Channel 4 has always pushed the boundaries and later this month the trend is set to continue with the explosive two-part thriller ‘Britz’. Written and directed by the acclaimed Peter Kosminsky, Britz is a gripping two-part thriller about a young brother and sister, both British-born and Muslim, who are pulled in radically different directions by their conflicting personal experiences in post 9/11 Britain. Starring Riz Ahmed of ‘The Road to Guantanamo’ fame, and ‘Bradford Riots’ actress Manjinder Virk, Britz examines British Muslim life under current anti-terror legislation. With the drama set to debut on our screens later this month we caught up with the two stars to find out just why The Times listed the show as one of the Top 50 shows to watch this Autumn…
You’re back on Channel 4 with the explosive drama ‘Britz’. Tell us a bit about your character?
Manjinder Virk: I play medical student, Nasima Wahid who lives in Bradford. She's politically aware and feels injustice deeply, she believes she can fight oppression but doesn't trust this government. She lives almost a double life at home, in front of her parents and at university, where she's discovering life and meeting new people.
Riz Ahmed: My character Sohail is born and raised in Bradford and studies law at a top university in London. He's at that point when you're leaving university and deciding what you're going to do with your life, and he's also in that transitional space between the class and culture he came from, and the more middle class, Anglicised one he's become immersed in and is heading towards. The system's always worked for him, and he's always been a kind of golden boy, so despite suffering racist abuse or growing up in a segregated town he's always been comfortable in calling himself British and believes in working from within the system. So he takes that approach to its logical conclusion and signs up to
work for MI5.
How did you get involved in the project?
MV: I auditioned for the role and met with the writer/director, Peter Kosminsky and the casting director, Marcia Gresham. At the interview we talked about the project, how I felt about it and then the character of Nasima. I also prepared a few scenes from Britz and I read them on camera, each time Peter would give me specific notes and we would try them again. After that I had a second meeting and again we worked in even more detail. It was a great process as I felt I had time to explore Nasima and give a sense of who I thought she was.
RA: I auditioned for the role and it was quite a long process, and they saw a lot of people for it, so I felt privileged to have been cast. In the auditions I was required to learn vast chunks of dialogue, fifteen scenes at a time! I knew it would be a demanding role and Peter didn't want to compromise on that in the casting process. As soon as I read the script I was itching to be involved, the whole thing was so bold and there was such an attention to detail.
Manjinder your character Nasima mirrors the feelings and frustrations of a lot of British Muslims which ultimately leads her down a very destructive path. How difficult was she a character to play?
Nasima wasn't difficult to play, I enjoyed playing her but I found her choices difficult to play. For me as an actress the thing to do was to understand why she makes those choices and what contributes to them. There were scenes which I found unsettling but Nasima didn't so I often closed myself off so I could stay in her head.
Riz You play Sohail a British Muslim man who signs up with MI5. The character is a far cry from the terrorist-related Muslim characters we've come accustomed to on our screens. How refreshing is it to see a character like Sohail on our TV screens?
It's very refreshing, but not because of a different job description. I think it's refreshing because we have an Asian character who is sufficiently complex and rounded that he transcends his labels whether ethnic or professional. That's also true for all the characters in the script. Peter has written everyone with a psychological depth, taken out time to rehearse with and speak to almost every actor and develop a three-dimensional person. So for me it's refreshing because we have Muslim or Asian characters that have such depth, complexity, and are rehumanised as people before anything else.
Manjinder how did you prepare for the role of Nasima?
I previously worked on a drama called 'Bradford Riots' and had spent time in Bradford so I already knew that community. I went to Bradford again but saw it through Nasima's eyes this time. I also went to lectures at Medical school, trained in Jujitsu and learnt how to use, and dismantle semi-automatic weapons - blindfolded! Another important part of my preparation was a journal I kept with newspaper articles on the anti-terror laws, the Iraq conflict and the general perception of Islam in the world media.
Riz as a British Muslim yourself were you able to relate to 'Sohail'?
Relating to Sohail didn't follow from being a British Muslim. Peter's written a person and I had to find that person.Sohail on paper isn't too different to me on paper if you outline where he's coming from and where he was heading, the different worlds and identities he's juggling. But as a person he's totally different, in the way he behaves and relates to others, in the way he carves out his own path, the way he speaks, even the way he holds himself. It was a real acting challenge. He's a Ju-jitsu blue belt for a start, so I was hitting the gym and undergoing intensive training for months before and during filming and breaking two fingers sparring against a black belt in the process! Usually the most active I get is jumping around on stage at gigs.
The Times Newspaper named 'Britz' as one of the 50 must-see shows in the autumn. How does that make you feel?
MV: This story would never have been made five years ago, it reflects how our political climate has changed. It is also a great drama with strong Asian lead characters so that is something to celebrate too.
RA: It makes me feel proud to be a part of it. I think everyone involved knows just how important this drama is. In my opinion Peter has done a service to the nation at large by producing something so unflinchingly honest, nuanced, and bold, when dealing with subject matter that is so often painted in unhelpfully broad brush-strokes.Everyone should see it. It forces you to question assumptions and doesn't give us any easy answers. This is what drama is about. Personally I think it's Top five for this year!
Finally, what projects have you got on the horizon?
MV: I am writing my first feature film, a romantic comedy set in London and have just written a short film, 'Forgive' which I hope to direct.
RA: I just finished in the title role on 'Shifty' playing a kind of friendly neighbourhood crack dealer, opposite Francesca Annis and Jason Flemyng, and now I'm going to be focussing on my music for a bit. The same week as Britz airs, I'm releasing my second single, and I've also been asked to play at the BBC Electric Proms which is really exciting - to be on the same bill as Mark Ronson and the Kaiser Chiefs. The single's called 'People Like People, and it's been doing really well on Radio 1 across different shows, and for the Proms I have to come up with three new songs, so I'll be in rehearsals over the next few weeks. After that I'll be recording my album.
'Britz' is on Channel 4 later this month