been laid by the Russians, and that’s why it was such a powerful film, and that was absolutely, legitimately, “You’re a real soldier, and this is how real soldiers are” whereas, the commentary in ‘The Call Up’, is the other way around, people pretending to be soldiers, if suddenly presented with the reality – they would HATE it! [laughs] And so it also shows you the gruesome reality, and it’s awful. If you were really no longer an armchair soldier, and thrown into a real battle, how would you really fare? Everyone would hate it!

EP: And would you do it for only $100,000 US! 

AC: Would I do it??

EP: I wouldn’t! $100K? No way! What’s that in pounds? It’s not that much at all!

[both laugh]

AC: Well they don’t know what’s coming to them, really, they’re lured in there, it’s a trap.

EP: So when you’re faced with this film, and you put on your Virtual Reality suits…were they actually Virtual Reality suits?

AC: No it’s like Spandex, but they were made by the guy who made the outfits for ‘The Martian’, Rob Allsopp, and he’s a fantastic costume designer, but they’re not designed for comfort. One of the ideas of the suit was that they’re an equaliser, so that even the pretty girl looks the same as everyone else, in a grey suit. And then the other thing is that the concept is that these suits work in a way where they can simulate you into a virtual world. Which sounds crazy, but apparently that technology is only about 10 years away.

EP: Yes! I was going to ask that later – can you see a time when games like this are actually reality?

AC: I’m not an expert, but that’s according to our director Charles Barker, who’s obsessed with this research. You know the danger is when you watch films like ‘The Matrix’, that seems so ridiculous – but you watch films like this, and it seems ridiculous but it’s not actually that far away.

EP: Well exactly! I’m going to date myself here, but I remember going to the cinema and seeing the original ‘TRON’, and thinking, “that’s way distant in the future”, but that’s the kind of stuff that can be done now – like Quasar – my son is going to a Quasar party next week – it’s not much of a leap to go from Quasar to what you’ve got going on in ‘The Call Up’. 

1982 - Tron - Trailer

AC: Well…it’s still a leap, but it’s not a million miles away, it’s not a pipe dream, put it that way.

EP: So would you be able to do it? You in real life?

AC: NO WAYYYY!! [both laugh] I’m a terrible wuss! I’d hate it! I would absolutely hate it! No chance!

EP: So what about the character you play, Edward?

AC: Well he’s the other way around to me! He loves it. He’s in it for the thrill of the game as well. It’s a good mixture of characters, some of them are there purely to win the prize money. Morfydd (Shelly) and Max’s (Carl) characters, they’re purely there for the cash, this is a way to get money…whereas Edward, it’s assumed he’s a very wealthy, highly educated city boy, and like these city boys do, he’ll do anything for a bit of adventure, escapism.

EP: So it wasn’t really much of a leap for you to play that character!

AC: [laughs] Well he’s nothing like me! [both laugh]

EP: So how did you turn yourself into him? It’s your acting skills, isn’t it, but was it difficult to become him? I mean, first you’re becoming this completely different person, then you’re becoming this completely different person *in* a movie which is all about illusion…

AC: Yeah! I always think in a film that’s incredibly high concept, that the less you have to perform. The acting was very naturalistic, because the concept itself is so fantastical. So it’s a bit like, “Imagine a lawyer in a crazy computer game”. So you don’t have to overdo it or anything. Everyone’s got their own way of doing it. Physically, I lost a bit of weight, I shortened my hair, I got a tan, because he looked like the sort of guy who’s always on holiday, all over the world. And I was always wearing chinos and a blue shirt. This is a guy who would be at the polo match, if he wasn’t doing this. It’s the Alpha thing. I obviously also changed my voice. And then I had a friend who was a lawyer in the city, and I loosely based it on him.

EP: So you’re a method actor then, perhaps?

AC: [laughs] I’m a “just whatever the director likes actor” [laughs]

EP: That’s probably more the way to go! So what does the future hold for you? Do you have more magic up your sleeve? More films? More TV? All of the above?

AC: All of the above! I’m working on two films that will go into filming later this year, one’s another sci-fi film, and one’s a period drama gangster film.

EP: Wow! So is it difficult? You seem to be doing an awful lot! Do you compartmentalise it all? “This side over here is the magic side” “This side is the acting side” “this side is whatever…writing my blog”.

AC: I find when when one goes quiet for a while, and then the other one comes up for a while, they’re both precarious jobs at the best of times, so yeah, I just take it as it comes, really. And try to do exciting things. And a lot of the time it doesn’t happen, of course, you know, 9 out of 10 projects I’m involved in don’t happen, it’s that one out of 10 that might actually go somewhere.

EP: And that’s what keeps life interesting anyway, isn’t it!

AC: It is!

EP: If you don’t put your hand in, you’ll never find out!

AC: Exactly!

EP: Where can we see ‘The Call Up’?

AC: It’s on general release on the 20th of May, and then it goes on instant download and DVD on the 23rd of May.

EP: It’s just been the closing film for SciFi London Film Festival too wasn’t it! Did you go? 

AC: Yes I did! It was very cool!

EP: And where can we see you performing next? Do you have any shows coming up?

AC: Yes! I’m always performing, usually comedy clubs around London, particularly Lee Hurst’s comedy club – The Backyard Comedy Club, and The 99 Club – those are the two that I frequently do 2-3 times a month.

EP: So all your details are on your website?

AC: Yes – big shows go on the website.

EP: I’ve got a couple of quick fire questions for you: you’ve already answered my favourite character one. 

Who would you like to meet, living or dead?

AC: Oh! That’s a good question! I think, there’s a guy called Cy Endfield, who directed the film, ‘Zulu’, and a very little known fact, he wrote one of the best card trick books of all time! It’s called ‘Entertaining Card Magic‘ – he was a director and a magician!


EP: It’s interesting how that works! People have these side projects…okay – so what’s your favourite book then? I’m just going to chuck that in! Is that your favourite book?

AC: Probably – this is a technical magic book – it’s called ‘The Five Points In Magic‘ by a magician called Juan Tamariz.

The Five Points In Magic

EP: What’s so special about that?

AC: That’s a book about how to perform magic, and how to deceive people using body language.

EP: Cool! Last one! What question do you wish that someone would ask you in an interview, but nobody ever does?

AC: [both laugh] Would you like a cup of tea?

EP: How do you have it?  Thank you so much Ali for talking to us! Have a lovely day!

AC: No worries! You too!

‘The Call Up’ is the debut feature film from director Charles Barker. His previous credits include award-winning campaigns for international brands such as Vodafone, Nokia and Wella as well as FX short, (‘Indecision’), which was accepted into more than 60 film festivals all over the world.

He is also an award-winning genre screenwriter, specialising in action, science fiction and horror. ‘The Call Up’, topped the Brit List (British Black List) in 2011 as the best un-produced screenplay of that year, as voted for by industry peers. As a writer in the gaming industry, he recently had the opportunity of developing a new game for the Playstation 4.

Written and Directed by Charles Barker, The Call Up’ is produced by Matthew James Wilkinson (‘Gateway 6’, ‘SLR’, ‘Kaleidoscope’) of Stigma Films, John Giwa-Amu (‘The Machine’, ‘The Silent Storm’, ‘Little White Lies’) of Red & Black Films and executive produced by Alan Martin (‘The Machine’, ‘Stone of Destiny’, ‘Darklands’).

Max Deacon (‘Into the Storm’, ‘Hatfields & McCoys’) leads an ensemble cast, joined by exciting up-and-coming talent, including Morfydd Clark (‘Love & Friendship’, ‘Madame Bovary’, ‘A Poet in New York’), Ali Cook (‘Kajaki’, ‘The Anomaly’, ‘The Messenger’), Parker Sawyers (‘Zero Dark Thirty’, ‘Parkside With You’, ‘Monsters: Dark Continent’), Tom Benedict Knight (‘Dracula Untold’, ‘Houdini’), Boris Ler (‘Death in Sarajevo’, ‘In the Land of Blood and Honey’), and newcomers Douggie McMeekin and Adriana Randall.

Other executive producers include Richard Holmes (‘Eden Lake’), and Marzipan Productions. Isabelle Georgeaux (‘Resistance’, ‘Jadoo’, and ‘Keeping Rosy’), of Pont Neuf Productions, acts as Co-Producer. Part-funding is through Creative England’s West Midlands Production Fund.

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