EastEnders airs Shakil Kazemi’s final scenes next week as he tragically passes away in hospital after being stabbed by a gang.
Show bosses are hoping to raise awareness of knife crime with the topical storyline, which brings Shaheen Jafargholi’s two-year stint in the role of Shakil to a heartbreaking end.
Here, Shaheen talks about the story for the first time and reveals how he feels about leaving EastEnders.
How did you react when you found out about this storyline?
“As an actor, I was privileged to have a storyline with so much meaning underneath it and the chance to raise awareness about knife crime. It’s such an important issue to tackle.”
What’s it been like to play the story?
“It’s been a bit strange, because it’s nothing like I’ve ever experienced in my life. The most important part for me when it came to tackling how I was going to do it was making sure it was done as realistically as possible. That involved doing a lot of research.
“We’ve been working with the Ben Kinsella Trust on the storyline really closely so there has been lots of information from them.”
Do you feel a responsibility with exploring this real-life issue?
“100%. This is a massive responsibility for everyone involved in the storyline. Especially right now with how intense the problems of knife crime have become around the UK. I’m really pleased we’re doing this storyline, it’s so important.”
How has it affected you in real life? Has it been tiring?
“I’ve always managed to have a sense of detachment from what I do in work and in my private life. The only thing that’s been at home for me is the research element, which I’ve got quite into as I want to do a good portrayal. So the only thing that’s spread into my home life is the research.”
Is there anything you’ve learned from this storyline?
“I think just learning the actual scale of the problem. I’ve been keeping an eye on the reality of the knife crime problem that’s going on and seeing day-to-day how much of an issue it is. It’s shocking.”
The story starts next week when Keegan steals a bike. How does Shakil react?
“I think it’s a typical moment for these two friends. The dynamic of Keegan and Shakil since day one has been Shakil picking up the pieces after Keegan messes something up. So I think it’s no shock to Shakil. He sees Keegan has stolen the bike and thinks how he can fix it.”
Shakil ends up in trouble when he decides to take the bike back himself. Does he have any idea of the danger he’s in?
“I think he does. It’s been put on social media that a bike’s been stolen and Shakil soon realises it’s Keegan. I think he’s aware of the possible danger but not to the actual extent of what it is.”
How does it feel for this to be your exit storyline?
“I feel really privileged and proud. As an actor, I was excited when [EastEnders‘ executive consultant] John [Yorke] first told me the idea of what was going to happen – it’s such an important storyline.
“It’s hopefully going to help so many people and bring light to the situation. It’s something that needs to be spoken about, especially at this moment in time. I’m so grateful and humbled.”
Would you have preferred the door to be left open?
“Obviously I love the environment here. I have had such a good time here and I’ve made some incredible friends and memories, and it’s like anything that you join that you love, you never want good things to end.
“But on the flip side of that, no-one stays forever, it’s the nature of the business, but I feel really privileged with this storyline.
“I also think it was right for Keegan and Shakil to be involved because it’s people their age that this is happening to in real life. Sadly, a lot of stabbings are fatal. Then there’s a whole family and world of people who are left with the consequences and have to deal with this for the rest of their lives.
“That’s the part of the story that’s going to be crucial to tell, because that’s the part that the majority of us don’t see or experience. If neither of them died, we wouldn’t be showing all the consequences of knife crime and that’s the important part. As I’ve said, I’m just really humbled to be doing this storyline.”
Is there anything you want the story to achieve?
“I think number one for me is raising awareness. The thing about the news is that it delivers facts and figures, it doesn’t show the story and trauma and timeline that comes after.
“It’s not just as simple as one incident and that’s it. It impacts people for a long time, if not forever, for everybody involved. It’s scary how many young people carry a knife, so I want young people to watch this, as it needs to change. If even one person can stop carrying a knife, we’ve made a difference.”
How did you react when you read the scripts?
“I was really intrigued by how it was all going to happen, because I knew the overall storyline but not the details. When I read the scripts, you could really feel the emotion. A lot of research goes into these types of stories and I think that really came across in the scripts.”
What’s been your favourite Shakil moment?
“There’s been a few! There was a scene once when there was a sponsored cycle and they put me in these really tight lycra shorts, it was so funny!
“I also enjoyed when I got to do a fight scene. It was quite early on in my experience here, and I was told I was going to have this big fight at the school. There was so many supporting artists all cheering on in the background and I had never done anything like that before. It was exciting for me to throw myself into it.”
Have you had a favourite on set moment?
“It’s a difficult one because I have made so many friends, especially Tilly (Louise), Jasmine (Bex) and Zack (Keegan). We predominantly work together so there have been countless amounts of jokes and funny moments. I can’t say just one single thing. There’s never been a dull moment. And that’s the vibe of this place in general. Everyone is so fun and easy going.”
What’s next for you?
“I’m going to be doing music again, which I’m excited about. I took a break in my teenage years to finish school and then have been on EastEnders. So now I’m leaving and will be putting my energy into going to the studio and creating music. I’ve got an album nearly done already.”
EastEnders launches this storyline on Monday, May 21 at 8.30pm on BBC One.
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