Do you think it’s generally pitched about right?
Well, yes and no. The dramatic stuff that happens is at extremes – you find your character can be extremely happy, like at a wedding. But then you’ve got to have the drama, so something has to go wrong on the day. If everyone were just happy, there wouldn’t be a lot of people watching the show.
I didn’t used to watch EastEnders, but when I was invited to be on it, I asked my cousin – who’s a huge fan – what it is that she likes about it. And she replied: “It makes me feel so good about my life.” And that hits the nail on the head. However, when we created the character of Zainab, the one thing I insisted on was that she should be funny. I think people love to have a bit of a laugh, even in a soap.
So what is it that made you want to leave? I read that the departure of Marc Elliott [who played Zainab’s son Syed] had something to do with it…
Yes, that was a bit of a catalyst, but it’s not the sole reason. I was kind of there in my head anyway. I felt that I’d explored Zainab as much as I possibly could. As an actor, I’d never been in anything so long term and it was certainly brilliant to age with Zainab and find things in my personal life to give her layers. But I also found that I was missing the creative process of playing other people and starting from scratch. So I think that’s really the reason.
Did you ever find that she was acting out of character? And, if so, did you speak up?
Of yes. Several times. It’s hard, on a long-term show, for the continuity to be at a very high standard. I remember getting a script where Zainab was invited to a bonfire party. So I went to see the production team and said, “Zainab was burned in a fire. I think the last thing she would want to do is attend a bonfire party”. And they acknowledged that and said sorry.
But it’s not really their fault. They want you to be part of the community and they’re thinking, ‘well, if everyone from the Masood family is going to go, why wouldn’t she go as well?’ So I understand why it happens. There are things you have to do though that are out of character – and, sometimes, I think that’s where you can really show your skills as an actor. You end up saying to yourself: “I don’t believe she would do it, but I have to make it work”.
There was an instance recently, where Zainab had to kick Denise out of her house. Diane Parish [who plays Denise] and I both said that this would never happen in a million years. Yes, they may be ‘frenemies’ but the emphasis is on them being friends. But, of course, it’s a plot device that has to happen so that Denise ends up at Ian Beale’s house for a few days. So we, as actors, have to make it look like our characters are doing that naturally.
Is the pace of EastEnders punishing for someone with a relatively young family?
Very hard. Again, if I’m cataloguing all the reasons for leaving, that’s another one. It is a punishing schedule, but that is what you sign up for. It is upsetting if you don’t get to see your child in their nativity play because you’re filming, but the production team do their best to accommodate. They do their absolute utmost. So, on the plus side, you have a stable job. But on the downside, the stability also comes at a price. You don’t always get to do what you want when you want.
And is there a responsibility that comes with the job – knowing that you can make a fan’s day if they meet you on the street?
I’d barely been on the show three months and all of a sudden I was being recognised. Some people don’t even know where you’re from but start talking to you. My favourite ever moment was when this woman started talking to me about her son George. I was being polite because I didn’t want to offend her, but inside I was thinking, ‘who is this George?’ Four or five minutes into the conversation, she realises who I am and says, “My goodness. I’m so sorry. I thought you were my midwife.”
Then there was this kid who came up to me in Oxford Street and said, “You is that girl who plays Zainab, yeah? Where’s Walford East?” I told him there was no such Tube station, but he was adamant: “There is,” he says. “I’ve seen it on the telly. I’ve seen you go into it.” So, in the end, I just thought I’d join the madness and I said to him: “It’s somewhere between Stratford East and Bow.”
The other responsibility comes when you do storylines that affect people’s lives. The whole story about Syed being gay came from something real that happened in my life. I really wanted to explore this huge part of Muslim culture that exists but is not acknowledged.
I had no idea that the Syed story was your idea…
Well, years ago, I used to write for a paper called Eastern Eye. And I’d written an article about how gay men are ostracised by society and how hard it is for them to just be who they are. And I’m so glad EastEnders stepped up to the challenge and decided to do it because it brought up a lot of issues.
Initially though, I was really upset when they made Zainab the homophobe. I’d been hoping Masood [Nitin Ganatra] would have the problem. But, in the end, I was glad that they made it Zainab because a mother’s love for her son is complicated and that storyline really allowed it to be explored.
Plus I thought Marc and Johnny Partridge [who played Syed’s partner Christian] did a terrific job in portraying the whole thing. They had so many fans waiting outside the studio who’d see me and run away. You could see them thinking: ‘Oh no, that bitch is walking this way. Quick, go in the other direction!’ It was hilarious. But they’d also sometimes bring gifts and say to me, “Oh, if you’re going to see Marc, can you give this to him, please? Tell him we love him.”
In the supermarket, I’d also get people saying, “Please be nice to Syed. What’s the matter with you?” And I’d have to reply: “It’s not me. It’s the character!”