‘Shakespeare, Ibsen – I see myself in their work’

“People can be quite selective when it comes to ‘authenticity’ in drama,” Anjana Vasan shrugs. ‘No one seems to mind when a Prince of Denmark or a Duke of Verona speaks as if he had gone to Eton.’ But she notices that more questions are asked when someone with a different skin color plays a role in plays by Shakespeare and Ibsen. “People say the Western canon is so great that it can appeal to everyone. Then they find it surprising that someone like me sees themselves in that world.”

The 37-year-old – who won an Olivier Award last year for a heartbreaking turn as Stella in the Almeida Theatre’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire, and has received back-to-back Bafta nominations on television for We Are Lady Parts (2023), a channel 4 sitcom and Black Mirror: Demon 79 (2024) – credits her childhood in Singapore’s melting pot culture for her passion for diverse drama.

Vasan was born in 1987 in Chennai (formerly Madras), India, to Tamil Hindu parents and was only four years old when her family moved to Singapore. “I know some people see the city as shiny, superficial, and all about finances,” says Vasan. “But that stuff was just background noise for me, as I was drawn to the city’s vibrant cultural scene. I grew up loving theatre. Because people come from all over the world to live and work in Singapore, I saw people from all over the world on stage, with Shakespeare, Harold Pinter, Caryl Churchill.”

Vasan was so captivated by Singaporean theater that she planned to spend her career there. However, after completing a degree in theater studies from the National University of Singapore, she was not given a scholarship to stay and instead went on to study for a master’s degree in Cardiff in 2011. “Having spent most of my life in such a busy, high-rise urban environment, Cardiff was like an oasis,” she says. “When my teachers suggested I stay in Britain and see if I could get some parts, I decided to give it a try.”

The cast of We Are Lady Parts: Faith Omole (Bisma), Anjana Vasan (Amina), Juliette Motamed (Ayesha), Sarah Kameela Impey (Saira)

‘I really play all those solos!’: Vasan (middle) as Amina in We Are Lady Parts – Peacock

She immediately landed small roles at the National Theater and the RSC, as well as in Channel 4’s comedy Fresh Meat. It’s not hard to see what the casting directors saw: her intelligent emotional range radiates from those satellite dish eyes. She laughs: “They take up quite a large part of the surface of my face. When my eyes are wide, it’s very difficult to lie, and when I’m filming and the camera is right in my face, I feel like the audience can feel all my thoughts.

Unusually, Vasan has been cast mainly in classical drama on stage and more often than not in comedies on screen – “Crying on stage and being silly on camera,” as she puts it. She played a witch in Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth and was nominated for an Evening Standard Theater Award for her role in A Doll’s House at the Lyric Hammersmith. Television audiences will have seen her as an unlikely assassin in the fourth series of Killing Eve, before she started starring as Muslim feminist Amina in We Are Lady Parts and as a meek shopgirl turned demonic serial killer in Black Mirror: Demon 79 .

Now back for a second series, the adorably anarchic We Are Lady Parts is written and directed by Nida Manzoor. She was born in London of Pakistani Muslim descent, but also grew up in Singapore until she was ten. The sitcom stars Vasan as a sweet, nerdy, hijab-wearing biologist who ends up out of her comfort zone as the lead guitarist for a feminist Muslim. punk band, described in a voiceover as “a confused mix of hash anthems and sour girl power – one part boredom and two parts identity crisis.” The women in the band all struggle to find their voices without shedding their faith or being rejected by their community. There’s a joyful comic rage in their original songs, such as the lovelorn Bashir with the Good Beard, and Voldemort Under My Headscarf, in which the women howl back about the fear they inspire on the streets of London.

Vasan was already a singer-songwriter – she released her first album in 2017 – but “identifying more with Amina’s folk guitar background,” she chuckles at the challenge of learning to strap on an electric guitar for the show. “I felt very mean,” she says. “But Amina is quite a graceful, quirky character. She’s not cool. So it was fun to discover how she accessed that liberating punk spirit.”

Anjana Vasan in the 2024 film Wicked Little LettersAnjana Vasan in the 2024 film Wicked Little Letters

“Crying on stage and acting crazy in front of the camera”: Vasan in the 2024 film Wicked Little Letters – Parisa Taghizadeh

Vasan auditioned for the role, improvised and bit the head off a flower. “I think Amina is a clown, and I’ve always thought clowns are very powerful. Growing up, I loved comics like Charlie Chaplin and Lucille Ball. And at drama school I noticed that actors who could make people laugh were often very moving in serious parts, but that the more serious actors often couldn’t do comedy.”

Because the cast of We Are Lady Parts performs all the songs you hear in the show, they say they have developed strong bonds. “We rehearsed and rehearsed and ended up with the kind of chemistry you can’t fake. Some songs are so fast that there’s no real room for ‘acting’ anyway because we’re all playing so loud… I found myself really wanting the camera to zoom in on my key to show me actually playing those songs . solos!”

As a cultural Hindu who says she is “not very spiritual,” did Vasan have any difficulty playing a Muslim character? “Yes,” she nods. “I had a very honest conversation with Nida, because the sitcom started as a short film in 2018. When the series debuted, I had no idea where the characters were going and had to ask Nida how much my character’s beliefs would play a role in the scenes. Manzoor insisted that Vasan take on the role, pointing out the common intersections between culture and religion for most South Asian women. “Amina wears the hijab and never doubts her faith,” says Vasan. “But she is also an individual on a musical journey from folk to punk, from fear to self-confidence, and that is a journey that I felt able to map.”

The only downside to the role is that it has led to Vasan receiving a slew of scripts about women wearing hijabs. She snorts, “Lazy casting! I said no to other hijab parts that didn’t feel right for me.”

Paul Mescal and Anjana Vasan in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Almeida Theatre, London, 2023Paul Mescal and Anjana Vasan in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Almeida Theatre, London, 2023

Paul Mescal and Anjana Vasan in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Almeida Theatre, London, 2023 – Marc Brenner

But she “absolutely” enjoyed her rather different role in Demon 79, although she notes that it was “disturbing” to think about the racism her Indian character, Nida, faced in Charlie Brooker’s take on northern England the seventies. We see Nida struggle with the casual racism of her employers (who ask her to stop bringing Indian food to work and eat something ‘normal’) and the violent threats from National Front skinheads who write slogans on her front door deface.

It’s ironic that this is an era where everything – from the store staff’s uniforms to everyone’s home decor – is brown, yet her brown skin is so unwelcome. The horror takes a darkly comic turn when she accidentally conjures up a demon, Gaap, who appears in the form of Bobby Farrell, the frontman of Boney M (played by Paapa Essiedu), who tells her to commit a series of brutal murders to prevent an impending apocalypse.

Vasan points out that although Demon 79 is set in the past, it continually looks to the future: “I think these things [political movements and tensions] move in cycles. When you watch the news, it’s hard not to worry about where we’re going. The names and faces of the politicians may change, they may look tastier than the racist politician on the show, but the story is just as terrible as his.” Vasan shakes her head and closes her beautiful big eyes. “We like to believe we are past it, but we are never far from destruction.”

We Are Lady Parts returns to Channel 4 on May 30

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