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Hard work is paying off for Walsall-born actress

From playing the lead role in a highly-acclaimed theatre production to starring in hit television comedy Ted Lasso, Karen Johal is proving that hard work pays off.

Karen in The Who and the What Photo: Stefan Koch.
Karen in The Who and the What Photo: Stefan Koch.

The past year has been a bit of whirlwind for the Walsall-born actress who can also be seen in episodes of BBC iPlayer's coming of age drama Phoenix Rise.

But Karen says she wouldn't have it any other way and is delighted to be reaping the benefits of years of dedication to her craft.

"This is what I've been working for. I remember a time during the pandemic when everything was shut down so it's fantastic to be as busy as I am at the moment," she tells Weekend.

The 32-year-old former Perry Beeches school pupil, moved to New York to study at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, located in the heart of Manhattan, in 2014.

Since graduating Karen has worked extensively in theatre, film and television both in the US and UK, securing many lead roles.

This has included performing in Julius Caesar at The Public, Journey to America at Carnegie Hall and Camel written by Charly Clive.

Karen in Journey to America at Carnegie Hall

More recently, Karen has played the lead role in a production of the Tony Award winning play Blackbird in 2021. Her performance as Una was praised by critics, calling her “A rising star”. She later starred in a production of Duncan MacMillan’s People, Places & Things and Sky Comedy’s Mismatch at The Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

Karen is currently performing in Germany in The Who and the What, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar, at The English Theatre of Hamburg.

Karen plays the lead character, Zarina, a young Muslim woman, and aspiring novelist, who finds herself grappling with the complexities of love, religion, and cultural identity.

"She's the eldest of three sisters, a writer a Harvard graduate. She's very strong, intelligent and rebellious and she's questioning a lot of the culture she grew up in," she tells Weekend.

"The play is based on The Taming Of The Shrew but set in 2014 with a Pakistani-American family. It's essentially a comedy but it shoehorns in a lot of important issues about culture, women's right and what we know about religion and tradition."

It's a play that was already familiar to Karen, who performs in eight shows a week, before she auditioned for the role of Zarina.

"When I was at drama school, I picked a scene from this play to do for my showcase when I was graduating. I was trying to find something that showed off my skills as a South Asian British actor. I ended up performing the same scene I had performed at drama school in my audition.

"I'm the same age as the character now, I was too young in drama school, so it feels strangely serendipitous to revisit this play now," she tells Weekend.

The play has received rave reviews and its two-month run at the theatre, which was founded in 1976 by Americans Robert Rumpf and Clifford Dean, will end on June 3.

"It's been going really well. We've getting really good audiences and a really good response, which is nice, as for a lot of them, English isn't their first language."

Karen was also cast as Nicole Shelley in the third season of Apple TV+'s sports comedy drama Ted Lasso, which has recently aired. The show follows Ted Lasso, an American college football coach who is hired to coach an English football team,AFC Richmond, despite having no previous experience of the beautiful game.

Karen can also be seen in Ted Lasso and Phoenix Rise

Lawyer Nicole is the sister of regular character Nathan "Nate" Shelley, coaches West Ham United FC, having previously worked as a kit man and assistant coach for AFC Richmond.

"I had just finished watching the first and second seasons of the show when I got a call from my agent about the audition. The timing was really strange. I didn't think I was going to get it but a couple of weeks later I found out I had, it was really exciting," says Karen.

Filming took place in London in June last year. "I got to meet executive producer Jason Sudeikis on set and Nick Mohammed who plays Nate Shelley. It was a brilliant time."

BBC iPlayer viewers may also have seen Karen appearing as Noreen Khan in coming-of-age drama Phoenix Rise.

Set and filmed in Coventry, it follows the stories of six students who form an unbreakable bond as they navigate the trials and tribulations of school life in the Midlands.

The first series, consisting of 10 episodes, was released earlier this year with the second series to follow in the coming months.

Karen hasn't watched the episodes yet due to being in Germany but it looking forward to catching up when she gets home.

"I can't access iPlayer in Germany so I haven't seen anything but it seems to be doing really well. I had people back home message me to tell me they are watching me on TV," she tells Weekend.

After The Who and The What finishes its run next month, Karen will return home to Midlands before jetting off to the US, where A Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike is ongoing.

Members walked out for the first time in 15 years at the beginning of May and its expected that forthcoming shows and films could face delays.

"My hopes for the future would be to do more television and film going forward. I’m planning on going back to New York later this year to see what the industry looks like there post-pandemic.

"I also sincerely hope the WGA strike comes to a satisfying end for everyone. There’s so much good television and the writers are a big part of the reason for that so, when they are having to fight for equal pay and fair treatment, it affects everyone," says Karen.

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