ritu arya
Image: Associated Press/Alamy

Ritu Arya on Barbie, Polite Society and embracing challenge

03 May 2023|By Adam Davidson

The British actress on choosing acting over astrophysics and why soaps are a right of passage

If you don’t yet know the name Ritu Arya, you soon will. The Surrey-born actress has been on quite the trajectory over the last few years, securing roles that have catapulted her from BBC daytime soap Doctors to big-budget Netflix productions The Umbrella Academy and Red Notice, alongside Dwayne Johnson, Gal Gadot and Ryan Reynolds. Oh, and following her starring role in the critically-acclaimed Polite Society this spring, she’s going to be in a small movie called Barbie. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

Her role in the latter, as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barbie, is, in some ways, art imitating life. The path to Hollywood stardom, you see, wasn’t always cut and dry for Arya. Unlike other A-listers, who may also have harboured passions for musical careers or dreamt of being a ballerina, Arya’s other great love in life is academia – and specifically physics.

“I genuinely thought I would go into acting as a career, if things went well, but I wanted to keep learning,” she explains. “I have a huge interest in space and physics and why things are the way they are. At uni I was doing a lot of plays, I was going to Edinburgh Fringe and I was part of the comedy society and writing sketches. So it never felt like I didn’t have that creative outlet.”

It was while finishing her undergraduate degree in astrophysics at the University of Southampton, however, that acting finally won out. “It was hard in the last term because I was really ready to go and do some acting and be on my feet, not in a lab, but I’m so glad I did it! I did this really challenging thing and it makes me think, ‘Cool, what other things am I capable of doing?’”

After graduating, Arya went on to study at the Oxford School of Drama, before landing her first major role as Dr. Megan Sharma on Doctors, for which she was nominated for a British Soap Award and which she describes as a “right of passage”.

ritu arya polite society
Arya in Polite Society

“It was such a good training route and I had a really great time,” she says of her four years on Doctors. “The cast were so welcoming and lovely that it just felt like a job [where I could] keep learning my craft. They have so many scenes that they film in one day; in terms of learning lines, that was really hard.”

After leaving Doctors in 2017, small parts in Doctor Who, The Stranger and Last Christmas followed, before, in 2021, Netflix came calling, giving Arya her big break as fan favourite Lila Pitts in superhero series The Umbrella Academy. Not that she’ll be drawn into playing favourites when it comes to her on-screen personas.

“I think it’s an impossible question because each has served such a purpose for me in my own personal growth and acting,” she says. “Everything has felt important to me, even ones that I’ve not enjoyed as much as others, or [found] far more challenging than others. In fact, probably those ones even more so.

“The people you meet or the location that you’re filming in, it all adds to it because you spend so much time outside of the filming part when you’re on the job. What we all get to see is [just] this snippet of the character.”

ritu arya polite society
Image: Parisa Taghizadeh/Focus Features

This spring sees Arya star as Lena in Nida Manzoor’s Polite Society. The movie follows aspiring stuntwoman Ria Khan [Priya Kansara] as she attempts to pull off an ambitious wedding heist in order to save her older sister Lena from her impending marriage. For Arya, it was the draw of both the surreal action-comedy script and the prospect of reuniting with writer-director Nida Manzoor that sealed the deal.

“I love Nida. I’ve worked with her a couple of times [and] was expecting the script to be in her tone, and it was. It bends genres and it was funny and unique.”

“She’s such an amazing person. Just a positive beam of light and I fell in love with her as soon as I met her,” adds Arya of her co-star Kansara, a newcomer who makes her film debut in Polite Society – an inspired, if risky, choice. “We had a really fun time on set. It feels like we’re sisters. It was such a blessing to get to work with each other and have this relationship now.”

Following in the vein of Manzoor’s previous projects, which include highly-acclaimed Channel 4 series We Are Lady Parts, Polite Society is an unmistakably British movie that also celebrates South Asian culture and is threaded through with Bollywood influence.

“It feels really special to get to be part of it,” says Arya of the opportunity to explore her Indian heritage on screen. “I wish and I hope that there'll be more from this because why not? It's such a rich culture. [But it’s also] so universal that it feels like this movie is for everyone. I'm just super proud and can't wait for people to see it.”

But, of course, the film guaranteed to cement Arya’s name in lights is undoubtedly Greta Gerwig’s hotly-anticipated Barbie. It’s fair to say the movie, led by Margot Robbie with an impressive ensemble cast including Ryan Gosling, Issa Rae, Simu Liu, Helen Mirren, Will Ferrell and many, many more, has very much captured the public imagination. One needs only look at the fan girl-ing that followed its recent trailer release and the tidal wave of memes that were a result of its social media poster campaign to know that this is a ready-made hit.

But what is it really like to be on set with woman-of-the-moment Margot Robbie? “She was amazing, a dream come true. I think she's so lovely and the atmosphere on set was incredible. That's kudos to her and Greta for creating this really encouraging and playful environment where everyone just felt like they were having fun.”

Polite Society is in cinemas now.

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