What was it like telling Nitin Ganatra – who plays Masood – that you were going to leave?
“It was really quite horrible. He sat in the dressing room and I said “Listen up; I’ve got some news”. Marc Elliott [who played Syed] and myself used to play tricks on people the entire time so, when I went all serious, Nitin was like “This is a joke, right?” ‘I went “No, I’m not going to tell you a joke. I’m leaving.” He went “Very funny, now, come on, we’ve got to go on set”, and I was like “No, Nitin, this is not a joke.” He went very quiet, but then I explained my reasons and he understood. The same goes with Himesh [Patel, who plays Tamwar]. He was particularly upset.”
You had a really tough year last year, didn’t you?
“In January 2012, a dear friend of mine, who was my age, fell very ill. I went through that with her, and she passed away quite soon after. She was one of three people I knew who died last year. It made me realise that life’s very short, and that I have a lot that I still want to do. In a way, it was a bit of an epiphany.”
Did any of the cast help you reach the conclusion to leave, too?
“I think it was Ricky Norwood, who plays Fatboy, who then said to me “You know, you’ve been in EastEnders for a fifth of its life” and that frightened me a bit. Not in a bad way; it just made me think that I’ve created this person that I hope people have liked, and maybe it’s time to go off and do it elsewhere.”
What was the original idea for your character?
“They wanted a Pauline Fowler. I said as long as it’s a Pauline Fowler who has a sense of humour, I’m happy to play her. That’s what I wanted to make very clear; that I wanted her to be funny, and they were happy with that because they’d known me for my comedy work.”
Since then, you’ve had to tackle some difficult storylines, including the arrival of Yusef, Zainab’s abusive ex-husband who manipulated her into remarrying him, despite admitting that he started a fire at their home in Pakistan, in which she nearly died…
“I was in a film years ago, called Flight, about a pregnant woman pursued by a violent man, and we had to research it by going to a women’s refuge. The stories I heard, I haven’t been able to get out of my mind. So, to have to think about all those things again was horrific, and I was very stressed going home.”
Were any of the scenes you had to film particularly tough?
“There was one moment where Yusef had to shove Zainab’s head against a window. Ace [Bhatti, who played Yusef] and I rehearsed it, technically, three or four times but, when we filmed the scene and we both got into character, I popped a rib out. So I got a very slight taste of what it might be like in reality, and it was not pleasant.”
It looks like you’ll be busy after Walford, as Marc Elliott has written a new sitcom with a role for you…
“He’s written a part for me called Bob Hewson. Her real name is Burjinda Hussein but she wants to be this white lesbian detective! Let’s just say that she is very different to Zainab. I can promise you, you will not have seen this character before!”