When I saw Priyanka Chopra in Baywatch, Anil Kapoor in Mission: Impossible and Irrfan Khan in The Amazing Spider-Man AND Jurassic World, I wondered: how did they get there? Granted, they had a wealth of experience, being amongst Bollywood’s most renowned actors, but to see there was a place for them in Hollywood sparked an intrigue that grew into an inspiration.
Being an actor in Hollywood has always been a vision for my future. Coming to America for college seemed like the first step to that dream, one that wasn’t as straightforward as I imagined. When I came to America for college, I had to make a few changes – how I spoke, the words I used, the pop culture references I made – that slowly and surely allowed me to “blend” in. This blending in was necessary to network with others, but also to play a lot of the roles I was eligible for – the Indian roles written here are rarely written for Indians raised in India. In addition, the “ethnically ambiguous” roles are almost always American characters as well and speaking with a strong Indian accent isn’t likely to get you in the room.
So, what can you do to get in the room? The rise of online job portals has been a global phenomenon, but in America it applies to portals for actors as well, the most commonly used being Backstage. You simply need a headshot, some information about yourself and a lot of patience. Eventually, smaller projects such as student films and web series will take your “unique” look as a reason to have you audition.
And this is the case with everyone: audition, audition, audition. Volume will help with success. These initial roles of “Ben”, “David” and the occasional “Samir” will allow you to have some very basic work under your belt – the first step of many. This work allows you to be eligible for roles that typically require more experience – be it a day player role on a TV show or a Buzzfeed video.
This is where your look and your background become especially important for two reasons. The first: “ethnicity”. Most casting directors are stricter on ethnicity for certain roles and already expect your American accent to be natural. For “ethnically ambiguous” roles, the audition pool is typically vast and for the “Indian/South Asian” roles you’re usually competing with the same 5 people you are now good friends with. While the stereotype of cab driver and terrorist roles does hold true (and is a huge benefit when applying for well-paying background acting work), there is additionally a greater focus on honest representation now more than ever: allowing for South Asian roles to break out of the expected.
The second, more pressing issue is your “Work Authorisation”. Trying to work without citizenship is what separates the Indians from the Indian-Americans. Several jobs and production companies are often restricted to those with green cards or citizenship, simply because of the paperwork-related nightmare it can be to do even a single day’s work. Work authorisation is tricky, should never be flouted and is certainly a setback, though not something that makes your work impossible to do.
Over time, these obstacles help shape your journey towards being an actor and, with enough credits, a reputable agent is usually along the way. Whether your hope is to inspire other Indians to act or simply live out a non-race-related acting dream, your background will follow you around the industry in mysterious ways. The only thing you can do is act like it doesn’t.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.