When Meera Syal tells her friends about her latest job, they all laugh.
“I just give them the title and everybody pisses themselves laughing,” says the multi-Emmy Award-winning British actress, comedian and writer.
The Woman who Returned and Exchanged Her Husband features Syal in one of the eight episodes that comprise ROAR, the Apple TV+ anthology series adapted from the book of short stories by novelist Cecelia Ahern. Created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, the women behind GLOW, the cast also includes Nicole Kidman, Cynthia Erevo, Merritt Wever and Alison Brie.
Would she return and exchange her husband, fellow actor and comedian Sanjeev Bhaskar, like her character Anu does?
“Oh don’t tempt me” she says and laughs. “No, I wouldn't. But I have certainly been in a situation where I’ve said ‘f*** this’ and a lot of other people have too. But in Anu’s case, all marriages go through phases, and she hits a bad one. It’s a common fantasy.”
With a woman at the heart of each episode, ROAR features self-contained female stories in a format described by Apple as ‘genre-bending’, and merges realism, sci-fi, comedy and satire.
“I would say it’s subversive, dark, feminist and dystopian,” says Syal. “I think this particular one really does strike a very familiar chord. I think that's what's great about Cecilia’s writing - she can go from something really quite dark and out there to something rooted in the familiar. All of the stories plug right into female experience in an interesting and unexpected way, so I can see why they went for it as a series. It's a no brainer.”
As one of the funnier stories in ROAR, which is produced by Kidman and Bruna Papandrea, it is perfect for Syal’s skill set.
“When I knew this was the one I was getting I thought ‘god. I lucked out’ because this one is full of comedy and some are much much darker. I think it’s the one that probably suits me best.”
“There’s one where the woman is so beautiful her husband puts her on a shelf, one where a woman is gradually being eaten - that's really dark. Because Cecilia is so amazing at encompassing different genres, I think they wanted a really good span of different moods. Overall, tonally they all fit that same palette, and are sort of darkly feminist, comic, rich with magic realism. It’s like the female equivalent of Black Mirror I suppose.”
For Syal The Woman Who Returned and Exchanged Her Husband is not just about the desire to return a husband, it’s also very much about the invisibility of women above a certain age.
“I think it is significant that my character Anu has her 60th birthday in the story,” says the actor who also turned 60 last summer.
“Most decade birthdays make you look at yourself but I think 60 is quite a big one for a woman. It’s when you go ‘oh my god, most of my life is over and is this it?’ Because for our mums, 60 was old. It was slippers and sitting by the fire time.
Not for Syal, who is busy acting, writing, parenting and flourishing her bus pass with glee - “although of course I got it in the middle of a bloody pandemic so that was no good was it? But I'm using it now”. However, she’s very aware of the ageism that permeates her profession in particular.
“Anu feels invisible. And that is a very common refrain for women, particularly women in my industry, where it is all to do with youth and beauty. It's changed massively from even 20 years ago, but it's still a thing.
“Or, you’re defined as a character actress, which is meant to be a derogatory term, but for me has always been a huge compliment. Because the roles I've got and enjoyed doing and want to do are the ones that have nothing to do with how pretty you might look. They’re much more interesting, rounded, complicated women.
“I think all the great roles are character roles actually and my favorite actresses, like Julie Walters, are totally women without vanity who just bring truth to everything they do. So yeah, character actors all the way for me.”
Syal tells me about a podcast she recently did for The Guilty Feminist, with the actor Juliet Stevenson and Nicky Clark, founder of the Acting Your Age Campaign,which challenges ageism in acting.
“I said that something weird happened as I got to my 50s,” says Syal. “I realised I was playing the mothers of the same actors whose wife I used to play ten years earlier. I thought ‘are actress years like dog years? Do we have an extra seven for every one of a man’s?’ It's still acceptable for a man in his sixties to have a 30-year-old girlfriend but you rarely see it the other way around. And God forbid he has a wife or a partner the same age. We aren’t given positive images as women about ageing. The menopause is always seen as this awful thing and once your fertility ends, you've lost your usefulness and you're in that weird sort of hinterland between not attractive anymore but not quite old enough to play the mad granny. So where do you fit it? I think ROAR brings up all of those issues.”
“Juliet (Stevenson) was hilarious. She said ‘oh God, if I get another script where I'm just a mum in an apron going ‘be careful!’ or ‘How are you feeling dear?’ or moaning about my chilblains? I might scream’. It’s Juliet bloody Stevenson. She's a queen. She can do anything. So even the greatest actresses get it. Meryl Streep talked about how she had these fallow years where she was just getting offered the adjunct.”
With a CV that ranges from theatre to TV and film credits, as well as writing fiction, Syal needs no introduction. Born in Wolverhampton and raised in a village in the Midlands, after studying drama at Manchester University she performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company and won the What’s On Stage Award for Best Actress as Shirley in Shirley Valentine. Television credits include the multi award-winning comedy series Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at Number 42, The Split, Broadchurch, Sky’s Code 404 and the popular BBC dark comedy-drama Back to Life.
In film, she’s appeared in Paddington 2, Doctor Strange and Alice Through the Looking Glass and more recently in the Disney Channel Original movie SPIN, while her screenwriting credits include Bhaji On The Beach, Anita And Me and My Sister Wife, for which she won two Asian Film Awards (AFA). Her first novel, “Anita And Me”, won the Betty Trask Award and was the first novel by a British Asian writer to be included on the national school curriculum and was followed by the critically-acclaimed Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee and The House Of Hidden Mothers.
She has honorary doctorates, won the Women In Film And Television Award for Creative Innovation and was awarded a CBE.
Yet still when I mention the other ROAR cast members - Nicole Kidman, Cynthia Erevo, Issa Rae, Merritt Wever, Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, Meera Syal, Fivel Stewart, Kara Hayward - she says:
“I know, spot the odd one out, I mean…” she laughs. “I was delighted to be in that company.”
Come on, look at her CV. She’s up there with them.
“That’s kind,” she says. “But I'm not that well known in the States so they did take a punt on me. I was really lucky because the writer, Vera Santamaria [BoJack Horseman, Pen15, Orange is the New Black, Schitt’s Creek] is of Indian extraction and knew some of my work. And also the character I was playing was based very much on her mum so I got lucky. I don't think I've ever been offered a role that's given me so much complexity, range, joy, sexuality, sass and depth just in half an hour. In theatre I've had that, but not on screen.”
So is the way forward for more women to be writing, commissioning and making stories about women who are 40 and above? People like Syal, for instance, who is currently working on two new projects for TV.
“One is totally about women at this age and one which has a span of women but the older ones aren’t just there to be mad old bat granny or mum in a pinny saying ‘it’ll be all right, dear’ or ‘angry menopausal woman’.” She laughs. “They’re just complicated real women and that’s all we want really isn’t it? And also to have same age couples on screen, reflecting long term tender relationships we all have and celebrate.?”
One of the projects, for the BBC, is a historical drama for the BBC about a previously hidden bit of South Asian history in the UK and the other a comedy drama based on a real life legal case 20 years ago set here and India.
“It's the world I know and very few people write about us. Actually, the main reason I write about us is because we have the best stories. Whenever I sit with my female South Asian friends, particularly my aunties or mum's friends, the stories that come out, you go ‘why has nobody written this down? I cannot believe the epic things you've been through! You feel that as they die the stories are going to die with them so there’s this urgency to tell them.
What’s next for Syal? Will she write another novel, more TV, screenplays?
“As you probably guessed, because I’ve only written three novels in 20 years, I only write when I have an idea I can't get rid of. There is a little idea brewing. It might not be fiction, but faction. I’ll leave it there,” she says.
As well as ROAR, she has a film coming out later this year, an indie movie with Rebel Wilson, called The Almond and the Seahorse.
“It’s a poignant film set around a hospital where people with traumatic brain injuries are treated. It focuses on two different couples, both of whom are dealing with a partner that's had a TBI and the fallout of that, and I play a neurologist treating them. It’s a really beautiful film.
“The almond and the seahorse are two parts of the brain, the hippocampus and the amygdala, which regulate emotions. One looks like an almond and the other looks like a seahorse, and if they are damaged there are quite deep personality changes.”
At this point the conversation leads to not TBIs, but physical experiences that have had a life changing effect, and Syal talks about being in hospital with a broken leg when she was four.
“It was quite a bad break and I was there with my leg up a sling for nearly two months. Visiting was an hour a day, no matter what age, and that was brutal. I think that did change me. I ended up going right into my imagination because I had an awful lot of time on my own and there was no television. All I could do was read and write, as much as you can at four, and I spent a lot of time thinking. Hospital radio was on a lot and there are a couple of songs that when I hear them now, jolt me back to having my leg up in the air feeling absolutely alone and thinking ‘all right, you're either gonna go under or you’re just going to jolly up and find resources somewhere’. I think it was quite formative in a weird way.”
What were the songs?
“One, two, three, oh it’s so easy baby, it’s gonna be…” she sings and laughs. “And Sandie Shaw. But One, Two, Three must have been number one because it’s still on all the time.
“The other thing that happened was I got to know a boy who was probably about eight or nine, in an isolation booth next to me so we used to wave and tap messages and hold up notes. He died while I was there and I remember… gosh it’s a bit emotional talking about it... I remember his parents coming to collect his body… That was my first experience of death. I was very young and had no-one to share it with. You were kind of left to it in those days.”
Also filmed but not released is Wheel of Time, the Amazon fantasy series, about which she can reveal very little other than she will be playing a ‘significant character’.
“I can’t say I’ve watched much fantasy because I’ve found a lot of it misogynistic, but what I loved about this one is it’s really female led and full of incredibly strong female role models. In a lot of fantasy series the women tend to stand around in skimpy costumes and get rescued. It’s not like that, which is what attracted me to do it.”
No Princess Leia-type gold bikini scenes in this one then?
“I can tell you I spent the entire shoot in very sturdy walking boots,” she says and laughs.
Another upcoming series/film is The Devil’s Hour, also for Amazon, “a very dark, spooky thriller starring the fantastic Jessica Raine. It’s about a young mum with a little boy who seems to be very disturbed and as she delves into what is going on with him she walks into something supernatural that she has no control over.
“It’s TOTALLY the kind of thing I would watch. I love stuff like this. It’s so clever. It’s not just a shocky sort of boo! thing. It’s so much about how our past comes back to haunt us, stuff that’s gone before you and the residue, even in past generations, and how that’s handed down.”
Syal has experience of how the past tinges the present, with parents were influenced by the Partition of India in 1947.
“I think one of the reasons I started creating is that sort of generational trauma that my father particularly went through. He saw Partition and some terrible things. I think as a child you pick up on the unspoken sadness of what’s happened to your parents. Mine were the most loving, gorgeous parents you could want, but all parents protect their kids. Maybe sometimes that’s not a good thing because kids still pick it up.”
Syal’s father never spoke about his experiences until she took him back to his childhood home for a show she made for Radio 4 in 1997.
“We went to the house he’d fled in 1947, 50 years on, and it was like it all just came pouring out of him. My father NEVER spoke about any of this before and never did again, but when he was there, he had to. Now I understand that stone he’d been carrying around and it’s so important that he shared it with me.
“They were warriors, that generation. They had hard, epic journeys, and I think we should honour them by telling their stories or by keeping their memories alive by carrying on some of the values of decency and hard work they had. It is somewhere deep in your DNA, all of that.”
This could be why, when asked which of her many awards and accolades, Syal is most proud, she replies:
“I’m grateful for them all, but hearing that Anita and Me was on the school curriculum, that was my proudest moment. To go to a book shop and see study guides with pages on Indian immigration to Britain and Partition, that’s when I thought, ‘ahhhh, we will be remembered. My father’s journey will be remembered’. How fantastic. Just a little drop in the big ocean of story telling but it’s there.”
And finally, as time is running out, what would she like to do career-wise, but hasn’t yet?
“Gosh. Loads. I’d love to do a Chekov and play Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and a Sondheim musical. And I’d love to do a comedy, improv film like Spinal Tap. I’d love to work in that way, because we don’t do it very much and…
Which is when, unexpectedly, appropriately, Zoom cuts us off.
Meera Syal appears in an episode of the eight part Roar, which launches on Apple TV+ on 15th April. Watch the ROAR trailer
Acting Your Age podcast for The Guilty Feminist With Nicky Clark, Meera Syal And Juliet Stevenson - here