Classic Interview: Sarah Solemani

sarah solemani

This article that first appeared in The Times in January 2012 coincided with Sarah Solemani's appearance in the stage play The House Of Bernarda Alba, which was a bit of a U-turn after the grubbily brilliant sitcom Him & Her. Since then Solemani (picture by Kurtiss Llloyd) has firmed up her comedy credentials with a winning performance alongside Jack Whitehall in BBC3's Bad Education and more Him & Her.

This week she starred on TV again in Aphrodite Fry, her very own self-penned comedy short commissioned as part of the Sky Living series, Love Matters. It is an unflinching look at the travails of young, modern relationships and confirms what I instantly realised when I spoke to Solemani – she is destined for great things both on and offscreen. Britain's very own Lena Dunham? Possibly. Solemani said in a recent interview that British TV is currently looking everywhere for their own Lena Dunham. In a few years they may well be looking for their own Sarah Solemani.

Aphrodite Fry is still available on Sky's On Demand service.

 

Gear changes do not come much more dramatic than this. Last autumn Sarah Solemani was co-starring as layabout lovebird Becky in Him & Her, BBC Three’s biggest sitcom since Gavin & Stacey. Later this month she appears on stage in a new production of Lorca’sThe House of Bernarda Alba with the action relocated from historic Spain to contemporary Iran. Solemani plays Maryam, one of the daughters in an all-female household. Unlike Him & Her, no loafing is allowed here.

For the 27-year-old both contrasting roles strike resonant chords. Her relationship with long-term partner Daniel is not a million miles from her onscreen bedsit-bound relationship with Steve, played by Russell Tovey: “I hate doing the washing-up or tidying,” she laughs between slurps of post-play rehearsal red wine. “There is a total overlap. We never go out, we have to be dragged out. Every good relationship should be a bit Becky and Steve.”

And she has something in common with this new adaptation ofBernarda Alba by Emily Mann, in which an oppressive widow dominates her daughters after the death of her husband. Solemani was brought up by her Northern Irish mother and Iranian father in North London. Her life was very different to Lorca’s drama, but as a 16-year-old Solemani faced her own crisis when her mother died of cancer.

“In Bernarda Alba the father is a tyrant, but when he dies the family is at a loss. When my mother died my father was at a loss. I probably got away with more late nights than I should have.” Solemani had already had an eventful childhood. “When I was 13 there were about 12 of us who used to hang around Finsbury Park and we learnt very quickly that the way to get alcohol was to go to hotels. Not posh ones, cheap ones. We used to drink there and everyone assumed we were with adults somewhere in the hotel. Then we’d go out and we felt like the city was ours.”

They would gatecrash parties and gigs. It was the Britpop era and Solemani was smitten by Oasis. “It was so intense, this band meant everything. It wasn’t that I wanted to sleep with Liam Gallagher, I wanted to be Liam Gallagher in the way I walked, the attitude I had, I loved it.” This is hard to believe of the poised, petite woman opposite me. “I loved the female bands like Elastica, but there was a sexual hormonal thing going on with Liam.”

These events inspired a script that Solemani has in development, entitled Live Forever. She has nursed it for a long time and now has enough clout for producers to pay attention. She puts the industry’s interest down to her performance as feisty Becky. “Him & Her has been brilliant for getting people to read my writing. Never underestimate the power of television. Everyone loves you more when you are on TV. Even your own family.”

After going off the rails during Britpop, she got back on track enough to win a place at Cambridge to read social and political science. “I timed my benders for when I didn’t have too much homework.” But she was then torn between stage and study. In her gap year she joined the National Youth Theatre, landed an agent and was cast as Elaine in the West End production of The Graduate, with Linda Gray from Dynasty as her mother.

She eventually took up her place at Cambridge and joined the Footlights Society, becoming vice-president. Her contemporaries were Simon Bird and Joe Thomas of The Inbetweeners, while one of the older writer/performers was Him & Her creator Stefan Golaszewski. In her final year she was cast in Mrs Henderson Presents as one of the Windmill girls: “I was doing the African economy during the week and at the weekend I was naked with Judi Dench.”

She was part of the tableaux vivants onstage while the dirty-mac brigade did the “Windmill steeplechase”, climbing the seats to get better views. “Normally they show it over Christmas and I get texts saying: ‘I’m with my family, we’ve all just seen you completely naked. Merry Christmas.’ ”

2012 is set to be Solemani’s breakthrough year. There will be a third series of Him & Her, but she is also developing her own comedy-drama, Elektrica. “It is about an alien who lands on Earth and is taken in by two sisters who have to teach it what its like to be a woman, even though they are not too good at it themselves.”

Solemani is concerned about the lack of openings for women in comedy and wants to redress the balance. “There has been such a drought of female casts. In Footlights I had to come up with a sketch every week for me and four blokes and you run out. There are only so many times you can do a gang-bang.”

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