When it comes to British-Asian productions, experienced actress Meera Syal is a leading force, and as per usual, she excels in the upcoming comedy-drama All in Good Time, out in cinemas on May 11.
Having been in a host of television series such as Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No. 42, as well as feature films, including the recent Woody Allen picture You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Syal has now teamed up with director Nigel Cole and writer Ayub Khan-Din for All in Good Time.
Speaking to The Fan Carpet's Stefan Pape, Syal discusses working alongside her on-screen partner Harish Patel, the somewhat cliched scripts she has to trawl through, and of course what it was like taking this project from the stage to the screen - where she had also performed as her character Lupa at the National Theatre prior to making this movie.
How does it feel to see a story you're so familiar with on screen?
It's so pleasing, because when you finish a play that's it - other than whoever came to see it, you're never going to see it again. So the chance to have it on celluloid forever is quite good!
You performed it with Harish Patel as well - did you take the chemistry from that?
We got on immediately, which was great, but you can't replicate nine months playing time. All that time to try things out and build up the relationship, and build in the funny moments and the subtleties you'd expect from a long term couple - that was invaluable. In film you very rarely get rehearsal time. This was exceptional - we got two weeks, which Nigel fought for, which was unusual. I don't think in two weeks we could've built up the richness we had from all that time playing it on stage. I think that really helped when it came to the performances.
Did you try and alter things? Was it difficult, or easier to take a character you'd already established?
It felt easy to be quite honest, as I felt like I knew her so well. Even though I was being asked to play slightly different aspects of her as there were new scenes in it that weren't in the play, the biggest challenge was changing the performance to fit the medium. In a theatre it's big and it has to be out there. Especially with Lopa, where so much is hidden and she's carrying this huge secret. To have that part on screen, and take it right down and show the audience with my eyes, instead of having to get it out there on stage. There were more scenes in the stage play, but there were little things that Nigel put in, like that little scene where he's trying to get comfortable and she's trying to read the newspaper. All those little snippets of domestic life which you can do visually that you can't do on stage. It gave it layers actually.
Nigel said that the whole set was in awe of Harish and his comic timing. What was it like working with him?
He's so experienced in film and stage, so it was really interesting watching how he changed his performance from stage to screen as well. He's done so much on film he's quite the master of technique. But he's also just very chilled, and brings a relaxed professionalism to the set, which caught on. And he's naughty! He's one of these people that make you laugh but never laughs himself - I've never seen him corpse, but he gets everybody else into trouble, which is a little annoying!
The film doesn't have the clichéd Asian problems we often see in these films, was that something that attracted you to the story?
Totally. It's such a fresh look at the joint family system, but a family story. It ultimately works as a role reversal, as all the best stories do, but I don't think I've ever seen a character like Lopa; on the surface she's the Asian matriarch everyone thinks they know, but she's had a secret life, and she's been carrying around this burden of guilt, this huge lie in her marriage for several years. It's not how people think of their mothers, and the truth is, many of them had had broken dreams and disappointments, and felt affairs and all of these things that we as their children wouldn't necessarily have thought about. It's such a lovely complexity to what can be a clichéd character.
How precisely has Ayub depicted Asian culture in Britain?
He's very real as a writer. That's the thing. You always feel after seeing on of Ayub's scripts that he captures the tragicomedy of life so beautifully, and his moods turn on a sixpence. You can be laughing your head off one minute, and then be choked up because he's mined that so effortlessly. He's got an amazing ear for dialogue and he writes with real humanity. I mean, Harish is note likeable at times as a dad. I've done things as a character I shouldn't have done. All the characters to some extent are layered, which is real. Some of the scripts you get... "Oh no, not mother of arranged marriage victim again. Oh look another terrorist." It's such a pleasure to find something so real and humane. The ending is bittersweet and not wrapped up in a bow. I like that.
What do you think Nigel brought to Ayub's story?
He's such an actor's director, and that was the huge pleasure of working with him, because he was an actor himself and he respects the process. I suppose the worry is when you've been doing a theatre piece is that it's so much yours, and it is about the performance. You worry, because I've been on some sets where you're really set dressing. The director's got his shots worked out and you just stand there and don't fall over the furniture. With Nigel it was the other way around - 'what's the heart of the scene, the story? You do it the way you want - I will make the shots fit you.' That was wonderful, the freedom to play it without worrying about that stuff. I think that's why he gets very good performances out of actors in all his films, as he respects that process.
Despite being a comedy, you represent a more pragmatic side to the family. As an esteemed comedienne yourself, were you ever tempted to say to Nigel, could you write me in a couple of funny lines?
That's why I wanted to do it - Harish is the big comedy character, and I'm the Ernie to his Eric. I loved that. I've played a good number of broader comic characters in my term, and they've got their own joy, but I loved playing someone so reflective and hidden. Had so much she was keeping inside. Even in the scene where you think she's going to spill the beans, all she opens is a little chink, and you get a sense of a whole life wasted, and it shuts again. It's so wonderful to play.
Do you consider yourself a role model for younger actresses?
I think it's thrust upon you whether you like it or not, but I think anyone who's survived over 20 years is doing all right! I have my own role models, there's a generation that came before us that had much less work, and less opportunities that we do. Some of them are still going and I'm in awe of them. So you hope with each generation it will get a bit easier, and if you push the door open they will rush past and not say thank you! I think that's part of the natural progression of things. If there are actors coming up that look at me and Harish and think I can do it, then that's brilliant.
Both Reece and Amara have spoken about their joy of working alongside two experienced actors in both yourself and Harish - on the flip-side, do you enjoy working with younger actors?
You hope they'll remember you when they're in Hollywood! I was in awe of the wealth of film experience Amara and Reece have got. It's twice, three times as much as I've had over a much longer career. They're already experienced, and have done some big Hollywood movies, which I never have. I was picking their brains - I wanted to hear all the big Hollywood set stories, as it's not really a world I've been a part of. I think you can always learn from each other. It's very nice when that happens, and we're such a small company, it's a very close set, you do get close. I did feel very maternal towards them during the film. It just gives me a lot of pride to see the next generation coming up with so much confidence, and being very clear about what they want to do and the pitfalls of the business. Both of them are so level-headed and yet so talented. I think they'll both do very well as they're both so rooted.
Are you tempted to write for film again?
I've done a couple but they've been years apart - Bhaji on the Beach and Anita and Me. I mean, it's not like I'm not trying to write films, but it's damn hard to get funding, particularly in this climate. Although there's a lot of opportunities in India now, and so much money. There's now a burgeoning independent scene and a lot of people are wanting scripts in English, which are about our stories, but that can travel. So I think there are a lot more opportunities for co-productions now, which is very pleasing. That is helpful for us who've been beavering away and not necessarily able to get stuff on here. I suppose the length of time it takes to develop a film script is... it's a big commitment, especially if you do other things like I do. I'm in the middle of my third novel, and that's so much about you and the blank page, and you can write at 11 o'clock at night if you want, and you can fit it around everything else. I've been drawn to prose more, because you can just get on with it and hand it over to your editor. But of course I would love to write more for film, but it's a question of finding the right team, and the right fit.
You're going back on the stage with Amara for Much Ado About Nothing - are you looking forward to that?
Yeah, but I'm terrified! I've never done Shakespeare before. We've got a fantastic cast and director, and I think the concept of setting it in India - which I think is the nearest thing we have to Elizabethan England right now, as it's got that same sense of urgency, optimism and enquiry, and the breaking down of the new order. It's such an exciting country at the moment. So I think it's going to be, hopefully, very exciting.
The stage poses different challenges to television, but do you have one that you prefer?
Not really. I think it depends on the part. I've done a lot more theatre work, so I guess I feel more comfortable with live performance, and I like the routine of it. But there is something about the immortality of film that is very seductive, and the chance to do it again if you're not happy with the first take! I just go with whatever the role is.
Is this the first film of a play you've done then?
Yes, I think this is the first.
On the back of this, do you now have any plans to go back and suggest a play that you had been in to now be made into a film?
I guess I should look back, shouldn't I? There's a couple of plays I've done that would make excellent films. You do need a really smart writer and director as we had in this case, who can see the potential in opening something out. If you saw Carnage, you could tell that was a play, and Polanski deliberately made it claustrophobic. It held, because the performances were so good, but it's a big ask. Closer was another one that translated really well. If you do it properly and you know you have to expand it, then there's every good chance. Everyone's looking for a good story, and wherever you can find them, great!
It's inevitable that people will compare this to East is East - what would you say to people about why it's different?
I think Ayub, like any good writer, is maturing with each project he does. East is East has an exuberant joy that was wonderful and very typical for a first film. But I think this is a really mature and thoughtful piece of work. He can still write big old belly laughs, but the fact that it is so poignant, and he tackles some taboo subjects with such ease and maturity, it just makes me very excited about what he's going to do next, because I see a real progression with everything he's done.
All in Good Time Film Page | All in Good Time Review
ALL IN GOOD TIME IS OUT FRIDAY MAY 11