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Interview: Amara Karan

You might expect it of an airy-fairy English student, or a historian – perhaps even an arch. and anther – but since when do PPE students become professional actresses? Conventional wisdom dictates that PPE grads become bankers, economists, politicians and management consultants. But then, talking to her I get the impression that Amara Karan has never had much truck with conventional wisdom.

A couple of years into a promising career as an investment banker, Amara threw in the towel and applied for drama school. In one fell swoop, she exploded all the stereotypes that could be imputed to her as an Oxford graduate. Except, that is, those of ambition and drive.

Amara has certainly packed a lot into the 5 years since she graduated from St Catz. Since quitting her post at boutique investment bank Hawkpoint, she has filmed in India with Owen Wilson, starred alongside Rupert Everett, Colin Firth and Stephen Fry, and even carried the Olympic torch through London, relaying with the likes of Dame Kelly Holmes, Sir Trevor McDonald and Kevin Pieterson.

Though Amara insists that she’s always loved acting – and did a great deal of it at Oxford – it took her a long time to decide to take the plunge and apply to drama school. ‘At each crossroads… I would think “Should I? No, that’s silly. I’ll never make a living out of it, the industry’s full of horrific people”, and so on.’ Though she’d always been drawn to the media section of the careers library, this never seemed to her a viable career, so she looked to other areas, hoping perhaps to work in the media or the film industry in a less starry capacity. And this drew her to the idea of media banking.

But her ambivalence towards the long hours she was working as a banker made her think again. ‘I didn’t want to do something which I felt luke-warm and mediocre about.’ Finally galvanised into giving drama school a go, Amara made her application as ‘a tester to see if it was going to work.’ Little did she know how well the gamble would pay off.

Shortly after leaving the Arts Educational School in London, she landed the part of Rita in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, and jetted off to India to start filming. A few months later, she had also been cast in the all-star St Trinian’s, featuring Rupert Everett, Lily Cole and Russell Brand – to name but a few. The films premiered within a month of each other, leading to an explosion of media attention which rocketed her into the public eye.

As Peaches, one of the ‘posh totty’ brigade in St Trinian’s, and Rita, the sexy stewardess on board The Darjeeling Limited, Amara is rapidly acquiring the epithet ‘British hottie’ (type it into Google, and she appears as the second hit – after Kelly Brook). But she’s not always won such glamorous roles. At her single sex secondary school, the lack of male talent meant that Amara grew up having to play the boy. ‘I had a bit of a complex about it’, she confesses. ‘It became a bit of a joke that Amara would always play the man, but I couldn’t really complain as they were always the lead parts.’

Asked if she’d be willing to follow in the footsteps of Cate Blanchett (who played Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There) and play a male role on film, Amara says she’d ‘love to’. She’s all for taking artistic risks and doesn’t seem bothered in the least about being a heart-throb.

At the time of interview, Amara is in rehearsals for her professional stage debut with the Royal Shakespeare Company; she’ll be playing Bianca in The Merchant of Venice, and Jessica in The Taming of the Shrew. As an English student, I’m keen to know how she’s approaching her parts, but I’m soon chastised for probing. ‘I don’t feel I need to share that with anyone – it’s like a magician revealing his tricks.’ Amara is willing to disclose, however, that despite her academic achievements, her performances are not exercises in literary interpretation. ‘The intellect is brilliant, but it’s limited too. Your subconscious can give you a lot more.’ Researching a part in the abstract, she says, can only get you so far: ‘You need to be able to put yourself in those circumstances and say the words as truthfully as you can.’

Though she says that she’s currently ‘in heaven’ rehearsing with the RSC, Amara admits she’s not always been an ardent fan of the Bard. ‘At Oxford I had a friend who studied English, who used to rave about Shakespeare, and I remember saying to her that I thought he was a bit overrated… But now I’ve totally revised my view, and gone back to my friend with my tail between my legs.’ Amara attributes her initial antipathy to the challenges of Shakespearean language, which she says she found more overwhelming at first than performing a work in French.

Having played a salacious schoolgirl, a stewardess who indulges in an illicit affair, and two girls who elope against their fathers’ wishes, Karan seems to be building a repertoire of rebellious female roles. Amara herself is an odd mixture of rebellion and convention: the privately-educated PPE graduate, who had to get her friends to teach her how to smoke at the age of twenty-something for her role in The Darjeeling Limited, contrasts sharply with the girl who defied parental and social expectations in her choice of career – and who doesn’t even know if her mother has seen her on-screen performances as they ‘don’t really talk about it.’

Does she think her race will prove an asset or a disadvantage in her career? ‘At the moment it’s been an asset. But you’ve got to make it an asset. The more interesting and different you are – the more you celebrate your difference – the better.’ It seems that the same steely determination that first took her into banking is standing her in very good stead in her new career.

The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew are both showing at The Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until September.

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