"You’re upset that bloke drained his spuds on you..."Aphrodite Fry is a muralist living in Brighton. You can’t miss her – she’s the girl whose uniform is a paint-spattered orange boiler suit, whether she’s daubing the side of a building or jiving at night in the clubs. More to the point, notes Scotland on Sunday's Lee Randall, you mustn’t miss her, because this engaging segment of Sky Living’s Love Matters season is written by and features Sarah Solemani, the award-winning star of Him & Her and Bad Education. Solemani spins the brief – "write about love" – in a quirky direction. Ostensibly, it's about a woman who has an unfortunate experience with an ejaculation. She decides to get her own back on an unsuspecting estate agent, Bobby, and it's a story about love, comedy and sex. "The starting point was a friend of mine," Solemani explains. "She’d just broken up with someone and was feeling really shit. We were like, 'Get back on the horse! Go out. Have fun.' She did. And she called me the next day, crying." She faux-sobs: " 'I went out with this guy and he came on me and then he left!' I thought it was the most horrendous story I’d ever heard, and also one of the funniest."
Solemani was doing a play and retold that story [during rehearsals]. "All the actresses said, 'That is hideous. How degrading,'" she says. "And I saw a few of the actors being, like, 'Ahem' and I went, 'Oh my God, you’ve done it!' So it became this gender differentiation, and I wondered if that was because of the physical act of ejaculation." Ah yes. Many years ago, writes Randall, an earnest young man explained to me that sex was "different for girls" because something enters a woman’s body. "I’ve heard that a lot, and don’t like it, because it makes a woman so passive", says Solemani. "A friend writing about maternity told me that the metaphor of the passive woman and the active man, which is carried on in the narrative that the sperm swims and the egg sits still, and the strong sperm penetrates the egg . . . actually, she says, the egg is the selector. It has small suction valves that select the strongest sperm and reject the weaker ones. So we need to rework how we teach women and men these ways of looking at sex."
All this is spoken in a sweetly girlish voice, but Solemani is nothing like the layabout Becky from Him & Her. Instead, she is one smart cookie. The 30-year-old grew up in north London, the eldest daughter of a sociology-teacher mother and mathematician father. When she was 16, her mum Rachel died of ovarian cancer. Solemani was a raucous teenager, heavily invested in Britpop and a regular in the hotel bars, though she told one interviewer she timed her benders so they wouldn’t clash with her school work. That scheduling trick worked a treat: she earned an MA (Hons) in Social and Political Sciences at women's college New Hall, Cambridge, and in 2005 won third place in the New Statesman’s prize for New Political Writing, for her essay "Do women’s rights remain the privilege of the developed world?" As a teen she was also part of the National Youth Theatre. Her first gig was playing Elaine in the West End revival of The Graduate. At university she wrote and performed with The Footlights, where she became vice president and where she was "always, always the only girl" – so was never going to be content to just act in stories written by funny men. In time she came to the Fringe to perform in a double act with her writing partner, Thick Of It actress Olivia Poulet.
Now 30, she has been firing off sparky scripts for a decade. And at last, thanks to the hunt for a Lena Dunham of London, producers are taking notice. "Before Girls being a woman was niche. It was like we were writing about some indigenous peoples in Outer Mongolia", says Solemani. "They'd say, 'Oh, we've already got a female-skewed thing, so…' I got an email once saying 'I know I asked for female but this seems a bit too female.' Lena Dunham was allowed to write what she knew. It proves that once you let the voice breathe, you're in a different territory."
Aphrodite Fry is the first of Solemani's scripts to make it to the screen. She stars as the eponymous heroine, a daydreamer who seeks happiness in one-night stands. It's a modern seaside fairytale with plenty of spunk – in every sense. "I think I'm probably a bit of a smutty person", says Solemani. "But hopefully there's a broader, nicer, more interesting narrative about not aping your oppressors and being true to yourself." There is quite a lot of nudity, too. Does stripping off on screen bother her? "Obviously not", she snorts. Her film debut was playing a nude chorus girl in Mrs Henderson Presents while still at university. She was studying for her finals at the time and spent a term getting up early to remove her body hair and reading feminist tracts between takes. People are fascinated by the nudity, she says. "They always play it at Christmas and I get these texts saying, 'I’m with my entire family watching you completely naked, Merry Christmas!'" she giggles, admitting that it was "weird" to be writing political essays one day, and standing next to Judi Dench on stage – nude – the next.
"So much sexuality that we see is this aggressive, forced, tits and teeth. Why should that own the naked form?" she asks. That said, working with a female director – Vanessa Caswill – on Aphrodite made shedding her clothes easier. "There was no way I could have done that with a man. I didn't want their desire or their objectification of me to be an issue." Unsurprisingly, it is not hard to see the feminist message at the heart of Aphrodite Fry; addressing that, in her flatmate Toe's words, men can "cum and go" much more readily than women. "I think that because I am feminist my work is going to subliminally have that kind of content to it, but it's not an overt feminist piece," she reasons. "It's taking stereotypes about sex: we're told that men are these hunters, and these sexual predators, and we as women have to protect ourselves and not give it up too easily and all that, but what Aphrodite hopefully does is break down those archetypes. So you have the character (Bobby) who can't act like that, and Aphrodite who can't act like the typical female, so hopefully - well, I think feminism is about men and women, not giving them roles to play, but allowing them to be individuals and connect with their human-ness. So yes, I think there is a feminist message of sorts, but I hope it's a lot more subliminal than in your face!"
Things cannot get much more in your face than with a final scene of non-sexual nude bonding between Aphrodite and Bobby. It’s a sweet moment where Aphrodite realises that not all men are sexually selfish. "Yeah, um, because the script is about the perception of sex, I honestly just had my writer hat on, and I wrote: 'She takes off her clothes, not in a sexual way, but as an olive branch. And he takes his clothes off. And they stand, and then they run naked, like John and Yoko, free, into the sea.' Then I came to act it," she hoots, "and was like, 'For fuck’s sake Sarah, what have you done that for?' I could have taken it out and I didn’t, because I feel that it works, and that I was controlling my nudity and making the rules. There’s nothing inherently moral or immoral or degrading or uplifting about nudity. It’s a state. But what is vulnerable-making about it is that the context in which nudity is seen is often not owned by women. In this situation I owned the context. And the other thing is, like Lena Dunham says, 'If you’ve got great tits, just write them in!'"
The scene in question takes place in a surprisingly public place as Solemani found to her acute cost. "There happened to be a concert that was finishing very near to where I was doing it," she cringes. "As I took my bra off I could hear the sound of a thousand men walking towards me and I just carried on because I didn't want to look unprofessional and look round. Then after I was naked, I looked round and there was a whole football pitch worth of people just walking and heading for the beach and security guards were trying to stop them." After subsequently scampering across the stony Brighton beach barefoot and braving first the crowds and then the frigid sea, Solemani was understandably in need of a stiff drink. "When we came to do it and it was fucking freezing and the director had bottle of brandy for me when I came out - which I definitely needed because it was at night in winter!" she laughs. "But yeah, I think it just works for the piece; because I'm controlling it as the writer and it's my context of nudity, I thought 'I don't mind doing it'."
With such traumas in mind, how peculiar is it writing and acting in a piece that someone else is directing? "It’s pretty specific what you want because you’ve written it," she explains. "For Aphrodite Fry I needed someone I trusted, so it was so wonderful that Ruby Films and Sky Living let me pick my director, Vanessa Caswill, who has made fantastic short films but had never done TV before." So might she ever choose writing over performing? "I am an extrovert who likes time on her own, which is a polite way of saying that I am an anti-social show-off," she replies. "I can do lengthy periods of solitude, but then I love breaking that and being on a set, which is really collaborative. Also, writing is so hard. You’re asking for loads of money and people’s time, and if it’s not good enough you feel like an idiot. Whereas with acting, it’s also very hard but you’re helped a lot by the director, lighting and so on. There’s nowhere to hide when you’re a writer. So I do like both."
Surprisingly, Solemani has only just learned to appreciate her worth. "I used to be so terrified and embarrassed and hate everything I ever made. I would never watch it and never invite anyone to see it. But I am really proud of Aphrodite Fry. Watch it. And let me write some more. I’ve got this energy for making things, and being given the opportunity is such a lucky position. I’m grateful, but I’m also ready." Ultimately, she continues, "people should watch if they enjoy good comedy with a strong story running through and strong female characters who get up to lots of sexual mischief and who are very liberated and want to know what happens next!"
Television Series: Love Matters: Aphrodite Fry
Release Date: April 2013
Actress: Sarah Solemani
Video Clip Credit: Wimsey, Fango
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