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Leila Farzad: I didn't see people that looked like me on TV growing up

Star of new BBC police drama Better, Leila Farzad, on the long path to overnight success and her ongoing heartache over Iran

Leila Farzad stars on new BBC police drama Better Image: BBC/Sister Pictures

Leila Farzad stars on new BBC police drama Better Image: BBC/Sister Pictures

In BBC1’s Better, Leila Farzad stars as DI Lou Slack. She’s a police officer so compromised by a deal made two decades ago with a young ambitious newcomer in the Leeds underworld that her whole career has been built on a lie.

We have seen morally compromised police on television before. But never quite like this.

Both Slack and Col McHugh (played by Andrew Buchan) have risen through the ranks. Slack is now a popular, successful detective. McHugh is the biggest organised crime kingpin in Leeds. They trust each other implicitly. They lean on each other in tough times. When McHugh calls, Slack responds. A crime scene needs cleaning up before officers arrive? Slack’s there before the on-duty police have their boots on.

But as the latest brilliant BBC police drama to come out of Yorkshire begins, a winning partnership between gangster and copper is about to crack. Because some crimes are too big to cover up. And every conscience has a limit.

“She wants to do good in the world but she’s been seduced by the idea of status and rising in the ranks,” Leila Farzad says.

“And there is this sort of cheap thrill of the secrecy she’s semi-addicted to. So she is in too deep. And then when she decides to try and get out, she’s in a quagmire. The lies have been so densely woven that to try and start unpicking them thread by thread is agony. It means she has to really look in the mirror at what she’s done and the ramifications of what Col has done, which are horrific.

“It’s like we can talk intellectually about the factories where Primark clothes are made but if a jumper is two quid, we might just buy it. Whereas if we saw the factory it would be different. It is something about seeing versus hearing.”

Leila Farzad has been flying high since her Bafta-nominated breakthrough role opposite Billie Piper in I Hate Suzie. Now she’s leading a major BBC1 series. Farzad can relate to DI Slack living a double life.

“I was shooting Better in the week and …Suzie on the weekends. And I was a shell of a human,” she says.

“I was probably not being a good parent, friend or daughter. And not being a very good actor a lot of the time. The hair and makeup girls are my forever friends. In my darkest moments, I’d come in on very little sleep, world weary and broken, and these two women, Adele and Amy, bolstered me like you wouldn’t believe.”

Leila Farzad stars in Better on BBC1

But, she explains, her overnight success took many years.

The rise of Leila Farzad began with a small role alongside Ben Whishaw and David Morrissey in Nicholas Hytner’s acclaimed production of Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre. This led to a different calibre of auditions.

“Being in the presence of all those brilliant actors with that brilliant director – I really felt like it was a proper job with proper people,” says Farzad.

“But I’d had so many near misses. I had so much, I don’t want to call it heartbreak, but it is a rollercoaster emotionally. You get so close. Then you start to emotionally invest. You dare to dream about what it might be like to play that part, go on that journey, meet those people. And you have to pick yourself back up. A lot.

I Hate Suzie was the huge gamechanger. I couldn’t believe they had that much faith in me, acting opposite Billie Piper. Lucy Prebble’s writing is brutal and uncomfortable and real. A lot of women found real relief in that, recognising a woman so flawed in her friendships and her mothering and her career and her morality.”

Flawed morality, you say? And we are back to BBC1’s Better and DI Lou Slack and a show that asks some serious questions.

“There’s an unravelling of a woman who started off thinking, well, this won’t do much harm and will help me rise in the ranks,” says Farzad. “A white lie turns into a very dark lie, which turns into something that controls her life.

“And then it turns into a question of redemption and whether she’s able to be redeemed. I was nervous to take it on. There is so much to play with. And leading a show is frightening.”

Once her fears were allayed, Farzad threw herself into the role, into filming in Yorkshire, into a story and character that are equally compelling.

“I’m a bit of a doubting Thomas,” she says. “But after a few words of encouragement and reassurance, I thought, let’s put an Iranian face as a lead on a BBC TV show. Because that’s never happened before.”

Is that a pressure or a joy – to go first, to break down a barrier, to represent a community?

“Representation is always a joy,” continues Farzad. “Good representation, anyway. Because I didn’t see people that looked like me growing up on TV. After …Suzie I got so many I got messages from queer Middle Eastern girls going, oh my god, I can’t believe I’ve just seen myself on TV.

“It’s so much more important than you realise when you’re shooting to honour and capture a group of people.

“If you’re from a diaspora like the Iranian diaspora, it’s easy to forget how much it will be talked about that there’s an Iranian on TV. Growing up, my god, Andre Agassi and all these people that were half Iranian – we knew about every single person with Iranian blood because you grasp that, within your British culture, when other people have that kind of dual culture.”

Filming in Leeds, Londoner Farzad felt instantly at home, she says, amidst the warmth, the community and the kindness she encountered in Yorkshire.

“I just fell in love with everybody I met,” she says. “These people are so wonderful. Yes. And The sound guy overheard that I had very bad insomnia. He came in the next day with a special sleep mask. There was a lot of that effortless kindness. Although I’m from London, I’m a Middle Eastern so I like to think of myself as a warm blooded, nurturing human. I think that’s what I connected with. I was like, ‘Oh, this is more like my family’.”

The ongoing situation in Iran is never far from Farzad’s mind. She speaks of feeling impotent, being so far away from the women on the frontline and of actress Nazanin Boniadi as an activist inspiration. “She is incredible. To do even an iota of what she does would be a real goal of mine.” And while it is important to keep talking about the ongoing situation in Iran, she hopes to do more as her profile rises and her voice becomes louder.

“Here I am like talking about my new television show while all these girls that have the same face as me and the same name as me are being shot in the street for not having headscarves on,” she says.

“It can be really hard. The thing I was talking to you about before where you can see something intellectually but you haven’t properly digested it into your cell system? If I spend enough time reading about it or looking at it, I can’t even function. I feel so sad. I post and I tell everyone I know about it and I buy, you know, all the t-shirts that say ‘Women Life Freedom’. But it’s still not enough.

“So it’s an impotence and an ongoing heartache. We have to keep talking about the situation in Iran. When something is ongoing, we become immune to it. It’s not news any more. I just hope something shifts and those disgusting clerics can be got rid of, because it’s the foulest regime you can possibly imagine.”

Leila Farzad stars in Better, Monday nights on BBC1 and iPlayer

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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