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Laila Zaidi: “This is who I am and I don't have to prove that to you”
The actress on standing out, race in acting and being a beautiful mess
Hi, welcome back to Mixed Messages! This week I’m speaking to Ackley Bridge actress Laila Zaidi, who is of Pakistani, English and Welsh heritage. Laila’s stories of drama school auditions and castings shine a light on how mixed actors are treated in the industry, and show a lack of understanding of what it means to be mixed. Read her story below.
How do you define your racial identity?
My dad’s from Karachi in Pakistan, and my mum is English and Welsh. Growing up, I’d always refer to myself as mixed-race.
Has your sense of self shifted over time?
My school was in the heart of Newcastle. There weren’t very many South Asian kids and no South Asian teachers, no brown people of any kind. When I was six or seven, a little girl said to me ‘I can't play with you because my dad said I can't talk to people with skin the colour of poo.’ Then I’ve been told I don’t have a Pakistani-looking skin-tone and that I have an English-looking face. All of that is so confusing to me and something that I'm working through.
All my friends were white, and as a young woman, all you want to do is slot into that culture. I’d wear fake tan to fit in, even though I didn’t need it. I’m really sick of feeling like I have to fight to prove who I am. The older I'm getting, the more I'm realising that it's okay for me to say that enough is enough, this is who I am and I don't have to prove that to you. I’m proud of my difference – it’s my power.
How has that affected you as an actress?
I have a vivid memory of going to my drama school audition and a staff member asked me about my background. I said ‘I’m mixed-race,’ and this white British man interrupted me and said ‘I think you mean dual-heritage, you can’t say that.’ I was young, nervous and wanted to get in, so I found myself apologising to him telling me how to refer to myself. I wish I could sit my younger self down and be like, ‘be confident, don’t let anybody tell you how you can talk about yourself.’
I trained in musical theatre, and there were next to zero roles for Pakistani people in musicals. I was told to pretend I was Spanish and to never admit I was Pakistani, because I’m ‘ethnically ambiguous’ and could play more roles. I thought maybe I’d get in because of that tick box and use it to my advantage, but I’ve been told I’m too white for brown roles, too brown for white roles.
I booked Bend It Like Beckham in 2019, which was life-changing for me. I played Jess, and finally I was with people that looked like me and sounded like my dad. The woman playing my mum was exactly like me, with a dad from Karachi. That was when I realised that this is what makes me unique, and I don’t want to pretend. That made me want to sit down with my dad and ask for more stories, not mute my family’s heritage. I wanted to go to Pakistan, I wanted to travel around India and meet all my relatives, and I guess I’d always been scared to admit that.
I always feel like when people say they’re looking for someone ‘mixed-race,’ they mean someone who’s mixed-Black and white. Have you found that in castings?
I’ve seen that – at first glance, I go ‘I’ll audition for that, that could be me,’ but then 90% of the time they’ll cast someone mixed-Black and white. I’d like to see that language be more specific, because there’s more than one way to be mixed – it’s so general, that could literally be anything.
In one of my first TV castings, the casting director said to me ‘are you sure you’re mixed-race? Because you just look like a white girl who's wearing shitloads of fake tan.’ I ran to my dad crying my eyes out afterwards. I didn’t tell my agent because I didn’t want to come across as difficult or be seen as the problem – now I wish I’d spoken out about it.
Did you have any concerns going into Ackley Bridge?
I had a moment of wondering whether my character Asma should be mixed-race, and got nervous in case there was backlash. But the team took so much care to ask what I thought of her story and journey, and told me I deserved to tell it. I guess her story is that there is really no one way to be any religion – you can be a devout Muslim and still have battles. There's no one way of being anything.
I'm so glad that we can remove those strict binaries, and know that two things can exist at one time and that’s okay. As somebody who is in the middle of two powerful heritages, you can see that these things can exist at once, and I can be the product of that. A beautiful mess is the way I put it.
What’s one of the best things about being mixed-race?
I have more positive than negative things to say. It makes me authentically me, and there is nobody like me. I couldn’t be more proud of both sides. I want to keep learning about them, and I want people to keep asking me questions. I want to tie that into my career and be telling these stories. I'm really proud of the journey I'm on, which is never ending.
Can you sum up your mixed experience in a word?
All episodes of Ackley Bridge are available to watch on All4. Next week I’ll be talking to Sharon Gaffka, former Love Island contestant and founder of The Politically Incorrect. Subscribe to get Mixed Messages in your inbox on Monday to find out.
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Mixed Messages is a weekly exploration of the mixed-race experience, from me, Isabella Silvers. My mom is Punjabi (by way of East Africa) and my dad is white British, but finding my place between these two cultures hasn’t always been easy. That’s why I started Mixed Messages, where each week I’ll speak to a prominent mixed voice to delve into what it really feels like to be mixed.