The working day is drawing to a close for me, but for Indira Varma it has only just begun; after our chat she’s heading off to The Old Vic where she is currently appearing in Present Laughter. There are a few weeks left of the run, which she has mixed feelings about.
“I’m a mum and I really miss not being around at bedtime. Even though my daughter is older. There is that winding down time after school, you know. I really miss that,” she explains.
But the production has, she says, been better than she dreamed. “We’ve done some amazing things in it, where we’ve had a gender swap, so suddenly it feels incredibly modern,” she reveals. “So actually, although it is totally Noël Coward, and we are serving him well, it feels very current. The reception has been beyond our expectations. And we are doing an NT Live, so people who have missed this run will get to see it in November some time. So that is great.”
Doing theatre always gives her a buzz, she says. “You have to keep it alive, and that is definitely the challenge. I think that you end up excavating characters and stories in totally different ways. And you go through sort of difficult patches where you are like: I’ve lost my laugh. Or: this is so boring… But then you always come through,” she grins.
And acting on the London stage will always have the appeal of keeping her at home, amongst loved ones in the city that she adores. “It is just really sociable – I have had people in every single night, so it has been really fun catching up with friends. Because when you are filming, you are often too busy. I am not drinking at the beginning of the week, because otherwise I would just be floored by the end!” she laughs.
One unexpected visitor at a recent performance was Dame Maggie Smith. An actor who has inspired Indira for many years: “when I was growing up in Bath, I remember seeing her in Lettice and Lovage and thinking that it was just the most amazing performance. It totally captured my imagination. And she is still at it. And that, to me, is remarkable,” Indira explains.
She reveals how Maggie came backstage to have a look around the dressing rooms after watching Present Laughter. “And she was describing Laurence Olivier, you know saying, ‘that was the shower he used to wash off his makeup in, using Fairy Liquid’,” she recalls, laughing. “I just felt so blessed. It was like being given a royal nod or something. It is not like she came and said, ‘darling, you were so amazing,’ it wasn’t like that. It was just that she shared some of her experience and it was really special,” she grins.
Indira is currently appearing on screens as Piety Breakspear in Amazon Prime’s highly anticipated Carnival Row. Set in a Victorian fantasy world, it is filled with mythological immigrant creatures that are feared by humans and forbidden to live with freedom. “I never really understood the point of fantasy,” she confesses. “But reading this, I was like, oh my God, I get it. Because it is like a metaphor or an allegory – I don’t know the right word – but it is really talking about immigration and what it means…”
“There is this human world which has been invaded by these mythological creatures,” Indira tells me. “There has been a war that was perpetrated by the humans in other worlds. So, all of these fairies, and pixies and centaurs and fawns, they come to the human world because they need to survive. And it explores that whole notion of how much do you give to people in need? And it is really interesting, this notion of other and how we deal with it.”
The production values are, she says, very high. “They have tried to do as little green screen as possible. The result is just absolutely stunning.” The series is certainly a sign of just how much television has changed since Indira started out in the industry. “There is so much output, you can make anything you want. And TV is king. Film used to be king, but now there is an incredible level of artistry in TV and it is giving a huge amount of opportunity to people,” she smiles.
There’s still something to be said for the silver screen though, and Indira’s next big role is in Official Secrets. The film tells the true story of Katharine Gun, the GCHQ whistleblower who leaked information to The Observer about an illegal NSA spy operation designed to push the UN Security Council into sanctioning the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Indira plays Shami Chakrabarti, who, as director of Liberty at that time, was part of Katharine’s defence team.
It was a very interesting proposition, Indira says. “I was really excited to be a part of telling the story. To have the courage to do something like what Katharine did for what you believe in, and to do it for the good of the country, or the world – I think it is phenomenal. I think it is quite hilarious that I am playing Shami Chakrabarti though. I look nothing like her! It was great, because I got to meet Shami, and have tea with her in the House of Lords. So that was really good fun.”
Indira can also currently be seen playing the part of Charlotte in Aisling Bea’s poignant new Channel 4 comedy, This Way Up, about mental health and the pursuit of happiness. They are all very different roles, and I wonder what her criteria are when it comes to choosing jobs. “I always find that question difficult, because ultimately you have to pay the rent,” she shrugs. “I think that generally the power that we have as actors is to say no. And that power only comes when you have got something else to say yes to. And in recent years I have had that privilege, yes.”
Ultimately, she says, she is looking for something that is well written: “because I come from a theatre background, I think that the script is always the most important,” she tells me. “And that is where the interest lies for me. If it is an interesting story, or a really good script, you know you are really going to get your teeth into something, and you are going to be able to explore and build upon it.”
Then there’s the quest for variety: “I am not going to pretend that I am a transformer,” she laughs. “But I like to inhabit different characters and to tell their stories. And hopefully you get to do myriad characters through the course of your career.” She recalls, when she was first starting out, accepting a part in the film Kama Sutra, and afterwards being constantly asked to: “do films with nudity and to play Asian characters, or to be exotic. And I didn’t want to just repeat myself.”
At that time Indira believes she was in danger of being fixed as an Asian actress (in fact she was born in England to a Swiss mother and an Indian father), which had the potential to stall her career. That it didn’t is perhaps, she says, her biggest achievement. “When I was at drama school there were teachers who said that they thought I should change my name, because it is a very Indian name,” she reveals. “Maybe, if I had changed my name to Sarah Jane or something, you wouldn’t even be able to place me, ethnically. Over the years, I have had my frustrations of going ‘argh, if only I had changed my name, I might be seen for more stuff or given more opportunities’. But actually, I think I am proud that I have stuck to my name and I have doggedly carried on. I feel quite pleased about that,” she nods.
One wonders if she would’ve been given the same advice if she were at drama school now. Possibly not. Things are changing, she thinks. “There are conversations that we have had since drama school, regarding gender, regarding ethnicity, representation across every minority group. There are people who are paying attention, and who want to make more change. There are people in power now who are women of colour, and they want to see their worlds represented,” she nods. “I think it is work in progress. I think that everybody’s story needs telling. White middle class, middle aged men’s stories need telling too – we can’t suddenly leave them out of the conversation. Everybody’s story needs telling, and they need to be told in a non-clichéd way. It can’t just be a box ticking exercise,” she concludes.
That said, the industry has served Indira well. Is it a career she would want for her own daughter? “Erm, I’m not sure,” she laughs. “I wouldn’t want her to do it as a child. Childhood is the rehearsal process – it should be about constant reinvention and discovering who you are and changing your mind about it. Would I… God it hurts to commit… Yeah, I guess, but I would be really wary and I would probably try and stop her, and if she was single-minded enough, and she had the talent and the ambition combined, and the discipline, then I wouldn’t try to stop her.”
Carnival Row is on Amazon Prime now. Official Secrets will be in cinemas from 18 October