Sair Khan always wanted to be an actress.
Growing up as part of a large Asian family in Leeds, a young Khan was in no doubt as to where her future lay – on stage, in front of the camera, it didn’t matter. She just wanted to act.
“I am from a family of seven and all my brothers and sister are still in Leeds, I am the only one to fly the nest,” says the 27-year-old, who last year landed the role of Alya Nasir in Coronation Street, daughter of the soap’s first Muslim family. “I wanted to act from being a little girl. I did acting at school and often got the lead role in the school plays. We did some amazing shows. My family was very supportive of me, although I don’t think they thought I would make a career out of it.”
Like many fledgling actors, Khan’s big turning point came when she joined the National Youth Theatre at the age of 17. The theatre is known as a bit of a breeding ground for famous names with the likes of Sir Daniel Day-Lewis, Dame Helen Mirren, Daniel Craig and Sir Ben Kingsley having all passed through its doors.
“It took me out of Leeds for the first time, really,” she explains. “I went to London and was working with actors around the country. It was amazing. I made some great friends, in fact the people I live with now are some of the people I met while with the National Youth Theatre.”
For a while Sair combined education with her first love, studying for her A-levels during term-time and travelling with the National Youth Theatre in the summer holidays. After finishing her exams, rather than heading straight for drama school, she took a gap year and went travelling, working her way around South America, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand and Malaysia before spending three months in New York studying at The Barrow Group School of Acting.
I knew something would happen. I didn’t have a back-up plan if it didn’t work out.
On her return to the UK she moved to London. While opportunities for actors are greater in the capital, getting noticed among hundreds of other aspiring stars is notoriously difficult. At least it should be. Khan, however, got an agent and before anyone knew it had landed roles in a number of theatre productions, including plays at the Soho Theatre, Theatre 503 and Park Theatre. There was also a guest appearance on BBC’s Doctors.
It might seem seamless, but Khan’s a realist and she was more than aware that there can be long periods of resting in between roles and while waiting for that big break, which for many may never come. “I am not afraid of hard work and I had bills to pay and so I did a number of different jobs while going for auditions.”
But she never gave up hope of fulfilling her dream. “I think I always knew something would happen,” says Khan. “I didn’t have a back-up plan if it didn’t work out.”
It was while working as a receptionist for a London firm that she got a call from her agent saying she had got an audition for a part in Coronation Street.
“I had been for two auditions before I got the call to say I had landed the role. It was such a surprise. I was convinced I hadn’t got it because I didn’t hear until late in the day.”
Khan joined Coronation Street last June and plays the role of graduate Alya, daughter of Khalid ‘Kal’ Nasir, played by Jimi Mistry. Although much was made of her being part of Coronation Street’s first Muslim family, Khan, who was nominated for the Best Newcomer Award in The National Television Awards 2015, prefers not to talk about the politics of the move and insists it is more about the characters.
“It is good that soaps are reflective of society, but the most important thing is the characters and what happens to them rather than their religion.”
Khan doesn’t like to talk too much about her family or her religion, her parents moved to Leeds from Pakistan, but she says they are fully supportive of her job.
“Getting the part in Coronation Street is a dream job. I am a northern girl and I have been a fan of the show ever since I was a child. It really is so perfect. Mine are a close-knit family and they are all so proud of me. I have never really been in anything mainstream before and so they always thought of acting as my hobby. Being in Coronation Street is prime time television. It’s something they can relate to and they are thrilled. I love playing Alya and have been blessed with some really exciting storylines.”
Coronation Street is often referred to as one big family and Khan says this is no cliché, especially in recent times with the death of Anne Kirkbride aged 60, who had played Deirdre Barlow since 1972.
“When I joined the cast people said Coronation Street was like a big family and I didn’t know whether that was the truth or not. But when Anne died everyone really supported each other, like a family does.”
Khan lives in London and stays with friends in Manchester when filming. Last month she was made an ambassador for the British Asian Trust, joining the likes of One Direction’s Zayn Malik, music producer Naughty Boy, actor Sanjeev Bhaskar OBE, actress Nina Wadia and award-winning film director Gurinder Chadha OBE. The British Asian Trust was founded by the Prince of Wales in 2007 and Khan is the Trust’s latest addition to the 30 well-known names who currently champion its work in the areas of anti-trafficking, mental health, education and livelihoods.
“I was delighted and honoured to be asked to be an ambassador for the British Asian Trust, the work they do challenges taboo subjects that we must raise awareness of – I want to use my involvement to help engage people, drive them to acknowledge and take action against issues such as trafficking,” says Khan, who recently joined Bollywood actress Rani Mukerji, Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi and the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall at the Trust’s recent launch of the Anti-Trafficking Fund.
The Trust works to empower the disadvantaged across South Asia, helping them to transform their lives. With the help of funders and exceptional local partners the Trust’s aim is to unlock their potential, arming them with skills, resource and most importantly with confidence and a sense of value.
The Trust recently launched its Anti Trafficking Fund after it was found that 65 per cent of its beneficiaries were women or young girls who had been victims. The fund is designed to help survivors to recover from the abuse and trauma of being trafficked, empower young women to rebuild their lives, reintegrate into society and gain new skills to support their futures, and reduce the prevalence of trafficking within the most vulnerable communities.
Speaking at the launch, the Prince of Wales said: “I am extremely proud that my British Asian Trust is making its own contribution to these overall efforts by this year launching its Anti-Trafficking Fund, which I hope will help in a small way to prevent and address violence against women and children.”
It is this part of the Trust where Khan believes she can be of most use.
“I am a young British Asian girl and I am in an ideal position to raise awareness and make the link with Pakistani Asian and South Asian communities,” says Khan. “There are lot of people, possibly of a similar age to me, who just don’t know some of the horrors that are going on, such as human trafficking, in the countries they come from. If I can raise awareness among them then it has been worthwhile.”
As for her acting career Khan she would love to land a role in a period drama.
“I am loving Indian Summers on ITV at the moment, I think Julie Walters is amazing: to have a career like hers would be fantastic.”
• For more information on the British Asian Trust visit http://www.britishasiantrust.org/