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Prasanna Puwanarajah: The Edgware Road Actor’s Journey from NHS to TV

Prasanna Puwanarajah tell The Resident about working with Benedict Cumberbatch, romance in Doctor Foster and feeling like a local on Edgware Road

Lead photo courtesy of Sky Atlantic/Showtime for Patrick Melrose

If you’ve been watching TV over the past couple of years, then it’s almost certain you’ve seen Prasanna Puwanarajah. Since 2015, the 36-year-old has had stints on Critical, comedy drama You, Me and the Apocalypse, and BBC One’s smash hit, Doctor Foster.

Then, after a run of Absolute Hell at the National Theatre, the Edgware Road-based actor was back on our screens in one of his biggest projects yet – starring opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in Sky Atlantic’s mini-series Patrick Melrose.

Yet, while acting has been a part of his life since he was 18-years-old and a fresh-faced member of the National Youth Theatre, Puwanarajah actually moved into the industry later than most.

In fact, he started out his career as a doctor. After reading medicine at the University of Oxford, he worked in the NHS for a number of years before taking some time off to write, direct and act.

Prasanna Puwanarajah starring alongside Benedict Cumberbatch

Prasanna Puwanarajah starring alongside Benedict Cumberbatch (Photo by Sky Atlantic/Showtime)

‘There wasn’t really a point when I wanted to switch,’ he explains. ‘I needed to take a break from working in the NHS because I spent two very intense years working straight out of medical school and I needed to take a bit of time away just to catch my breath.’

While, he tells me that he doesn’t see himself returning to the profession, that’s not to say he’s never been called on to use his knowledge. A few years ago he was playing a Greek Orthodox priest at the RSC when an audience member was taken ill and stage management asked if he would go and see her.

‘I needed to take a break from working in the NHS because I spent two very intense years working straight out of medical school’

‘She was fine actually in the end, she was with her family by that time but she saw me and was like, “Oh they’ve sent the priest out”,’ he laughs. ‘She was quite funny about it – she was like, “It’s great service here”.’

In Patrick Melrose, based on Edward St Aubyn’s series of books, Puwanarajah played Johnny Hall, Melrose’s best friend, as both go through periods of drug use and recovery over the three decades that the series charts.

Prasanna Puwanarajah

Prasanna Puwanarajah (photo: Helen Murray for Patrick Melrose)

Conveying the relationship between the pair obviously called for him to work very closely with Cumberbatch, of whom he says: ‘He’s a lovely guy and a brilliant artist’.

‘He’s collaborative and he’s a guy that does his homework. He reaches so deeply into the needs of the role and comes up with incredibly rich and detailed choices in this show. We had a great time working on it together.’

Puwanarajah also made waves in Doctor Foster, where he played James, the new romantic interest to Suranne Jones’ Doctor Foster. And, due to the nature of the show, fans everywhere seemed convinced there was more to his character than met the eye.

‘Cumberbatch is a brilliant artist. He’s collaborative and he’s a guy that does his homework. He reaches so deeply into the needs of the role and comes up with incredibly rich and detailed choices’

‘They assumed there was something sinister about him, which I had never really thought to play or bring out because, in my view, he was just a person who was potentially at the start of a new relationship,’ he smiles.

‘The minute it was gone, a lot of people want to know what’s going to happen next and then the next thing they’re saying is, “Don’t tell me, don’t tell me”,’ he laughs. ‘And some of the theories that people put out there were a fun kind of weathervane of how much people had connected with it.’

Outside of the small screen, Puwanarajah has lived near Edgware Road for the past 10 years, a spot he feels pretty local to now. ‘I love it, it’s great, it’s the community,’ he smiles. ‘I’ve got lovely neighbours. It’s a part of London that I think changes quite slowly, which I like.’

He loves to run in Regent’s Park when he has the chance, enjoy the blossom trees and hunt for secret pubs, which he says are there in abundance.

‘They’re secret and quite local in that it doesn’t feel like they’re on Instagram,’ he explains. ‘It doesn’t feel like people travel across London to go to them. They feel like local places,; friendly and lively and gentle and familiar. There’s a sort of vibe there that feels quite mixed as a place, but also quite real and honest.’

Speaking of mixed, real and honest, a few days before we spoke, he had written a piece in GQ Magazine discussing being typecast and his hope for more diverse stories to be told in theatres and on screen.

‘I think we all have a responsibility to tell the minority stories that ask questions about what’s outside the mainstream’

‘Writing is really complicated because you can’t have lived every life so you are at one level either writing your own experience or reaching for one that is alien,’ he says. ‘But at this point, the stories that I’m interested in are the ones I’m not seeing.

‘At this present moment, and I hope this does change, it happens to be stories that relate to me in some way, or things that I haven’t seen because they never reminded me of me.’

As a writer and director, alongside an actor, I wonder if he feels any responsibility to be the one telling these stories?

‘It’s not so much a responsibility,’ he says. ‘I think we all have a responsibility to tell the minority stories that ask questions about what’s outside the mainstream – that’s the responsibility of anyone who is trying to tell the story of a complex world.’

Follow Prasanna Puwanarajah on Twitter @PrasannaBanana



 

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