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I TALK TO Taj Atwal

"Kay's dog was one of the cheekiest dogs I've ever met. Trying to mount all the other dogs, male or female!"

After almost six years away from our screens, Kay Mellor's hit drama about a group of lottery winners, The Syndicate, returns to BBC One for a brand new series, starring Neil Morrissey, Gaynor Faye, Mark Benton, Katherine Rose Morley, Kieran Urquhart, Liberty Hobbs, Emily Head, Joe Sugg and Taj Atwal.

When the owners of Woodvale Kennels announce they are selling the business to a large corporate chain, this is disastrous news for Keeley, Jake, Roxy, Gemma and Colette who all depend on their pay to get them from one month to the next.

With the staff’s future now thrown into question, the weekly lottery looks like their only lifeline, especially for gambling addict Keeley. So when she checks the ticket with local newsagent Frank, the machine goes off and she's ecstatic! But is everything as it seems and will the syndicate get what’s rightfully theirs?

Set between Yorkshire and Monaco, these kennel workers spend every last penny they own to see justice done.

In this new series, Taj Atwal - who viewers will recognise from many shows including Stella, In The Club and Line of Duty - plays kennel worker Roxy who still lives with her parents in a cramped house and is desperate to move out. On top of that, she's discovered she's pregnant and her boyfriend Sam is less excited than she is about the news.

I recently caught up with Taj to discuss what it was like shooting during Covid, working with dogs and the similarities between herself and her character, Roxy.

This is your second time working with Kay Mellor. What's that like?

Like a big warm hug! When you're with Kay you can really own your part and your character because she trusts you to do that. She's one of very few directors who lets you ad lib or improvise and add things in so that you can really own what you're playing.

She's so on top of being the director, the producer, the writer, she knows everything inside out! You just know that if there's a question you want to ask, she'll have the answer to it on set. You never feel like you're own out there trying to piece the story together.

It's like working with your gorgeous auntie on set! She knows what she's doing, she really knows what she's doing. And she's such a funny lady! I love her. She's had such an amazing life.

Did she have you in mind for the part of Roxy?

Yeah, so David Shaw the Casting Director sent an email saying that Kay would love me to read for the part of Roxy and I just loved it straight away so I said "Yes, I'd love to!" I was really thankful that she thought of me for this part.

This is the fourth series of The Syndicate, were you a fan of the previous series?

Yeah! I've seen them all and from day one I wanted to be a part of it. They've had massive stars in the past; Alison Steadman, Lenny Henry, Timothy Spall. So it's amazing to be part of this new series and for it to have landed on my lap.

It's the same premise every series, but a different story. Why do you think this idea lends itself so brilliantly to a TV drama?

I think all of us secretly have that desire to win the lottery. That excitement when you win the lottery! Even now, when you see someone's won, considering it's been around for so long, it's still exciting.

I think everyone can share in that excitement and that feeling of "It could be me". And in and amongst all that, you have all these fantastic characters you get to discover in each series. I don't know how she (Kay Mellor) does it really.

How would you describe this series?

I would say it's really fun, warm, fast-paced, high-energy and then thread all way through are these human stories which anyone - you don't have to be from up North - can relate to.

We're one of the youngest casts she's had for The Syndicate, which is really exciting. But then there's also Neil Morrissey, Gaynor Faye, Mark Benton - so as I say, there's a character in there that everyone can relate to.

Tell me a bit about your character Roxy, what's she like?

I found her really empowering to play actually. She has so many life decisions to make and so much is thrown at her in such a short amount of time. Ultimately, at the end of it all, she fills her own cup with love. And who can say that? That's something that actually, we could all do more of. Especially me!

She taught me a lot about prioritising myself. In the face of absolute adversity, she comes out on top. I wouldn't call her fiery - I think that's an easy thing to say - because actually, she's more empowering.

So you learnt a lot from her, but are you similar to her in any way?

The similarities are that she loves her job. Absolutely loves her job and her family and her friends. She wants a simple life, living were she lives... initially! And then towards the end she discovers this burning passion to see the world.

She has this gorgeous arc of what she thought she wanted and through pain and trauma discovers there's a greater life to be had.

I would say in my life, and the experiences I've had, I've discovered there is more. I now love travelling and seeing the world. Realising there's more out there to grasp and try and do. Even though Roxy's pregnant, that doesn't stop her. Nothing hinders her idea of expansion.

She never thought she could even have a baby and she'd resigned herself to that. But that didn't get her down. She didn't let it. But through this new discovery and the pain of the break up, she's discovered her own expansion.

It's actually opened a whole new chapter and a whole new excitement for her. I would say I relate to that level of expansion in her, in that nothing is too great to achieve. Nothing is too small to want. And you can have it if you want it.

What was it like working with Joe Sugg, who plays your boyfriend Sam?

Joe is nothing like his character! Joe in himself, is the kindest, sweetest soul I have worked with. One of the kindest men I have worked with. He doesn't have a bad bone in his body. No agenda. And his character is the complete opposite!

Well... I say that, but everyone is 3D and his character makes poor choices and I think he realises that at the end. When I ultimately choose myself over him, he realises what he's lost in me.

Joe was so open to learning. He was so aware that it was his first acting job on a TV series and we would have really open discussions about some of the techniques I had. For example, when it comes to emotional scenes, and how I access those. He'd really soak that all up to be better. We all want to be better actors. We all want to learn and grow and he's so open to that.

This series was planned to be filmed in Las Vegas, but then the pandemic happened and the shoot moved to Monaco. How did you feel about that last-minute change?

I was very grateful! Me and heat do not get on. I don't why, but I didn't get that Indian gene. I get sunburnt, I get sunstroke - so imagine Vegas in June?!

France is one of my favourite countries in the world! It was genuinely the most incredible experience. I would wake up, look out of my hotel window to the sun rising over the harbour and yachts!

But we worked really hard! We worked six days a week and didn't really see anyone else for four months, which was really hard, because we'd come out of a lockdown from not seeing anyone else, into another one essentially.

So when we had that Sunday off in Monaco, me and Katherine Rose Morley would totter along into Monaco and swim in the sea. Then we'd go and have a champagne cocktail! We were so exhausted by the end of it.

I've got all these behind-the-scenes pictures ready to go out when the show airs of - at some point - everyone having a nap in some random place!

Due to Covid, you all had to form a bubble. Because you're playing a group of mates, did that actually help you all get into character?

Yeah, it really did! We love each other, but we fought like cats and dogs. Which was so normal and healthy because you'll see all of that real, human side of relationships, played out on screen.

I've never been in a situation like it. I've worked all over the world and you do become like a weird family anyway, because you're in such close proximity all the time, but this was heightened.

We knew that on our days off that we would only see each other. So whether you liked it or not, you had to get on with at least one person! It was amazing and you force yourself to bond even more and make it work.

Did you get to work with Neil Morrissey much?

Most of his stuff was away, so we didn't really get to see him until we were out in Monaco. He's an absolute hoot! Came in, chucked himself in, got on with everyone. No one had an agenda. No one had any airs or graces.

That's what I love about Kay, she picks people with no airs or graces. And if there was... I think someone would tell you straight! We were that kind of cast where if you were acting up, you'd get told. Whether you're Neil Morrissey or anyone else!

Any favourite scenes?

I know this sounds so cliché, but everything! It was the best experience of my life. We had so much fun! There's this airport scene where we're all coming back from Monaco and that was a really fun day because we had to speed off in a car!

Oh, I'll tell you what. There's a really famous hairpin in Monaco. You know the F1 one? It's in the trailer and we're all in the car going "Oh my god!" - we must have shot that scene for HOURS! Going around and around and around. To the point where you're so delirious from laughter. We all had our heads out of the window laughing, it was just amazing.

How did you find working with dogs?

I loved it! I'm absolutely obsessed with dogs. Anyone who knows me, knows that. So for me, this was a dream. But, have you ever tried walking five dogs on a lead before and trying to act a scene?! Easier said than done.

Kay's dog was one of the cheekiest dogs I've ever met. Trying to mount all the other dogs, male or female! It did not matter. The dog's called Happy and is the funniest dog. Happy was one of my character's main dogs.

I also had this little male Chihuahua who we had to get rid off on set, because Happy wouldn't leave him alone!

What do you think you'd do if you won the lottery? And would you go public with the news?

I don't think I'd go public with the news. There are so many charities that I'd love to support. So many! I'd also love to start a female-led business that empowers women and alleviates women out of poverty. I think I'd probably put a massive chunk into that.

It's such a goal of mine to create a business like that and everyone gets a cut of the profits. A business that really supports women. That's globally, not just the UK. I don't know what it is yet. And then obviously help friends and family too.

How are you hoping people will react to the series?

It's the warm hug everyone needs right now. There's so much gritty, amazing, dark drama on at the moment, but personally I've genuinely, in the last month, made a choice to not watch anything like that. I just need to watch something that's easy on the soul, that feels fun.

And The Syndicate is that, it's exciting. You can have a laugh and giggle. Kids can be there as well. Personally, I'm desperate to watch something like that, so I'm hoping other people are as well and just from the trailer - how exciting and fun does it look?!

Your CV so far includes a great mix of comedy and drama, is there one you prefer over the other?

I used to - and I still do - love comedy. I think it will always be something that I'll go back to. I'm always drawn to comedy. I always like to do at least one comedy a year. But at the moment I'm pushing myself to branch out into slightly darker characters and see how far I can push myself as an actor really.

Is acting something you've always wanted to do?

Well... I actually wanted to be a singer. But I was not cut out to be a singer! There were loads of different things I wanted to do when I was 14/15. Boxer at one point. I wanted to be a Ripspeed specialist at Halfords - I actually worked at Halfords! I was obsessed with cars, I still kind of am. I wanted to race cars.

But I think, inside of me, I always knew there was that performing element and storytelling. Anything to do with storytelling!

I notice you're not in series six of Line of Duty. Were you asked to go back?

I was yeah, but I couldn't do this series because it clashed with The Syndicate. They absolutely clashed and I had to make the choice of the two. And look, I'm so lucky that I have the choice to do what I want to do. That's an actor's dream. It wasn't an easy decision but it's hard to say no to Kay, she's like your mum!

How did you cope with all the attention that the last series of Line of Duty got?

For me, it gave me lots of anxiety because I'd never been in a situation where everyone was pointing fingers at me - dissecting every single thing I said and did. Daily Mail had run this huge article about theories and I was so scared!

Finally, what's next for you?

I've just wrapped on What's Love Got to Do with It? which is for Working Title who I have always wanted to work with and I think that's coming out next year.

Then I've got another movie coming out later on this year called The Asset, just a small part, working with Martin Campbell, Michael Keaton, Maggie Q and Samuel L. Jackson - who I didn't get to meet, sadly.

The Syndicate starts on BBC One


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