Who is Balvinder Sopal
Hmmm…Balvinder Sopal is an enigma even to herself. I am still discovering who I am. The obvious answer is that I am a British Indian actress from a small town called Gillingham.
What are your hobbies?
I am a fan of working out, doing yoga and going for long walks. I love a good debate on anything. A debate over a cup of coffee and a slice of cake, with friends, is even better. I love gardening and reading (not at the same time) as I find them both very soothing. I spend a lot of my time travelling up and down the country for work, and I love that too. Train journeys can be wonderful with a good book, or your favourite music to accompany you. Oh, and crosswords especially on a train journey this is not complete without doing the Metro’s crossword.
What is your favourite book?
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It is a book I have read many times, and each time I read it I discover something new – the book has all these profound messages just waiting to be revealed to the reader. I love the simplicity with which it is written, and it is full of magic, mysticism and spirituality. It is all about following your dreams.
What is your favourite song?
Oh, this is a hard question. There are so many and it often depends on my mood. It can be anything from Classical to Pop, RnB, Garage to Bhangra, Bollywood or epic film scores.
Who are your role models?
Again, there are so many great men and women to look up to and all for different reasons. However, it is closer to home where I draw my inspiration and strength. My mum and sister, whom I admire and respect fiercely just because of the way they handle their business. They are the Heads of their families respectively and in great partnerships which gives them the freedom to be the women they want. They are wise, intelligent, glamourous and carry themselves with dignity and integrity. My sister has two little girls too and I am so proud of the way my sister is bringing them up. They are both strong and assured, curious and clever, cheeky and brilliant conversationalists all that the nutty age of 6 and 4. They are both crazy which makes then excellent company.
You are into your fitness. Is this something you have always been in to? I enjoyed your hula squatting, I even tried it myself.
Hula Squatting is brilliant, isn’t it?! I created that at home one day and I really enjoyed it. I am also playing around with Hula Zumba and have choreographed a few routines. I have always liked to keep fit. I started doing Aerobics at the age of about 14? And just kept going. It is important to me that I work out. Sometimes you just need to get out of your own head and into your body. I always try to make time for something physical, even if that is just going for a walk
You have BA Honours degree in Theatre with Media Studies. Why did you choose this degree?
I always wanted to do theatre but knew that pursuing it as a career might not be so straight forward. My parents were also a little worried that I might be wasting my time with theatre. I had never really thought about drama school as it was never on the agenda. So, I compromised and opted for a degree in Theatre with Media studies. I guess it was a back-up plan, if I failed at acting at least I had Media to fall back on. I did think about journalism for some time. However, I was determined to become an actress and my passion for the arts was far too strong, I just knew it was the path for me.
Before the acting world, what were you doing before that?
I have only ever known or thought about acting as a career. I did many jobs that supported my desire to work in the arts. I worked in two theatres up and down the country, simultaneously, in various roles: Box Office, FOH Assistant, youth theatre leader and bar staff. I have also worked as a facilitator for the arts, delivering projects in schools. I also trained and worked as a youth worker all at the same time. I even held down jobs in two different nightclubs! I did all of this without even thinking that it may be too much and in all honesty, it wasn’t. I saw it all as learning, the variety was enjoyable, but it was helping me towards achieving my goal of becoming an actor. It meant that I had money in the bank for when I needed to attend auditions, buy scripts and other materials and it helped in terms of character studies. I also learned a lot about myself and how resilient the human spirit can be.
Were your family and friends supportive of your career choice?
Initially, my family were not impressed, however, I think that was because this was a very new path that no one in our family had ever embarked upon. After the initial discomfort, mum and dad got on board, but they still did not really understand this path, so I made it my mission to make them understand why the arts were important to me. We celebrated my success as well as my failures and we slowly learned together, that rejection was a part of this journey. A bit like life.
My mum, dad Tayiji and Tayaji are now my biggest fans. They have travelled the length and breadth of the county to support me in shows. My Dad despairs of me as I turn his house upside down, trying to get the correct lighting and space but secretly he loves to be helpful. One of my favourite things is watching my dad playing all the characters. He really gets into it by putting on different voices and accents. I am hugely grateful to mum. My career is what it is today because of their support – whether they understood it or not they never stopped me. I owe a lot to them and I am an incredibly lucky woman.
I saw that you recently made The Wall at the Curve Theatre in Leicester. How did that make you feel?
Overwhelmed and shocked. The Wall goes right around The Curve and it is big! It was one of the first things that I noticed on my very first visit to The Curve. I was just mesmerised by these diversely bold, vibrant and larger than life pictures. I loved the dramatic effect that they had, it was almost 3D, where the actors look like they are going to burst into action right in front of your eyes. Every time I passed the pictures, I would think to myself, how cool would it be to make This Wall. I never imagined it would ever become a reality. When I saw the tweet from Mason Cooper who was ASM on My Beautiful Launderette, the show the picture is from, I literally could not believe my eyes. It is quite an accomplishment and I am very humbled to have made The Wall and be up there with some of the greatest actors of our industry.
How did your character in Eastenders Suki Panesar happen?
I don’t know haha! I was on tour with My Beautiful Launderette, and I got a call from my agent to say that Eastenders would like me to do a self-tape for a new regular character. I liked the sound of Suki Panesar, manipulative, fierce and feisty. I was impressed that Eastenders was looking for a modern Punjabi woman. Suki is the head of her house, calling all the shots and holding the family together. She reminded me a little of Polly Shelby from Peaky Blinders – that strength and unwavering, uncompromising love she has for her boys. Suki is like that – a strong character and not afraid to step into the arena to do whatever it takes. Suki is a lot more cunning and shameless but it good to be given the chance to find out what makes Suki tick and I like that she is a character with agency and power. She creates the drama rather than reacts to it and you either love a character like that or you hate them.
How did it feel stepping on the Eastenders set?
Surreal. Intimidating. Unbelievable. My first ever scene was shot in the Café and it was just very unreal. It felt like an out-of-body experience. And I just had to keep coming back to the fact that this was work. The same thing happened when I stepped on Albert Square and the Vic. I just had to take a moment to take it all in. I stood in the gardens and did a 360 and allowed my eyes to feast on the whole set. This was real but then again it was all make-belief. It was also incredibly humbling to step on the same ground as some of the most iconic characters to have ever come out of Eastenders. It is such a big deal and I am grateful for every moment.
What’s it like being part of the Pansear family In Eastenders?
I love the Panesars and we have a laugh both on and off-screen. It is also great to see our screen family finding its feet with the soap. It feels complete now that Suki has arrived. You can see the dynamics of the family and what each member brings to the table. We are all incredibly hard-working and so it is great to be able to bounce thoughts and ideas around with relation to the Panesar Family.
You also took part in the public hygiene campaign for COVID 19 and used a Bhangra track for inspiring music in the background, what made you decide to do this?
I wanted to make an upbeat video for a profoundly serious campaign. I was listening to a lot of Bhangra at the time and a friend of mine had sent me this mash-up of a Bhangra and the Eastenders theme tune. It seemed to just make sense, so I sent that that into the BBC Press team and they loved it. Bhangra and a good cup of cha can brighten up any day! Glad you enjoyed it!
What advice would you give to any aspiring actors/actresses?
This question always makes me feel nervous and here is why. I think acting is a very personal journey, and success means different things to different people. For some of us, a lead role in a major film is what will make us happy, for others just being able to reach out to someone with your storytelling is more than enough. I am lucky and although money and fame sometimes come with the territory, it is not the be-all and end-all.
I come from a community theatre background and a lot of my work came through a theatre company called Chol based in Huddersfield. As you know I did not go to drama school, so I guess you could say I have worked my way up in this industry although it has no real opportunity for progression.
With that in mind, my advice would be
- To understand that although the job can be incredibly rewarding, it is not an easy industry to get into and sustain. I don’t think anyone goes into acting thinking they are going to make money. In my very humble opinion, is it a poor man’s game and so I believe it is important to find enjoyment in all aspects of the job, that includes all the times where you are not working.
- Learn other skills that can support your career, so that when you walk in to audition room you have something different to offer.
- Always work hard and do the admin; go and watch shows, films, read scripts and get to know the work of different directors, theatre companies and casting directors. Invite them to come and see your work. Build those relationships because these are the very people that will get you in the room.
- Have a good relationship with social media as lots of work and information/casting breakdowns seem to come through social media now. Apply for things you think will help develop you as an artist. Writing competitions, monologue slams, rehearsed readings R and D (research and development projects) etc. Keeping an eye and just being aware of what work is out there keeps you current. You do not have to – I know plenty of actors who do not do social media and that is fine. I like to as it keeps me in the know and it also helps to develop my career in the way I want to.
- Keep busy. Social media can also help you to create your own material. Find ways of telling your story and other stories. Podcasts, blogs, Vlogs on YouTube, Instagram, writing short plays, answering to call-outs to perform in the short plays etc.
- There is no one like you out there and that is your greatest strength. Be original. Be authentic and stand with pride in your difference.
- Challenge stereotypes otherwise you will forever play the Asian with an accent or a terrorist who has no agency. The narrative is changing, and we must keep saying ‘No’ to the same old storylines.
- I think it is important to have a good honest relationship with your agent and remember that they are working for you. This took me a long time to understand and I always felt afraid to challenge something or say No. If you feel like you cannot speak to your agent about your feelings, you are with the wrong agent!
- I think it is favourable to be good with your money. Make it and make sure you save some, not only for the taxman but also for the rainy days. I also believe it grounds you. We can get carried away with the glitz and glamour of the job, and I think jobs like Box Office, FoH, or selling perfume can help keep our feet planted firmly in reality. It is also good training. Face to face public communication and character study of people – all helpful when it comes to building characters and performing in front of an audience.
- Many people like to take classes and I think if that is your thing and you would like to, go ahead. I did not take many classes. I found my training from the different jobs I did.
- Enjoy the job you do. How many people do you know that wake up in the morning and say they are looking forward to going to work? Not many. Acting is a blessing for us, we get to play every day and see the world through fresh and new eyes. We can create realities not even thought of and we can show a mirror up to society in a bid to make profound changes in the way we exist on this planet, together.
What is next for Balvinder?
Surprisingly, the lockdown has brought about a nice amount of work. I regularly contribute content to BBC Radio Kent, my local radio station, where I produce 10-minute reports for the Dominic King show on arts and events around the Medway towns. Our latest report featured #Nam a part of, which is produced by Tamasha Theatre company. #NHSLove is an online directory of Love poems for NHS staff to access whenever they are able to. It is our way of giving something back and showing our appreciation for everything the NHS is doing. They are the people holding this country together and so #NHSLove was developed in celebration of these extraordinary people. Go to Tamashatheatre.org.uk to view the poems and speeches.