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'I was seen as either a junkie or a drunk'
Naveen Andrews was a teenage dropout, an alcoholic and a heroin user who fathered a child with his maths teacher. As the hit television series Lost begins a new run, its British-born star tells Emine Saner how he beat addiction, why he loathes middle-class racism, and about his love for a film star 21 years his senior
Tuesday February 5, 2008
Naveen Andrews. Photograph: Vince Bucci/Getty
'It's definitely been interesting and eventful, it's never been boring," says Naveen Andrews, leaning back on a plump sofa in an oppressively overdone London hotel room, his black curls spreading out behind his head like a halo. "Incredibly stressful at times, but it's been a ride. But I don't think I would have had it any other way." From there - teenage dropout, alcoholic, drug addict who fathered a child with his maths teacher - to here, a 39-year-old global TV star, seems like a big leap. It's hard to know where to start.
Perhaps we should begin on more solid ground, if the ridiculously confusing TV show Lost could ever be described as that. Now in its fourth season, the end is finally in sight. The hugely expensive TV drama, in which a group of aesthetically pleasing survivors of a plane crash find themselves on an island they have to share with, among other things, rogue polar bears, underwater bunkers, and a group of sinister inhabitants called the Others, will come to an end after the sixth season. All the bizarre, disparate storylines and questions will be tied up, but that isn't to say that Andrews has any intention of revealing what happens in the fourth series (the writers' strike in America has meant they haven't even finished shooting it, even though they have just started to screen it).
Andrews plays Sayid, an Iraqi and former Republican Guard soldier. Today, he seems to have raided Sayid's wardrobe, wearing a tight white vest that shows off his arms - hard and brown and shiny as conkers - but his accent is pure south London. He talks measuredly, as if feeling his way through. All he will say about what happens in the new series is "You'll see him in a new light and it's genuinely surprising. It took me by surprise. There is romance, but I can't say where it is or how it is. It's a bit raunchy."
Even he doesn't know if Sayid will make it to the end (from flash-forwards at the end of the last season, we know that some of the survivors do get off the island). I hope he does - he is by far the best character and didn't have nearly enough to do in the last series. The reaction to the character in America, Andrews says, has only been good. "I'm just going from walking down the street and meeting people," he says. "That's also a way in which you can, in some small way, change things. I guess people would be assailed by propaganda into seeing the so-called enemy, and we were offering something different. It was unusual at the time. After we shot the pilot, I was very pleased with what he developed into - the leap of faith that the writers took and the courage they had to show an Arab, at that time with the war, in a particular light that you don't really see in Hollywood or anywhere else for that matter. Somebody who was capable of extreme violence and yet was maybe romantic, capable of heroism." What I like about him (putting aside his penchant for torture for a moment) is that he's so practical - he's the man they all go to when they need to fix stuff. He's sensible. "Not like me at all," says Andrews.
I can't decide if Andrews actively seeks out a chaotic life, or it just happens to him. Whatever, it never seems to defeat him, either by luck or the sheer force of his charm. He grew up in Wandsworth in the 70s and 80s when it can't have been much fun for a British Asian boy. "It wasn't," he says. "I don't want to make it into a sob story. I'm sure plenty of people my age from similar backgrounds had to go through the same thing. Wandsworth at that time was quite working class and there was one other Indian family in the street; everyone else was white. It was hard, but at the same time I kind of preferred the racism from the working-class people - they let you know where it's at straight away - than from the middle classes that came later on." When he became an actor? "Yes. People who would blanch at the idea of being thought of as being racist when they know that it ******* well is obvious." He thinks for a minute. "But I don't know; I was so completely out of it by that point so I'm sure [directors] thought about that rather than my race. I'm sure I must have made it very difficult to be considered anything other than a junkie or a drunk. So I've got to be fair."
It's too simplistic to say that Andrews's drink and drug problems - he was addicted to heroin and alcohol throughout his 20s - were rooted in a hellish childhood, but it contributed. His parents had moved to England from Kerala in southern India in the middl