Inteview: Sarah Solemani

The L-plates may be on but she's passing career tests


Sarah Solemani is telling me about her latest failure over a coffee in a North London café. Although Solemani has experienced poverty and even hunger since deciding to make acting and writing her career, this latest disappointment has nothing to with TV or theatre. She has just failed her driving test in dramatic and quite dangerous style. But she says her reaction was conditioned by those years of being turned down at auditions. "As soon as I realised I had failed I was like, 'OK, cool'. You quickly learn in theatre that a 'no' is as good as a 'yes'. You can move on."

It is a lesson that Solemani, who has just turned 32, can reserve for future driving tests because that kind of disappointment does not feature in her career any more. She is in huge demand for her acting and writing these days. She has just written a one-off drama for the BBC, The Secrets, which aired on Monday, in which she also plays the female lead. It is part of a series in which a group of promising young writers were commissioned to write a half-hour film about the confession of a secret. In Solemani's film, the secret is of a sexual nature. "It is about an accusation.This type of thing can be very powerful and very poisonous. So if someone carries around that kind of a suspicion, even if there's been no charge or conviction, then what does that do to a relationship?"

Solemani loved the fact that she got to act in the film. "It is the ultimate. You are so invested in the world that has been created, in the message and the story. To be able to create that and see it through is just about the most creative endeavour I can imagine."

She adds that combining writing and acting works well for her. "With acting you need stay in a childlike frame of mind, to be open and playful. When you are writing, I feel like you need to be the master of the universe. You need to know everything. I need both.

"Writing is very solitary and heady - a whole internal process.You hate everything you write and then you love it. Acting is about being open, physically at your peak and engaged. The writing helps the acting and the acting helps the writing."

No one can claim that Solemani was at her physical peak when acting in The Secrets, considering she had given birth to her first daughter, Soraya, only five weeks previously. "Some people might think I'm looking a bit fat, but given what I'd just been through they should be thinking I'm surprisingly thin," she laughs.

She looks implausibly glamorous for someone with an eight-month-old baby. But she is finding it difficult to stay focused on her work at times. She does not feel she could do it without a supportive husband. "I can honestly say that the secret of good motherhood is good fatherhood. I've got an amazing husband. He wanted me to get my life back. I was thinking of chucking it all in and staying at home but he said, 'no, that's not want what you want to do'."

Solemani, who is Persian Jewish on her father's side, married her husband, Daniel, in the Israeli town of Petach Tikvah. It was a magical occasion, she recalls. "We had about 400 guests and most of them had never been to Israel. We were unsure about what they thought of the place so we wanted to put on a big party - an event over four nights. It sometimes feels that we put a village together."

A big wedding with hundreds of guests would not have been on the horizon a few years ago when Solemani was struggling to make any kind of living out of acting. Now she is doing well, she is still taking nothing for granted. "I love the fact that I can go to the supermarket and buy whatever I want for dinner. I will never lose that thrill."

In her worst days, she was surviving on benefits and was evicted from flats for non-payment of rent. Dinner would often be a bag of chips. During this period she discovered her father had cancer. "It was a dark time for me. You could see the road forking in two ways. I could imagine myself being homeless and penniless."

It was ironic then that her big break, which came along in 2010, was a Bafta-winning BBC3 show, Him and Her, about a couple existing on benefits. "Him and Her changed everything for me. I get plenty of offers now and I'm in the privileged position of people wanting to attach my name to their projects. I'm not sure how long it will last but for the moment the bottom line dread of poverty and starvation has gone away."

Solemani is working on writing a mainstream sitcom for the BBC and there is a US feature film proposal in development. For now, the challenge is not to find work but to field the offers.

"I say no to nearly everything. It's scary but it takes four or five years to make a film and you only have a certain number of four or five years in a lifetime. So you have got to be sure it's something you want to do and something that people will want to watch."

From her teenage days acting was always Solemani's ambition. It came out of another dark phase in her life - her mother died when she was 16. "She was ill for ages and I was a lost soul. When you are a child who loses a parent you sometimes want to go out and just be silly but you can't because everyone around you is sad. That spring and summer, I started acting and it provided a bit of light at a very dark time."

Solemani joined the National Youth Theatre and quickly made a name for herself, starring in a production of The Graduate. But when it came to further education, she chose Cambridge over drama school. "To be honest, I knew I was going to act but drama school felt too expensive." At Cambridge she joined The Footlights and put her heart and soul into acting - a passion which never left her.

Looking forward, Solemani would like to write more for film and TV and find that elusive balance between home and family life. In 10 years' time she would like to be, well, more or less where she is today. "I think more than anything I would like to keep what I've got. "And hopefully by then she will have passed her driving test.

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