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'We let the story tell itself because it's more dramatic than you could ever make up'

Over a three-day period in 2008, Pakistani terrorists occupied the opulent Taj Mahal hotel, with the ensuing events inspiring the new thriller Hotel Mumbai. Stars Jason Isaacs and Nazanin Boniadi talk to Georgia Humphreys about the message of the film

Under siege: from left, Nazanin Boniadi, Dev Patel and Armie Hammer
Under siege: from left, Nazanin Boniadi, Dev Patel and Armie Hammer

No one can deny that Hotel Mumbai is a brutal watch. The Sky Cinema Original film vividly portrays a true story: the 2008 siege of one of India's most famed hotels.

While it's a terror attack thriller containing extreme violence, there's an inspiring message within it, which was the appeal for two of its stars, Jason Isaacs and Nazanin Boniadi.

"With the current state of the world, where world leaders are driving wedges between us and capitalising on our differences, we need this sense of hope that we can do and be better - and I think that's what the film does," says Iranian-British actress Boniadi (39).

"It gives the lie to this nonsense that there's so much that divides us and we're so separate from each other, because all the divisions evaporated the second the bullets started flying. People's best natures came out, not their worst natures," adds 56-year-old Isaacs.

"We need reminding of that when we're told the opposite."

The gripping drama recalls how, between November 26 and 29 of 2008, a squad of young jihadist terrorists brought Mumbai to its knees with a co-ordinated series of shooting and bombing attacks. By the time the carnage had ended, more than 170 people from over a dozen countries had been killed.

During the three-day stand-off, chaos unfolded at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which a group of gunmen seized with over 500 people trapped inside.

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Isaacs and Boniadi play hotel guests, but their characters are composites.

The former is a steely Russian millionaire whose main interest seems to be protecting himself, while the latter portrays one half of a desperate couple (Armie Hammer takes on the role of her husband) who has to make unthinkable sacrifices to defend her newborn child.

Knowing they were playing amalgamations of fictional and real people didn't influence the way either approached the role.

"The things that you're seeing on screen actually happened, so you treat it with the same respect and authenticity and you try to be as true and as honest in the moment that you can," explains Boniadi.

"The man I'm playing is a composite, actually, of three people," says Isaacs. "I know who they are and I know what happened to them.

"We tried to get our egos out of the way and let the story tell itself because it's more dramatic than you could ever make up."

A potentially challenging aspect of a film like this is its portrayal of religion, given how the terrorists are depicted.

Did the stars see getting that balance right as a challenge?

"No. I think when you're dealing with a real-life situation, you have to not try to whitewash the situation," Boniadi says.

"(My character is) a British-Iranian woman. She is a Muslim and she comes from a Muslim background.

"There's one scene which is very powerful. I don't want to give too much away, but I call it the yin and yang of faith.

"It's up to us, as individuals, how we use faith. We can use it, on one hand, to instil and propagate hate. On the other hand, we can use it to bring about hope, resolve and courage.

"I think that was a powerful message for me and my character and the arc of my character in the film."

What's particularly fascinating about the feature is how it follows ordinary people from all walks of life.

Knowing that people went through such unimaginable horror made for an intense time while filming.

"You know, acting is just pretend, but you pretend the best that you can. We were imagining ourselves in flight or fight mode all day, keeping ourselves tense and anxious," recalls Isaacs.

"In fact, it's the only film I've done in 30-something years where we all went out together every single night.

"We felt that we needed to connect at night-time because during the day we were as close to really terrified as we could possibly be."

It was previously reported in the media that the father-of-two, who is married to documentary film-maker Emma Hewitt, wasn't looking to work when he was offered the part in Hotel Mumbai and had plans for a big family holiday.

However, once he read the script, he knew he couldn't turn down the role.

Asked how important the project was to make, Isaacs is philosophical.

"Is it an 'important' film? You make an important film and it feels like a worthy film," he says.

"It's a huge cinematic experience when you see it. It's intense. You feel drained by the end of it.

"Hopefully, on some subliminal level, you also maybe have a bypassing of the intellect and have a little bit of hope that maybe human beings are really capable of greatness.

"You know, an 'important' film sounds like a film you don't want to see. People should see it because it's what storytelling is about."

Hotel Mumbai is available to watch now on Sky Cinema and in cinemas

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