Julie Walters interview for Channel 4 TV Indian Summers

Julie Walters, CBE is an English actress and writer (born in Birmingham, on 22 February 1950) . She has won two BAFTA Film Awards, four BAFTA TV Awards and received the BAFTA Fellowship in 2014 & is currently on TV in the new Channel 4 Show “Indian Summers

Read more on Julie Walters who plays the ‘Machiavellian’ character of Cynthia in Indian Summers.

As the proprietor of the British Club in Simla, Cynthia Coffin is the Queen of Simla society. Very little happens in this hill station without Cynthia’s prior knowledge or approval. Cynthia is a glamourous woman who lives by her own strict code of ethics. Cynthia has a very close relationship with Ralph and does all in her power to ensure his advancement.

What was the attraction of Indian Summers?

I read the scripts and thought, this is seriously interesting. I loved Cynthia and I was intrigued by her relationship with this young man, Ralph [Whelan, played by Henry Lloyd-Hughes]. And they had Anand Tucker to direct… The whole thing was very attractive.

How much did you know about the Raj before taking on the role of Cynthia?

Not a lot. There was The Jewel in the Crown and Gandhi, but I didn’t know anything about the real lives, especially working class folk being out there. In my head, things about the Raj had been about upper class people ruling over the Indians. I spoke to [series creator] Paul Rutman about it, and he said that just wasn’t true. He sent me a couple of books, Plain Tales of the Raj and Women of the Raj, which were very illuminating. The majority of people out there were ordinary people, because it offered them a good life – the money was better out there.

What do you think of Cynthia?

To get a part like Cynthia is heaven at my age. She’s a Machiavellian personality, which I found really interesting: her morals are based on her practical needs rather than right and wrong. She does things that aren’t right but utterly believes they are.

She knows everybody’s secrets. And I love the entertainer side of her. She’s great fun, as well as having this darker side.

How does a working class girl come to be a doyenne of the social scene?

Paul and I worked out that she was an East End girl who would have gone out to India at about 20 years of age with her young husband, a soldier in the British army. She would have worked for Ralph’s parents and looked after him and his sister when they were little. Then they got into breeding horses, which gave them some social standing, and she would have worked at the club, probably as a barmaid, until he retired and they came to run it.

Her destiny seems heavily entwined with Ralph’s. Is it fair to say her future depends on his success?

Yes, he’s the only child she’s ever had, in a sense. He probably had more contact with her than with his mother. If he’s successful, it reflects on her, but she wants it for him as well. She does love him and he loves her. She’s taken care of problems he’s encountered on his rise.

Her attitudes towards some of the Indian characters will be pretty shocking for modern audiences. Were those scenes hard to play?

No, because I don’t have those feelings but they were absolutely prevalent in that period. It’s about her keeping her position of power, which depends on British rule: that ignorance and arrogance that “we’re better than them” was commonplace. The racism grew the more power the British had out there – at the beginning, they embraced Indian culture. Cynthia adores her servant, Kaiser, but their roles are very carefully defined – they don’t cross any boundaries. If anything happened to him, she’d be devastated.

 

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Is it more fun playing a character who’s a bit of a monster at times?

Definitely. It’s not a side we want to acknowledge as human beings: it’s darker and more hidden, so it’s more interesting to look at. And it’s in everyone, up to a point.

Cynthia is queen bee of the social scene – did you perform the same role off-screen?

No, I’m not the right age for that! We did have little get-togethers, but I’m too old – I like going to bed…

There’s an assumption that the good roles tend to dry up for women when they reach a certain age, but that clearly hasn’t been the case for you. Why do you think that might be?

I don’t know. It does slow down. I’d already established a career, which makes it easier. The majority of stuff being made in film and television is about people in their 30s and 40s because they’re at the peak of their working lives, so there’s more drama around that. It is changing now: there are more women writing and producing, more women in positions of power. To find a strong central role is very hard at 64, but I’m very happy playing Cynthia.

The recent Bafta tributes must have been exciting – do you enjoy looking back?

It’s fun to be honoured. I thought the night at Bafta would be nerve-wracking but it wasn’t – it was very jolly and people were very warm. Looking back over stuff, I mostly thought: Oh God, why did they choose that, don’t I look terrible, what an awful piece of acting! They had clips of me drunk on stage getting my first Bafta and me at the Oscars – I’d never seen any of those!

Nikesh Patel interview for Indian Summers

What appealed to you about Aafrin and Indian Summers?

I’ve not had many opportunities to be in a period drama, especially one with the scope of Indian Summers, and this is telling a story that my generation hasn’t really seen. Aafrin goes on this great journey, and the position he occupies allows me to be in most places where the story happens. It was a no-brainer, really.

How would you describe Aafrin?

Quite unassuming. He’s been working in the Indian Civil Service for the Raj for a couple of years and he’s a bit of a pen-pusher. He’s the family breadwinner and there’s no real excitement to his life, although you see flashes of where his passions lie when he’s sketching and doodling at work. If anything, he’s a creative spirit locked in a machine, but it’s a job and a good job.

Does he have political leanings?

No, he’s quite apolitical at the start. He wants to support his family and, although he can’t help but be aware of the growing cause for independence, to pay too much attention to that would be at odds with his job. As the story unfolds, that sense of duty gets tested time and time again.

How does Aafrin get on with his sister?

Sooni [Aysha Kala] is a firebrand and I don’t think Aafrin would take too long to admit that she’s smarter than him, but as eldest son he occupies a position of some influence. He doesn’t want to disrupt the status quo, and she really tests that by getting into trouble for what she believes in, which is independence. He’s part of the machine that she’s fighting against. Everyone can understand that family dynamic: siblings that get on each other’s nerves, everyone loving each other but kicking to find their own space.

How did you enjoy working with Roshan Seth and Lillete Dubey, the legends of Indian cinema who play your parents?

It was amazing – Aysha and I were thrilled and terrified in equal measure. Gandhi is one of my dad’s favourite films, so to say that Nehru [played by Roshan Seth in Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film] was playing my dad carried real kudos!

Is it fair to say that Aafrin’s love life is pretty contentious?

Yeah. I think he’s a romantic soul. There must be a streak of danger in him, a Parsi, having this relationship with Sita [Ellora Torchia], who is a Hindu. It’s caused gossip, and in an Indian community that can have serious social consequences. The Dalals wonder how much they can turn a blind eye before it becomes a scandal. And then Aafrin is designated to deliver something to the viceroy’s private secretary and gets pulled into Ralph’s [Henry Lloyd-Hughes] orbit, which also means encountering Ralph’s sister, Alice [Jemima West]. I don’t think any of them are prepared for the ramifications of what ensues. Aafrin starts off as an innocent but, over the course of the series, has his eyes opened personally, politically and professionally. He has to grow up a bit and make some really difficult decisions.

How much did you know about the era and the story beforehand?

I’d just come off a play called Drawing the Line at the Hampstead Theatre, set just before Partition in 1947. For Indian Summers, I had to turn the clock back 15 years. Henry and I met before filming so we could get to know each other a bit, and we went to the British Library archives. Just to see these black and white photos from the period gave us a sense of Simla. There was a lot of pomp and entertainment, all at odds with the job at hand, which was to run the country. They’re more concerned about which party they’re going to rather than what the growing call for Indian independence might signify.