20 Questions With … Indira Varma

Actor Indira Varma – who opened last week in the UK premiere of David Hare’s The Vertical Hour at the Royal Court – talks about international politics, why All About My Mother changed her acting & how she’s avoided Asian typecasting.

While actor Indira Varma’s first big role after leaving drama school was in the film Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, the British-born actress has largely avoided Asian typecasting since then, particularly in theatre.

Her varied stage credits to date have included Celebration (Almeida and Off-Broadway), One for the Road (Lincoln Center), The Vortex and Privates on Parade (Donmar Warehouse), Ivanov, Othello and Remembrance of Things Past (National) and, most recently, The Skin of Our Teeth
(Young Vic).

On screen, Varma’s many television and film roles include Whistleblowers, Rome, 3lbs, Torchwood, Risk Addiction, Attachments, Little Britain, The Canterbury Tales, Broken News, Basic Instinct 2 and Bride and Prejudice.

This month, Varma has returned to the stage and to the Royal Court, where she previously starred in the world premiere of Martin Crimp’s 2000 play The Country. She’s now starring in the UK premiere of David Hare’s new play The Vertical Hour. The first of Hare’s plays to have its world premiere in New York rather than London, the play was first seen on Broadway in November 2006, in a production starring Julianne Moore and Bill Nighy and directed by Sam Mendes.

The Vertical Hour pits personal philosophies against global politics in a stand-off between Nadia Blye (Varma), an American war reporter turned professor of international relations at Yale, her boyfriend (Tom Riley) and his father, an English doctor now living in Shropshire (Anton Lesser). Opened last week, Jeremy Herrin’s new Royal Court production was described by critic Michael Coveney as “a wonderful achievement in a major, unmissable theatrical event”.

Date & place of birth
I was born in 1973 in Bath, Somerset, which surprises some people who invariably think of me as Indian. In fact, my dad was from India and my mum’s Swiss.

Lives now in
Hornsey, north London, with my partner Colin Tierney and our baby daughter Evelyn.

What made you want to become an actor?
It all started when I went to Bath Youth Theatre briefly and then joined another little local amateur dramatic group, although before that my first appearance on stage was as the angel Gabriel in a school nativity play when I was five. All I remember about it is that my dad made me a pair of paper wings and that I wanted to keep Jesus and take him home. Being an only child, I think I must have been a bit of a show-off and always ready to entertain. I had a bunk bed with curtains underneath and a dressing-up box, so I just loved to tell stories and convince people that I was somebody else. We always play-acted at home and my parents took me to see lots of Indian dance too, which is very theatrical and usually has a narrative running through each piece. I guess that helped to get me hooked on the idea performance. English was a second language for my parents, so we also went to a lot of mime productions, something they could both enjoy. In fact, I always wanted to be a mime until I went to drama school. I’d still love to do some physical theatre.

If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?

Something to do with languages. Maybe teaching? I speak French – not Hindi unfortunately. Like acting, I think my fascination with languages goes back to my childhood. My parents were both visual artists, and as we had no other family in Britain, we travelled abroad a lot to visit their friends. It wasn’t glamorous – just really good fun, often camping on a shoestring. We’d be on a train somewhere in Europe and mum and dad would send me off to talk to other children, so I would have to communicate with them using bits of French or Italian mixed in with sign language. It was as if I was practising my Marcel Marceau on them.

I found out about drama schools when I was doing my A Levels and I was really surprised to get into RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art). Up until then, acting at being someone else had always been a bit of a laugh, but there I really discovered a whole new way.

First big break
The film Kama Sutra. That was a learning curve alright. There I was in my first year out of drama school playing a leading movie role and getting my kit off! It certainly established me in the profession. But then, what is a big break? People always tell you that after this or that job you’re going to arrive – I haven’t got there yet.

How have you resisted Asian typecasting since Kama Sutra?
It was only after leaving RADA that I realised I was being asked to put on an Indian accent all the time. But as there was only a small pool of young Asian actresses at the time, it meant I could embrace the stereotype and have the opportunities to play lead roles when my white peers didn’t. I was lucky being mixed race, but it can be a double-edged sword. At the moment, for film I’m either not Asian enough or too Asian and I do say no to Asian roles in theatre. I know I played an Anglo-Indian in Privates on Parade at the Donmar a few years back, but that was because Michael Grandage directed and the show was such a laugh.

Despite various films, you also seem to have avoided the lure of Hollywood.
I’ve been asked to lose weight on occasions in order to conform to a kind of Hollywood look. But I soon realised that I just wasn’t born with the right bone structure or length of limb for Tinseltown. I ended up in the “nearly attractive” category. I’d love to do more film, but maybe on the indie side.

Career highlights to date
Working with Harold Pinter in Celebration at the Almeida and doing a world tour of Othello, with Simon Russell Beale playing Iago, Sam Mendes directing and meeting Colin, my partner, in the company.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
The actor Adrian Lester came to talk to us at drama school and he pointed out that it takes ten years to become a decent actor – I think that’s so true and I’ve never forgotten it. But the main thing I’ve learned is to trust your instincts and to be bold and brave enough to make mistakes. I got that from Harold Pinter when he directed me in Celebration at the Almeida. He said that when you’re trying things out in the rehearsal room there is no right or wrong, which has given me enormous confidence to go ahead and try things that are seemingly beyond my range. That’s when acting gets really exciting.

Favorite co-stars
I’ve enjoyed working with so many actors in so many different ways, so I honestly don’t have one single favourite. At the end of the day, you don’t act on your own. It’s about listening to another actor and being affected by what they present to you on stage. Every single person gives your work an entirely new dynamic.

Favourite directors
Katie Mitchell, Sam Mendes, Michael Grandage, Harold Pinter. There are some television and film directors too, but I always think of theatre directors because of the rehearsal process you go through together. Alan Coulter, who directed me in the mini-series Rome, was great because he had a background in theatre direction and had even acted in some college productions early on. He understands actors.

Favourite playwrights
Martin Crimp, David Hare, Harold Pinter and Thornton Wilder, who wrote The Skin of Our Teeth which I did at the Young Vic.

What was the last thing you saw that had a big impact on you?
All About My Mother at the Old Vic. It was the first thing I’d seen after I had my baby and since my dad died. Suddenly, it wasn’t just a play about a mother and her son, it was about my own motherhood and my own feelings of loss and discovering a new box of emotional colours within me that I could bring to my work. That’s why people should go to the theatre. Everything you see has a human connection.

Favourite book
The only book I have truly loved in recent years is The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. It’s so powerful and really moving.

Favourite music on your iPod
I’m the girl who can’t say no to her boyfriend who is very musical and lets him put everything on to it. At the moment I listen to Wilco a lot, Ry Cooder’s album “A Meeting by the River”, plenty of Indian music and I dance shamelessly to Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall”.

Favourite website
Sorry, I don’t do anything online except read my emails. I hate social networking sites like Facebook. I just don’t see the point. If friends want to talk, they call me on the mobile. Simple.

Favourite holiday destination
Our last big journey was when I was seven months pregnant and we went to Sicily. Whether it’s Italy or Spain, we love rolling out an Ordnance Survey map, getting in the car and then just following our instincts to the mountains, the sea, the cities and the art.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I just can’t answer that because I’m quite happy being me. Swapping places with someone else is no fun because you know what’s going to happen to them. I like the unexpected in life.

The Vertical Hour is an intriguing title. What’s it about?

It refers to a space of time immediately after a disaster in a war zone, like a bombing, where the medics can be of real use to people. For me, this play is David Hare at his most challenging, with a story about Nadia Blye, a young American professor and former war reporter in Iraq, who spends a weekend with her boyfriend’s English father which turns into an encounter where international politics, the Iraq war and transatlantic cultural attitudes all become completely interwoven. When I was last filming in New York, I saw the original Broadway production with Bill Nighy and Julianne Moore as Nadia and I met David as well. It really forced me to think outside the usual boxes. It’s not just about global issues, but relationships, love and sex, all done with a sense of humour of course.

Having seen the premiere in New York last year, did it come as a surprise to be offered the role of Nadia in London?
Yes. Having a baby meant I’d been out of the loop. In fact, I haven’t done a stage play since I was in The Skin of Our Teeth at the Young Vic three years ago. So when this came up I was slightly scared, but I also knew I had to do it. It’s so thought-provoking and it appeals to me because it refuses to conform to cosy political values.

Do you have anything in common with Nadia?
She’s very strong and I can be strong too. She’s also advised the US president and is articulate and clever, everything that I am not. Nadia goes on at length about fluffy liberals who sit on their hands at home and slag off the Iraq war and, in a way, that’s me too. I don’t understand politics, so it’s been exciting to do the research into American foreign policy and to try and grasp what’s going on in today’s world.

When you’re dealing with big political issues on stage, what challenge does that present you with as an actor?
Let’s face it, David Hare plays can be verbose. As I was in a hormonal state after the baby, simply learning the lines was terrifying. But he writes rhythmically and I love the way he makes Nadia’s speed of thought so rapid that sometimes she’ll start a sentence and then have to go back on herself. Once you understand her mental processes, it falls into place and the big ideas, the political arguments and the humour come through. I have to think American again as well, which is nice. I played an American academic in Martin Crimp’s play The Country, also at the Royal Court, which is a favourite theatre of mine to act in. You feel so close to the audience.

What are your future plans?
I’ve been helping a friend with a charity called Only Connect where she directs plays in prison. She’ll be working on a new project in King’s Cross and I’d love to do more of that. It’s about sharing what you’ve learned and seeing people transformed and discovering things about themselves, without, I hope, becoming too worthy.

Indira Varma was speaking to Roger Foss

The Vertical Hour received its UK premiere on 22 January 2008 at Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, where its limited season continunes until 1 March.