Every morning as the sun rose over her gorgeous apartment balcony in Western Australia, Sharon Johal would pray. Drawing on her Punjabi Sikh roots to fully inhabit her role as nurse and juror Parvinder Sangar in the second instalment of Binge’s critically acclaimed and award-winning drama The Twelve, Johal would wake at 5am and slip rather effortlessly into her character’s compassionate shoes.

“I don’t usually pray these days,” the South Australian-born actor tells InReview. “I’m Sikh, but I’m not as devout as Parvinder.

“I’m a method actor ­– so I’d do some meditation to start my day.”

The whole cast of The Twelve – which includes high-profile actors Frances O’Connor as SC Meredith Nelson-Moore, Tasma Walton as a fellow juror, and Sam Neill reprising his role as the wily defence barrister Brett Colby – decamped to Perth for the four-month shoot. It meant Johal would remain in character from dawn to dusk, winding down on the walk home from the set.

“It was actually pretty relaxing because there’s no distraction when you are working away from home – so I’d be able to create that energy and then keep that energy to inhabit the character fully,” Johal says.

It’s a method she has employed for much of her career, including in her breakout role on Australia’s longest-running soap, Neighbours.

“I mean, I’m not going to do like Al Pacino-method acting and live homeless on the streets,” Johal says, with a laugh. “But it does help you embody the character very quickly and accurately, and also in a wholesome way. It’s also showing respect to every other person that’s on set to make sure you bring it.”

The eight-episode second series of The Twelve – which dominated local award shows last year – again revolves around a jury and a controversial murder trial. This time it’s in the rural WA township of Tunkwell. Landowner Bernice Price (Kris McQuade) is found dead at the bottom of her well, with her daughter Sasha (Amy Mathews) and Sasha’s ex-lover Patrick Harrows (Errol Shand) the suspects. Colby, SC (Neill) represents Patrick, while Meredith Nelson-Moore, SC (O’Connor) defends Sasha.

The second season of The Twelve sees a jury deliberating over the murder of a landowner in a rural town. Photo: David Dare Parker

It’s a fairly diverse cast, which is something that Johal particularly appreciates. And production gave her a choice as to how far to develop her character.

“I said, ‘You know what, this is probably an opportunity that’s never going to happen again for a long time. And if anyone can do it, I can’,” says the actor, who is now based mainly in Melbourne.

When she was 15, Johal and her brother and sister spent eight months at the foot of the Himalayas immersed in their religion.

“My parents gave us that opportunity – well, actually they dumped us there – [and] now I look back it as a gift. But they left us there, saying ‘We want you to learn about your culture, your roots, because living in Australia, it’s a little bit hard’. And we embraced that opportunity.”

It has, however, taken her a bit longer to fully embrace her mantle as role model to the Indian community. Johal grew up in Berri, in South Australia’s Riverland, where the third-generation Indian-Australian dreamed of a life on screen. However, her parents – Saroop Singh and Amanvir (Molly) Johal –  had other ideas. They actually gave her list of acceptable jobs: doctor, pharmacist, dentist or lawyer.

Johal got the marks at school to pursue pretty much anything and chose law at Adelaide University: she thought that was the closest to acting.

She spent years working as a commercial and litigation lawyer before returning to her childhood dream. Johal was runner-up on SBS reality-TV show Bollywood Star, but didn’t want to move to India so came home to Australia. She kept auditioning, kept missing out. She had gone back to law, ready to give up on her dream, when the call came in 2016 that Neighbours was casting Indian actors. She went on to play Dipi Rebecchi for five years.

“At the start, there were no roles for us,” Johal says of the lack of diversity on screen. “But then ­– and it’s getting better and better – it started to be more open.

“So now to be able to come to the other side of it, where it’s a choice as to how to play this character rather than it being told to me, is incredible.”

Jurors Skye (Isabelle Bäsén) and Parvinder (Johal) in Binge’s courtroom drama The Twelve. Photo: David Dare Parker

Johal feels the weight of the responsibility but is heartened by the response.

“I do get feedback that it has paid off in spades in terms of what it’s done for others,” she shares, saying that when she was at the Sikh Games held in Adelaide in March, different generations flocked to thank her.

“From other parents saying, ‘Because you set such a good example, we are happy to let our children pursue their passions. We know that it doesn’t make you a bad person to be an actor or model or presenter’.

“And then also from young girls. They were like, ‘You’ve done so much; you’ve changed our whole lives’. And you know, that’s all I would want in terms of a legacy.”

Her parents are also among her throng of fans. Johal and her husband Ankur Dogra – who wed in a four-day extravaganza across Adelaide in 2018 ­– get back to their hometown as often as their busy schedules permit. The pair won’t be back before Christmas, though, as they are shouting her parents on a grand European vacation in September.

While Johal’s eagerly anticipating that, she’s almost more excited to see the reaction to Parvinder.

“It’s the first time there will ever be a Khalsa woman on Australian television screens in a main character role – which is huge,” she says. “I can’t wait for people to connect with this story that has so many different layers of connection, and different communities.”

Series two of The Twelve begins on Binge on July 11, with new episodes dropping weekly.

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