July 28, 2008
Actress Shivani Ghai first shot to prominence in Gurinder Chadha’s successful film Bride and Prejudice. As well as an accomplished theatre performer, she is starring in the BBC2 drama House of Saddam, starting this week.
AIM Magazine asked her about the new role as well as previous parts, including a big role in an Italian soap.
Tell us about your new role in the drama about Saddam Hussein
I play Saddam Hussein’s middle daughter Rana Hussein. Saddam’s daughters adored him even though he did some horrendous things to them and their mother. I found this really fascinating, and it’s something I really enjoyed exploring while working on the character.
It reveals quite a lot about these girls and the relationship they had with their father. When playing someone who is not fictional and still living you want to remain as truthful to the character as you can. I was given DVDs with some TV footage, and pictures of the family to help with this, I also tried to look up as much information on Rana as I could to help me get a sense of who she is.
How did the role come about?
I had auditioned for the casting director in the past, she remembered me and called me in for House of Saddam. I had four auditions over the next month or so. Then I got a call to say I had the part, two days later I was flying out to Tunisia, which was where we were filming for the next few months.
Before this you were in an Italian drama serial right? Tell us more about that.
The Italian drama was a TV series for Rai Uno, called Medico In Famiglia.
It first aired in 1998 and it became one of Italy’s most popular shows with a huge fan base making it no. 1 in the ratings.
In 2006, for the 5th series they decided to introduce an Indian family to the show, made up of a young doctor Sarita Dahvi, her two teenage brothers and her grandfather. The role of the grandfather was actually written with the actor Kabir Bedi in mind. In Italy he’s a bit of a legend, he’s also fluent in Italian.
For Sarita they wanted an Italian actress of Indian origin, which proved to be quite difficult. After a couple of months of auditioning in Italy they decided to look at Italian speaking actresses from India and England. I got a call from my agent asking me if could speak any Italian. I said no. She then called back to ask if I thought I could learn a couple of scenes in Italian for an audition. I decided to give it a try, 3 days later I was offered the job. We were the first Indian family on Italian TV.
Did you enjoy the experience?
We filmed 26 one hour episodes in seven months. My character was created as the new lead, whose love story drove the plot over the course of the series. I was filming every day. Scenes were shot out of sequence with two units, and could change at a day’s notice. I barely knew one word of Italian, and I was suddenly put into an intensive schedule where I was filming in a new language, and studying it simultaneously.
In terms of work it was one of the biggest challenges I’ve had to face, and I wasn’t sure if I could pull it off.
But looking back, even though it was very hard work, it turned out to be an amazing experience. I had to really push myself as an actor, and I felt a huge sense of achievement by the end of it. Of course if you add to that, the fact that I was living in the heart of Rome, which has to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Learning a new language. Filming a show I loved. Working with a lovely cast and crew and making some amazing friends, its not hard to understand why I loved it.
How did they find your accent?
I know some people loved it and found it quite endearing, and I’m pretty sure others hated it. The accent was a big issue. Sarita was initially supposed to be Italian born, but the script was changed and they explained my accent by saying that I was sent away to study in England. However that said, the producers still wanted me to lose the accent as much as possible.
They were worried it might prevent audiences from taking to Sarita. However I was really lucky that I had an amazing language and dialect coach called Francesca Rizzi who was with me all the time, and pushed me really hard. When the show came out the audiences had no idea that I hadn’t been able to speak the language previous to filming.
What else are you working on?
Earlier this year I wrote my first short film. We have a director on board, and are looking at going into production later this year. I am also in the early stages of setting up a theatre company.
House of Saddam starts on BBC2 on 30th July.
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