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Sacha Dhawan on starring in The Great and battling mental health issues

Culture

Sacha, one of the stars of the unbelievably good new C4 show, The Great, talks to us about that and why he's campaigning for greater understanding of mental health struggles and the power of reaching out.

The Great is shaping up to be the hit show of the New Year – just the ribald, carefree and hilarious antidote to the privations we’re having to live under once again. Loosely based on the rise to power of Catherine the Great – brilliantly, wildly, loosely based in fact (it doesn’t really give two shits) – with Elle Fanning in the title role opposite Nicholas Hoult as Emperor Peter, the outrageously debauched husband she plots to murder. Helping her is Orlo, the one sane man in the King’s court, brilliantly played by Sacha Dhawan. Sacha is the British-South Asian actor who is continuing a path of acclaimed roles in theatre and TV, including, most recently The Master in Doctor Who. Yet it’s Sacha’s recent work in bringing awareness to mental health, anxiety and Crohn’s Disease which have particularly caught our attention – and upon speaking to him its clear that here’s an example of a man making sense of his heritage, his mental health battles and his very identity, in a truly inspiring way. Here’s our in-depth interview with a fine actor and a fine man…

The Great – can you tell us about it?

The Great is a period show that’s loosely based on the life and rise to power of Catherine the Great. It’s a unique show because it respects the period whilst throwing it out of the window at the same time.

It’s basically the story of a young woman who marries badly and decides to kill her husband. And I think the show’s unique again because I’m a British South Asian actor playing a character who is Russian through and through. I love that, the way it challenges the audience’s perceptions right from the get go. I like to think of it as an ensemble of contemporary characters in a period setting and the challenges and dilemmas they face. Which are similar to the challenges and dilemmas we face today. It’s not a historical account of Catherine the Great.

I play Orlo who ends up becoming Catherine’s partner in crime. I see him as Russia’s first geek. He’s mostly an ignored advisor to Emperor Peter who’s job is to bring an intellectual and legal framework to all the discussions that happen. He’s quite neurotic but underneath all that anxiety there’s the heart of a lion. He evolves into something you wouldn’t expect.

Did you do much research or not have to bother?

Well like any actor, when I had my final meeting with [show creator] Tony McNamara, I wanted to show him I’d done all my research – and I’d done quite a bit. He said to me, ‘I appreciate the history but I want you to own it. I don’t want you to get tied down by it all. Orlo is a fictional character and what you have in yourself is what interests me. I’m more interested in your theatre background and your work now.’ It allowed me to take complete ownership of it – he wanted us to be as instinctive as possible.

Saying that, Tony first and foremost is a playwright, and my prep turned out to be working with the script and getting the rhythm right and doing the character justice.

How was the filming on set, it looks like fun, but was it?

It was such good fun and the reason why is that you’re working with such good material. When the script’s solid, when there’s no amendments left right and centre, you know you’re on a good show. So you can relax into it. Tony sets up some crazy situations sometimes and they’re such a joy to play, but the tricky thing is that the character shouldn’t know it’s funny. You have to play it as straight as possible. Weirdly you land a gag more. Its really difficult to keep a straight face and sometimes I just couldn’t keep it together. Especially when something just happens in the moment. Nic Hoult is just great, so electric, he’ll do something or a certain look…I remember one scene with an actor who came in who had to have huge nipples. He had these implants put on and we just couldn’t get through the scene. You think, this can’t be my job, I can’t be coming in to look at this guy’s nipples, this doesn’t seem right.

How was 2020 for you?

Even though it’s been a turbulent year I feel all the better for it. I feel like the time has been a bit of a blessing and has opened up so many things for me, things I’ve always wanted to do but never got around to doing it or was afraid to. I’ve started to take risks in work and personally, and it feels great but at the same time because we’re still in it, there’s uncertainty.

Did you become aware of the pressure you’re usually under as an actor, once you stepped away?

It’s more that the industry takes priority, so you have no control. You can focus your attention on one thing and the industry will pull you back. Like they always say, ‘If you want a job, book a holiday.’ What was nice is that the industry globally had come to a halt, which is scary for any artist but meant that you couldn’t have any feelings of guilt. Without that, it felt like I could focus fully on other things  – developing my own work for instance; I’ve always wanted to produce my own projects. Also stuff that was’t linked to work like reconnecting with friends and also reconnecting with myself. Its something I needed to do but had always put off. Just having that space from the industry and not feeling guilty was actually really nice.

What did you look after yourself?

Health and fitness. Cooking. Developing projects was nice as there was no pressure to get something made. But I reconnected with a director I’d worked with on Doctor Who and said I’d love to make something together. I’m a huge advocate of telling stories with South Asian actors that can be culturally specific but aren’t defined by race. There’s an exciting opportunity both in front and behind the camera to show our full potential. Jamie [Magnus Stone], the director, was really on board with this – and we watched films, then connected on Zoom to talk about them, what we liked and din’t like. Eventually we came up with our own idea and it has been picked up. I never would have expected that to happen.

I thought there’s something really special about this time – when you do take stock, it’s amazing what can happen. It can give you great confidence to think maybe there’s other things I can try and do as well.

Has it been a good opportunity to reevaluate what you need, as it has for many of us?

I’m an actor, and I think I’ve always taken solace in the industry for escapism into characters. And seek comfort from that. But I’ve been thinking maybe it’s the wrong place to be looking for it. It’s a business at the end of the day – I put pressure on that to bring me happiness but actually the happiness comes from within. I feel like everyone, whatever the industry, needed to stop. The circumstances were unfortunate but sometimes you almost need to be forced to pull the plug and go ‘ok, where am I at?’ I certainly felt like I was on the treadmill thinking I’d get off in a minute but I’d just carry on.

My personal experiences before this happened meant I wanted to take some time off. I really needed to. I was drained, I didn’t feel mentally right. I loved what I was doing but I was losing the sense of enjoyment a bit. It panicked me because this is the only thing I’ve known.

I thought I’d take some time out but when you try and make that kind of decision the industry teases you back. A job came in that I couldn’t refuse, which was Doctor Who. I knew I should have been jumping up and down when I got the call but I put the phone down and my heart sank. I realised I had to go to South Africa for 2 weeks when something doesn’t feel right.

I had been carrying anxiety for so many years and I didn’t even realise it. I’d really struggled with it but I felt like I had no one to talk to because you become conditioned to think it is just how you feel. It’s amazing actually, when you take that step back, you realise there’s something to explore here with mental health and men as a whole. We aren’t good at talking about these things, and I certainly wasn’t. For many years I’d be sitting in my trailer feeling lost and sad, and no one would ever know.

So Doctor Who happened and actually it was an amazing experience working with amazing people who got me through it, but afterwards I thought it was important to let people know what I was going through. When lockdown happened instead of just getting on the treadmill again it really forced me to stop. I thought I really should do something about this, and speak to somebody which is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Making that call. The actor’s ego creeps in: ‘what if they know who I am?’ But it was the best thing that happened because it’s just freed me up. I feel as if it’s an ongoing process for me but it’s changed my life and opened up so many doors. I felt like I’d begun to find myself again, which is a beautiful thing, which is why I’m an advocate for it.

I’d also suffered from Crohn’s disease as well. Its interesting, the link between the brain-gut axis – I’m spending more time investigating that in the hope of creating awareness about it as well.

Can you tell us about what Crohn’s disease is?

Of course – its an auto-immune disease where in effect my bowel attacks itself. They don’t know what causes it, but it means I’m unable to digest food properly, and I end up forming ulcers in my bowel. I was diagnosed in 2006 with it, and was on medication and it went into remission. About 2016 it reared its ugly head again but really badly. It caused me a great deal of pain, I couldn’t digest food, I was losing a lot of weight, and I was away working. Eventually I saw several specialists to get on improved medication. But weirdly the less I focused on the bowel, which I had been for many years, and the more I focused on my mental health, the better it got – I personally think they’re all connected.

I’m becoming a huge advocate for those that have Crohn’s disease to talk, and not be ashamed of it. People can be embarrassed to talk about the bowel and ashamed of it but they shouldn’t be. I’ve become a patron of Crohn’s and Colitis UK.

Being in the public eye, it’s great to help others like that, but it must be useful for you personally to get your head around it?

Yeah it really does help me. I put a lot of pressure on myself to think acting is all that matters but it isn’t. I love acting and will keep doing it but stepping outside and being more of a mental health advocate or using my platform to connect with people who are going through similar things, is incredibly empowering and it helps me as well. I’m still figuring out my own thoughts but it’s a start. For years I was really scared of talking about it but it’s amazing how many people come back and share their story or thank you for feeling empowered to talk about it too.

It bleeds into everything I do. I made a short film in lockdown about this – I feel with the South Asian community that we’re not very good at talking about our feelings. It’s like we’ve been conditioned to say everything’s alright because we’ve got so much pride. It creates pressures, especially for the next generation like me who were born in this country. The short I made was based around this. I worked with a brilliant writer called Nikesh Shukla who wrote The Good Immigrant, and it was amazing to reach out to a fellow South Asian artist and talk about our own mental health struggles. From it a beautiful project was born: a short film about a fictional stand up comic who is the entertainer but actually ends up talking about his own mental health struggles. The reason he does so is because for the first time because of lockdown he doesn’t have a live audience to perform to, he’s having to record in his bedroom. Once you take away that audience validation, that need to be constantly validated, what does it do to you? It actually exposes you.

I’ve always waited for the industry to grant me these opportunities but lockdown has given me the confidence to do it myself. I’ve always been conditioned to want to get a place at the table, but actually why can’t you just build your own? I can connect with fellow artists, whoever I want to, and create these discussions and projects myself.

The last couple of years have given me the confidence to do that – I feel completely different to when I first got that call about Doctor Who and was completely terrified. In hindsight, that was a bit of a blessing.

The short film is really excellent with the slowly unravelling performer – was the idea to show there’s a lot of that going on with everyone, with how the humour covers up cracks?

Exactly that, and that’s the work I want to be doing. It was the first time of me connecting with South Asian talent, people like me, and it’s amazing that by doing that we can retain cultural specificity – and yet our stories can be universal.

One of my main mental health struggles has been trying to find out which camp I sit in. I never felt white enough and I never felt brown enough, I’ve just spent my life trying to fit in – ‘maybe I should be more Indian…oh no, I should be more white, I should turn down every Indian role that comes along!’

I’m trying to establish my own identity which is British-Indian and actually you can be the best of both. I’ve seen it as being confused in the past but it isn’t, its a unique identity, which should be celebrated because I know there’s a lot of people like me who feel exactly the same in the second generation South Asian community.

Lot of people afraid to explore their identity but it’s important to look at ourselves…

In lockdown I could really start asking those questions – I spent a lot of time with my parents and I had all these questions for my mum and dad around the dinner table, which I think they got sick of. But I just wanted to know who mum and dad were before they were mum and dad. When they were their own individual human beings. I think I constantly used my parents’ story as my own when people say where are you from. People would say, ‘no whats your story,’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t know actually.’

Over the last couple of years I’ve been trying to figure that out by reaching out to other South Asian artists because I’ve been brought up in an industry where I don’t know many people like me, so why would I be inclined to investigate that? I don’t feel like I’ve had the space or been encouraged to do that. But I really feel I’ve missed out on something really special which I’m trying to address now – I’m not going to wait for the industry I’m going to reach out to the wealth of South Asian artists  and encourage us all to talk more because we really don’t. We’ve been conditioned to just be grateful that you’ve got a foot in the industry and I don’t think that’s right.

There’s a lot of talk around a lack of representation in the industry but is the thinking that if you wait for that to change you’ll be here forever?

Yeah and it is scary. Nikesh Shukla  said something really interesting: we put pressure on on ourselves and don’t want to fail, because it’s like our success is everyones success and our failure is everyone’s failure. I think that puts so much pressure on. But we have to take the leap because you’re right you can’t wait for the industry to do it. At the same time I think I’ve underestimated myself so much that I’ve always felt I’m very lucky to be in this position, but it’s because I’ve worked bloody hard. And actually I do have something to value and now I can start doing the work I’ve always wanted to do, and work with people I want to work with.

This isn’t just representation in front of the screen, it’s behind the camera too. I’m always severely disappointed when I turn up on set and it’s like, ‘yeah you say you’re diverse because you have a diverse cast but then you look at the crew and there isn’t anyone like me. That needs to change. It’s constantly evolving and I don’t want to be defeated by it.

What would you say to someone who finds themselves in a hole and hasn’t reached out for help yet?

I’d say: as much as you think you’re on your own, you’re not. Help is out there. As daunting as it is, reaching out for help, once you do it, is the most liberating thing. Particularly for men who are conditioned not to. We need to start talking.

The Great is on All4 now

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