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I TALK TO Anjli Mohindra

"I always like complex characters who would be a challenge to play and pieces that say something interesting."

If you're a fan of British drama, then chances are you'll be familiar with the brilliant Anjli Mohindra who since playing Rani Chandra in The Sarah Jane Adventures back in 2008, has starred in many a great television drama, including Cucumber, Bodyguard, The Suspect, Vigil and most recently, The Lazarus Project.

Her latest role, in Alibi's gripping new six-part drama The Red King sees her take the lead as Sergeant Grace Narayan who's flying high in her inner-city police station until her rigid principles lead her to be ostracised by her precinct and is forced to take a punishment posting on the remote Welsh island of St Jory, a rural community with an eerie, hidden religion, known as the True Way.

Grace is determined to implement order on people who have long ‘policed themselves’ but the year-old cold case of a missing teenage boy, Cai, threatens to unearth well-buried secrets. Secrets that may be rooted in its unspoken traditions as she digs into the island's mysterious history and locals and discovers there's more to St. Jory than meets the eye and many of its inhabitants know more than they say.

When confronted by the forgotten and unsolved case of missing teenage boy Cai, she quickly discovers that she must overcome scarce evidence, extraordinary local characters, and the island’s eerie past devotion to a pagan called the Red King and the cult of the True Way in order to uncover the truth.

I recently caught up with Anjli Mohindra to find out how it feels to lead a drama, whether or not she's similar to Grace, how she chooses the roles she takes on and so much more.

Congratulations on The Red King, your first leading role in a drama. How does that feel?

I mean, incredible. Not just because it's something that as an actor, I've always wanted to have a go at doing, but creatively, it's just so fulfilling getting to have that collaboration with the director and the writers.

There's a real sort of creative partnership that is formed when you're in every day and you're in pretty much every scene. You really become part of the development of the character as she's portrayed on screen. So yeah, I loved it so much and I would love to do it again.

What was it about this role that attracted you to it?

I mean, I love a gritty British drama. I think crime drama seems to be my forte. I just love them and it feels like as a nation we love them. The Red King is this brilliant hybrid of horror and a really knotty police investigation, so to get to do horror, something I've never done before, was brilliant.

So it was that, but also the scripts. It just felt amazing and the characters really jumped off the page the minute I read them. Of course, the islanders of St. Jory are so strange and eerie and a little bit backwards in their thinking, but I instantly felt like I knew them.

How do you see Grace?

Grace is just very good at her job. She is smart, capable and very by the book. People like that are frustrating, and she is frustrating, but through all the episodes, you get a real sense of why that is. She had quite a turbulent upbringing and chaos is just really not a place that she feels very safe.

So the rigid methods of policing, the flowcharts that are like "Does the suspect say this? Then we do this." are so much safer for her than interacting with real people, because I think she really struggles with that.

She's like a dog with a bone and even though people are literally begging her to to drop this case because of the way it's going to shatter the community and unearth some very deeply buried secrets, she's like "No, I want to do this." It's that tenacity and that drive that I just find so compelling.

She's pushed to the point of her own sanity being questioned and I just think that's such an incredible thing to play.

When we first meet Grace, she's ostracised by her precinct and forced to take a punishment posting on St Jory. How important is that backstory?

I think it gives us as an audience a real good sense of how far she's willing to go. She's ostricised and completely leaves the life that she's worked so hard for.

She's quite a lonely person anyway. She doesn't have many friends in life. She's got a very strange relationship with a challenging mum and yet she's she's built this life for herself, and she's willing to risk all of that to get to the bottom of the case and to do the right thing by the law.

I think it's just so interesting you know, in this country, in the States and I mean in India as well, we have a real tricky relationship with the police. Their heart is often in the right place but things don't always go the way that we think they should go. They don't always feel like the most ethical practices.

It's just really intriguing to meet someone like Grace who really does, who is so devoted to the church of policing and eve though it might be a slightly flawed system, she really believes in it. And I think it makes us question as people how far we'd go to seek justice?

Would you take a matter into your own hands? So, yeah, I think that backstory really informs just how far she will push herself.

Is that something you think about when you're taking on roles? I know you've mentioned in the past about your role in Bodyguard and how that might have been seen to perpetuate certain stereotypes.

I'm always interested in what a story is trying to say and whether the characters feel believable. And yeah, I think with everything going on around the world with Black Lives Matter, for me it was just interesting seeing somebody who really does believe in the system because I don't know about you, but I'm certainly losing my trust in it completely.

I always like complex characters who would be a challenge to play and pieces that say something interesting. That's my new way of looking at projects.

Did you base Grace on anyone in particular?

I met a brilliant police advisor called Lisa Farrand who is actually who Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley is based on. She's a former police officer and now a police advisor for dramas.

So I had a Zoom with her really early on and she just told me how the police are structured. It's like being self-employed and there's no HR, so if shit hits the fan and things go wrong for you, you're on your own.

If you do whistleblow on anybody, you will be ostracised. So you've always got that to think about. I could see in her that she had a real devotion to doing the right thing and I just thought, god that's so Grace.

Are you similar to Grace in any way?

I can be a dog with a bone, to the frustration of everybody around me. I find it really hard to let things go. But I'm too much of a people pleaser. Grace is told enough times to drop it, but I think thriving in a community socially is probably more important to me than it is to Grace.

So I think I would have backed down a long time before she... well, she doesn't. She doesn't back down.

She doesn't ever back down, but she does slowly soften as the series goes on, doesn't she?

Yeah she does and that is the beautiful thing about it. What she wants, is to get to the bottom of the case and to survive on St. Jory so that she can maybe get back to real life or keep progressing up the ladder, and fix the police system from the inside. But what she actually needs, is friendship and human contact.

Why do you think the people of St. Jory instantly dislike Grace?

Well, she doesn't look like any of them. Apart from the Lady Mayor type character that Adjoa Andoh plays incredibly. I've been to remote villages where people genuinely just stare at you because they've never seen anybody with any melanin in their skin or this level of melanin in their skin.

So yeah, I think she's alien to them but also she's a risk. She stands to unpick everything that they've very carefully preserved about themselves. There's a cult they're trying to preserve and a case they're trying to preserve, so she's a threat, basically.

And I guess the tension also comes from the fact that they didn't choose to have her there, but then she didn't choose to be there either.

Yeah, it's such a perfect breeding ground for tension, isn't it?

One of the people Grace clashes with the most is Gruffudd whose job she’s now doing. Why do you think that is? And what was it like working opposite Mark Lewis Jones?

Mark is extraordinary. I mean, everybody in this cast genuinely is, I think Orla Maxwell (Casting Director) has done such an incredible job. But with Mark Lewis Jones, my heart would race in our scenes, because he just is in the moment. He's so present. The rage bubbles under the surface and I'd often ask him, "Where do you get that from?" and he was like, "It's in all of us".

He (Gruffudd) is, as people say, that gammon-faced man who isn't willing to back down or learn anything. Often, you know when you have these conversations with people and they're not conversations, they're just monologues. You think you're saying things that are getting through to them, but you could just not say anything at all and the conversation would still continue to go the way it was going.

So he's very much like that, but look, he's got a badge of honour to protect. He was the police sergeant of the island for years, and he thinks he's done an incredible job. He's managed to scoop this case under the carpet and now Grace is lifting the rug as a neon sign to his failings.

They they they push each other to the limits. They discover each other's button that shouldn't be pressed, each other's Achilles heel and they're not afraid to snap it.

Let's talk about episode two then, and the arrival of DCI Ann Fletcher, who is sent to the island to investigate a missing body which has been found. What’s their relationship like? And what was it like working with Jill Halfpenny who plays her?

Jill is another absolute corker of an actress. I've admired her work for so long. It was so nice to get to work with her. From the minute she arrived, she just knew exactly what she was doing. Took complete command and just looks at Grace like she is literally dog muck on her shoe.

It's so so lovely to work opposite, because Grace is like, "Finally, someone from the mainland who understands what I'm going through" but actually, she is completely belittled by her too and left to feel even more alone.

I think Ann's arrival, in a way, starts to signal the possible mental breakdown of Grace's trust in the system and herself.

Somebody she does form an unlikely friendship with is Winter, played by Maeve Courtier-Lilley. why do you think they’re drawn to one another?

I don't think Winter understands boundaries. She has her complete own way of working and she is a bit of an oddball, a bit of a lonely oddball, just like Grace. But Grace's oddballness is to go inside and just knock down iron fences everywhere, whereas Winter's is to prod and poke and provoke people.

I think Grace is just delighted that somebody is trying really hard to break through that barrier, because most people kind of give up with her, her wry front. Everyone else just goes "Oh, she's a bit aloof" but Winter's not having that and I think Grace is genuinely delighted.

What were some of your favourite scenes to film?

All of the ones with Mark Lewis Jones. In episode three when we're stuck in The Widow's Wail, those scenes were just so brilliant. So so brilliant.

They were so fun to film because you've just got all these crazy, odd characters who don't like each other or do like each other, who shouldn't be put in a room together, hiding secrets from each other, all in a very small, tight environment, with a massive biblical storm going on outside. It felt like a scene from True Detective or something like that.

What was it like filming in Northumberland, because on screen at least, it looks beautiful?

Stunning. So stunning. The drive to work every morning, normally you're just learning lines or trying to catch up on the non-existent sleep from the night before, but everywhere you turned, stunning beaches. Some of the most beautiful beaches I've ever seen and they're in the UK.

The people of Northumberland are so great as well. There was a lovely little farm shop that we went to quite a lot and they couldn't believe that they've got Mark Lewis Jones and Adjoa Andoh walking in to by their organic yogurt!

What was the most challenging part of playing Grace in The Red King?

You know what, it was all just pure joy. I sound like I'm talking bullshit, but we all said it, I've never worked on a job where everything just lined up perfectly. Everyone got on so well. It felt like we were in a play together in that way that you're just constantly playing.

(Directors) Daniel O'Hara and Lisa Clarke just created the most incredible environment on set and we all said, the way things go, usually when you're having this much fun, the output can't be as good as it has turned out to, because often it goes the other way.

The only challenge was probably the stamina required. Oh and we developed this thing called Torture Tuesdays because on the first Tuesday of the shoot, in the script it said "Grace falls into a stream" so I thought, great, I might have a wet bum cheek, that's probably as wet as I'm going to get. But then halfway through the day, the producer went "Can you swim?" and I was like "It's just my ass. I'm sure I'll be fine.".

Anyway I ended up submerged into, as you've seen in episode one, an actual river, face in, completely immersed. And from then on, it just happened to line up that every Tuesday I got soaked in some fashion. So yeah, that was a challenge, but in a fun way.

For many, Bodyguard feels like a pivotal moment in your career. Is that how you feel?

I don't know, I feel like I talk about Bodyguard a lot in interviews, but I've been steadilt working for a long time. I actually think it was The Sarah Jane Adventures, which was my first proper foray into the industry and then getting to work with Russell T Davies again on Cucumber.

That was my first proper adult role in a TV show and I think for me, that's when things started gradually growing. People always say "overnight success", but if you look at people's careers, it is just a very steady incline.

Have you seen the industry change in the 16 years or so you've been in it, in terms of representation and better roles for actors?

Yeah, I mean, working with Russell gives you a false sense of how representation works across the industry because he just does it so well and weavees it into his scripts. It's not like colourblind casting where he's not sure who he's going to go for. It's already in his mind.

So I came into the industry being like "Great. This is going to be amazing. I'm in." and then for the first fiver or six years, it was just so frustrating. But now, things have changed. You see it across the board in shows.

Vigil was probably the moment that really switched things for me. The success of that. People liked confined spaces, even though we'd just come out of a lockdown. I couldn't quite believe it.

What's next for you? It's such a shame that The Lazarus Project won't be returning.

I loved that show so much. I had such an amazing time making it and am a really big fan of Joe Barton. I'm actually in Scotland at the moment, filming a thriller series for Amazon called Fear, with Martin Compston. It's a really psychologically twisty piece that really plays into our fears. I think that'll be out next year.

The Red King starts Wednesday 24th April at 9pm on Alibi


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