Sarah Solemani: Funny, frank and doing it for the girls
From Him & Her to Bad Education, Sarah Solemani is a sitcom staple. And now she's finally being allowed to write her own scripts, too, she tells Alice Jones
Who will write the UK answer to Girls? It's the question that is vexing TV commissioners and Sarah Solemani might just be the answer. Fans of comedy will know her as one of the hardest working actresses around. She is, most famously, Becky, the lazy heroine of Him & Her, whose filthy relationship with Russell Tovey's Steve won the pair a Royal Television Society award. Last year she played Miss Gulliver, the object of Jack Whitehall's affections in his school sitcom Bad Education. She has just filmed James Corden's new screwball thriller The Wrong Mans, playing the girlfriend of an office worker who blunders into a criminal conspiracy. And later this month she pops up as a perky barmaid in Steve Coogan's The Look of Love.
But Solemani – who was brought up by a sociology-teacher mother and mathematician father, who studied social and political sciences at women's college New Hall, Cambridge and who became vice president of Footlights, where she was "always, always the only girl" – was never going to be content to just act in stories written by funny men.
Now 30, she has been firing off sparky scripts for a decade. And at last, thanks to the hunt for a Lena Dunham of London, producers are taking notice. "Before Girls being a woman was niche. It was like we were writing about some indigenous peoples in Outer Mongolia", says Solemani. "They'd say, 'Oh, we've already got a female-skewed thing, so…' I got an email once saying 'I know I asked for female but this seems a bit too female.' Lena Dunham was allowed to write what she knew. It proves that once you let the voice breathe, you're in a different territory."
The first of Solemani's scripts to make it to the screen is Aphrodite Fry, one of six mini romcoms for Sky's Love Matters series. She stars as Aphrodite, a daydreaming mural painter who seeks happiness in one-night stands. It's a modern seaside fairytale with plenty of spunk – in every sense. "I think I'm probably a bit of a smutty person", says Solemani. "But hopefully there's a broader, nicer, more interesting narrative about not aping your oppressors and being true to yourself."
There is quite a lot of nudity, too. Does stripping off on screen bother her? "Obviously not", she snorts. Her film debut was playing a nude chorus girl in Mrs Henderson Presents. She was studying for her finals at the time and spent a term getting up early to remove her body hair and reading feminist tracts between takes. "So much sexuality that we see is this aggressive, forced, tits and teeth. Why should that own the naked form?" she asks. That said, working with a female director – Vanessa Caswill – on Aphrodite made shedding her clothes easier. "There was no way I could have done that with a man. I didn't want their desire or their objectification of me to be an issue. It's all about ownership. It's your story, so who cares? And if you've got great tits, write them in!"
For all of her potential earnestness, Solemani has a well-developed cheeky side. Today, dressed in severely ripped boyfriend jeans with leopard print tights underneath, she flits from talking about the Talmud to the time she got so pissed at the RTS awards that she lost her gong and tried to steal her co-star's ("I said to Russell, 'I think you'll find that's mine'. He said, 'No it's not'." She found it behind a curtain in a Soho club the next morning). She is funny, frank and, I think, only half-joking when she demands to know how much I earn. "Most actors are skint. Theatre is, what, £350 a week? If you do a TV gig, you might get a couple of grand. There's no money! Is that really candid? I'm always interested in wages..."
She grew up in Crouch End, in a house filled with books on Marx. Her parents – both teachers, both socialists – sent her to Henrietta Barnett, a selective girls' state school. "We didn't have many facilities, but we had the best time. Compared to my friends who went to private school, there was something a bit purer about our experience." Her mother died when she was 16 and 10 years ago her father became a foster carer. So she has one real sister and myriad foster siblings. "One in particular, Saleem – he's my brother, really. You don't need to be blood to have that ridiculous bond where you'd do anything for someone."
From her Iranian, Jewish father she learned about social responsibility and religion. Her husband, Dan, who works in sustainability, is also Jewish. They married in Israel last year, attend synagogue and live in Dalston. Aphrodite Fry was partly inspired by a story her rabbi told her. Her faith is a "constantly evolving, interesting thing."
From her mother, she learned about feminism and how to speak up for herself. "Which in comedy is bloody invaluable. You've got to think you're funny. You could be in a room with a load of blokes and they're not laughing but you know it's funny. That takes steel." She auditioned for the National Youth Theatre when her mother was dying of cancer; her acceptance letter arrived a week after she died. "And this whole new world opened up. It sounds trite but I was struggling and young and it was light in this incredibly bleak period." Dan Stevens, Rafe Spall and Olivia Poulet were among her co-stars there and by the time she was 18, she had an agent. Her gap year was spent playing daughter to Linda Gray's Mrs Robinson in The Graduate in the West End.
At Cambridge, she threw herself into Footlights, churning out new sketches every fortnight alongside future Inbetweeners Simon Bird and Joe Thomas. "And what I learned was, I was just as funny as them. It was just a different way of writing and laughing." She tried stand-up, but one brutally honest routine about an ex was enough. "All my girlfriends were like, 'Yeah, Sarah you did it!' I just wanted to take a paracetamol and lie down in a darkened room". Every month, she travelled back to London for Miranda Hart's all-female comedy night at The Albany.
After university, a self-confessed swot, she wrote and wrote: for the Royal Court Young Writer's Programme, the Old Vic and Soho Theatre. A Labour Party member – "I like to think my political life will happen one day" – her theatre has stuck to a theme so far. One play was inspired by Chavs by Independent columnist Owen Jones, another by Miriam Clegg. "She's so well-qualified and high-powered. I just loved the idea that she had this runty husband, who did her head in. Gordon and Sarah Brown came to see it and really enjoyed it."
Then came what she calls her mini-fail. A couple of comedies flopped, she was working in a call centre and no one was making her scripts. It wasn't long, "but it was long enough to be depressed." Salvation came in the unlikely shape of a slobcom about a couple who never leave the flat. Him & Her, by fellow Footlighter Stefan Golaszewski, is now heading for a fourth series and cult-classic status. As Becky, Solemani is frequently found picking chicken out of her teeth or farting in bed. Did she have qualms about the lack of glamour? "Nah. It's acting. If you're concerned about what you look like or whether it will ruin your chances of being a leading lady if you're sitting on the toilet on screen, that's vanity."
Her writing is taking off, too. Next up is a cross between We Need to Talk About Kevin and Adrian Mole for C4/Kudos and Electrika about two "terrible" girls who teach an alien how to be a woman. In Dunham style, she's also making an autobiographical film with Bridget Jones director Beeban Kidron. "It's about a girl who is desperate to lose her virginity and is obsessed with Oasis and wants to go to Knebworth but her Mum is dying of cancer. It's a comedy", she smiles. "All I ever wanted to do is write a film as good as Muriel's Wedding. Just one fantastic film – and then I'll be happy." You wouldn't bet against her doing it.
'Aphrodite Fry' screens on 4 April at 9.30pm on Sky Living HD
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