What lead you to pursue a career in acting? Did you have an “aha” moment when you realized that this is what you wanted to do, or was your desire to act present from the start?
Storytelling. Using it as a medium to illustrate new ideas/places was super powerful to me as a kid and I’ve always been drawn to it. Initially, I wanted to direct. My mother encouraged me to take film classes as a teenager. That’s when I popped in front of the camera on a friend’s short. It was a moment I haven’t forgotten. I was instantly hooked. I also found a responsibility and purpose within in. When I was growing up, people of color often didn’t see characters who looked like us in films and TV, and neither did our families, even though a big part of narrative engagement is imagining yourself in the protagonist’s shoes. But when we watch our reality reflected on TV or in film, our potential becomes limitless. The ability to tell your own story and to be heard is the very thing that moves our culture forward. That is how we can ultimately escape those limited and often inaccurate portrayals minted in the stone age and surpass them.
You’ve played a lot of unique characters throughout your career. Would you say that you bring a piece of yourself to every role you play? Is there a character with whom you have most identified with, or one that you found most challenging to relate to?
I try to bring some of myself to the roles I play. I think to be authentic to an experience we’ve not encountered ourselves, pulling from the world around us is key. There are two characters in particular that stand out for me. Hassan Kadam in THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY was a role that didn’t come with the resistance for a person of color to play the protagonist. The story is about a young chef who immigrates to France from India after his mother dies. I think the film encourages folks to go beyond their limits. Hassan was quiet and introverted — not qualities I can readily related to, but the story inspired as well as pushed me. In 90210, I played a character suffering from a terminal illness. Raj was a simple but real portrayal of a young Indian-American guy in California. The response to character was profound. Here was an Indian teenager included in an iconic American brand without typical stereotypes. He wanted to live his last days fearlessly.
What attracts you most to a role?
The character and his point of view on the events happening around him. If the rolechallenges me to think differently or it scares the shit out of me, I’m in. A lot of people would consider your breakout role to be The 100 Foot Journey. Was there a definitive moment in your career when you thought, “Yes, I’ve made it”?
I knew it was a big deal, a life changing ride. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. Steven Spielberg, Juliet Blake and Oprah Winfrey and everyone at Dreamworks / HARPO put it together. They really supported the film. But that feeling of “I’ve made it” can’t be taken literally. I think making it means something different to everyone. For me, making it might just be the ability to contribute to our business in a way that pushes those in power to think differently; to be courageous storytellers. I think to do that we have to keep making our own stuff, we work together, we unionize. We show folks that our stories have real value and make money. I think making it is the ability to pursue exactly that. The Hundred-Foot Journey opened that door for me.
You’re currently a part of The Resident. What’s it like working on a medical drama? What’s the biggest difference between this character and those who you’ve played in the past?
I was attracted to the role because Devon had a huge journey to embark on. In a series, it’s exciting to play a character that has somewhere to go — a blank canvas in some ways. He starts off as a resident right out of med school. The sky’s the limit for this dude. It may not seem revolutionary for me to play an Indian-American doctor. It might seem ordinary, but that’s exactly why it’s important. Devon is what the American dream looks like, to me. He’s from an immigrant family, graduates top of his class with hopes to heal people and change lives. To me, Devon stands out from other roles because he is so carved into the culture of today’s America — an Indian doctor. Children of immigrant parents occupy medicine in a big way. I want Devon to represent a piece of that. He is sometimes a hero, he’s fallible, he’s impulsive, he’s cocky and when he gets it wrong, people die. The stakes are huge.
Anytime there’s a cab driver on screen, it’s imperative he be played by a South-Asian. But most of America’s TV Doctors are actually non-Indian, and I realized that’s not what a modern American hospital or medical school looks like. In the US, South-Asian doctors outnumber cardiac ICUs and overwhelm medical schools. People say, “what’s wrong with stereotypes? In real life, there’s truth to these stereotypes, and don’t you want the world to feel real on TV?” It is true that some of the leaders in medicine like Atul Gawande, Siddartha Mukerjhee, Sandeep Jauhar are all Indian. So to move the needle, this idea must extend to our heroes as well. That is the only way this works. Yes, Devon is brown and he won’t be hovering in the background without a perspective.
You’ve recently gotten into directing. Is this something you’ve always wanted to do, or a more recent ambition?
Always. Directing Fifteen Years Later was a passion I’ve wanted to exercise for a while. It was one of the most awesome experiences I’ve had. Acting and directing at the same time is wild. I loved all of it and tried to be aware of which hat to wear when. I wanted to craft a story from start to finish. This one in particular I could speak to since it was personal for me. The story is based on real events from friends and an experience I had over 15 years ago. It talks about bias and violence in a post-9/11 era. Racially motivated crime towards people of South Asian, Sikh, Arab and Muslim has seen an undeniable resurgence since 45’s presidency. Terlok Singh, a Sikh deli owner from New Jersey, was recently stabbed to death at his store. According to Dr. Simran Jeet Singh, Senior Religion Fellow for the Sikh Coalition, this was the third attack on a Sikh in the last three weeks of the incident.
My hope is that Fifteen Years Later can shine a light on communities who face this type of profiling and violence. It is a look at an epidemic holding our communities under fire. We partnered with Vigilant Love, 18MillionRising, and White People 4 Black Lives and hosted a panel in LA. It sparked a discussion about race, identity, policing and our law enforcement.
You recently had a son! Congratulations! What is it like being a dad? Does this give you a new perspective for future roles?
100% It is a profound relationship. Children teach us more about ourselves than we could ever know. You reflect, discover, prioritize, problem solve and ultimately learn how to quiet the noise and be present. As a new dad, you’re learning about things you’d otherwise know nothing about. It’s impossible to get too comfortable because the minute you think you have it down, an inevitable curve ball hits you in the face! It’s also why representation is so important. We want our youth to feel embedded in our culture. We want them to feel visible and given our sociopolitical landscape it’s more important now than ever. My hope for him is that he exercises compassion and gratitude, that he understands the difference between strength and weakness, and that he respects the voice of other people.