Nina Wadia left EastEnders in February after more than five years of playing the resident Asian matriarch of the Masoods, Zainab Khan, who, she tells the Walford Gazette in an exclusive interview, was modelled on the "frumpiness of Pauline Fowler, but funnier."
It was actually Wadia's second stint on the show. The first was a minor role in 1994, playing a nurse treating Michelle Fowler's gunshot wound. The actress didn't much follow EastEnders by the time she snared the second role, but it used to be her cousin's favourite show - until 2007 when Wadia joined the cast as a regular.
"My being on the show ruined it for her," Wadia laughs, of her cousin, who could no longer enjoy EastEnders. By the time she joined the cast, Wadia had quite a resumé, mostly in British telly comedies such as Goodness Gracious Me and The Vicar of Dibley, but also dramas like Skins, Holby City, Murder in Mind, Doctors, and even an episode of Doctor Who.
She admits that it was a little awkward to join EastEnders because she was friendly with several of the actors who had been the Ferreiras, the often-derided Asian family. Wadia played a caterer with them in the feature film Bend It Like Beckham. Unlike the Ferreiras, the Masoods are Muslim, and Wadia pushed the EastEnders producers to introduce a storyline about her having a gay son.
Since leaving EastEnders, she has worked in a production company that she founded with her husband, principally a composer. They have two young children, one who was born a few months before she won the role of Zainab.
WG: What do you think your children think about their mummy being on telly?
NW: I don't let my children watch it because of the adult material. The headline in the paper was: "Wadia Bans TV for Children." I didn't do that; I just don't let them watch the adult stuff. My daughter, the 9-year-old, once was asked in the playground about "the horrible man beating her." My son, on the other hand, who has never ever seen it, he just likes the music. By pure coincidence, the French teacher of their school teaches them the days of the week in French to the tune of EastEnders. My son started singing it, "Mummy, mummy...." And I couldn't stop laughing.
WG: When you became a permanent cast member of the show, what was it like?
NW: The first actor I met when I joined was the super-talented Jamie Borthwick, he plays Jay. I told him, you're like a 35-year-old trapped in a 13-year-old's body. He's hilarious. When we met he said, "All right doll, I'll look after you, don't you worry." The second actor I met was Rob Kazinsky, who plays Sean Slater, who I recently met again in LA and is going to be in True Blood. We just absolutely got on. Whenever we left the gates together, the girls would absolutely scream, "Oh my god, Sean Slater!" They were so in love with him; it was hilarious. It's such an iconic show. It put my family (the Masoods) on the map. It's a great thing because work comes your way.
WG: Does the fame gained from EastEnders ever get to you?
NW: The only downside is that everybody thinks they know you. The thing I don't like is when they come up to tell what they think of the character. One woman was quite aggressive. She said, "I think you're disgusting, the way you treat your son. My son is gay and I think you're disgusting." I thought, it's my character, it's not me. What do you do with that? I didn't even say anything back. I don't want to engage in a debate. She's absolutely deluded if she thinks that's what I'm like. The other thing they'll do, in my local shopping centre, I'll get a crowd form around me, humming the theme tune. It's almost funny the first time, but then you think, I'll kill someone.
WG: Are you still being recognised now that you're off the show?
NW: They don't accept that I've actually left. They say, "Your husband is really missing you. When are you going back?" All that kind of stuff, and I go, "I've left the show." And she's "Yeah, yeah, but when are you really coming back?" People really do invest in this show and love the characters. People also love to hate my character. One of the biggest compliments I ever got was when a woman said, "My husband throws things at the screen when you're on." I thought that's the best thing about my character. She's this really highly irritating woman, but you can't wait until she's on screen because you know she's going to annoy you. Those are the types of characters that I think are really special. They make you laugh, and want to strangle someone. And then you get a storyline when someone's horrible to you, and as much as you despise this character you sympathize with her. That's the beauty of Zainab.