‘You have wisdom you didn’t have before’: Leila Farzad wears orange leather jacket and trousers, both by joseph-fashion.com. Photograph: Simon Lipman/The Observer
After years of waiting impatiently in the wings, Leila Farzad has finally landed her first starring role – a ‘callous and cold’ police officer. Here, she talks about Iranian pride, PMT and what she owes I Hate Suzie
In the television show I Hate Suzie, Leila Farzad’s character, Naomi, argues the life-changing benefits of PMT. It’s the moment of Permanent Mega Truth, she says – a brief window every month when a woman’s real feelings are revealed. The stoic veil lifts. Huge problems become clear. We realise we must leave our job or relationship. Or… we wait for it to pass and go back to pretending everything is fine.
I Hate Suzie is a brutal, funny, raw series, starring and co-created by Billie Piper, about a celebrity whose life is upended when her phone is hacked. (Photos of her having sex with a man who isn’t her husband appear online. Everything falls apart.) Farzad’s big break came when she was cast in the role of Piper’s agent. When I tell her I think of the PMT line regularly – at least once a month – she grins. “I’m there right now,” she says. She closes her eyes and sighs, as if she’s just opened a meditation app. “I’m sweating, I’m not sleeping, my sense of smell is heightened. The smell of my cat’s diarrhoea was so bad it literally woke me from my sleep,” she laughs. She tells me she’s an overs-sharer, though she doesn’t need to; she freely lists the symptoms of her polycystic ovary syndrome and bends her arms backwards to demonstrate the hypermobility that means she’s banned from performing yoga. There’s the daily battles of her raging IBS, too. Ah, a comrade. I tell her I have Buscopan, the antispasmodic IBS relief medicine, in my bag. I’ve uttered the secret password of our people. She nods, knowingly. “You get it. Never trust a fart.”
We meet in a quiet café where everyone can hear us talking. But Farzad thinks this stuff should be heard. “You will often have two women just sitting there, probably both with twisting guts and hairy backs from their polycystic ovaries going: ‘And how is your daughter? Did she get into that school?’” As though it’s a mission statement, she says: “Talk about your guts and your hairy back!” When she picks her daughter up from school, she thinks everyone seems so composed and together. But this can’t be. “How many women are in pain and pretending not to be? I wish you could just go straight to that.”
Farzad is interested in truth. Not just in terms of women swapping colonoscopy war stories across a café table in Fulham, but in exploring the ugly underbelly of being human. The psychological grey areas, the battle between the poles of good and evil, love and hate; the place where envy, jealousy, bitterness and tortured guts reside.
In the new BBC thriller Better, Farzad stars as the very human DI Lou Slack, a high-ranking detective who made a deal with an underworld criminal back when she was a young, flailing police officer. Now, decades later, the corruption is weighing on her and she wants out. But how?
“She’s callous and cold,” says Farzad of her character. “Women aren’t written like that.” She rolls her eyes while explaining scripts she’s been sent about wives hanging out laundry while husbands watch football. DI Lou Slack is definitely written as a woman; it is a very female house of cards that is toppling. But in the opening scene, she steps over the body of a dying, gasping man in the middle of a crime scene. She’s there to retrieve the murder weapon to sever the evidential link to her informant and friend. “Normally, you’d see a woman drop to her knees and panic, trying to help him. But to see that compartmentalising of her life is unnerving for people,” she says. “It was her grappling with morality. Also, redemption isn’t a lightning bolt – it’s a difficult thing to want to search for.”
I ask about repression. Her characters in Better and I Hate Suzie are both repressing something: for Slack it’s her conscience; for Naomi it’s how she really feels. Are women conditioned to grit their teeth like this? I wonder if this is why her characters speak to me in a way that others don’t.
“It’s interesting that I’ve been cast as two repressed people. Maybe I myself give off a repressed vibe,” she says. “As women we’ve been taught to behave and be a certain way. Sometimes that’s impossible. There’s a little gremlin inside you that says, ‘I don’t want to behave like this. My stomach hurts, I feel horrific, I’m incredibly premenstrual and underslept and maybe grappling with the fact of whether I should have a child or not. And yet I’m expected to be this smiley, sweet, affable creature.’” She pulls a disgusted face, waving the thought away with her hand. “To hell with that.”
Farzad looks for characters that allow her to experiment with letting the darkness out, but on a leash. She dreams of playing Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on stage. “She’s sorrowful, callous, broken and regretful,” says Farzad, who feels she is all these things herself, to some degree, though so does everyone. “As an actor you can tap into it. You’re able to say to other people, do you feel that? We like watching people who are tortured because, on some level, we have all felt tortured.” I tell her I find it a balm to see characters like Kate Winslet’s in Mare of Easttown, another TV detective – someone who is complicated, human and looks as exhausted as I feel.
“It’s such a relief to see a woman not having her shit together. And not knowing what she wants, and not being self-righteous in her decisions,” Farzad says. “I’m the queen of self-sabotage. I get angry and have a short fuse. I’m not very self-possessed.”
Farzad is also hilarious. She’s funny when she’s talking about the ways her body works or how it doesn’t – explosively and publicly – or the ways women lie to themselves and each other. It’s a well-practised role. She was the only child of what she describes as an unhappy marriage. Her parents divorced when she was in her mid-teens. Like the familiar comedian-origin story, she used comedy as a shield for her sadness. This was the draw of acting: it was like armour. “Yes I know, I am actually Pierrot the clown,” she jokes, with a clownish sad face.
I’m the queen of self-sabotage. I get angry and have a short fuse
But at drama school, she was more cerebral than her teachers wanted her to be. She had just graduated from Oxford with a degree in French and Italian literature. Her head was in books. “It drove my teachers insane. They used to call me a floating head; my body was this sort of dysfunctional, atrophied thing,” she says, making her arms go limp by her sides while her eyebrows carry the weight of emoting. “For years my gut was locked, because I had honed the practice of holding on to my pain like a ball of indigestion. Georgi Banks-Davies, the director of I Hate Suzie, helped me access that ball and let it out. I’ve learned to not be afraid of the ugly, tortured gut.”
Farzad was born in London to Iranian parents, in a house full of Iranian food, Iranian carpets and photographs of great-grandmothers shrouded in scarves. She thought of Iran as dangerous and forbidden, but also beautiful and exciting. It was introduced to her through the concept of a revolution that happened just four years before she was born. “It was this big punctuation mark in my parents’ lives, because before the revolution it was more like Istanbul is now: you could dress normally, there was alcohol, there was much more civil liberty,” she says.
As a child, Farzad visited Iran with her parents. She remembers encountering the same regime that the Iranian people are now revolting against. At eight-and-a-half, she was six months too young for the hijab law to apply, which requires all girls over the age of nine to wear a headscarf. Yet she was singled out at the airport by government officials. She looked older than eight-and-a-half, they said. Where was her headscarf? “I remember my mum, with little trembling fingers, putting a headscarf around me because you don’t want to mess with those people. They are pigs disguised as clerics. That’s quite strong, but it’s just the most horrific regime, as everyone now sees.”
Farzad hasn’t been back to Iran since she was 14. With her track record of playing bisexual, drug-taking, outspoken women – not to mention the sex scenes – she says there’s no chance of a return until things change. But when she speaks about Iran her love for the place is palpable. One of her own memories, the Proustian scent of cool water hitting hot earth, made it into I Hate Suzie. It became a memory of Naomi’s.
Farzad went to school in London, but was the only non-white girl in her class. “When my friends came over I’d tell my mum to make frozen pizzas or macaroni cheese – anything but the weird stews.” She was self-conscious about her ethnicity. “It’s just about not being different when you’re little. You celebrate being different when you’re older.” She says she feels “proudly Iranian now”. But the connection with her heritage shifts. “Sometimes I feel slightly disconnected, sometimes extremely connected. It’s a strange kind of rollercoaster that you go on, being a person from a diaspora.”
Right now, Farzad feels extremely connected. Watching the protests from the UK, in which hundreds have died – including children – she feels impotence, guilt and sorrow. “I have bursts of doing lots of activism. I’m telling all my friends, posting about it, then I slip into a melancholic stupor of… whatever I do, these boys and girls are being brutalised by the regime.” But she has a little hope. “Maybe this will be the one that shifts everything.”
Farzad feels ridiculous that, while the protests are happening, she is doing interviews (which make her nervous) and photoshoots (which she dreads). But this timing was not part of the plan. She turns 40 this year. Like most actors, she was fed the warning that if you hadn’t made it by 35 you were never going to. In her early 30s, she watched her friends’ careers take off and resigned herself to life not panning out as she’d hoped. So, she re-trained as an intimacy coordinator for film sets. She flirted with becoming a novelist – “I wrote terrible, narcissistic, navel-gazing nonsense about myself” – but never finished a book. She would still like to write something for children to help them understand emotions, such as envy and anxiety – and what to do with them. She feels this information was missing from her own childhood. And then I Hate Suzie happened. She introduced us to Naomi and the Permanent Mega Truth. She was nominated for a Bafta. She was 37.
“Our world is changing. People want to see normal women of any age dealing with big, difficult things in their life. Women in their 40s are interesting because that’s when we all used to fall off the edge of the cliff.” Farzad thinks female hormones are more understood these days. I am reminded of a scene in Fleabag: Kristin Scott Thomas’s rant at the bar where she says women are born with pain built in and how the menopause, though awful, releases them from being a prisoner; a machine with parts. They become “just a person”. “We don’t go from hottie to granny,” says Farzad. “There’s this huge gap, which is so interesting, sexy and gorgeous. “You have wisdom you didn’t have before.”
Farzad is excited about her 40s, and rightly so. She is going to Rome soon to star with Tony Hale and Zosia Mamet in The Decameron, a Netflix series set in 1348, in plague-torn Florence. But the wisdom she gained from her years of waiting and hoping tells her it could all go away tomorrow. “If I continue to be gainfully employed, I’m winning. Because I know the other side so well. I’m fully aware that the beacon of light can shift to someone else,” she says. “If you’ve had years of rejection, you carry that forever. You’re braced for it.”
How does she feel about her first starring role, in Better? She mimes being sick. “I’m just so lucky and, truthfully, quite anxious about it. But I poured my heart and soul into it. It’s got my blood, sweat and tears. What else is there?” she laughs. “It’s got my IBS shit in it, too.”
Stylist Hope Lawrie; hair by Naz Sönmez using L’Oréal Professional; makeup by Kenneth Soh at The Wall Group; shot at Lordship Locations
Better is coming soon to BBC One and iPlayer