“I love that one shot of Nida just standing in the department store, dressed in shades of brown, and the store is also all in shades of brown,” Anjana Vasan pauses, her lips quirking up. “And, you know, she’s brown. She just blends perfectly into the background.”
It’s not the first time the actor has startled a laugh out of me during our conversation. As we chat over Zoom one Monday night—it is morning for Vasan in London—our distance is no match for the rapport we quickly find. (“It is quite rare for me to get to speak with a journalist who is of a similar background,” Vasan had noted with excitement right at the beginning.)
Two little silver jhumkis hang from Vasan’s earlobes, dancing gently whenever she turns or tilts her head. Her large, doe-like eyes are strikingly expressive, and they soften as she cracks affectionate jokes about Nida Huq, the character she plays in ‘Demon 79’—the final episode from the newest season of Black Mirror.
The satirical episode stands out both for its dark comedy and nuanced handling of heavy sociopolitical themes, but it’s Vasan’s breathtaking performance as the mild-mannered but idiosyncratic Nida that really steals the show. “There’s an inherent loneliness to Nida—a sense of someone who has made herself as small as possible,” Vasan observes. “I think all of us, especially people of colour, are familiar with that feeling, when you’re not from somewhere and you feel like you don’t belong. And I’ve been not from somewhere twice!”
“I think my parents had clocked very early on that I was going to run away and join the circus one day”
Like Nida, Vasan comes from a family of immigrants. She had moved to Singapore from Chennai with her parents when she was three years old. They would go back to Chennai once a year to visit their extended family, but had made their new home in our island-city.
Along the way, the family became Singapore citizens. Vasan grew up attending local schools—“I went to CHIJ Katong Convent Primary and Secondary,” she rattles off proudly, tell-tale signs of Singlish slipping through her otherwise neutral accent—and studied Mandarin as her second language.
After graduating with a degree in theatre studies from the National University of Singapore, Vasan went to the UK to pursue a master’s degree at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, Wales, and has lived there ever since.
It is no small thing to uproot your life and move to a foreign country alone to pursue an unconventional career, especially having grown up in an academics-focused country like Singapore. Vasan attributes her courage in being able to take that leap of faith largely to the quiet but unwavering support her parents—who are still based in Singapore—have shown her.
“Right from the start, the world of acting was not one they understood. I’m sure there were people around them telling them that I was making a mistake. But even if they were cautious or hesitant, they never said no, they never said ‘you can’t do that’,” she reflects. “They always stood by me. Plus, I think they had clocked very early on that I was going to run away and join the circus one day anyway.”
Vasan’s dry wit belies the reserved facade you may see when you first meet her. Like any good theatre kid, she harbours plenty of quirk and effervescence—and a sizeable well of sardonic jokes at her own expense. “As a child, I was obsessed with people who could be funny. When I joined drama club, I found myself coming out of my shell because I noticed that if you were a bit weird or a bit awkward, those were qualities that were celebrated. I’m not naturally a very confident person in real life, but I found my people in those rooms.”
Once she moved to the UK, a childhood love for theatre blossomed into a full-blown acting career. “It all happened very organically. Bits of TV, lots of theatre and one thing led to another—a year became two, then three, then four. Around the five-year mark, I realised, ‘All right, all my eggs are in this one basket’.”
Expectedly, the process of finding her footing in the entertainment world was a gradual, and sometimes painful, one. “Early on, there were definitely points when I felt quite deflated, especially when there’d be long stretches without work. All I wanted to do was to survive from pay cheque to pay cheque as an actor. With acting, it can sometimes feel every door you open leads to another closed door.”
A decade on, Vasan now has a Laurence Olivier Award—the highest honour in British theatre—under her belt for her lauded performance as Stella Kowalski in the London revival of A Streetcar Named Desire opposite Paul Mescal and Patsy Ferran. Her recent starring credit and raved-about performance in Black Mirror, meanwhile, has put her firmly in the spotlight. In a sense, it feels as though the mightily talented Vasan is standing on the cusp of an open door.
“As an actor, you are only as good as your last job. Most actors don’t enter the industry with the choice to curate the kind of career they want”
Still, she has an almost impossibly measured view of what the reality of her industry is—and what her career may or may not shape up to be. “As an actor, you’re only as good as your last job. That’s what goes on in the back of every actor’s mind. When you get a good role, you’ve got to try and use it to get other roles—don’t mess it up!” she says wryly.
Among the pools of wisdom Vasan could offer, what she is particularly clear-eyed about is how her identities as a woman and ethnic minority intersect with the general hustle of being an actor. “We’ve all been through micro-aggressions and we know what it feels like. This is an industry that naturally wants to pigeonhole people. They see what you look like and where you come from, and it’s easy for them to say, ‘Ok, you’re this person and you only play this role’. At every stage of your career, you’re constantly trying to bend those expectations.”
“Most actors don’t enter the industry with the choice to curate exactly the kind of career they want. You might come into it thinking you’re going to be a film star and then you’re doing a sitcom for seven years. Making a living is not always easy and you don’t actually have a lot of control over it.”
One of her favourite projects is a sitcom called We are Lady Parts, following a British punk rock band consisting entirely of Muslim women. Aside from a bevy of award nominations and wins for her stellar acting, what the show earned Vasan was also a deep sense of belonging—like she had finally found a role made for her. “It was one of those shows where you feel like you’ve just got it right and it was such a celebration of diversity and inclusivity.”
In a press junket following a screening of We are Lady Parts, a reporter posed the cast and crew with a sobering question that instantly changed the mood. “He asked, quite innocently, not meaning to offend, ‘What do you feel about being in a show like this? Because every few years, a show like this comes around, and then we just forget about the people who were in it because they don’t have any opportunities to move on to after’.”
“It was an incredibly deflating moment because we knew what he meant. This industry doesn’t know how to take care of talent it can’t put in a box,” Vasan muses.
“You may not change the entire world, but you could move one person—that’s what being an actor ultimately is about”
With 10 years of experience behind her, her perspective on success is highly nuanced—and not quite as linear as, say, more roles equals greater success. “I think back to a memory from the second or third play I did when I was starting out. I was playing a very small role and didn’t have many lines. One day, after rehearsal, this older South Asian actor said to me, ‘Anjana, you’re really good’. I thanked him, but he continued, ‘You’re really good and you’re going to work all the time. But it’s going to be a while before you get to play the roles you really want to play’.
“Now that I’ve begun to do those roles, it’s Black and brown writers that I’m really grateful to because they are the ones with the imagination to write us these parts when no one else has.”
She concludes, eyes shut peacefully as if she’s thinking about her favourite thing in the world: “Acting is not something you can do in a vacuum. It’s a craft and it’s a lot of hard work. You may not change the entire world, but you could move one person—that’s what the job ultimately is about. And as lovely as taking photos for Vogue or winning an award may be, those are fun cherries on the cake. For me, it’s important to do the job well and go home. Everything else is optional.”
The shoot and interview for this story were conducted before the SAG-AFTRA strike.
Photography David Reiss
Styling Rachel Davis
Hair Carlos Ferraz
Makeup Charlotte Yeomans using Chanel Beauty
Order your copy of the September issue of Vogue Singapore online or pick it up on newsstands now.