Sacha Dhawan is exaggerating, I think, when he tells me he spent most of his life embarrassed about being Asian. But then he talks about joining in the “Paki banter” at school to fit in, trying to “join in with the lads”. He remembers his English nanny making him roasts, not being able to speak Punjabi to his aunties, and being called a coconut – “you know, ‘brown on the outside, white on the inside’” – by his family.
“I felt like I was running away, not just from my culture, but from stuff that was going on at home.” He winces. “I was just not manning up and taking responsibility. My mum and dad were struggling with stuff, but I was too focused on acting … It got to the point where I had to stop everything in London and go home. And I was like: ‘Why didn’t I do it sooner?’”
Dhawan, 33, is telling me this, he says, because it goes some way to explain why it was so hard to say yes to the biggest gig of his career yet, the one it is hoped will catapult him from solid, steady success (Line of Duty; Utopia; Last Tango in Halifax) to mainstream stardom. “The Boy With the Topknot came along and originally I thought ‘no’. I wasn’t going to do it. It was so exposing, to really get in touch with your roots; so close to the bone.” The primetime BBC2 film is adapted from an acclaimed memoir by Times journalist Sathnam Sanghera, who is forced to reconcile his disjointed double life in London with his family in Wolverhampton.
“The one thing I was really worried about was a three-minute monologue in Punjabi, and I thought: ‘People are gonna hate me, you know: why can’t he speak the language?’” As it stands, in what is one of the more moving moments in the film, Dhawan quietly nails it. His on-screen mum, played by Deepti Naval, serves as a brilliantly stoic foil throughout. Their scenes together are written to tug the heartstrings, but I wonder how much of Dhawan’s fear of taking on the part was down to the script echoing moments from his own life.
“Yeah, I was like Sathnam – I was mollycoddled. Plus, I was the only son [he has two older sisters] and there is an expectation that you have to live up to.” For years, Dhawan didn’t tell his parents much about what was going on with him. “My mum knew I had a girlfriend but didn’t want to know too much, or wasn’t accepting of having her round, so we spent years living our relationship out of hotel rooms. It was bloody expensive.” He rolls his eyes around the room. We are sat, as it goes, in a bloody expensive hotel room in Kensington. True to the rule of actors, Dhawan seems much smaller off screen but has a bigger presence than I expected – his publicist and a makeup artist are hovering along the corridor; the photoshoot beforehand ticked over its allotted time slot as he changed in and out of outfits and rooms.
“It’s interesting what comes out once you become open to it rather than avoiding it,” he says of conversations with his family. “Stuff you didn’t know about comes to the surface. I now realise my dad, in his youth, was similar to me. And I didn’t know before about how my mum and dad met.”
Dhawan’s angst, this “coming back to my roots” has worked for and against him; he began his career as a child actor at 12 on the ITV kids’ show Out of Sight, and his CV is dotted with roles that are not solely defined by his ethnicity. He was a member of the original History Boys cast, which included Dominic Cooper, James Corden and Russell Tovey, and toured Alan Bennett’s play for two years. Most recently, he played the villain in the Marvel-Netflix series Iron Fist. In between, he has been grotesquely compelling as Danny the addict in Channel 4’s Not Safe for Work and slimy as hell as Jimmy Dillon in ITV’s Mr Selfridge. Then there was the brief flush of US success in NBC series Outsourced, where he played a call centre worker called Manmeet and got his first real taste of celebrity power.
“When I did that show, NBC said to all of us: ‘We need to show you a video about sexual harassment in the workplace, and back then I thought: ‘Are you kidding me? I’m not going to harass anyone!’ The video was about how to handle sexual harassment and not find yourself in situations like that.” His eyes widen at the irony, given the depressing scale of abuse now being exposed in the industry. “That’s what is crazy with what we do,” he adds. “It’s bullshit when you’re on set and suddenly there’s this hierarchy where you have tea brought for you; lunch brought to your trailer; you’re treated in a different way. And you can see how it’s easy to be attracted to that power and false sense of confidence. They pander to all that shit with actors and you can ride it.”
Did he? “I think I have become wise enough, because I started at a young age and know there are ups and downs in this business – I’ve realised it’s not real. In my job, the not working is real and the actual work is just fantasy. I could see why there was this video telling actors: ‘Don’t be a dick.’”
The industry has changed significantly since he started out. “People are catching on to diversity and colour-blind casting. For me, it meant turning down certain work and making a stand. There are certain roles – say, terrorist roles – that if I don’t feel like it’s something truthful, I’m not going to do it.” The downside is “as a guy of ethnicity, just being good isn’t good enough”. Which brings him back to his original point.
“The older I’ve got, the more proud I am of my roots,” he emphasises. “I really respect the new breed of Asian actors who are just, like: ‘This is who I am.’ They’re not trying to adapt.”
Still, it must be galling to have been so conflicted for so long – feeling like he didn’t fit here nor there. “I’m more comfortable with work because I’m more comfortable in myself now,” he admits. That feeling of desperately wanting to be something else or be somewhere else has mellowed. “It’s like if you hold on to a glass too hard – it breaks.”
The Boy With the Topknot is on BBC2 at 9pm on Monday