With two degrees under his belt, former male model Mem Ferda could have secured a steady, well-paid job. Instead the South Londoner plumped for the life of an actor and all the risks that this brings. And he’s never looked back!
The first thing that strikes you when you meet Mem is his height. At 6ft 2in (1.88 metres), he is the ‘tall dark and handsome’ archetype. Born in Lambeth Hospital in October 1963 to Turkish Cypriot parents, father Ferda (from Lefke) and mum Turkan (from Anglisides, near Larnaca), he is the youngest of three siblings, with sisters Şifa and Aydın.
They grew up in Kennington and Battersea, South London. Their father was absent for the first three years of Mem’s life, having returned to his native Cyprus to support Turkish Cypriots under siege during the civil unrest.
The tight-knit family suffered heartbreak when eldest daughter Aydın died of cancer aged just 26. Mem describes her as “the most incredible person I have ever known. Extremely intelligent (a solicitor), stunningly beautiful, and the warmest and most loving person you could ever imagine.”
Her death was hard for the entire family and it also changed Mem spiritually: “[It] nullified my faith in any form of belief system.”
As the baby of the family, he was always the centre of attention and seemed destined to act from a young age: “My mother would have me recite poetry, followed by a song and dance for family functions”, he explains.
Then, at the age of 19 while studying at university, he was approached by a talent scout in Covent Garden and booked for a photo shoot the very next day. A career in modelling beckoned.
With blue eyes, a tip-top physique and slick dark quiff, Mem was a certified hunk and in hot demand for photographic modelling and catwalk shows. He progressed to TV commercials and even appeared on MTV’s God’s Gift presented by Davina McCall. It was during this time that the acting bug bit Mem.
He enrolled on a course at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) and, after graduating, was snapped up by a well-known acting agent, who opened many more doors for the budding thespian.
Mem had initially trained in theatre. While it was “a lot of hard work for less money than film or TV”, he admits treading the boards offers an “amazing adrenalin rush”, especially as “the audience is right there in front of you, so the feedback is very immediate.” Yet film remains his favourite medium, as it allows “bigger budgets, more creativity and a slower, more controlled build-up of the storyline”.
Making his acting debut in ITV’s The Bill in 1995, Mem went on to feature in 66 TV shows and movies, including box office blockbusters Evita and Revolver, indie classic The Big Lebowski. His physical demeanour makes him the perfect villain, appearing in a slew of British gangster films including Ill Manors, Hard Tide, Pusher, and Plastic. He was badly injured while doing his own stunts in the latter, a true story about students doing a diamond heist. Squibs strapped to Mem’s body exploded as he got shot and crashed through a window, though the end result on screen looked, he tells me, “awesome”.
He has no problem being typecast as the baddie, as “no two villains are the same” and it’s helped him carve out a name, his intense onscreen presence making for compelling viewing. Yet he remains a versatile actor, taking on a wide range of roles, including a gentler character for Miss You Already (2015), where Mem appears as Achmed the taxi driver, confiding in his passengers (played by Drew Barrymore and Toni Collette) about losing his wife to cancer.
In 2004, Mem won Best Actor for Elshera at the Palm Springs Festival. In it, he plays Mustapha, a nasty criminal who abuses his cousin Elshera, an illegal immigrant of Iranian/Kurdish origin forced into his scams so she can help her family survive. The short film brings home the brutal life of many immigrants in modern Britain.
Another acting highlight is The Devil’s Double (2011), about Saddam Hussein’s sadistic son Uday. Mem plays Kamel Hannah – Saddam Hussein’s right-hand man who served as the dictator’s personal bodyguard, valet, food taster, and confidant. He explains his extensive research into Kamel’s life to get a sense of his physicality, from mannerisms, to speech patterns, dress sense, and personality. Director Lee Tamahori then asked Mem to put on 42 pounds for the role and wear a very heavy prosthetic stomach – not easy to carry given that filming was during a super-hot summer in Malta:
“It was filled with pig intestines and organs, all contained under a very thick layer of silicone. I had to wear this, strapped to my body all day, every day. It was cut open by a real sharp knife when Kamal was disembowelled.”
The gruesome scene was one of the movie’s most memorable, mentioned by film critics and audiences worldwide. And gore is something Mem has increasingly pursued as he spreads his wings into producing.
He’s enjoyed critical success with half-a-dozen low-budget horror movies. Two recent ones, Truth or Dare (2013) and Mania (2015), won 13 film awards and were nominated for three others.
When talk turns to mentors, without hesitation Mem recognises the importance of his LAMDA coaches. He loved being at the drama school, surrounded by others who shared the same passion and desires, but it was his coaches who gave him: “a sense of purpose, and immense encouragement and support.”
He says, “The techniques taught and the insight into developing one’s talent were invaluable. This was all the help I needed to channel my ‘God given talent’. And I sincerely believe you can’t learn to act: you either can or you can’t.”
Asked who he admires most in film, he lists Sean Penn, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Marlon Brando among his favourite actors. Of his contemporaries, he cites Tom Hardy, Idris Elba, Ben Affleck, Christian Bale and Johnny Depp, some of whom he’s had the chance to act alongside.
During his 22-year career, Mem has also worked with many leading directors, including Alan Parker (Evita), Guy Ritchie (Revolver), Joel Coen (The Big Lebowski), and Julian Gilbey (Plastic). Those he regards as “inspirational” include David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, David Cronenberg, Quentin Tarantino, and Michael Winterbottom.
Yet life could have turned out very differently for Mem. With two degrees – a Master’s degree in Business Administration and a Bachelor’s in psychology – it’s clear he is super-brainy. I ask if he was ever tempted to choose a career based on his academic studies rather than the unpredictable and often poorly-paid life of an actor. It seems initially Mem did suppress his desire to be an entertainer:
“My father disapproved [of acting] given the uncertainty of the profession. I took heed and instead worked as an executive recruitment consultant in Piccadilly. I also tried my hand at various business opportunities and professions. It was the most monotonous, soul-destroying and unhappiest period of my life.”
“If someone is destined for the arts, then that’s where they should be left to flourish. One thing I’ve learnt in life is that it’s impossible to be the best at what you do if you have no passion for what you’re doing.”
Still his work as a producer draws on numerous skills he developed as a student, from planning to finance. He explains that the multi-faceted role starts with selecting a script that could be turned into a great film, then finding the right cast along with the casting director. He also helps pick the artistic and technical team, which includes the all-important director and, most critical of all, arranging investment.
“It gives you a real sense of achievement and fulfilment when a film you’ve produced is completed and out in the public domain, and you see it on a shelf in Sainsbury’s as you go about your weekly shopping”, he says laughing.
Mem Ferda: “It’s impossible to be the best at what you do if you have no passion for what you’re doing”
Given the difficulties ethnic minority actors have in Britain, I ask if he’s ever been tempted to relocate to America, like fellow actors Idris Elba and David Oyelowo have done. Mem says it’s not for him:
“I spoke with Idris on this matter when we were filming Legacy together. It’s hard for me to set up over in the USA, at this stage in my life as I have my elderly parents that are dependent on me. Dad is 90 years old and mum is 84. Also my wife and I are very happy living in London. I don’t feel going to live in the US will create more opportunities for me. My manager and agent are US based, so I have both the UK and US covered.”
However, he admits the lack of diversity and ‘whitewashing’ – where white actors are cast for roles better suited to people of colour – remain significant issues in the film industry. While TV is improving, his own journey in film illustrates the bigotry and ignorance black actors are up against:
“Hell, it hasn’t been a wide-open road of opportunity for me either, being of Turkish origin. Even though I was born, educated and lived in London my entire life, and worked in the industry for over 20 years, there are still casting directors that think I’m not fluent in English and that I talk with a heavy accent. It’s fucking unbelievable! Yes, I do have an accent, it’s called a South London accent!!” he exclaims.
Talking to Mem, you quickly learn one thing: you can’t pigeonhole him. When we discuss interests outside of work, he lists music as a big one. One of his favourite bands is Thin Lizzy (and there’s me thinking he’d be a soul boy), but he also loves pop, reggae, classical and Turkish music.
His biggest passions are photography and fast cars (he drives a black Audi S3 Saloon and is looking to get an Audi R8 next). And a friend is currently teaching him how to play golf. To keep fit, he has taken up Krav-Maga – a form of martial arts developed by the Israeli Army.
Family is important too. He laments the lack of time to see his relatives, now spread across Britain, Cyprus and Australia. He lost two elderly uncles in a matter of weeks in 2016, a sad reminder that however good social media is for connecting with family, there’s no substitute for seeing them.
Mem is also keen to thank his many Turkish fans: “I really want to reach out to the Turkish community, for their continued support throughout my career. If I have an opportunity to give back, influencing them in a positive way, I’d love to do be able to that.”
The actor is on the go non-stop, describing the last few years as “manic”, which he “thrives on”. He’s produced three television series for the US: Dystopia, No Easy Days, and Age of the Living Dead. He also released K-SHOP (horror in a kebab shop – British binge-drinkers beware!) and Monumental, while starring in multiple films.
Looking ahead, Mem is set to headline in two exciting thrillers. He plays Frank Mitchell, an associate of the Kray twins, in 1960’s gangster film Jailbird (2019). This true story, directed by multi-BAFTA winning David Blair, is about Mitchell’s escape from Dartmoor Prison. Mem’s second project is Gunfather (2020), a dark crime-drama similar to the cult film Get Carter. Mem takes on the leading role of Mike Demir (a Turkish Brit), a one man vigilante who goes in search of his missing son.
He’s also promised to finish his long-overdue autobiography titled Happy Agony. Progress, he says, has been “extremely slow”, but he is “progressively getting there”. We can’t wait!