'Why Me?' Anjana Vasan Wasn't Sure If She Was The Right Fit For 'Wicked Little Letters'

The South Asian actor plays Gladys Moss, Sussex’s first female police officer.

Anjana Vasan in Wicked Little Letters

Anjana Vasan in Wicked Little Letters. Image Source: Supplied

“Why me?” This was the first question Anjana Vasan asked director Thea Sharrock when approached for the role of Gladys Moss, based on a “real person”, in Wicked Little Letters

Born in Chennai, India before moving to Singapore when she was four, Vasan’s personal story is vastly different to that of Gladys Moss, Sussex’s first female police officer appointed in 1919. 

But Sharrock was adamant on casting the 37-year-old, who’s known for roles in We Are Lady Parts, Killing Eve and Black Mirror. 

“She said, ‘Well, I just want you, and I want people who can be funny and who can do comedy,’” Vasan tells Draw Your Box of Sharrock’s reason for casting her. 

Being serious yet witty is a crucial element of Vasan’s character, a curious sleuth who is constantly undermined by her male peers. When Edith Swan (Olivia Colman) begins receiving a series of obscene and wicked letters, her rowdy Irish neighbour Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley) is charged with the crime. However, Gladys (Vasan) is not quite convinced, and with the help of a group of local women, she must do what it takes to unearth the true identity of the criminal and clear Rose’s name. 

Vasan has always been a fan of period dramas that deviate from their history to some extent. So, perhaps being a brown woman playing a white cop from a century ago is not so odd afterall. 

“What I loved was that the script had one leg in the 1920s and in fact and history, but it also felt like it was speaking to now and in the modern day,” says the actor. “She [Sharrock] wanted to make a film that felt both historically accurate but also could be a story for now.” 

Anjana Vasan in Wicked Little Letters

Image Source: Supplied

Another aspect of the mystery comedy that appealed to Vasan was that it championed its women and their journeys of self-growth and obtaining justice. 

“You do need to be a bit disobedient and break the rules in order to fight the patriarchy sometimes, and I think there's just something so wonderful about seeing someone [like Gladys] so upright and buttoned up in the beginning, and actually then finding her own way through it," she says.

From Bridgerton to The Personal History of David Copperfield, colour-blind casting has become more common in Hollywood, and Vasan believes there’s a place for it depending on the project and role. 

“It's not to say that you have to completely ignore race and completely ignore what it brings to the table… but I think each project is trying to do something different and I think context is everything,” she says. 

“I think sometimes being very inclusive, even in stories that are very historically accurate, is also important.”

The first time we see Gladys in the local police station, a man immediately dismisses her and asks to see one of her male colleagues instead. “Not you, one of them,” he says to her. 

As a brown woman myself, I tell Vasan that this subtle racism feels so familiar. 

“It’s a very casual thing and exactly like you said, you yourself feel you related to that moment,’” Vasan tells me. “While it might not be as overtly spoken about in the film, it adds a layer of meaning. If it speaks to you, then that has done the job.”

The actor also praises the positive portrayal of a brown woman, saying it’s “quite nice to see a woman of colour be the hero of the story and uncover the truth.” 

“So, what I'm saying is I think it all matters. It's not that it's colour-blind or non-colour-blind casting or colour conscious casting…  I think it's everything,” she says. “It’s to be able to see people for their talent and their skill and of course, to also recognise their story and their background, and if it can add a meaning to the story, then [that’s] wonderful.” 

In her over decade-long career in the arts, Vasan's roles have been varied. While she's notably known for playing hijabi guitarist Amina in We Are Lady Parts and fierce assassin Pam in Killing Eve, it's the stage that truly birthed her acting career – after she undertook theatre studies in Singapore and then relocated to the UK.

"My way in was theatre," she says. "For a while I said, 'Oh, do I want to do directing instead of acting?' but I knew deep down that I just wanted to do acting. I'm glad I followed that instinct."

The performing arts are embedded in South Asian culture, as a form of entertainment but also cultural storytelling. Growing up in a Tamil family, Vasan was exposed to Hindi and Tamil movies and music from an early age.

"You were always like half watching it while having dinner. They're just like members of your family, really" she laughs.

"Even if you're not an avid Bollywood (Hindi cinema) or Kollywood (Tamil cinema) or Tollywood (Telugu cinema) watcher, you know who those people are. They're so much part of our culture."

Anjana Vasan in Wicked Little Letters

Anjana Vasan in Wicked Little Letters. Image Source: Supplied

But again, it was theatre and the stage that compelled her to pursue acting, not these streams of Indian cinema that have historically supported colourism in ebbs and flows.

"It wasn't until I watched a play that I thought, 'I can do this'. Maybe because Bollywood [and even Tamil movies] had this almost impossible idea of beauty," she says. "Especially in the 90s, you'd rather get a girl who can't speak Tamil and dub her as long as she's fair-skinned.

"It's quite subliminal, but maybe growing up I just thought, 'That's for very beautiful people'. And that's not very different from looking at Hollywood and going, 'Oh, that's for blue-eyed cheekboned people, not for me'. It's not some deep angst about 'Oh, I can't get into cinema'. It's just, 'Oh, that's just for other other kinds of people, not for people like me'."

It was back in November last year when Vasan posed for Vogue UK alongside Polite Society star Priya Kansara and Ambika Mod from Netflix's One Day. Having three South Asian women in the same shoot for the world’s biggest fashion magazine is monumental. It signals brown representation in entertainment and style is on the rise.

So, are we finally having our 'moment'?

"Here's the thing, we've always been around," she reflects. "I've been acting for 10 years now and I've always been acting with wonderful South Asian talent.

“I think now we're having this wonderful moment, and what's lovely is that it feels more like we're right in the middle of the spotlight. 

“For a while, I think we saw lots of South Asian talent that was more men – who are wonderful and continuing to shine very brightly –  but it's nice to also see quite female-led stories. I think there’s space for everyone.” 

Vasan explains that it’s now not just about “discovering” diverse talent, but “sustaining” it so these actors continue getting roles beyond their first break. 

“With Priya and Ambika, there’s very exciting talent that's coming through… and it feels so wonderful. And it doesn't feel like just a 'moment', because I think that's what the audience wants as well.” 

Wicked Little Letters premieres in Australian cinemas on Thursday, March 21. 

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