Friday 6 December 2019

Amara Karan: From Banker to box office

Having worked in finance and studied at Oxford, Amara Karan is forging a successful career in acting, and she is happy to embrace all the attention that comes with it, whether positive or negative

BANKABLE STAR: Former finance worker Amara Karan
BANKABLE STAR: Former finance worker Amara Karan


In a dreary office in a nondescript building in London's square mile, Amara Karan could easily be living an alternate life as a high-powered banker. Instead she is sitting in a plush hotel curled up in an armchair, promoting her new film, All in Good Time, in which she plays her first lead role.

Not long before the financial world capitulated, Karan had, while not quite her Sliding Doors moment, a stark realisation that the road she was travelling was not one she particularly wished to be on. Her career in the financial markets, one she had fought for after graduating from Oxford University with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics, was not for her. A seismic change was required and a professional acting career began.

"It was terrifying," she says with an endearing giggle. "Madness. A step of insanity is required to make that choice, which thankfully I have."

Uber-confident and unfailingly polite (at the end of our time together she thanks me for being well researched -- a first, for many reasons) she seems to have far too bright and dazzling a personality to keep it hidden behind an office desk. As she speaks she frequently tosses her hair from side-to-side on top of her head. With her wide eyes and pursed lips she has more than a touch of Seventies glamour.

Acting was always a love throughout school and university but never seemed more than just an enjoyable hobby. It certainly wasn't something to be pursued by a first-generation immigrant whose parents had left Sri Lanka in the 1960s and worked tirelessly to create a new life in the UK.

"There were no role models for me," she explains, pouring herself a hot chocolate. "Nobody I knew got into acting or had anything to do with the industry. It's hard to take that step psychologically. You just think it would be stupid -- and it is stupid -- but you just can't possibly make that step. For me I think it just took time to find the balls to really follow my heart.

"And so I went to university and I got my degree and I went into banking because I thought I'd enjoy it and I'd thrive at it and it would be OK that it wasn't my first love. But it wasn't OK that it wasn't my first love and I realised that pretty soon."

Banking had a certain appeal -- certainly prior to the world's economic collapse it did -- but she seems so well suited to her current position that it's hard to imagine what attracted her to it.

"There's a glamorous idea of the capitalist machine, dominating it and making loads of money and being a success and being powerful. I think it was that glamour which led me to give it a go.

"I did it in earnest. I thought I was going to be a banker for the rest of my life. But the truth comes out in the end. You spend your whole life doing your job and you've got to do something you love. Even though it was going to be a struggle I thought I should really follow my heart. I'm cursed with this passion and desire."

At this stage it would seem that the change has paid off. In fact, it paid off fairly quickly as she landed a part in Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited with one of her first auditions. That was followed with a part in St Trinian's, but it's over the next few months where she will come into her own.

All in Good Time, from the writers of East is East and the director of Calendar Girls and Made in Dagenham, is the kind of sweet comedy with a heart that British cinema does best.

Karan plays Vina, a newlywed who moves in with her husband Atul (Reece Ritchie) and his parents following their wedding. A cramped two-up-two-down on a council estate in Bolton is no place for a young couple and soon their inability to find the time and the space to consummate their marriage starts to cause havoc for them and those around them.

So, I wonder, how did she explain to her family that her new film is about someone who very nearly has sex? "Well, I didn't exactly put it in those terms," she replies. "And there's a bit more to it than that." In fact, All in Good Time uses the problems of a newly married couple to tell a universal tale of immigrants where the children, having grown up in the culture of their new home, struggle to fully appreciate the sacrifices that have gone before them. Her family made similar sacrifices and it was an element of the story she identified with.

Growing up, she says, "I was protected and I was allowed the space to grow in my own time and I thank my family for that. I do appreciate that in a different way now that I'm older. I think you're in a rush to grow up and you're bombarded by adult media and images and you feel like you have to live up to something. But it was nice to just enjoy my childhood, although it was frustrating, too, because I wanted to grow up fast and I wanted to rebel.

"I just wanted to be normal. It was difficult being a teenager. I had very low self-esteem so I think wanting to be accepted and feel normal was a thing I wanted very much."

All in Good Time is the first of a number of projects in the pipeline that should transform Karan from being the hot tea lady from The Darjeeling Limited, into something close to a household name.

Next month sees the release of A Fantastic Fear of Everything where she plays the female lead alongside Simon Pegg in a film written and directed by former Kula Shaker front man Crispian Mills.

Later in the year she will star in another British/Indian comedy, Jadoo, about two warring brothers who set up rival curry houses across the street from one another.

Given her unlikely path to this point, and the moments of doubt and despair when she must have wondered was it all worth it, she is ready for all that comes with the life of a high-profile actress, good and bad.

She is ready, she says, for the prying eyes into her life, the speculation about boyfriends and the Daily Mail-style photos of her eating lunch or drinking coffee.

I ask if being questioned about her relationships is the most tiresome part of this process (she is currently single).

"There are no tiresome questions," she says with another high-pitched giggle. "You know what. It's a sign of success and I love it. There's nothing tiresome about promoting something I'm very proud of, so bring it on."

Fame is also something she is ready for, should it come her way. "I think it daunted me at first but I've made peace with that. I think if you're going to do this you have to decide if you're going to embrace that or not. Some people have careers and they're not so well recognised, and some people have careers and they are."

So will she rejoice when she picks up a newspaper and sees photographs of her coming out of a gym or her house without any make-up looking far from her best? Again the excited giggle. "If that happens I will be lucky. I will know that I've arrived. That's the way I approach it. It's just a sign of extreme success and that's what I want."

When your life was nearly mapped out for you behind a desk in an office, it must all seem like a fair trade-off. But what comes across most with Karan is her drive, a passionate desire to succeed, which she has displayed time and time again in her life, from getting into Oxford, or forging a career in the financial world or in succeeding in becoming a movie-star.

She is at a loss to explain where this desire originates, but knows that it's there and, it would seem, how to harness it.

"It could come from my parents. It could come from being an immigrant. It could come from being dark-skinned in a white society and a wish to fit in. I don't know. You could analyse this in all kinds of different ways. I'm a bulldog."

'All in Good Time' is currently in cinemas

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