Sarah Solemani on quirky new comedy Aphrodite Fry

Sarah Solemani. Picture: Getty
Sarah Solemani. Picture: Getty
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APHRODITE Fry is a muralist living in Brighton. You can’t miss her – she’s the girl whose uniform is a paint-spattered orange boiler suit, whether she’s daubing the side of a building or jiving at night in the clubs.

More to the point, you mustn’t miss her, because this engaging segment of Sky Living’s Love Matters season is written by and features Sarah Solemani, the award-winning star of Him & Her and Bad Education.

Solemani spins the brief – “write about love” – in a quirky direction. By phone from Los Angeles, she explains: “The starting point was a friend of mine. She’d just broken up with someone and was feeling really shit. We were like, ‘Get back on the horse! Go out. Have fun.’ She did. And she called me the next day, crying.” Solemani faux-sobs: “ ‘I went out with this guy and he came on me and then he left!’ I thought it was the most horrendous story I’d ever heard, and also one of the funniest.

“I was doing a play and told that story [during rehearsals]. All the actresses said, ‘That is hideous. How degrading.’ And I saw a few of the actors being, like, ‘Ahem’ and I went, ‘Oh my God, you’ve done it!’ So it became this gender differentiation, and I wondered if that was because of the physical act of ejaculation.”

Ah yes. Many years ago an earnest young man explained to me that sex was “different for girls” because something enters a woman’s body. “I’ve heard that a lot, and don’t like it, because it makes a woman so passive, says Solemani. A friend writing about maternity told me that the metaphor of the passive woman and the active man, which is carried on in the narrative that the sperm swims and the egg sits still, and the strong sperm penetrates the egg . . . actually, she says, the egg is the selector. It has small suction valves that select the strongest sperm and reject the weaker ones. So we need to rework how we teach women and men these ways of looking at sex.”

All this comes down the line in a sweetly girlish voice, but Solemani is nothing like the layabout Becky from Him & Her. Instead, she is one smart cookie. The 30-year-old grew up in north London, the eldest daughter of two academics. When she was 16, her mum Rachel died of ovarian cancer. Solemani was a raucous teenager, heavily invested in Britpop and a regular in the hotel bars, though she told one interviewer she timed her benders so they wouldn’t clash with her school work. That scheduling trick worked a treat: she earned an MA (Hons) in Social and Political Sciences at Cambridge, and in 2005 won third place in the New Statesman’s prize for New Political Writing, for her essay “Do women’s rights remain the privilege of the developed world?”

As a teen she was also part of the National Youth Theatre. Her first gig was playing Elaine in the West End revival of The Graduate. At university she wrote and performed with The Footlights, and in time came to the Fringe to perform in a double act with her writing partner, Thick Of It actress Olivia Poulet.

“One of my heartaches was that I never got a good review in The Scotsman. I was kind of gutted because – OK, it wasn’t the best work I ever made, but it was decent. I can still remember all [my bad reviews] off by heart. Isn’t that awful?” Surely it’s just human nature? “I wrote a play early on in my career and the reviewer wrote, ‘She stuffs her plays full of ­ideas,’ in a derogatory way. I’m so haunted by this that now, at meetings, I’m saying, ‘I don’t want to stuff this with ideas.’ ”

But she’s made other intriguing decisions, such as the nude scene in Aphrodite Fry. “Yeah, um, because the script is about the perception of sex, I honestly just had my writer hat on, and I wrote: ‘She takes off her clothes, not in a sexual way, but as an olive branch. And he takes his clothes off. And they stand, and then they run naked, like John and Yoko, free, into the sea.’ Then I came to act it,” she hoots, “and was like, ‘For f***’s sake Sarah, what have you done that for?’ I could have taken it out and I didn’t, because I feel that it works, and that I was controlling my nudity and making the rules.

“There’s nothing inherently moral or immoral or degrading or ­uplifting about nudity. It’s a state. But what is vulnerable-making about it is that the context in which nudity is seen is ­often not owned by women. In this situation I owned the context. And the other thing is, like Lena Dunham says, ‘If you’ve got great tits, just write them in!’ ”

How peculiar is it writing and acting in a piece that someone else is directing? “It’s pretty specific what you want because you’ve written it. For Aphrodite Fry I needed someone I trusted, so it was so wonderful that Ruby Films and Sky Living let me pick my director, Vanessa Caswill, who has made fantastic short films but had never done TV before.

“It was a massive collaboration. And it was interesting. When we were shooting the sex scene, I’d film it then run into the video village, and be like ‘Is that a good shot?’ And we’d discuss it. Afterwards, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I was in my knickers and bra!’ But I didn’t even think about it. I had no worry that I was being objectified. I had no concern that my director was getting off on it and that I needed to protect myself. All it was about was making it funny and truthful. The director has to be an extension of your own brain while, of course, offering something new, which she did. I am hoping I have found a collaborator I can work with for a lot of things.”

Solemani knows how important it is to have a diversified life if you want to be a good writer, and explains that she’s in LA recharging her batteries. “I’m sort of on a holiday. I’ve been working straight for about three years. I had a month in between the show I just shot with James Corden and the start of shooting on Bad Education. I wanted to take some time to think about what I want to write next, so I’m living up a hill with a Swedish pop star and I’m juicing and having a good time.”

The Wrong Mans, airing on BBC2 later this year, was co-written by Corden and Spy’s Matthew Baynton. It’s a comedy caper about office workers caught up in a case of missing identity, and Solemani plays Corden’s boss, who also happens to be his ex.

Another project in the pipeline is Electrika, about an alien who falls to Earth in need of a tutorial in passing as a human. “I’m waiting for Channel 4 to give me the green light. It’s the best script I’ve ever written. It’s a drama but it’s very funny. I just hope they are brave and commission it, because I know it could be brilliant and that audiences would want to see it. It’s a hard sell because the industry is still not there yet, not taking risks with female performers.”

Might she ever choose writing over performing? “I am an extrovert who likes time on her own, which is a polite way of saying that I am an anti-social show-off. I can do lengthy periods of solitude, but then I love breaking that and being on a set, which is really collaborative. Also, writing is so hard. You’re asking for loads of money and people’s time, and if it’s not good enough you feel like an idiot. Whereas with acting, it’s also very hard but you’re helped a lot by the director, lighting and so on. There’s nowhere to hide when you’re a writer. So I do like both.”

Surprisingly, Solemani has only just learned to appreciate her worth. “I used to be so terrified and embarrassed and hate everything I ever made. I would never watch it and never invite anyone to see it. But I am really proud of Aphrodite Fry. Watch it. And let me write some more. I’ve got this energy for making things, and being given the opportunity is such a lucky position. I’m grateful, but I’m also ready.”

Twitter: @randallwrites

• Aphrodite Fry airs on 4 April at 9.30pm on Sky Living HD