For the woman who pulled off the most sensational political assassination of modern times, Anjli Mohindra finds it surprisingly easy to fly below the radar. In fact, the actress tells Weekend, the only person who’s come out as a fan recently was her locum GP. ‘He waited until I’d gone through all my symptoms to tell me he recognised me from Bodyguard. I thought, this couldn’t be more awkward…’
If people don’t immediately clock her as Nadia, the bomber who blew up Keeley Hawes’ Home Secretary Julia Montague in the decade’s most watched TV drama, you can’t really blame them. The smiling, glamorous 29-year-old who greets Weekend at ITV’s London HQ couldn’t be further removed from her jihab-wearing alter-ego, who exploited the Western stereotype of the mousy, oppressed Muslim bride to disguise her role as the mastermind behind a deadly jihadi terrorist plot.
We first met Nadia during that unbearably tense stand-off in a train toilet, when Richard Madden’s Sgt David Budd spent an agonising 15 minutes convincing her not to detonate her suicide vest. ‘I haven’t been able to look at a train toilet in the same way since,’ admits Mohindra. ‘I always get a bit weirded out when I go in one now...’
The role may have proved a game-changer for an actress who’s been a regular fixture on our screens since the age of 16, but she initially turned it down (‘I’d definitely have been kicking myself now,’ she smiles) over concerns it might perpetuate an unhealthy narrative about Muslims. Writer Jed Mercurio persuaded her otherwise – insisting he wanted to challenge, not reinforce, perceptions of Muslim women – but the plotline still proved controversial.
‘I’m happy that the show has sparked a conversation about representation on British TV,’ Mohindra says today, while admitting she sometimes feels ‘out of my depth’ when expected to act as a spokesperson on the issue. ‘Some of those questions I cannot answer. I play a role – I’m a pastel colour in a box, rather than the artist who’s creating the whole piece. But I’m happy to add my voice.’
One summer on from Bodyguard-mania, Mohindra finds herself on the right side of the law in Wild Bill, ITV’s new drama starring Rob Lowe as a hotshot cop patrolling the mean streets of Boston. Boston, Lincs, that is.
Mohindra plays Lydia Price, the Assistant Chief Constable of East Lincolnshire whose nose is put out of joint when Lowe’s ‘Wild’ Bill Hixon blows in across the Atlantic and nabs the force’s top job.
‘She’s totally capable and qualified – she’s been on the force since she was 16, she’s a Bostonian born and bred, she knows the people and the lie of the land,’ says Mohindra. ‘But she’s just constantly overlooked. And then you’ve got this annoying American guy with perfect teeth coming in to tell her how things should be run.
‘I really like the metaphor I was given by the writers, that they’re an ex-married couple who are saving face in front of the kids. They can’t stand each other, but they have to try to get along and make things work.’
In the show, much is made of Bill’s fish-out-of-water status among the beet fields of Boston. For one-time Brat Packer Lowe, who’s spent most his life on Hollywood backlots, it was a case of life imitating art.
‘For the first week, we were just thinking: where are the boundaries of script and reality?’ recalls Mohindra. ‘On day two, we were filming on an open set in this market – there were people buying their Brussels sprouts and whatnot, and running up to Rob to get a photograph of him. It’s probably a million miles from his life in America.’
Part ITV police procedural, part Fargo-style black comedy, Wild Bill doesn’t flinch from exploring Boston’s status as, in the words of one character, ‘the Brexit capital of Britain’. ‘It isn’t a huge theme, but figures are figures,’ says Mohindra, referring to the town’s 75.6% Leave vote in the 2016 EU referendum. ‘I mean, it’s not a documentary, but we see both the ugly and the beautiful sides of the place. It’s not the most diverse place I’ve ever been to, but people get along. I didn’t notice any huge racial tensions, other than there weren’t many people who looked like me there.’
That’s not a new sensation: Mohindra spent her early teenage years as ‘the only ethnic minority kid out of 2,000’ at an Armed Forces School in Germany, and in a recent magazine article, she wrote how she ‘felt ugly’, began suffering from anxiety and ‘wished she was white’.
‘I just desperately wanted to fit in, as you do at that age,’ she tells Weekend. ‘I really wanted to try to hide traces of my ‘Asian-ness’, and swatted up on as many British references as I could. I was always like, “My brother loves The Beatles, my dad’s favourite band are The Rolling Stones!’” Whereas now I’m very keen to embrace my Asian roots, and if anyone asks that question, “Where are you really from?’, I roll up my selves and say, “Well, my dad was born in…’’
Her dad was born in Mombasa and her mum in Punjab, and Mohindra grew up in Nottingham. She’s wanted to perform for as long as she can remember. ‘It was always just there. I was always trying to find ways of telling stories to the family, or putting on little shows for them to watch. Looking back, it was probably so frustrating for them: “She’s doing it again, everyone – we all have to converge in the living room to watch Anjli do a five-minute monologue…”’
She trained at Nottingham’s Central Junior Television Workshop – whose distinguished alumni include fellow locals Vicky McClure and Samantha Morton – and got herself an agent, who encouraged her to list her ethnicity as ‘white’ on her CV. ‘She thought that would give me more chance of playing roles that weren’t just “repressed daughter of doctors and dentists,”’ she explains.
After minor roles in Coronation Street and The Inbetweeners, she got her big break as a plucky teenager fighting aliens in Russell T Davies’ kid-friendly Doctor Who spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures. Having grown up in the wilderness years when Doctor Who was off the air, she didn’t initially realise what a big deal it was. ‘But my dad was a huge fan. He got so star-struck when he met Elisabeth Sladen. It was really sweet.’
In 2011, Who fans were left reeling when Sladen – a hero to generations of viewers since her travels in the TARDIS alongside Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker’s Time Lords – died suddenly after a short battle with cancer, with work on the fifth series of The Sarah Jane Adventures still unfinished. ‘I didn’t know she was ill,’ says Mohindra. ‘Lis was a very private person, but I also think her battle was quite complex. We already had the next [filming] dates, so yeah, it was an unexpected turn, sadly.’
Since then, she’s played major supporting roles in the likes of The Missing, Paranoid and Dark Heart. During that time, she’s noticed a marked improvement in the representation of Asian actors in film and television, but feels there’s still some way to go. ‘There are loads of stories of my family, my friends, of other ethnic minorities, that maybe won’t get told unless there are more writers of colour out there who have experienced this stuff first hand. So I’ve started to do a bit of writing – I managed to get a place on the Royal Court Writers’ programme. There’s no use just sitting on the edges, getting frustrated. You have to take the moment and be part of it.’
In front of the camera, she’s agitating for a role on Jed Mercurio’s other TV blockbuster‘: ‘I’d love to do Line of Duty,’ she beams. ‘Wouldn’t every actor?’ Plus, of course, there’s always the possibility of more Bodyguard – particularly as many refuse to believe that Julia Montague is actually dead.
‘What, you think she’s just in hiding?’ asks Mohindra, appearing genuinely shocked by the suggestion.
Well we never saw the body…
‘Listen, with Jed Mercurio, you’ve never any idea what he has up his sleeve,’ she says. ‘She could be under that stage somewhere, waiting for her moment, you just don’t know. But in the version of reality that I know of, she’s a goner, I’m afraid. Sorry.’
An edited version of this article was published in Waitrose Weekend, 20 June, 2019
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