Meera Syal: What draws me to acting? Telling stories, and free food on film sets

The latest actress to star as Miss Hannigan answers twenty candid questions about making her West End musical debut and the high points of her career on stage and screen

Meera Syal
Meera Syal
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

1. How would you describe Annie in five words?
Heartwarming, toe-tapping, joyous.

2. How would you describe Miss Hannigan?
Disappointed with life on pretty much every level: financially, emotionally, spiritually. She’s an embittered drunk stuck in a job she hates, desperate for a love she can’t find, surrounded by kids whom she loathes. She is also strong, funny, cruel and immoral. Lots of delicious contradictions.

3. What do you enjoy most about starring in this production?
It’s my first West End musical and the sheer energy and joy of being on stage singing and dancing with such a talented company is so life-affirming.

4. Did you jump at the chance to play her?
You bet. She’s an iconic musical character, got some great lines and a couple of great tunes and spends much of her time sloshed or hung over. But also she’s a single woman of a certain age who’s fighting to stay afloat in the midst of the Depression and with so many things stacked against her, she still has street-smart sass and a fighter’s survival instinct. History often calls such women monsters or witches, I don’t think she’s either.

5. Were you a fan of the original film?
I enjoyed the film but I LOVED Carol Burnett as Hannigan. She not only got the funny, she also got all the pain of her, all the wasted opportunities and dead ends.

6. What's the hardest thing about coming into a production like this, rather than being there at the very beginning?
The strangest aspect is not going through the rehearsal process with the company, where you are all on the runaway train together of last week/tech week/first night. I'm probably going to be the only one sick with nerves on the first show! However, it does mean that everyone else has done it and is so on it and have been incredibly supportive and reassuring. The kids know the whole show so if I do forget a line, I should get 12 prompts coming back at me.

7. What is your earliest memory in entertainment?
Attending my first ever play, a pantomime in Stoke-On-Trent. It was Dick Whittington and Dick asked for a volunteer to join him on stage, and I got chosen. I stepped onto the stage, felt the heat of the lights, the eyes of the audience, I was close enough to see the makeup beginning to smudge on the actor’s face and I remember thinking: "What is this place? It feels like home".

8. What do you consider to be your big break?
I suppose Goodness Gracious Me was the show that changed the professional lives of all of us connected with it, in terms of getting noticed and opening a few doors. But I also have to thank Philip Hedley at Theatre Royal Stratford East for casting me early on in my career, in a Barrie Keeffe two-hander, My Girl, at a time where there was a lot of diversity chat but not much action to back it up. Philip gave a lot of people like me their first break, without making a big deal out of it. He just trusted us to do a good job, which is all you want.

9. If you hadn't become a performer what would you have done?
Child psychologist.

10. What has been your career highlight?
All the years doing Goodness Gracious Me were pretty magical, being around people with whom you have comic and cultural shorthand was so empowering. And we knew we were doing material that was fresh, unapologetic and ours. Having said that, I'm hoping there are lots more highlights to come. Having a job is always a highlight, having a career is a double highlight. If there is such a thing.

12. What draws you to acting?
Telling stories, sharing them, finding the emotions and empathy that brings us together. And free food on film sets.

13. Who are your idols?
Julie Walters, Shonda Rhimes, JK Rowling, Tina Fey, Sarojini Naidu, my mum.

14. If you could go back in time and change one thing in your career what would it be?
I'm pretty zen about what’s been and gone, it was all for a reason, so I don’t worry about the possible missed opportunities or close calls. I'm making a living from something I love. I’ll take that.

15. What have you seen on stage recently?
I saw my mate Josie Lawrence in Mother Courage at Southwark Playhouse and she was utterly brilliant, as I knew she would be.

16. You're married to an actor/writer, do you bounce ideas off each other?
Yes sometimes, though not in a "have you got a window at 11 for a script meeting" sort of way. It tends to be a more organic chat over a cuppa.

17. Had you always thought you would be a performer?
Secretly maybe, but growing up, as I didn’t see anyone like me out there doing it, I didn’t think it was for the likes of me. That’s why role models and seeing yourself reflected in the stories being told are so important, if you see it, you begin to hope you can be it.

18. What do you do to unwind in your spare time?
Cook and play netball, not always at the same time.

19. What would your dream role be?
There’s not just one! Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Frankie in Frankie and Johnny, and I'd love to have a go at Chekhov one day.

20. What advice would you give to aspiring singers and actors?
Be persistent and pro-active, create your own work with like-minded people you trust, make time for a stable home life, your work won’t always love you back. Be kind to each other, it’s a tough profession and above all, a team profession, keep it real.

Annie runs at the Piccadilly Theatre until 18 February 2018.

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