Ray Panthaki: Mapped out

The British actor is in two big TV productions and has a film in the can. Now he wants to turn his attention to doing more directing

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When Ray Panthaki got a call from Bafta telling him he’d been named a Breakthrough Brit, he was under strict orders to keep the news to himself, but there was one person he couldn’t keep the secret from.

“I told my dad, who broke down and started crying, which happens very rarely. He’d just seen how hard I’d worked, seen the highs and lows, seen the times I’d had to scrape coins together just to get on the train to go to an audition. He’s been through it all and he supported me all the way, so it was just a really beautiful moment to secretly share that news with him,” says the 42-year-old actor and filmmaker.

The accolade was awarded in 2014 and couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune time. By then, Panthaki had spent two years in EastEnders as Ronny Ferreira, starred in and co-produced the films Kidulthood and Convenience, written and directed the short film Life Sentence about the knife crime epidemic – winning Best Short at the East End Film Festival – and performed at the Royal Court Theatre. But he was feeling frustrated.

“It was like I’d reached a place I couldn’t get beyond,” he explains. “I’ve always grafted, always worked hard. That’s something I’ve taken from my dad, who’s been an incredibly hard worker all his life and always drummed it into us. While I’d worked in all sorts of realms, I kept hitting a glass ceiling and then this phone call from Bafta comes along unexpectedly, essentially saying they were aware of things I’d been doing. It felt like validation. In an industry where perception is everything, suddenly doors were opening.”

Through a mentoring scheme, he was introduced to the likes of Bond producer Barbara Broccoli and Dunkirk director Christopher Nolan, as well as other industry figures who inspired and motivated him to keep going.

“I’ll forever be grateful and shout from the rooftops about it because it really shifted something for me,” says Panthaki, who’s since appeared in the period feature Colette and real-life thriller Official Secrets, both starring Keira Knightley, as well as the ITV crime drama Marcella, which recently returned for a third series.

Created by Hans Rosenfeldt, the man behind the Nordic noir The Bridge and co-written with Nicola Larder, the series has developed a loyal following since its debut in 2016, but fans had to wait three years for the latest instalment, which was shot back in 2019.

“It’s been a long time and so much has happened. I was looking through notes just to trigger my memory,” admits the actor, who plays detective Rav Sangha alongside Anna Friel in the title role.

By the concluding episode of series two, Marcella was living on the streets, having done everything to eradicate any remnants of her identity, even slashing her face after finally acknowledging she’d accidentally smothered her own baby. Now the perfect candidate to work undercover, in series three, now on ITV Hub, she’s infiltrated the Maguire crime family as part of an investigation.

Sangha, who was left for dead after being hit on the head by a fleeing Marcella, is tasked with investigating the Maguires following the murder of the Foreign Secretary’s son, which leads the former colleagues to an unexpected and problematic reunion.

“It’s not a whodunit anymore, so it’s almost like a Marcella reboot, although it still has interweaving stories and the tension and intrigue.”

“Initially, it’s like he’s seen a ghost and everything he thought he knew starts to unravel. While he has mixed emotions towards Marcella, he sees the danger she’s in and has a huge dilemma. It’s a real character journey for him,” says Panthaki who’s great friends with Friel. “She’s a such a fantastic actress and we always have a good laugh.”

They’re essentially the only original faces to return as the action’s moved from London to Northern Ireland, but it’s not just the cast and location that’s changed. The tone is markedly different this time.

“It’s not a whodunit anymore, so it’s almost like a Marcella reboot, although it still has interweaving stories and the tension and intrigue,” says Panthaki, who credits Rosenfeldt with creating a programme that requires the audience’s full attention.

“With so much content these days, you have to be doing something that keeps people gripped, otherwise their eyes will go down to their iPhone and you’ve lost them. Hans writes in such a beautiful, intriguing way, you don’t have time to miss a beat of what’s happening, otherwise you’ve lost your way in the story.”

Panthaki shot another crime drama, Sky’s Gangs of London, at the same time. “There was a lot of back and forth between London and Belfast,” says the actor but he acknowledges it’s a privileged position to have two productions “work tirelessly” to ensure you can star in both their projects.

Reflecting on his childhood in London, he says no one would have guessed a life in the limelight beckoned.

“I was a very shy kid and felt insignificant for whatever reason. I thought acting was something that would give me significance, like it did to a boy in my class who got a lot of attention from girls. So I came home one day and told my parents I wanted to be an actor. They were surprised but supported it and got me into a local drama school.”

Finding himself surrounded by extrovert showbiz kids was “awful” for the 12 year old.

“The singing and dancing didn’t interest me because I couldn’t do any of it, but there was just something about acting that drew me in, so I stuck it out. It became a love of mine and allowed me to come out of myself and become someone else and I enjoy that aspect.”

He’s resolutely protective of his personal life, which is why he keeps social media to a minimum. “I’ve started doing a little bit more but I don’t think I’ll ever have people delving into my private life through videos. It’s not who I am,” says Panthaki, describing himself as “incredibly shy, awkward and insecure”.

It’s why he finds photoshoots and industry events “excruciating”.

“I’ve learnt how to manage and disguise it by playing characters but look at any photo of me and you can see how scared I am faced with all those photographers. There has been many a time where I’ve just run down the red carpet.”

But he endures it because it’s part and parcel of the profession, the drawback of a job he’s taken seriously since a “lightbulb moment” at the age of 14.

He’d been cast in a local production of A Chorus Line and given a two-page monologue. “My character comes out to the director and during the scene I started crying and looked out into the audience and saw they were too. I just had this feeling that what was happening within me was something I couldn’t control. I realised, no matter what, this is what I have to pursue, like a calling.”

In the early days of his career, he appeared in The Bill and Doctors, a rite of passage for burgeoning actors, as well as The Armando Iannucci Shows, Spooks, Ali G Indahouse and 28 Days Later, supplementing his income with more mundane work when he needed to.

“I did struggle with the nine to five. I just knew it didn’t suit me and it just wasn’t who I was, but you take what comes and keep grafting away and then hopefully, one day, you find yourself in the promised land, which is having a choice of projects,” says Panthaki.

He’s keen to use his platform to promote diversity on screen. “Have things got to a place where they should be? Perhaps not but they are changing, and you can only applaud that and be grateful. Any significant change or movement doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a period of time and I certainly feel we are moving in the right direction.”

It’s why Panthaki was proud to be part of the diverse ensemble cast in Away, a Netflix series about a group of astronauts on a mission to Mars co-starring Hilary Swank.

“I had the best experience of my life shooting that in Vancouver. I’ve always been fascinated by what’s above us, and it was putting something positive out into the world. I also got to chat to astronaut Mike Massimino, our consultant. What an amazing man – you could just talk to him for hours.”

When Away wrapped, he headed to Los Angeles with the aim of taking a break but was offered Boiling Point, a film set in the pressurised environment of a restaurant kitchen that would be filmed in a single take, “like a play”.

The ambitious project was too tempting to turn down, so he headed to London where the cast, including Stephen Graham, rehearsed for days before the cameras rolled.

“We were very lucky as we managed to get the film in the can before productions shut down due to Covid but because of the restrictions I haven’t been able to get out to LA where half my stuff is,” reveals Panthaki.

He’s spent the last year in London.

“I want to create my own stories with something important to say, a social message behind them.”

“I’d just love to be able to see my family. That’s the thing that gets me most but I’ve been doing a lot of writing and catching up with things that have been hanging over me. Just kept myself creative and my mind occupied really.”

Panthaki taught himself how to produce, direct and write for the screen. He’s keen to do more directing following 2013’s Life Sentence, and another short, Ernie, one of numerous films commissioned as part of the Uncertain Kingdom anthology, released last year.

“I want to create my own stories with something important to say, a social message behind them that has an effect on society around you. Being on set as a director for the first time was like another lightbulb moment for me, and in a weird way, it comes more naturally to me than acting does – but it’s the acting that allows me the financial stability to go out and put my art into the world.”

It also provides much-needed variety. “I’m able to do an acting gig for several months, and then focus on writing and directing. I always need change in my life and stepping into the unknown is what gets me up in the morning.”

Marcella is available on ITV Hub. Away is on Netflix. Photo: Buccaneer Media

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