Absolutely fab

CINEMA; From 'Press Gang' onwards, Julia Sawalha has been everyone's favourite screen teen. Now she's working with Branagh. Sarah Gristwood met her
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The Independent Culture
THERE was a time when Julia Sawalha was most often cast as a Helena Bonham Carter lookalike - Bonham Carter even says that she once went to a dinner party, and was introduced all round the tables as Sawalha. The physical resemblance (pointed features, small stature, trademark brown hair) is, claims Sawalha, less strong these days - though anyone who sees her, arms akimbo, in Kenneth Branagh's In the Bleak Midwinter might feel moved to disagree. But she is, by now, a risen star who deserves her own identity.

Sawalha is still best known as Saffy, Edina's daughter in Absolutely Fabulous. A feature film version is planned for next spring. "The word on the grapevine is that it's going to be a musical version," she says detachedly.

By that time, audiences should have recovered from the impact of the BBC's Pride and Prejudice, in which Sawalha's Lydia Bennet - the hoyden who ran off with Mr Wickham - was less Austen's moral menace, more a girl with her own unabashed sense of identity. Not so very different from Sawalha herself - all nice normality with a south-London accent and a frequent laugh, bursting out of her Vivienne Westwood dress at the Venice film festival, and frankly enjoying the feeding frenzy of the paparazzi.

She is a screen heroine to teenage audiences, a screen teenager to older ones. On television she is currently appearing with Lynda Bellingham in ITV's Friday-night sitcom Faith in the Future, a spin-off from the long-running Second Thoughts. Another "daughter of ... " part. But the antidote comes in the shape of In the Bleak Midwinter, Branagh's black- and-white homage to Ealing comedy.

The film takes the stock situation of a troupe of struggling actors trying to put on a show, in this case Hamlet. It's played for bittersweet laughs - but chunks of Hamlet have to be played too, of course. Sawalha has to turn in a creditable Ophelia - a sure way to daunt an actress who, at 27, has managed to notch up 15 years of experience with barely a nod to Shakespeare. "I hardly slept the night before Ken made us read Hamlet all the way through," she says. "We sat round the table and I was the only one who hadn't done Shakespeare at some point, or been at the RSC.''

Daughter of the Jordanian-born actor Nadim Sawalha (the one in Dangerfield, she says, who ''looks like Saeed Jaffrey"), Julia got an early exposure to showbusiness through visiting her father on film sets. She met Sean Connery when he was making The Wind and the Lion, Jane Seymour on Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Her English mother, a dancer manque, sent her and her sisters to ballet classes and thence to the Italia Conti stage school - from which Sawalha removed herself at 15, having apparently gained little aside from one O level. It took a long wait and a lot of determination before the Channel 4 teen series Press Gang came along. Then she was voted Best Female Performer by the Royal Television Society, and met the actor Dexter Fletcher, he of the fallen-angel face. "We lived together for about five years," she volunteers, unasked. But, though their names have been linked since they met on the BBC's Martin Chuzzlewit, she does not volunteer anything about Keith Allen: actor, friend of the artist Damien Hirst, and wild man in the Oliver Reed mode, an ex-Borstal boy who, it's said (he "hasn't counted"), has had five children by four women already.

From her Arab heritage, Sawalha has, she says, inherited a kind of expansiveness, a hospitality. Family life was bright with visits to Jordan; full of food, music and dancing lessons from her aunt. King Hussein once ordered her out of the sun at a picnic party. She remains close to her family. Her mother looks after "my money and my fan mail"; she contemplates a project about her father's life as an immigrant; and her elder sister is also an actress, albeit a less well-known one ("It's been harder for her - she looks a lot more Arab than I do''). "Julia is a product of the Arabian desert and the towns of Surrey," said her father once, alarmingly. Far from obvious casting, then, for the aggressively drab Saffron in Ab Fab?

"I'm more like Edina, I would say. My subtext on Saffy is that she's quite rebellious underneath and she behaves in such a straitlaced way purely to annoy her mother. It's her rebellion - quite adolescent, really." Saffy was recently voted "teenagers' most admired role model", on the strength, says Sawalha, of her PC credibility. "What she's done is to make people who study trendy. It's all right to be sensible; it's all right to wear glasses and naff clothes. It's put a lot of people into the spotlight who would have been called nerds two years ago."

While casting for the US version goes on, back here Sawalha is beginning to wonder about life beyond comedy. She can't, she says, help bringing out the humour even in dramatic situations. (Tellingly, her heroine is Diane Keaton.) But a shift of emphasis might serve to stop her getting too comfortable. "I think it's healthy to be insecure, to have nerves. Otherwise ours is a very boring lifestyle." As Lady Catherine de Bourgh said of another Bennet sister, for so young a person Julia Sawalha gives her opinions very decidedly.

! 'In the Bleak Midwinter' (15) opens on Friday.