WHEN The Pitmen Painters was a raging success at the Royal National Theatre, the green room – where actors go to chill out after a show – resounded to the sound of North East accents.
Coming from Newcastle, Nitin Kundra felt quite at home, although he was the odd man out.
While some people assumed he was also starring in Lee Hall’s play, he was actually appearing in another play at the National, Harper Regan by Simon Stephens.
Nitin, who was brought up in Newcastle’s Chapel Park, spent large chunks of 2008 and 2009 at the National Theatre, also appearing in The Black Album, adapted by Hanif Kureishi from his own novel.
For the 30-year-old actor, it was another memorable period in a career that has blossomed, for the most part, far away from his native Tyneside.
It has included roles in various TV drama series, including Steel River Blues, Casualty and Emmerdale, and on the stage – but rarely in the North East.
“The first time I met Max Roberts (artistic director of Newcastle’s Live Theatre, which commissioned The Pitman Painters) was at the National Theatre,” he says.
Yet his very first role, when he was still a pupil at Ponteland High School, earned him a mention in The Journal.
He was one of a pioneering group of pupils who studied for a higher GNVQ performing arts course in 1997 under drama teacher Jacky Warwicker.
Back then Jacky told The Journal that the school agreed to adopt the course – equivalent to two A levels – after pupils interested in drama complained that there wasn’t much on offer for them.
Jacky said the higher GNVQ had galvanised drama teaching. Other schools, she suggested, were watching closely to see if it was a success.
It certainly worked for Nitin. He was cast as Leonardo in a production of Lorca’s Blood Wedding which the pupils took to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1998.
“Before I started doing that course I was fooling around a lot at school, not really knowing what I wanted to do,” says Nitin 13 years on.
“Then that course came along run by Jacky Warwicker. She was a real inspiration at the time. I didn’t know what I wanted to do and she made me audition for it and then we took that show to Edinburgh.
“We had to learn about acting and the financing of a show and put it on ourselves.
“I’d never even lifted a script up before and to do that sort of thing in Edinburgh made me believe this might be something I could possibly do.”
Nitin applied to London drama schools and ended up at Middlesex University doing a three-year drama and theatre studies degree course.
He swears that without that new course at Ponteland High he wouldn’t have got to university, let alone established himself as an actor. “I didn’t do very well in my GCSEs but that course made me get my head down,” he says.
Nitin’s career so far must have been a source of pride for his parents, Arun and Ashu Kundra, who came to this country from India when they were young and now run a newsagent’s.
But it hasn’t all been plain sailing for an Indian Geordie actor, says Nitin, who has needed his sense of humour to carry him through.
He says his degree course was heavy on theory and it lacked the showcase performance which drama schools lay on so their students can attempt to impress agents.
“If you don’t have a showcase, you have to do it the hard way. I reckon 90% of the people I studied with didn’t go into acting at all but I was really determined.
“I didn’t want to come all the way from Newcastle to London and then just give it up.”
His breakthrough came when he heard that Kathleen McCreery, one of the co-founders of Red Ladder Theatre Company in Sunderland, was casting a play about racial tolerance to take around schools in the city.
“I thought this would be a fantastic first job so I wrote her a letter and she cast me. So my first professional job was in the North East, which was great, but it’s been the only job I’ve done in the North East.
He then managed to get himself an agent while performing in a play for schoolchildren in London, at the Oval House Theatre. It was called Raging and it was “very political”.
“I blagged it,” says Nitin candidly. “I was in a professional theatre and I sent out 50 letters, inviting people to come and see me. I said it was young people’s theatre rather than a kids’ show.
“Out of the 50, 10 people said they wanted to come and see me so I had this one chance to impress and basically I had three or four agents who were prepared to take me on. I signed for Natasha Stevenson Management and they took me from theatre-in-education to ITV.”
On Nitin’s agency profile, it states that he can play Asian, Indian, Latin American, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, mixed race or Pakistani.
This is reflected in many of the roles he has played, from Omar Malik in Kathleen McCreery’s play, Flight Paths, to Naveed Ahmed in two episodes of Emmerdale in 2007.
But he laughs when describing his first TV break, as Asif Hussain in ITV’s Steel River Blues.
“It was set in Middlesbrough and I’m an Indian Geordie but I had to play a Mackem firefighter of Pakistani origin. They’d written it like that and I didn’t feel I was in any position to say anything.
“But I was in all seven episodes and it was very interesting. Unfortunately it didn’t get re-commissioned but you couldn’t really ask for a better start than that.
“I was working with some massive actors who’d been around for 15 or 20 years and I learned an awful lot. Really, that six months was my education.”
After playing a Pakistani from Sunderland, Casualty saw Nitin cast as an Irish window cleaner called Paddy O’Donnel.
“They’re very fair on that show when it comes casting. They’re colour blind.”
It was in the 2006 BBC drama Party Animals that he was finally able to make use of his own accent. He was cast as Geordie Pete, cocaine dealer to politicians.
He remembers he had to rendezvous with someone from the wardrobe department for a costume fitting. “She walked past me four times until I stopped her. She said she was expecting Geordie Peter to be a white guy.”
Nitin’s next TV appearance is to be in Coronation Street when he plays a surveyor called Richard Khan. The episode, to be screened in Christmas week, will be a treat for his parents.
“My father came to England when he was three and my mother came when she was 18 to marry him. They have always watched Coronation Street,” says Nitin, who also has a younger brother, Mohit, and sister, Ritu.
Now his ambition is to raise his profile at home. “As much as I loved being at the National Theatre and doing Corrie, I’d like to do a theatre show in the North East.
“It doesn’t have to be anything massive, just something that my mates and family can come and see me in. I’ve been away 10 or 11 years but it’s really important to me to keep in touch with people up here.”
He is working on a sketch show which he would like to put on in the North East at some point in the New Year. Until then, we’ll have to keep an eye on Coronation Street which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.