Priyanga Burford: On Acting

Sunetra Senior Monday 03rd August 2015 08:49 EDT

Watching Priyanga in such intense, intellectual roles as ‘Baroness Sureka’ in BBC Two’s political satire ‘The Thick of It’, and more recently on stage in Prebble’s psychological play ‘The Effect’, it is hard not to be in awe of the power of her professionalism. However, as we found out, this is just one, dare I say incidental, half of the story. Discussing her journey, from science to English literature to acting, her intimate approach to the craft and her views on the industry today, we see that committing to growth as a person is what fuels a successful career:

How did you get into acting?

It wasn’t until university that I really got involved with the drama scene. I was in a play, written by a friend of mine who studied English with me. I received some very encouraging feedback. Before that, I remember tagging along with a school theatre trip to see Charleson in his legendary performance of ‘Hamlet’. I felt the exhilaration then: going through something in a room full of people and having this deep shared experience. I had A Levels in chemistry, biology and physics, and that really woke me up to the arts.

You are often cast in sharp, political roles, for example in ‘UKIP: the first 100 days’, a mockumentary that followed the fictional success of Farage’s party had he won.  Do you have to have knowledge of politics alongside the acting experience?

It helps that I’m interested in current affairs, but I don’t need to know more than any thinking person who watches Question Time. I prepare for those roles as meticulously as I do any other.  I am one of those actors who really eat up the world of their characters. A lot of imaginative work and research goes into it.  

Yes, you’re incredibly convincing in your roles.  In ‘The Thick of It’, for example, from the controlled tone of your voice to the occasional adjustment of your glasses: how did you prepare?

Well, the cast were all really supportive and it was fantastic to work with Armando Iannucci. You also observe people. I looked at politicians on television, in parliamentary meetings, and paid attention to their little habits. People do funny things when they’re nervous, especially in positions of power.

Drama explores important social issues. Is that what appeals to you?

Yes, but entertainment is important as well. There are a myriad of ways to explore history and culture. All societies have one form of a storytelling tradition. Part of drama’s function is to stand outside and look back in. We say ‘this is what we’re doing, did you notice?’ That’s why I enjoy comedy and drama equally. There are a host of ways to look at the human condition. Music comes into it too, shadow puppetry!

What have been the highlights of your career?

Well, firstly, getting to do what I love and getting paid for it! In terms of career, a number of different things, all for different reasons:  in my recent performance in ‘The Effect’, we had such a big reaction from the audience because we were broaching the topic of mental health. The play dealt with extraordinary ideas to do with the brain, psychology and anti-depressants, and people were happy we were discussing it. These issues are often stigmatised and that just compounds the suffering.

What are your current projects?

I’m shooting a new comedy series, BBC‘s ‘I Want my Wife Back’. I also write for an organisation for young women who want to perform in the arts, and the next edition is out soon. Finally, I’m writing a short film ‘Serpentine Insomniac’. It’s about a woman who can’t sleep and develops an interesting hobby in the hours she’s awake: the miniscule and concentrated can be fascinating indeed.

What barriers have you had to overcome in the industry?

At the start, I found there to be little scope for Asian female actors outside what was limited and marginal. I would always get cast as a one-dimensional doctor for example- almost like a prop. It’s the same as a woman. You’re either the wife or a bolt-on girlfriend, but things are definitely changing. That’s why I enjoyed playing the UKIP role. I was a person with my own story. It was about Deepa Kaur’s choices as an MP and how she deals with them as an individual.  

Finally, what would your advice be to other aspiring actresses?

A few things: There is no substitute for hard work. It does pay off. Secondly, hold yourself to high standards. Thirdly- stay positive. The industry is not a meritocracy and there is sexism and nepotism, but there are also voices. Focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t and actively be one of them. Keep going; be creative and do things to feed your inspiration.

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