‘The Crown’ Star Prasanna Puwanarajah on Channeling His South Asian Heritage to Play Martin Bashir: ‘Diversity Can Feel Like an Optional Extra in Casting’

British actor Prasanna Puwanarajah is on a career high with a starring turn in the new season of “The Crown” and his feature directorial debut “Ballywalter” beginning its festival journey by opening the Belfast Film Festival.

Puwanarajah is of Tamil Sri Lankan heritage and has used aspects of his background to inform both his role in “The Crown” and his directing turn on “Ballywalter,” he tells Variety.

In “The Crown,” Puwanarajah plays British journalist Martin Bashir, who conducted the infamous and now disreputed 1995 BBC “Panorama” interview with Princess Diana. Bashir is of Pakistani heritage.

“It’s very rare that as an actor you are using the full range of your physical and spiritual and heritage offer — particularly in the way that casting can happen, where it can feel quite last minute and diversity can feel like, as Riz Ahmed puts it, an optional extra, where people aren’t really looking at the reality of a person’s heritage — they’re just looking at skin, or something else, like gender or sex,” Puwanarajah says.

“It was actually an unusual thing for me to play a person who is brown, who you know in your bones is brown,” Puwanarajah adds. “And it was really nothing to do with it being Martin Bashir, it was actually just to do with him being a person from where I’m from.”

Puwanarajah says he appreciated being “hyper aware of heritage.”

“He was a person of South Asian heritage, as he says in the program, working in an establishment, the BBC, which, for anyone, even for my parents who worked in the NHS [National Heath Service], [you felt] the pressures of moving in those spaces in that era. And I don’t think those things have really massively changed, sadly. I still feel those pressures. If you don’t have to reach for those things, if you just know those things are truths, as an actor it’s really valuable, because you’re inventing less. And once you start inventing less, you’re getting closer to what a depiction of a type of reality might be.”

For his preparation, besides learning the script and the physical work needed for the role, Puwanarajah did extensive research to get a sense of Bashir as a journalist beyond “Panorama.” He also studied the motivations for Bashir’s actions — Bashir forged bank statements to gain access to Diana — without taking a moral position on them.

Puwanarajah was also keenly aware of what he describes as an “enormous compendium” of public record information on Bashir, something in most cases an actor doesn’t have access to, and found the process in equal parts interesting and challenging.

“There is a lot to work through and try and understand. But really, it’s also about just playing the scenes – you’re never playing a whole life in a particular moment, you’re just playing a moment. So a moment where the program depicts him creating bank statements is actually, in the moment of playing, a pair of people making a document,” Puwanarajah says. “I think it’s important to know why you’re doing an acting job, and this was one about facing a set of challenges.”

On the directing side, Puwanarajah had previously helmed a few short films. His short “Spoof or Die,” for Channel 4’s Coming Up strand was written by Stacey Gregg, who also wrote “Ballywalter.” Set in the Northern Ireland village of Ballywalter and Belfast, the film follows two damaged people who find an unexpected connection. When Puwanarajah began visiting Belfast to develop a range of projects with Gregg, he felt a “strange sense of familiarity.”

“I realized that there was a resonance in terms of post-conflict narratives, with how I had grown up as a person of Sri Lankan Tamil heritage in the U.K., and how, similarly, we have complicated journeys and routes through that in terms of how we talk about it,” says Puwanarajah.

“I felt this frequency that I was in resonance with,” he adds. “And so actually, it made perfect sense to make a feature about people in Belfast who are navigating loneliness and the challenges of mental health and isolation through the lens of humor and a type of inflection that is people deflecting with wit, which is a very Sri Lankan Tamil thing as well.”

Puwanarajah is currently filming ITV crime drama “Payback,” which is executive produced by “Line of Duty” creator Jed Mercurio. He is also working with Mercurio on an adaptation of Rachel Clarke’s pandemic-themed bestseller “Breathtaking.”

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