Taj Atwal plays Rana in Hullraisers. She talks about getting the Hull dialect right, filming sex scenes, making friends with her co-stars, and more.
What attracted you to this role?
I really wanted to work with Fable Pictures, for a start. It's a female-led, working-class comedy so there was that appeal to it too. And they gave us such a big input. It's nice to have that voice and it feels like we've created it together. That's such a unique experience for me. We all really had a hand in it all and I think that's why it feels so personal.
When we started this last spring, I was in Bulgaria shooting a movie so I would go on Zoom and see all of the team and they would see me in my hotel room. It meant we got to know each other quite early on and it meant that we could personalise everything a bit more. The more we got to know what the story was supposed to be, what we were aiming for, and what the characters were, the more we got to personalise those. We had real ownership over our parts early on because we had so many rehearsals to create a really great script.
And how did you specifically put the character of Rana together?
You always approach any character from a place of, "What is going on internally for this character to make this choice, where's it coming from?" and at first I was thinking, "Is she vulnerable internally?" I went through a whole month thinking her actions came from her insecurities and vulnerabilities and that she was trying to mask something. But actually, as the months wore on, and I had chats with Ian [the director], we realised she actually really loves who she is. And that was empowering. I've never played a character like that before where she's like, "I know who I am and I love who I am". She's so unapologetic and I thought, "God, how refreshing is that?" She's really, really happy with who she is. The encounters she has with men come from her choice: "Do I want to do this? Don't I? Do I want you, or not?" It's all on Rana's terms and all her own choices. Rana is the leader of her world.
Is it unusual to see a woman who is promiscuous and not berated for it?
I feel like "promiscuous" is such an out-of-date term now. It's the first word that came into my head when I first read Rana but it's just social conditioning, isn't it? That's why it took me a long time to stop fighting against wanting her to have some internal pain. I thought, "She's got to have some reason to want this attention, to want men this way," and then I just thought, "But why? Why does she have to have something internally that's ruined, why can't she just love herself, sex and men?" It was so refreshing and empowering to play it like that.
What were those sex scenes like to film?
We had a great intimacy co-ordinator and we talked about it very openly. We did it tactfully and it was always just the co-ordinator, me, the male actor and the director at first having a conversation. It's always a negotiation. Even though it looks sexy it's never sexy at seven o'clock in the morning when I've just eaten an egg sandwich! It's about asking the right questions: "Do you feel comfortable taking this clothing off? Shall I take this off? Are you okay with me touching you there?" I would lead it and say, "I don't mind you touching this part." We'd always start quite conservative and then build up until we felt more comfortable. But I think the actors were more nervous than me because they were only coming in for a day or two, and it's just as nerve-wracking for men as it is for women; they have just the same kind of insecurities. It's not easy to come into a show with a close-knit cast and do an intimate scene at 7 o'clock in the morning but all of the actors messaged me afterwards to say, "Thank you so much to the cast and crew for being so welcoming".
Intimacy co-ordinators have become a staple on set since the #metoo movement. Is that a welcome change for you?
Previously if I read a script where I knew I had to do the stuff that I've done in this series, I have always asked for one. But yes, like you said, it's been such a shift and thankfully, on the shoots I've been on, a coordinator is always offered. It's important because intimacy co-ordinators have a language and a dialogue and they feel like the safe person in the room to go to. All the intimacy coordinators that I've worked for, they're only in that room to protect you both. You can always go off and speak to them at any time and they just have your back. It's really nice to have that presence in the room. I can't imagine how actors did it in the past without that.
How does Rana's dynamic work with the other two lead women?
The three women couldn't be any more different if they tried! But it really works. You can tell that their friendship is rooted in something solid from years gone by, and they can be so cut-throat with each other. But when you're that close to your friends, you do tell them what you think. Each character embodies bits of each other that the other doesn't have. So for example there are moments where Rana thinks she might want the family life that Paula has and then when she sees what she might have to sacrifice in her own life to have that she's like, "Nah, not for me." And conversely Toni's clinging to the fun she had before she became a mum, and she lives vicariously through Rana because Rana embodies everything Toni doesn't have any more. As the series unfolds, everybody's insecurities play out but really, at the end of it, it's how we all support each other and how we become each other's rocks. Every episode is something different, but through it all is the friendship and family.
How would you describe Hullraisers tonally?
Sometimes there are laugh-out-loud comedy lines but Ian was really good at making us underplay a lot of it so that it's always coming from a place of truth. When you go to Hull or Leeds or wherever, this is how people talk. I mean, I spent 11 years up north, so I know that.
If you don't ground the comedy in that reality and authenticity, the audience can't relate to the characters. It's got to have some truth in it. The characters are empathetic but they're honest. Rana is quite cut-throat but she's coming from a place where she just wants the best for Toni and Paula and there's a heart in that and the girls know it. Paula hasn't got time for Rana and Toni's silly foibles, she's got kids. They don't mollycoddle each other, they tell each other the truth. You can see they do really care about each other. It's one of the most relatable scripts I had read in a long time.
What does the setting of Hull add?
I can't think of anything else set in Hull and why not? Or Scarborough or wherever. We always see the same towns and cities on telly and you never get to see a slice of life in those cities that I absolutely love. Years and years ago, I performed at the Hull Truck Theatre and I fell in love with it. I absolutely fell in love with it. Britain's a vast place, there's more than just London! Two of my really good friends live in Hull. You've got all these old, gorgeous buildings and all this vast history from when it was a working port city. It's got so much history and vibrancy. The series, hopefully, shows that.
Did you work with a dialect coach to get the accent?
Yeah. And Leah is actually from Hull so she always had her ear to the ground for us. I've got quite a northern accent, having lived in York for 11 years, so luckily it was a lot easier for me to access. And Lucy, one of the writers, she's obviously Hull through and through. But yes we kept up with the coaching and made sure we sounded as authentic as possible.
Does the accent make any difference to the tone or the way you deliver the lines?
Yes. As a general rule of thumb, northerners are so fiery and so quick, and they don't let a moment slide. If you make a mistake, or if you've done something stupid you're going to have deal with a lot of mocking from your pals, and that's the case in this script. No one gets let off the hook. If you do something daft and your friends find out about it, you're going to get it in the neck: in a light-hearted way.
The series is also about working class people. Was that part of the appeal for you?
It's not some gritty, "grim up north" kind of show. These people do everything they can to make something of their lives and make ends meet and it's not a kitchen sink drama but it's real, it's vibrant, it's colourful. They just happen to be northerners who are working class.
Were you able to socialise with the rest of the cast in between filming?
Yeah. We were doing six-day weeks, minimum 12-hour days so we only had Sundays off but we did spend those together. I took us all out on a few of my favourite walks like the one on Ilkley Moor. A couple of the lads from the cast were amazing cooks so there'd always be a meal somewhere and we'd go home with doggie bags! If we girls were filming late we'd get back and there'd be dinner cooked on the table for us. Shobna is also a phenomenal cook and would make us amazing dinners if she wasn't working that day. After a 12-15 hour day it was very welcomed to go back to our accommodation and enjoy all these delicious home cooked meals.
Do you have a memorable scene?
So many! I do remember one day, it was the hottest day of the year and the tarmac was melting. We all went a bit mad and were laughing so much. They were bringing fans and lollies and we had to have timeouts to cool down. But on another day we had a scene where we had to film in a paddling pool in these little bikinis and it was the one day it was freezing cold so the crew were bringing kettles of hot water to put in the pool and we had to act like it was boiling hot. It was all great fun, though - an experience!