THE reason that some people will be rather upset about Tony McNamara’s current TV series The Great, loosely (very loosely) based on the story of Catherine the Great, is the reason why Sacha Dhawan was thrilled about getting a part in it.

“I’m a British south Asian actor being considered to play a character who was Russian from head to toe and so I was really excited,” the Manchester-born actor tells me down the line from his home in London. “I knew that Tony was challenging the audience’s perceptions.”

And then some. If you think The Crown’s dramatic diversions from the reality of royal life were a problem, then, as you may already have discovered when the first episode aired last Sunday, The Great is definitely not for you.

McNamara, the Australian playwright and screen writer best known for co-writing the Oscar-winning film The Favourite about Queen Anne, has decided to reframe his period drama as a raucous teen comedy. The Great (as the onscreen subtitle points out, “an occasionally true story”) gussies up this slice of 18th-century Russian history with lots of sex and rude words and a multicultural cast. The result is a smart, salacious romp.

If you want historical fidelity this is not the place to look. If you want to be mildly shocked and very amused, however …

“Even reading the pilot Tony was doing this brilliant thing of respecting the period while throwing it out of the window at the same time,” Dhawan suggests. “And I loved that.

Read More: Tobias Menzies playng royalty in The Crown

“Right from the beginning we were all on the same page. Yeah, it was about Catherine the Great. But it was a set of contemporary characters in a period setting and the challenges and dilemmas they face are as vital as the dilemmas and challenges today.”

Talking about it, Dhawan is clearly juiced by the possibilities. He plays Orlo, advisor to Elle Fanning’s Catherine, newly arrived in the Russian court and horrified by the conservatism of court and the daily, sometimes deadly, changeability of the emperor and her new husband Peter, as played (with some glee) by Nicholas Hoult. Catherine is all for a revolution, and she finds common cause with Orlo.

“My character is someone who is desperate for change,” Dhawan explains. “He’s been suppressed for so long and he just wants his lionheart to explode and that’s really a joy to play. I get to show my range as well.”

For anyone who has been paying attention that range should be very obvious by now. Since making his name in the play The History Boys, Dhawan has been a constant and vivid presence on our screens over the last decade, with parts in everything from Last Tango in Halifax and Mr Selfridge to The Boy with the Top Knot and Iron Fist. He’s best known as the most recent incarnation of rogue timelord The Master in Doctor Who.

The Great was a fresh challenge. Dhawan admits that it took him time to find his feet. “I felt quite daunted stepping into a period world.” It raised the most basic of questions, he says. “How do I stand?”


But it soon became clear that historical notions of formality and etiquette were not part of the package. “He almost wanted you to do the opposite,” Dhawan says of McNamara’s vision of this world. “Like, ‘don’t use a knife and fork. If you want to use your hands, great.’ It felt like we were doing something very fresh and original.”

Read More: Gabriel Byrne on acting, alcohol and abuse

For purists, the colour-blind casting will be a problem. For Dhawan he hopes it’s a sign of how things are changing in the industry. “It’s definitely evolving.”

In front of the camera, at least. There’s still work to be done behind it, he suggests. “On most sets that I go on when you look at how diverse it is … It’s not. And I think that needs to be shaken up slightly.”

Dhawan has been thinking a lot about these issues during lockdown. He is raising his gaze and his ambitions as a result.

“I’ve always wanted to produce or executive-produce and one of the reasons is you get to have a bit more control. You get to have a bit more say right at the beginning about how you want your sets to look, how you want your crew to look, how you want the story to be told. If you’re just an actor, by the time you come on set to make the scene, it’s a bit late to make those changes.”

This is all as much about asserting control of himself as his career, he admits.

“I’ve always talked about doing it. I think I haven’t because I’ve been scared, in all honesty. Who’s going to want to listen to my voice?

“And, also, I feel like I’ve been on the treadmill. I’ve not given myself the time to really sit and think about what it is I want to do. Lockdown was so perfect for that.”

As such, the break has given him a chance to rethink what he wants to do in the industry.

He started putting out feelers, contacting fellow British Asian creatives. He even made a short drama film with writer Nikesh Shukla and director Milli Bhatia that looked at issues of mental health in the British south Asian community.

“From that I just started to find my confidence and go, ‘Actually, I can do this. My voice is just as important as everyone else’s,’” Dhawan says.

What will that voice sound like? He’s hoping to develop projects that could be culturally specific but not defined by race. “Things that aren’t about terrorism or arranged marriages but could be genre-based. Like, why can’t you have a sci-fi film led by two south Asian actors?”

Read More: Diane Lane on four decades in film

The truth is, Dhawan has been asking a lot of questions lately. Many of himself. For someone who seems so established in his industry he has long dealt with issues of anxiety. He has also been speaking out of late about the impact of Crohn’s Disease on his physical and mental health. He admits he was in denial for a long time.

“It ties in with everything. My mental health, my anxiety, my identity, all those things kind of felt suppressed. I felt I didn’t have the confidence to own myself and I felt incredibly disconnected and I look back and go, ‘I wonder where that comes from? That fear.’

“I won’t lie. As much as acting has been amazing and successful, I didn’t feel happy. I felt sad and maybe the Crohn’s Disease was the result of all this stuff feeling displaced, not sure of where I fit in. As opposed to owning my own voice.

“It’s amazing when you start being vocal and owning your space how many people come forward and say, ‘I relate to what you’re talking about.’ And that is incredibly empowering. I feel the most empowered I ever have done, actually.”

That said, to get there was difficult, frightening even. “It’s been scary because you do feel vulnerable and raw. You feel like you’re dredging everything up.

“But one thing I’ve realised is when I was 12 or 13, I would just come on set and enjoy it. I didn’t have anxiety. I didn’t stress about stuff. It was important, but it wasn’t important. What was important was enjoying it and having fun. I think I became sad because I felt like I’d lost a sense of that.”

In the past he has always seen his anxiety and his illness in negative terms. “Now I think it actually only enhances me. And it’s made me do things that I never would have done, like the development side of things, working on myself in terms of mental health and talking about those things that have happened along the way. It’s really freed me up. I feel like a different person.

“I’ve realised work’s important, but it isn’t as important as you make it out to be. Life is important, happiness is important. And if you can hold onto that everything else fits into place. And sometimes I get in my way a little bit and put pressure on myself.”

He pauses for a moment. “I’m trying to understand where this pressure comes from, especially for second-generation British south Asians like me. We were born here, and we put so much pressure on ourselves and I’ve often wondered whether or not it originates from our parents’ journey because we’ve taken our parent’s identity on top of us.

“We were conditioned in a way to keep our head down. If you’ve got a place at the table, especially in the arts industry, don’t ruffle feathers.

“But the thing about that is we’re really losing a part of ourselves. I’m trying to challenge that a little bit, finding out what my identity is here in the UK and celebrating that as opposed to using my parent’s story as my story.”

After years in which he has been showing how well he can play other people, Sacha Dhawan is now learning to play himself.

The Great continues on Channel 4 tomorrow night at 9pm