Amrita Acharia: "Every choice is safe, if you trust it"
The Sister star on why she didn't believe she was right for the role, conscious casting, and murder
We clear the big one up. “I’ve never killed anyone,” claims Amrita Acharia, without being asked. Good to know. Perhaps working on psychological thriller The Sister, where hiding a terrible secret wreaks an extreme toll, has left everyone with an irresistible urge to confess to crimes they haven’t committed. In a way, the series is based upon a real-life admission of guilt.
In the ITV drama Acharia plays Holly Fox, whose sister Elise (Simone Ashley) vanished in mysterious circumstances years before, and who doesn’t know her husband Nathan (Russell Tovey) was involved in her disappearance. This disturbing scenario was dreamt up by Luther creator Neil Cross - so he very much hopes - and is based upon an experience of his own he was unable to fully address.
During a virtual Q&A session for the series, Cross left faces frozen as if hit by poor connections when he admitted the story was drawn from a time he thought he’d committed murder. “I was very young. I was 16 or 17 and I was out of my head on cider in Bristol,” explained Cross. “I just woke up the next morning, not with any sense I'd had a dream of any description. I woke up with a very, very clear memory of coming across a homeless man asleep on the steps who I randomly stabbed to death.” This inability to shift his guilt - Cross checked the press for any reports of a random attack - laid the basis for his novel Burial, which The Sister is based on.
Acharia didn’t know Cross believed he’d committed murder and that wasn’t the anecdote which drew her to The Sister, but she wasn’t surprised by his story. “I did have a long chat with him after I got the role. Having spent the best part of an hour on the phone with him, it was very clear his imagination is so potent, so when he did tell that story in our Q&A, it was not a surprise.” The echoes of a past event and its consequences intruding on the present is the focus of the thriller.
While Nathan struggles to handle his deep-rooted angst when forced to confront his crime, Acharia suggests their relationship has always been highly strung. “It feels like quite a strange relationship. Strained, but comfortable. They're almost two strangers who cohabit and yet know each other quite well. It was a really weird dynamic to find.” The trauma of losing Elise lingers in the air between them unsaid, the pair unable to fully face their respective associations with her disappearance. “Both of them know if you start picking at that thread it unravels really fast. Holly picks up on stuff a lot earlier than she lets on, and part of it is she’s too afraid to find out.”
There was an element of fear, too, in how Acharia approached the role at the start, believing she wouldn’t win the part. “When the audition came through and the character's name was Holly Fox, I remember thinking on my way there, ‘I'm not going to get cast as her.’” This expectation, along with her own vision of the character, was subverted. “In my head Holly Fox was a Caucasian redhead. That’s what I thought and it taught me a lesson about making an assumption. If somebody has put that script in front of you, it's your job to go and show you can do it. I’m glad I did, but I'm also glad and encouraged to see those choices being made, especially if that's been a conscious decision. Every choice is safe, if you trust it.”
One aspect of the series, barely noted but important, is how the Fox family have a range of skin tones. As with Holly, this casting is significant. “Holly's family is mixed and that was not something that was addressed or had to be explained. It was just what it was,” says Acharia. “I don't think that would have been the case five or ten years ago. We would predominantly see Caucasians in those roles and minorities would often be around the periphery. The industry still has a way to go when it comes to casting ethnic minorities as characters of substance and complexity.”
To address the distance the industry has to go in having greater representation in front of and behind the camera, Acharia and fellow The Good Karma Hospital co-star Saga Radia host podcast Rule Not The Exception (@rule_exception). “For my generation of actors, writers, directors, and creatives it's our responsibility to keep pushing, to keep creating, and to keep trying, because that's going to pave the way for the people coming up now.” The podcast is one way of giving those talents, perhaps as yet unheard, a voice. “It's not that there's a lack of British Asian, black, or any minority actors, writers, directors, producers, or crew - crew is such a massive one - it's just there's a lack of opportunity for them.”
She’s creating her own opportunities, too. When we speak she’s ensconced in the Swedish wilderness with writing partners, working on a new project which she might direct as well as act in. When she sounds doubtful if she’ll do both, I point out she can cast herself and should trust in herself. Why not take on dual roles? “I'm the kind of person that believes if you're going to do something, do one thing really, really well. But maybe I should take a leaf out of my own book and throw myself out there and do it all.” You can be sure if she does, she’ll kill it. But not kill someone. We’ve established that.
The Sister is available now on ITV Hub