Sunday 19 November 2017

Yasmine's career path takes a funny turn

As the actress who was recently seen on TV screens kissing Benedict Cumberbatch, Yasmine Akram was the envy of many. She tells Julia Molony about her love of comedy and her desire to be the female Dylan Moran

TALENTED: Yasmine grew up in Drogheda, and gets her exotic name from her Pakistani father’s side. Photo: Hannah McKay
TALENTED: Yasmine grew up in Drogheda, and gets her exotic name from her Pakistani father’s side. Photo: Hannah McKay

Julia Molony

YASMINE Akram's life has changed considerably since she snogged Benedict Cumberbatch on prime time telly. For one thing, she attracted the ire of the "Cumberbitches", the Sherlock actor's fanatical female admirers.

"I've had so many people threatening my life for kissing Benedict," Yasmine says, clearly disappointed that the attentions after her most high profile job to date haven't been more amorous. "That's all my love life has been – people having a go at me for kissing someone who was paid to kiss me."

It's funny what a guest slot on Sherlock can do. It's given Yasmine, previously best known for a small-ish one-woman play she wrote and starred in here in Ireland, a brush with international celebrity. But what it didn't deliver, unfortunately, was a boyfriend. "I remember saying to the girls when I was doing hair and make-up – this series is going to get me a boyfriend," she says.

But no. "I have never been so single," she faux-wails. It seems a ludicrous complaint, from one so gorgeous, but she is adamant. "I didn't even get a Valentine's card."

An actress and comedienne, Yasmine grew up in Drogheda and gets her exotic name from her Pakistani father's side. She was born in the United Arab Emirates and passed her young life reasonably uneventfully in the midlands, raised by her Irish mother alone after her parents divorced.

The world of London media and the comedy circuits she now inhabits seemed a world away. But she watched and was inspired by a particular, absurdist kind of Irish humour like Father Ted.

"I remember seeing Dylan Moran and going, 'What the hell! He is amazing.' And obviously, he was from Navan, I was from Drogheda, I was like, 'Oh my god'!" It was the first inklings she had of where she might dare to hope her career might take her.

But there was no clear, or easily identifiable route to becoming the female Dylan Moran. Especially for a hot girl, belonging to a demographic still generally appreciated more for being seen rather than heard.

"When you are a girl and you want to be funny, there's a tiny part where people go, 'what happened?'" she says, pulling a concerned face to illustrate.

"If you want to be an actress it's seen as something that's elegant, or kind of a thing that's quite refined. But when you say you want to be a clown people go, Oh no! Were you not hugged enough'?"

So Akram took the more traditional route of studying drama instead. She was accepted into RADA and trained to be a classical actress. It was good, but it wasn't her dream.

"I loved RADA and I'm very much still in the family there, but I always felt like I didn't completely belong there. I was not as immersed as the other students were in classical texts and that kind of thing.

"I'd much rather go and see a comedy gig on a Friday night, than go to the theatre. Or I'd rather go and see a movie."

But something important came out of it – she and a fellow student, Louise Ford, started writing sketches and comedy routines, eventually forming a double act.

But when the course finished, Yasmine floundered. "I was in London, temping, and realised, this isn't working, I'm going to have to go home and regroup. So I went back to Ireland and basically just sat on my mother's couch for eight months.

"In that time I wrote a play, which is called 10 Dates With Mad Mary, and put that on. It wasn't until Louise came over and saw that play – she came into the dressing room and said, 'We need to be doing this. We need to be creating our own work'. So from then on we started to gig and do sketches."

Her play became a hit, transferring to Edinburgh before Element Pictures snapped up the rights to adapt it into a film.

Meanwhile, a newly buoyant Yasmine headed back to London, moved in with Ford and started performing on the comedy circuit. Bit by bit, opportunities started to arise. As well as gigging with Ford, she joined forces with fellow Irish comedienne and Perrier Award Winner Aisling Bea to pen Irish Micks and Legends, a comedy series for BBC Radio 4.

She began stiffening her spine doing solo stand-up gigs. These were a game changer.

"It's confidence-building. Once you do it once, you go 'Well it never has to be the first time again'. But obviously my career has changed a lot over the last couple of years and I think my agent who I'm with now had an incredible impact on my career, but I think it was also that I started to compere and do stand-up. And suddenly the rooms that I had been afraid of being in just weren't so scary anymore."

This applies both to her comedy and her acting career, and undoubtedly helped furnish her with the moxie that helped her nail the Sherlock audition. And the same applies, no doubt, to scoring the lead role in a new comedy series soon to air on RTE.

The Centre is a sitcom set in a community centre in County Dublin, and focuses on the oddball characters therein. Yasmine plays Amanda Menton, a hard-as-nails stiletto wearing glamazon who has been accused of murdering her lover, gym boss and gangster Max 'The Mandroid' Murphy.

Yasmine gets her grit, she reckons, from her mother, who after the failure of her marriage, picked herself up, brought her two daughters back to Ireland and started again. "She's a person who could have felt like a victim, and she never never did. She was always like, right ok, just pick yourself up and go again.

"I've always looked at it like, ok, this isn't working out. We regroup and go at it another way."

Yasmine's parents met in Manchester, where they married and had her older sister, before moving to Dubai, where Yasmine was born. They broke up when she was just 18 months old, and she's had sporadic contact with her father since then. "My father was never in Ireland or anything. I think for a Pakistani man to be in Ireland, it would have been like, what!?

"I saw him about three or four years ago – kind of got back in touch with him. But it's weird. He's very traditionally Pakistani. He's actually a really wonderful man... I always thought that if he found out I was an actress he'd be so ashamed, but he was like, 'No, no, I wasn't in your life, what were you supposed to do?' Which I think is really cool. He kind of goes, 'I was a really s**t dad, I was a really bad dad'. I think for him to be like that as well, just makes me go, ok we're cool, we're good."

For a while, they kept in regular contact. "We had a phase of meeting up a bit. And then it all kind of went away again. And I think it was maybe because we were just a bit too different.

"It felt like I was constantly checking myself to see if I was doing something wrong or behaving in a certain way."

There was, it seems, simply too much water under the bridge. "When my parents met, he was lapsed Muslim and she was lapsed Catholic, but then as time went by and they broke up, my mother went back to going to mass on a Sunday and dad went back to being Muslim."

Yasmine and her sister were raised Catholic, had first communions and confirmations. She feels fairly removed from her Pakistani heritage. "I have so little knowledge of anything to do with Pakistan, I don't speak the language, I don't know anything about the culture ... "

One day, though, she plans to trace her family, to Pakistan and perhaps also to their original roots in India. But not just yet.

"There's part of me that's scared of opening that Pandora's box," she admits. "And for such a long time, I really was in love with my Irishness, if that makes sense. I kind of just wanted to be Irish."

The Centre starts Monday, March 24th on RTE Two at 10pm

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