Actor ​Anjana Vasan: ‘We Are Lady Parts is about embracing your weirdness’

<span>Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Actor Anjana Vasan, 35, was born in Chennai, India, and moved to Singapore when she was four. In 2011, she relocated to Cardiff to study at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama and has since appeared at the Globe, the National and in the lead role in an acclaimed 2019 production of A Doll’s House at the Lyric. Best known for her Bafta-nominated performance as the PhD student turned punk singer Amina in We Are Lady Parts, Nida Manzoor’s Channel 4 comedy series about an all-female Muslim band, this year she also appeared as assassin-in-training Pam in the final season of Killing Eve. Next she will star as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Almeida theatre, London, alongside Paul Mescal.

Is it true that, in an effort to channel a punk ethos, you ate a flower in your audition for We Are Lady Parts?
I hope that audition tape never sees the light of day! When I got the audition, I initially thought I wasn’t right for the role, as it’s for someone cool to play a punk. Then I realised that the character was the nerd who loved folk music. I was the oddball with the cool girls – that I can play. We had to dance and lip-sync to a track and at a certain point I didn’t know what to do, so I decided to bite the head off a flower.

How much do you identify with your character, Amina?
Playing Amina has really impacted me. The message of the show is about embracing your weirdness to make art on your own terms. It’s about doing something because it makes you happy, rather than for external validation, and that’s something I carry into my own hobby of making music too. I even ended up writing and releasing an album over lockdown.

You first moved to the UK from Singapore to study in Cardiff. What was that like?
It was quite a strange decision. I went to Royal Welsh because they allowed me to Skype in for my recall audition, rather than fly back and forth. I got in and then I had to Google where Wales is on the map because I didn’t know exactly! I’d never been to the UK before, so it was a very new experience for me, but I made the right choice, since the people in Cardiff are so lovely. It became a happy bubble where I could think only about acting and my friends.

Was there a similar feeling of community while filming We Are Lady Parts?
Absolutely. It was really empowering that the show was made almost solely by women of colour. On set, I would look around and realise there wasn’t a single white person in the room. It’s a strange experience to feel that people of colour can exist together without having to negotiate our cultural experiences. Nida [Manzoor, director] is a genius who found a lightness of touch with important topics – each character was fully realised, which made it so much easier to act. My hope is the show doesn’t feel like a unicorn. There need to be more like it.

How did you find switching from playing Amina to an assassin in Killing Eve?
I try to find as much variety as I can in the roles I play but there was some trepidation [about] joining such a big show in its final season. Thankfully, everyone was welcoming and collaborative and I got to do my own stunts too, which was fun. I’ll always remember jumping into Hampstead Ponds with Fiona Shaw on a freezing day. We were both terrified and Fiona had recently broken her knee, but she was fearless and so inspiring. We held each other’s hands, were screaming and giggling and just went for the take.

What drew you to working with director Rebecca Frecknall again on A Streetcar Named Desire after starring in her production of Summer and Smoke in 2018?
I love Rebecca’s approach to a famous play like this because she strips away your expectations and begins very simply with the actors and our instincts. We build the story together, patiently and rigorously. Streetcar is an amazing play that has such depth of feeling. No other playwright writes the way Tennessee Williams does – he explores love without judgment, including all its darkest sides.

What has it been like working opposite Paul Mescal?
I watched Paul in Normal People over lockdown and I knew then that he was a terrific, gifted actor. He’s very fun to work with and he’s also very generous, which makes it much easier to explore the often intense and difficult dynamic between Stanley and Stella. Lydia [Wilson] is also a force of nature as Blanche. I’m in awe of both of them.

There have been so many versions of this play but there is still meaning to mine from it. Our show is going to be different because we’re three very different people. There are not many Stellas that look like me, so our story will be surprising and it will hopefully feel urgent.

What keeps you coming back to the stage?
I like collaborating with people and I feel confident in rehearsal rooms – they are a happy place for me.

What do you have planned next?
It’s been a long wait, but season two of We Are Lady Parts is coming. It will hopefully kick off after this play wraps and I’m excited to see where the story goes. I might get around to writing some new songs too.

No plans for more wild swimming in Hampstead Ponds then?
You wouldn’t even get me near – I’m never doing it again!