Interview with Laila Zaidi (who plays Asma Farooqi)

Category: Press Pack Article

How would you describe Ms Farooqi’s teaching methods?

I think her way of teaching is very to the point. Bold, harsh but she is always kind. She is desperately passionate to teach these kids. She doesn’t care at first about being liked until she spots a similarity between her and one of the students, Fizza.

Ms Farooqi and Fizza have some ups and downs this series. What does Asma think of Fizza?

Asma is immediately impressed with Fizza when she sees her in the canteen fighting against this Fit Or Not list. The students are rating the girls on whether they are hot or not and Fizza makes this incredible speech. That’s the moment that Asma sees herself in Fizza. You could almost argue that she takes Fizza on as a project. Asma sees this young woman who has so much potential and she doesn’t want her to make the same mistakes that she made. For Asma, it could also be seen as a distraction from her alcoholism, which is something she is hiding. There is almost a frantic energy but Asma adores Fizza. They have their ups and downs but they very much become like sisters. It was wonderful to film that with Yasmin because we became best pals. One of the first scenes we filmed where Fizza comes to Asma’s house was really emotional. That was a real bonding moment for us. We sat and held hands and were like, ‘What do you need from me in this scene?’ ‘What can I do to help you?’ and vice versa.

Why has Asma moved from London to Yorkshire?

Asma was struggling to navigate the working world of law in London. She went to law school, graduated and got a really high-end job and then she had a breakdown. It was a combination of the suffocating pressures from her family, her friends and her work-life balance. Many of us who live in London can probably relate to that. It can be really overwhelming. She decided to take a moment and reassess her life and follow another passion of hers and relocate to the lovely world of Ackley Bridge.

Is Halifax where Ackley Bridge is filmed a part of the country you know well?

I am actually a Geordie. I was one of the most Northern people on set although I don’t sound like it! I didn’t really know Halifax though so it’s been lovely to get to know that area. I was staying in Hebden Bridge, which is 20 minutes out of Halifax. It is absolutely beautiful. It is so picturesque and just the most amazing place to live for three months. What better way to learn your lines? I would walk up and sit with the sheep. It was really idyllic and peaceful.

What can you tell us about Asma’s family life? She has a difficult relationship with her father played by Ace Bhatti.

What we have to remember about Asma and her family is that she was brought up in a fairly Western household. Her parents weren’t practicing Muslims. So she’s a bit lost in finding her way through Islam. She found her faith but she didn’t have it passed down to her. One of the themes when I spoke to Ackley writer Suhayla (El Bushra) was this interesting dynamic, which doesn’t often get explored. Asma is a Muslim and she’s embracing it somewhat more than her parents did. That’s not necessarily typical but it’s also not uncommon. So I think that’s a really important storyline that’s being told. She was raised in a really loving household. Her parents adore her and she is desperately trying to impress them. It’s really complex. It’s a really deep three-dimensional relationship that she has with her parents.

What other questions did you have for the writers about your character?

I had a two-hour Zoom chat with Suhayla who created Asma’s character before we started filming. One thing that we spoke about, which I think is really important is that often Muslim women are portrayed as either victims or as kick-ass strong women. With this season of Ackley Bridge we really wanted to avoid both those extremes. Here is this Muslim woman who is trying to do her best. She’s a really good Muslim but she is also flawed because people have flaws, that’s what makes her interesting. That’s what makes her unique. She isn’t perfect but nor is anyone. There is not one way to be any religion. Also Asma is not supposed to be representing all Muslim women. There is no such thing as one type of Muslim woman. So I think the writers have done that brilliantly.

What was the most rebellious thing you did at school?

You will be sad to hear that I wasn’t that rebellious. One thing that I did do when I was 16 was with my best friend Amy, we were supposed to be doing cross-country. It was the last day of our GCSEs, the last day of Year 11. Up in Newcastle we would go running around Exhibition Park and I did not enjoy running. There was an exit in the park when you were running round where the teachers couldn’t see us. We looked at each other and said, ‘Shall we just leave?’ So we left in our sports school uniform, walked to the nearest chippy and got fish and chips. I remember really clearly we took this photo on Amy’s phone and had it made into a key ring, which her mum still has to this day. Our teacher pretended we were in big trouble and sent us to the head teacher’s office but they didn’t care because it was out last day. They just laughed.

Kaneez is a bit dismissive of Asma when she asks her where the school prayer room is. What discussions did you and Sunetra have about their relationship?

We had quite in-depth conversations. Asma sees another Muslim teacher and is so keen to impress her and to prove her loyalty to Islam. The biggest thing for us was about respect and acceptance. We have this story arc of Asma being desperate to get her acceptance and Kaneez not necessarily giving it to her straight away. Kaneez sees through that bravado. So we decided to take out Asma calling her Kaneez. She just calls her Mrs Paracha for maybe six or seven episodes.

What discussions did you have with director Ashley Walters about Asma?

The biggest thing that stuck with me that I got from Ashley was one of the first scenes that I filmed. It was one of Asma’s drinking scenes. Ultimately I was nervous about it. Ashley sat me down and said, ‘One thing you have to remember is that you don’t play drunk.’ When you are drunk, especially if you are an alcoholic and you don’t want people to know you are drunk, you are desperately trying to act like you are fine. You’re covering. You don’t just get really loud and lairy. Ashley gave me this really great tip. Instead of looking at the other actor’s eyes you look everywhere around their eyes. So it gives this illusion that Asma can’t hold eye contact because she is very drunk but without her actually falling side to side. That really stuck with me for my whole-time filming. It was brilliant advice.



Hassan (Hareet Deol) has a bit of a crush on Asma. What does she think of him? Is he punching above his weight?

Asma is so focused on herself in many ways. She almost doesn’t give Hassan the time of day. She is so focused on, ‘I’m ready to smash my new job.’ Then when she starts to realise that he has taken a liking to her she plays on that a bit. There’s a bit of a power-play. She for sure thinks he’s punching above his weight in the beginning. But then there are certain moments where Hassan sees through that tough exterior. She realises that and in many ways that really makes her warm to him. He becomes almost a safe space for her. She can tell him the truth, not necessarily the whole truth but it’s more than she’s told anyone else. For Asma the biggest battle is that she so desperately wants to hold her hand up and admit, ‘I’m an alcoholic. I’m struggling. What can I do? Can somebody please help me?’ But she can’t quite get the words out.

Did you have an inspirational teacher at school?

There were two that stand out for me, both of which sadly are not with us anymore. My lovely chemistry teacher, who just loved teaching and loved the students so much. He also did the Duke of Edinburgh scheme. I remember we had to cross this massive lake and one by one he piggy-backed us over, so we didn’t get our socks and shoes wet. He was incredible. On the dancing and drama side I had this other wonderful teacher. She was the one who sat me down and said, ‘You need to go to drama school. You need to follow this passion because you can do this. I really believe in you.’ When she was pregnant, I was the first student that she told. We did one-on-one sessions and we were sat in the gym sharing a pack of Jaffa cakes. We laughed and cried. She was amazing. Sadly she passed away at a very young age. I still think about her all the time. She is still such a big inspiration to me.

What do you think makes Ackley Bridge both a compelling drama and a great showcase for young talent?

Ackley Bridge champions new and diverse young talent both on and off screen and behind the scenes. There are so many strong female roles, whether that’s producing, writing, camera crew. And it really intertwines that with multiculturalism. I think it tackles such important stories with such care and love and kindness. Everything is so thoroughly researched. We worked and consulted with charities, whether that was mental health charities or the Muslim Women’s Network UK. It ensured authenticity for both the actors and the writers. It does such a brilliant job that you don’t realise you are laughing one minute and crying the next. I think it tells stories that aren’t necessarily told. I feel so passionately about this. It was really emotional on so many levels. We’ve got the producers, the writers, the whole team to thank for that. There is so much more than what you see on the screen and ultimately that’s what makes what you see on screen so sp