Newcomer Leila Farzad talks acting alongside Billie Piper in Sky’s new drama I Hate Suzie
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Having spent plenty of time treading the boards in ground-breaking recreations of classics, such as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Richard II, Leila Farzad is now stepping into a completely different area in Sky Atlantic’s bold and bracing original new drama, I Hate Suzie. Appearing alongside Billie Piper (Suzie), the fledgling TV star is bristling with excitement about her big break. “It feels like a dream that I couldn’t possibly have imagined happening,” she says. “I’ve done tiny bits of TV where I’ve played nondescript roles that only my mum and auntie would ever tune in for. But this? This is big. I’d get to set and walk into my trailer, totally incapable of comprehending how lucky I felt.”
However, the Iranian actress had a battle on her hands when it came to winning her place in the spotlight.
“I’m an only child and I was incredibly academic, as one is often pushed to be in Middle Eastern culture, so becoming an actress wasn’t on the cards,” she reveals.
But having won awards for her acting at school, she discovered her passion for theatre – her confessed first love – early in life.
“My poor mum did everything she could to steer me away from it,” she recalls. “We made a deal. She said the only way she’d consider letting me go to drama school was if I got a degree from Oxford or Cambridge first.”
A tall order for most people, but Leila’s thirst for the stage saw her through a French and Italian literature degree at Oxford and finally into The Guildhall School of Music & Drama.
“There wasn’t much mum could do because I’d held up my end of the bargain. Of course now she’s incredibly proud and she was beside herself with excitement when she found out I’d be starring in Lucy Prebble’s (I Hate Suzie’s Emmy-nominated writer) new show.
“Oxford was tough,” Leila acknowledges. “I didn’t have a wonderful time there because of all the pressure and I spent most of it running away from reality with my university boyfriend and pretending deadlines didn’t exist.”
However, she clearly considers it having been worth the effort as she talks about her experiences of filming the series.
“I was so determined to get this part I sent a second audition tape after the casting director said I wasn’t what they were looking for. Eventually, I got into a room with Billie for some in-person meets, held my breath and hoped for the best. You don’t dare to dream about these things until they’re set in stone and you’re fully established in them.”
“Having such a fleshed out character you feel like you know and can resonate with is every actor’s dream,” she continues. “You can really mine into their psychology and have a wonderful time playing the role. That’s exactly what I did with Naomi.”
Unflappable, capable and downright formidable, Naomi is Suzie’s childhood best friend. She’s also her manager and needless to say, these combined professional and personal aspects of their relationship add a layer of complexity to the drama.
“You know when you love someone and you’d lay down your life for them, but you don’t necessarily like them? That’s what’s going on here,” laughs Leila.
Having been friends from the age of 11, the pair are at a crossroads in their relationship and after compromising images of superstar Suzie are leaked to the press, their co-dependency begins to unravel.
“The series examines what happens when something that’s been blatantly building up for years starts to crack and I think it does an amazing job at showing that so honestly,” Leila says. “It’s unapologetic, raw and ugly at points. I often get frustrated with the twee portrayals you see of women on the television.”
“As a demographic, women in their thirties aren’t looked at enough. It’s like the no-man’s land of femininity between ‘hot young thing’ and ‘Bisto mum’ where everyone is just waiting for you to have a baby.”
“The great thing about I Hate Suzie is that it addresses all those ‘less desirable’ aspects of women’s lives without apologising for them. The characters aren’t watery versions of the truth. They’re messy, because femininity isn’t neat. It smashes through that annoyingly dainty idea of what women should say and do and tackles their sexuality, friendships and emotions in a way that I think is quite provocative.”
On the topic of fierce femininity and strong women, we’re eager to hear what it was like working alongside Billie Piper.
“It was brilliant. She’s such an effortlessly great actress. I was actually slightly awestruck by her if I’m honest. The way she turned on Suzie’s presence the second they yelled, ‘Action!’ amazed me.”
With a pacy filming schedule, the pair didn’t have huge amounts of time together off set, but Leila says that working with Billie was every bit as magnificent as she’d hoped.
“Billie is very much in her gut as an actress, whereas I spend a lot of time in my head. I overthink things and I’d sometimes get tangled up delivering the simplest of lines,” she recalls. “Billie would always say, ‘Just chuck it away. Just say it.’ “
“That was great advice for someone who is used to performing in theatre. It’s a far more indulgent practice and you get to analyse, reset and try again the following night, whereas TV is all about hitting that sweet spot in the moment then moving on.”
So it’s fair to say that Leila is a little more flummoxed than her on-screen persona.
“I’d love to be more like Naomi,” she confesses. “She’s assertive, in control and completely body confident. I love jumpsuits and snacks. But I’ve not always been comfortable with my curves.”
“I grew up in the 90s, where heroin chic was the look – which was pretty devastating – and eyebrows weren’t a thing. All my friends were these wispy little blonde things and there I was with hips and facial hair thinking, ‘What’s happened? Why do I look like this?’”
Leila has a young daughter and admits this has made her all the more conscious about body image and the way she talks about beauty.
“I caught myself the other day muttering something self-deprecating about feeling fat and I got so angry at myself. When my daughter hears that, how does she process it? We need to be better for the next generation so that we can embrace all shapes, sizes and colours as beautiful.”
So we can’t wait to see what Leila does next and with theatre out of the picture due to coronavirus, she is hoping another TV job comes her way, although she’s in no rush.
“I feel so lucky to even have finished I Hate Suzie and have it to offer everyone at the moment. I think I’ll just bask in this glory for a bit.”
I Hate Suzie is on Sky Atlantic at 9pm and NOW TV on Thursday.
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