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The Undeclared War | Interview with Hannah Khalique-Brown (Saara Parvin)

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Tell us Saara’s story in The Undeclared War

HKB: The Undeclared War finds Saara when she’s a computer science student at Imperial College London, and she’s just finished her second year when she takes a placement at GCHQ. She joins their malware department for a year – like work experience – and on her first day, a lot of crazy things happen, and she finds herself working on combatting a cyber-attack on the UK. And that’s her first induction into life at GCHQ! From there – the situation escalates, and she’s found in loads of different situations where she has to make tough decisions and take on a lot of personal responsibility.

There’s lots of different worlds that Saara jumps through. She has her world at GCHQ, working in the malware department as a government hacker, and she has her world with James (Played by Edward Holcroft) her partner – in their flat in Cheltenham, and she has her world at home – with her family. She navigates all these different worlds whilst she’s got all the responsibility of combatting a global cyberattack.

Can you explain Codeworld?

HKB: Saara does have another world – Codeworld – that she inhabits in the story, and Codeworld is something that Peter Kosminsky (creator, director, and EP) invented as a way to create a visual representation of what it’s like when Saara’s working on her coding. Saara’s a hacker – she does reverse engineering in code.

The way that she thinks about things is really specific, and she has an interesting way of approaching her coding work – and Peter has formulated this visual representation of her brain: it’s like a surreal landscape that she goes into while she’s working. It’s basically the problem solving and puzzle cracking that she’s doing in code brought to life physically – those are some of the most fun scenes to shoot.

We had a day where we were shooting in Barry Island – and Saara’s coming out of the sea and walking up the beach – looking at a load of beach huts, and there’s a padlock on one of them. She’s wearing a toolbelt – which is part of the Codeworld – and she has various things like a crowbar, wire-cutters – all of which represent things she can do with the code to crack it. And in the scene, she crowbars off the padlock – and that leads into a completely different environment: she steps into a gymnasium where she calls in a keyboard to type a code, which opens a door to get to another room.

It’s completely crazy and surreal – but that’s how it works for Saara, when she’s typing away on her computer that’s what’s going on in her brain.

What attracted you to role?

HKB – When I first got the email through from my agent with the role breakdown and the first audition materials – I was just instantly in love with Saara. She is the most incredible, intelligent, passionate, driven, ambitious, wonderful character. And then on top of that, when you see Peter Kosminsky’s name on your audition email you’re thinking “oh my goodness!” – this is one of the most incredible figures in this industry.

I know his work is amazing and he’s the kind of director a lot of actors dream of working with, so instantly I was really drawn to the character and to the team behind the show. And then I was given the first episode early on in the audition process, which was wonderful, and the writing and storytelling was so incredible – every single character in that script is written as a fully-fledged human being. Even characters who have one line – you can tell they have their own backstory and their own history, and it just creates this incredibly complex world.

So, I think a mixture of all these things – and also to have a lead female who is brown, who is Asian, that was really amazing to me to see a South Asian woman leading a story. That’s huge.

The Undeclared War couldn’t be more topical – what themes resonate particularly for you?

HKB: Obviously there are the wider themes of cyber warfare and the political administration, but some of the things that resonated most for me were about the character – the drive and ambition that a young woman like Saara has.

She’s technically facing a lot of barriers in being a woman, in being a South Asian woman, and yet she has this unbeatable drive to go after what she wants – and she’s incredibly clever. It’s amazing for me to see someone like her go for what she wants despite those barriers – the theme of ambitious young women going after what they want and saying “whatever” to the things which get in their way.

It’s not always the best thing to do and sometimes we find Saara in places where she hasn’t quite thought about what she’s doing – but that drive, and ambition is an amazing message for a lot of young women to have. In the tech world but also in my line of work, the theme of going for it and knowing your worth really resonated for me.

What is it about The Undeclared War that will get audiences hooked?

HBK – There’s a few things – definitely the plot twists, there’s a lot of twists and turns – you don’t really know what to believe at some points and nothing is what it seems in this story, so definitely the twists and the cliff hangers will get people hooked.

Also, the relationships – there’s some really unexpected relationships, some really beautiful relationships and some really heart-breaking relationships I think the audience will really get stuck on those. Audiences will also love how multifaceted all of the characters are – from the smaller parts to the bigger roles, everyone’s really a fully-fledged character we can all root for.

What have you learnt about cyber warfare and intelligence through filming this?

HKB – Working on The Undeclared War, I’ve learnt a lot of things that I didn’t know before. One thing that I’ve learned is that this spy world, the world of GCHQ, is a whole other reality to the one that most people walking around day to day are aware of. I certainly didn’t realise how much goes on that we don’t know about, and we don’t hear about, and it’s just another world. You could say it’s even more real than the one we exist in – there are all these secret, shadowy things going on – wars that are avoided, threats and attacks which happen and never reach the light of day for most of us.

I’ve definitely learned that our reality is not the full picture – day to day. I’ve also learned how to code in my research for the role, JavaScript, and C++, both Peter and I thought it was really important – given Saara is a genius – that I at least dip my toes in! And I really really enjoyed that – I never thought I was the kind of person that could do that but turns out – anyone can code, you just need to learn and practise, and it was actually really fun.

How would you describe The Undeclared War in a few words?

HKB: Complex. Terrifyingly possible. Every character is really complicated – Saara is a really complicated woman and it’s wonderful to see a female, South Asian character written to be so complex and human. Terrifyingly possible because Peter is known for his meticulous research and with this piece it’s second to none – and everything that happens in this story either could happen or has. And a lot of that makes it quite terrifying!

What will surprise audiences about this show?

HKB: I think how entertaining it can be despite quite serious subject matter – it’s a serious drama, there are serious things happening, but at the same time there’s some really beautiful moments – there’s a lot of heartbreak but there’s also joy and celebration. We have people like the amazing Simon Pegg on the cast, so they all bring a lot of love and joy to the story.

What’s it been like working with Peter?

HKB: Amazing – it’s a really specific experience because he has such a specific way of working. He’s incredibly detailed and a lot of the actors that I’ve worked with on this have said he’s really an actor’s director – he’s so invested in the performance – and some of the takes that we do are quite long, multiple pages of dialogue – but working with Peter is amazing because he’s the most supportive director. An absolute wizard. The atmosphere he creates on set is so focussed and calm, it brings out the best in us.

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