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I TALK TO Prasanna Puwanarajah

I caught up with Prasanna Puwanarajah, last seen starring opposite Suranne Jones in Doctor Foster about returning to our screens opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in Patrick Melrose.

Prasanna plays Johnny Hall, Patrick’s best friend, confidant and a fellow addict. When Patrick hits rock bottom, it’s Johnny who is there to pick him back up.

As time goes on, Johnny enters recovery alongside Patrick, but his path takes him through the Narcotics Anonymous programme, while Patrick chooses to navigate sobriety in his own way.

Later, Johnny becomes a psychotherapist, and is the first person to learn of the secret that has haunted Patrick since his childhood.

How did you first get into acting?

I was a doctor for about three-and-a-half years and while I was a medical student, I was a member of the National Youth Theatre, during each summer and I had no intention of being an actor at that stage. I was just doing it because I enjoyed it and it was another side of me.

I couldn’t get any decent parts whilst I was at medical school, I was usually playing really tiny parts so I had lots of time to sit in the dressing room and do some of my medical work. So the two kind of worked really nicely for me.

For the first couple of years that I was working in the health service it was just flat out and everything you would have probably heard about being a junior doctor. It was very much that kind of existence.

After that I just wanted to and needed to take a bit of time away. Not necessarily to do any acting but I just needed a bit of a breather as I’d been working in one teaching hospital for 24 months. It’s a bit like being on the submarines, it’s just intense.

I started writing a few little short films and did a few little bits and pieces acting wise here and there, but nothing really that concerted. I essentially lived on my sister’s sofa and out of a holdall in the back of my car doing lots of medical jobs around the country to fill in the gaps.

I sort of intended to go back to the health service but then I did a play at the Arcola which ended up being a play that was seen quite widely and as a result I got a job at the RSC, then at the National and I stayed at the National for a year-and-half without an agent so I was slightly winging it, I didn’t know what the plan was, although to be honest, there’s never really been a plan.

And you haven’t looked back since I guess?

I’m the sort of person who just takes the next step that’s in front of me. I’m not really that into end gaming or working out five-year plans. That’s not really my thing so I genuinely don’t know what the next phase is. I’m just in this current phase.

What I do know, is that I have moved on from medicine and I’m not going to go back.

I know a lot of doctors who work as actors and I know a couple of nurses who are actors and a teacher, it’s a funny mosaic of a profession really. I absolutely don’t see it as that unusual. People often have lots of different things in their life that makes them happy and for me acting is the thing that is making me happy at the moment.

Onto Patrick Melrose then, had you read the books before taking on the part of Johnny?

No! I didn’t know the books at all so I had to do a bit of a snoop around but actually the scripts were so brilliant that regardless of the being adaptations I would have been interested purely on the basis of them.

I think Ben (Benedict Cumberbatch) is brilliant. I’ve got a huge amount of love and respect for him so it’s one of those gigs that you look at and go - there are so many pieces in play here that should make this something really special.

It was all quite quick. Within about a week being offered it, I’d read the first book.

How did you first come across the adaptation then? Did you have to audition?

Yes. It came through my agent and was one of those as a jobbing actor that occasionally comes up and you go to the audition and hope for the best. You often accept that it’s not going to go your way but this one happened to, which is great!

How would you describe Johnny Hall?

He’s Patrick’s best friend, probably from late teens early twenties. He’s someone who hasn’t had the emotional and desperate destructive childhood that Patrick has had but there’s something of an outsider about him I think. He’s found his way to fairly hard intravenous drug use. Probably as his friendship with Patrick was growing early on.

They enjoy each others company both connect because they’re on the outside of their respective worlds, trying to escape them. That’s the thing that really binds them. They both have a secret that they don’t have to share with the other person.

In the third episode you see Johnny and Patrick moving apart, because Patrick is still trying to get to a point where he’s ready to be ready, whereas Johnny’s recovery is already under way. It’s a relationship based on wit and irony, but also on honesty and love over decades of time.

Is he based on a real person?

My understanding is that he’s an amalgamation of a number of people in Teddy’s life – he’s more representative of an energy of support and friendship and closeness. That means you can invent rather than have to worry too much about the specific energies of the person who this might be based upon.

How much of his backstory did you invent?

Well the books were handy because there were clues in there about how well they may have known each other in the past. There were some scenes in the book that for whatever reason don’t make it into the TV adaptation.

Unlike Patrick we don’t see his upbringing. So it was really interesting trying to work out what that might have been. I like to work out the essential elements of a character’s life so I sort of came up with this idea that he’s a British Asian man who clearly comes from money and finds himself at odds with his personal and family heritage.

He meets Patrick at university and gets caught up in this vicious cycle in which he then reacts to his life by pushing away from it all and he ends up propelling himself more and more to the outside of his own life.

Benedict and I would sit and chat about elements of the relationship in the past that might throw particular light on a scene that we were doing that given day. We would share or invent the relationship together sometimes which is then immediately valuable. You can use that in the scenes there and then.

What can be less helpful sometimes is going into the room on my own and inventing a person, deploying it onto someone else and realising that that’s no one else’s analysis. Characters have to be real and make sense in and of themselves as well as in the world that they inhabit.

You touched on it there, but what was it like working opposite Benedict?

He’s a collaborator. Like all really great performers he wants to work with the people around him to tell a story. That’s essentially what he’s doing. He works in great detail, he’s thorough and he pushes himself. He takes himself to places that are really complete and exciting. He’s fun and a really nice guy.

Where did you film the series? Because it looks amazing.

We filmed it all over the place. Most of the stuff I filmed was in the home counties and some stuff in London. There were some elements that were shot in the south of France which were shot early on in the process.

James Friend, the cinematographer and of course Edward Berger, the director came up with a visual playbook for the series. It doesn’t quite happen that each episode is a separate decade, but there are huge expanses of time between the events of each episode and they match that in terms of the photographic style. Not only the image quality but the camera language and all sorts of things that give each episode an individually authored quality.

Which is great because going from episode to episode there is that sense of time passing and life being lived in between and things changing.

Patrick Melrose will be airing at the same time in America, how do you think the US audience will take to it?

This show challenges the exported notions of Britain I think and I think anything that subverts or asks us look again or more closely at a story world we assume we know, can only be a good thing.

I think that’s going to be the gift of this show abroad. I suspect it will do something of that work in the UK as well, but I hope it feels alarming because it’s British.

Patrick Melrose starts Sunday 13th May at 9pm on Sky Atlantic


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