An Adventure in Space and Time: RT goes on set with Sacha Dhawan as Doctor Who’s first director

Having shot his final scene, Sacha tells RT how he studied Waris Hussein and longed for a History Boys reunion

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Sacha Dhawan has just received a round of applause from everyone on set. It’s in warm congratulation but they’ll be sad to see him go. It’s Monday 25 February and he’s just completed his last scene as Doctor Who’s original director, Waris Hussein, in a small set re-creating the lost 1964 classic Marco Polo.

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I’ve already met Sacha twice before, years ago at the National Theatre when Alan Bennett’s play, The History Boys, was up for and won several Evening Standard Theatre Awards. Then just this January, I talked to him at the BFI when he first met Waris, and Waris wanted to make sure I captured the moment on camera.

Sacha is on a bit of a high as he leads me back to his dressing room at Wimbledon Studios for his Radio Times interview. Claudia Grant, the actress who’s playing Carole Ann Ford/Susan Foreman, pops her heard round the door to say a sad farewell and give him a hug.

So you’re all done and dusted.

Yes, all finished. I can’t believe it. It’s been amazing. It’s gone so quick from when I saw you at the BFI, then doing all the prep and then it’s all filmed.

What did you think when you were at the BFI and you saw those episodes?

It was the first time I’d seen them. Cos they’re hard to get hold of, it was the first opportunity and it was the first time I was meeting Waris as well, so I was quite nervous. But seeing the episodes I was like, wow! I was really impressed. They were quite dark as well, for something aimed at children’s audiences. He said, “That’s what we wanted.” That was when I met Waris and I thought, “OK how do I do this justice?”

Any tips from Waris?

After that I spent a lot of time with him. He was really good. His memory is great and he was very specific with how it was. He came on set as well. It was nice to spend time with him and I felt ready when I came to shoot.

Have you done a character study?

I did. Waris probably doesn’t know this but when I spent a lot of time with him it was also to see his mannerisms. I took certain things that he might only know when he watches it.

What have you enjoyed most about the filming?

It’s been so relaxed on set with such a great crew, it’s taken the pressure off “this is Doctor Who and the 50th anniversary”. I’ve been really impressed with how much has gone into it in terms of the set and capturing the era. It makes it easier to perform because it feels real. Also you don’t usually have this many background artistes on jobs. They bring the whole thing to life.

What’s it like playing a real person? Have you before?

No I’ve never done that before.

Does it help that he’s not a particularly famous person?

It’s really good because the resource is there. I can go, “Waris, how would you behave in this situation?” and he’d tell me. But also there’s a pressure on that he’s gonna see it and as an actor you want to play him accurately, as truthfully as possible and not be generic. I wanted to do him justice, it’s his story as well.

What was it like working at TV Centre?

Oh God, it was great! Quite sad as well. Everyone’s got history there. First time I worked there. But there’s a lot of history for me there because of the amount of auditions I’ve gone to. And where we filmed the first bar scene, where I and Verity meet, is the actual waiting room [old reception] where actors sit before their auditions. Really put me through it. That was the first scene of the shoot as well.

What’s next?

Nothing lined up yet but I’m promoting things I’ve done. An indie film, a black-and-white film called Girl-Shaped Love Drug. I’m going to San Francisco on Thursday. It’s premiering at a film festival in San José. Then a film with Will Smith in June called After Earth.

I’m similar to Waris in that we go out of our way to make sure we’re not stereotyped into doing the same kind of things. Be seen as individuals. He wants to be seen as a director not just as an Indian director. I’m just amazed that he did Doctor Who. A lot of people don’t know that. I don’t want to be seen as just an Indian actor, so I’m always quite picky about what I do.

So what is your background?

I’m Indian.

No, I meant where do you come from in Britain?

Oh, Manchester originally.

So you found it easy doing Waris’s voice?

I thought it would be easy, I’d just tone down the Indian accent. But it’s not actually, because Waris has quite a particular way of speaking and that all comes from his physicality. I recorded our conversations and listened to them endlessly. And now it’s such a voice, not an accent, it’s Waris’s voice.

I suppose The History Boys will always stay with you.

Yes it stays with me because I’d worked a lot and then hit a lull when I left college. I was just in Manchester working in my dad’s shop and I thought, “This is it. It might not happen.” Because I was a child actor. And then I was sitting in Manchester library when this call came and said Alan Bennett is doing this play, The History Boys. Fingers crossed. It took me to London but I did not expect it to do so well. Two years of amazing things – 500 shows over two years at the National, then a break, then the Broadway run and the film. It opened up a lot of doors.

Have you all stayed mates?

Yeah, I just saw James Corden. He came to see a play at the [Royal] Court recently. It’s nice. We don’t see each other every week but when we do, it’s great. It’s the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary this year and I’m hoping they might get us all together.

Like a one-night revival?

That’s it. Or different things. [Indeed, they were all reunited for the National Theatre Live at 50 show on 2 November.]

Maybe Alan Bennett’s got something fresh lined up for you all.

Yeah, maybe.

*

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And there we leave Sacha Dhawan. It turned out, during the year, that another of his biggest projects would also come from Mark Gatiss. Sacha will play Garrett, the central character in The Tractate Middoth, an MR James ghost story adapted and directed by Gatiss, which should air on the BBC this Christmas.