EXCLUSIVE: Hannah Khalique-Brown, the lead actor in writer-director Peter Kosminsky’s (Wolf Hall) six-part cyber-thriller The Undeclared War, — which starts June 30 on Channel 4 and All 4 in UK, Peacock in U.S. on August 18 — tells Deadline that she wrote 1,000 emails over a period of two years “begging“ UK agents and casting directors to see her perform in fringe plays, and “none of them replied.”
“Though, I would occasionally get an automated reply” that still read no, said Khalique-Brown, who has been garnering attention from studios in London and Hollywood.
The 23-year-old said she spent hours studying talent and casting agency websites. “I emailed 180 of them, three times a year, for two years. I wouldn’t blanket email them either. They were all individual emails. I would go on their roster and look at who they represented and I would write that I think I would really fit in.“
However, if they already had Asian actors “who looked like me, then I wouldn’t email them,” she explained.
Her plight highlights the difficulties would-be actors from diverse backgrounds have in getting a foothold in the industry, certainly in the UK.
Khalique-Brown’s sanguine about it now. “I understand a lot more about how the industry works,” she said. “I can understand why nobody got back to me because they probably didn’t even see it in their inbox. If you didn’t have a headshot or showreel attached, they have nothing to go on.”
Also, she didn’t attend drama school. Most drama colleges have a tried-and-tested method whereby agents are invited to attend end-of-year showcases to check out the new talent. However, drama school wasn’t an option she favored, having opted instead to read English Literature at King’s College in central London.
But she had backup plans of her own. In August 2019, Khalique-Brown auditioned for, and won, a spot to perform a monologue at a showcase for BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) actors. “That was the acronym that was being used at the time,” she explained. It since has gone out of favor.
The showcase at the Southwark Playhouse Theatre in Southwark, south London, was run by Suraj Shah and was attended by agents and casting professionals. “From that I got three agent offers. I was like: ‘Finally! I’ve been emailing all of you for, like, two years.’ I just knew that once they saw me that would be the chance.”
Within days she had signed on with Fiona Keddie-Ord of London-based Keddie Scott Associates.
Hollywood’s Affirmative Entertainment manages Khalique-Brown.
“It’s a hard industry to get into for anyone,” said Khalique-Brown, who noted that neither her parents — her father is a retired NHS surgeon, her mother is a barrister — nor she had connections to the entertainment industry.
“To get an agent was my biggest task,” she said. “It was only through this showcase for ethnic actors that I got a chance to be seen. I stood on their shoulders, and they helped me.”
And it was through a self-tape sent by her agent to Andy Brierley and Victor Jenkins of London’s The Casting Office that she was seen as a prime candidate to play the lead character in The Undeclared War. The part of Saara Parvan — a 21-year-old university-trained genius hacker who does an internship in the malware section of Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), a top-secret UK intelligence gathering facility — would be a game-changer for the young actor. The drama’s a compelling one with echoes of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, though it’s set in London and the Home Counties. Moscow and Washington make frequent appearances.
One hundred candidates auditioned for the role, Kosminsky told Deadline. “All at the start of their careers — given that Saara is 21 in 2024, when the show is set.
“It’s difficult to find someone that age, necessarily inexperienced, who can carry a TV series as lead,” though he pointed out that it’s a dilemma he’s faced on previous programs; think of Claire Foy, who was relatively unknown when the filmmaker cast her in The Promise in 2010.
Two months after sending in her first self-tape, Khalique-Brown said she was asked to record another one. This time she was armed with notes from Kosminsky, “which was amazing,” she said.
“He gave me a document with a few pages of background about Saara, about her childhood, about her character, her personality, about her wants and her needs,” Khalique-Brown told Deadline. “Obviously, it’s gold dust to an actor, and with the way I work, building a life separate to my own, made it very satisfying to receive that.”
She was then asked to do a 30-minute Zoom recall that stretched to about an hour and a half in which Brierley read the other characters while Kosminsky observed them.
Khalique-Brown was unaware that she had emerged as the front-runner, said Colin Callender, founder and chairman of Playground Entertainment, a frequent collaborator of Kosminsky’s who partnered with him again — along with Channel 4 and Peacock — on The Undeclared War.
The problem was that, at this point, they hadn’t met her. “This was in the middle of Covid, and Peter wanted to hold off until we could meet her in person,” Callender recalled. “It was clear that she’s got that star quality.
Months went by. Khalique-Brown played some episodes of BBC soap Doctors. Then, practically a year after sending in her first audition tape, she was asked to prepare several scenes for an in-person meeting with Kosminsky and the casting directors. “I refused to call it an audition because I’m quite ruthless with my mindset around auditions. I don’t let myself think it’s got anything to do with the result … it just has to be about doing hard work that you’re proud of and sharing it. I call it a workshop. I didn’t tell my parents because they’d get too excited. I was trying to protect my mindset; you have to. It’s a tumultuous industry. If you don’t protect yourself it can wreak havoc.
“I want to do this forever, and I don’t want to get hurt by every rejection — it’s just not sustainable,” she reasoned.
Khalique-Brown left the session happy with “no expectation. I was just grateful for the whole experience.”
The next day she had a different job: one line in director Shekhar Kapur’s film What’s Love Got to Do with It?, from a screenplay by Jemima Khan (American Crime Story). She had read for another, bigger role in the film but didn’t get it.
The casting director Olivia Grant from Lucy Bevan Casting had been impressed by her and gave her one line in a scene with Lily James (Baby Driver).
When she got home that night, she FaceTimed her agent, who was in tears.
Kosminsky had given her the part.
It’s a role that dominates the six episodes of The Undeclared War. For such a part, said Kosminsky in an email response to Deadline, “of course you need a superb actress, someone who can effectively play across a range of scenes and with the large number of other actors [Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance, Alex Jennings, Adrian Lester, Maisie Richardson-Sellers and Tom McKay, to name a few] necessitated by a series like The Undeclared War.”
He continued: “And for a lead, you are looking for something else. One way of describing it would be charisma. Sometimes people say that the camera loves a particular actor. I would say that it’s unquantifiable and you can’t teach it or learn it. And yet some very special actors seem to have it. Hannah is one of those actors.”
Having first seen her in I Know I Know I Know, a play by Flora Wilson Brown that ran at the Southwark Playhouse, I go along with Kosminsky’s assessment of Khalique-Brown’s acting. She’s a compelling young artist. In the 75-minute piece she played a young woman who was being sexually abused by a famous (fictional) rock star.
We chatted in the bar-lobby after the show, and I almost didn’t recognize her. She had the same long dark hair, same complexion, but she looked altogether different. We spoke about her family — she has a brother who’s a musician — her schooling and those 1,000 emails sent to agents and casting directors.
We had another, much longer conversation over Zoom where she shared recollections of performing as a child.
“For as long as I can remember I’ve been a performer of sorts — not in a structured way, but all the time in my life I had this urge to share and to reflect as well,” she said.
As noted earlier, neither parent is an actor, “though both, in different ways, are theatrical people in their character. It’s in our blood,” she said with feeling.
She and her father liked to play-act during car journeys the two of them took when she was younger. “We had … a repertoire of different characters that we’d play. They’d have different names, different voices. You’d sit in that seat in that car and you’re completely in character and you don’t come out of character until you get out of the car at the other end,” she recalled.
Her dad oftenwould play a 5-year-old boy, while one of her favorite parts was that of a 40-year-old woman, and this when she was 5 years old.
She also liked playing a Sloane Ranger-type girl “with a ridiculously posh voice. She was really stuck up. My dad’s from Dartford, proper south-east London”, she said.
Another turn would have her pretending to be an upper-class twit of a gel, conversing with a grown man pretending to be a young boy speaking in an Estuary English accent.
“They were all invented characters,” she said. “I think my training started with my dad in the car. I treasure that.”
One summer, during school break, she went to camp and participated in drama classes. She was given the Greek mask of fear and had to perform a personification of that. Later she performed a solo piece with the fear mask at the end of camp show, attended by parents.
Khalique-Brown learned years later that Mr. Cleland, the acting teacher at camp, had taken her parents aside and told them that they had to let “her follow this” because “she’s a star.”
Khalique-Brown said her parents encouraged her passion to be an actor. “I really do believe … if your parents can make you feel like a star, it’s not because you inherently are, it’s them telling you that makes it happen.”
On her 13th birthday her mother took her to see James McAvoy (His Dark Materials) play Macbeth. She remembers loving McAvoy’s visceral performance. They also saw Swan Lake that day performed at the Royal Albert Hall. She took ballet classes “because it was performative.”
While at King’s College she enrolled with the King’s Players troupe and appeared in performances of playwright Philip Ridley’s 1994 play Ghosts from a Perfect Place. “A lot of people said, ‘What are you doing here? Go and be an actor?’ I considered dropping out at King’s and auditioning for drama school,” she said.
Instead, she remained at college and did fringe theater in her spare time ”at the top of crappy pubs.”
“It’s absolutely insane that my first big job was working with these people; these absolute legends,” she said citing Rylance, Pegg, and Jennings.
Rylance plays a veteran analyst at GCHQ, and he and Saara form an unlikely but beautiful friendship.
”Mark Rylance is an absolute wizard,” Khalique-Brown said. “I don’t know what planet he’s from, but he’s from another world, he’s just incredible.” She went on to laud Pegg for his humor and Jennings for his thespian dexterity.
It’s a mammoth role for Hannah Khalique-Brown in The Undeclared War, and she pulls it off. Yes, Saara’s a genius. She can read code superbly, but she can’t always read people.
It’s a hugely demanding role for her — intense, emotionally demanding work.
As Colin Callender noted, she’s our way into The Undeclared War. “And she’s the real deal.”
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