Desis On Cable: Reshma Shetty and Danny Pudi

A “Royal Pain”

Reshma Shetty stars as Divya Katdare in the USA Network original series Royal Pains—one of the most highly-rated new series on cable in 2009. The show has recently been renewed for a second season in 2010.

An accomplished singer, Reshma previously played the lead role of Priya in the first national (U.S.A.) tour of the A.R.Rahman/Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Bombay Dreams. Additional theatre credits include roles and readings with the Contemporary American Theatre Festival, The New Dramatists, The Playwrights Forum, and The Lark Theatre Company. She starred in the off-Broadway production of Ayub Khan-Din’s play Rafta Rafta. She is also the face of Dove Moisturizing Bar in India.

What’s the premise of the show?

Dr Hank Lawson, an ER physician, is blacklisted from New York City hospitals after a moral decision leads to an unjust medical ruling. His brother Evan, a CPA, decides to take Hank for a weekend of fun in the Hamptons. But Hank’s vacation does not continue for very long. My character, Divya Katdare, who is a young entrepreneurial physician’s assistant, discovers Hank and helps birth HankMed: the first concierge medical practice in the Hamptons. HankMed serves not only the rich residents of the Hamptons, but also the local Hamptonites. The show is a medical drama, but what drives the show is relationships amongst its many characters

Tell me about your character, Divya.

Divya is a determined, goal-oriented young Hamptonite from a wealthy family. Her parents think she’s doing her MBA at Wharton, but since early childhood she’s wanted to practice medicine. Her parents had planned for her to enter the business realm and help out the family business. So she goes behind their backs and gets a Physician’s Assistant degree.

Why do you enjoy playing Divya?

She’s a strong-willed, independent, intelligent young Indian woman. She’s western in her professional life, but in her personal life she’s a very dutiful daughter who seems to do exactly what her parents want of her.

In the arts, especially in the mainstream, we tend to have broad generalizations. On television you see a lot of Indian doctors and lawyers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. As an actress you do get used to playing those roles, especially as an Indian actress in a western cast.

Though Divya is in the medical profession, there’s something very different about her. She’s an entrepreneur. I liked the idea that the USA Network wanted to market a female Indian character who is an entrepreneur.

Do you have input on the show regarding things Indian?

Oh yes. Part of the first season’s storyline included Divya getting married. In the original scripts it was being called an arranged marriage. I did not want to play another Indian girl getting an arranged marriage on television.

I spoke with the writers and I told them that basically what’s going on here is that these two families who do business together want their kids to get married—and these families happen to be Indian. But this scenario is not exclusive to Indians.

I didn’t want a scenario of “how else can we make her Indian? Oh, let’s give her an arranged marriage.” So it was called a “strategic marriage,” a small but important difference. 

Entertainment is a platform. People watch television and movies, and their attitudes and ideas and perceptions are affected by what they see on the screen. That’s something that we should never forget as entertainers.

Divya’s parents think she’s doing an MBA at Wharton, but what she is actually doing is completely different. In terms of your real life, with your family being doctors, how was your transition from studying pre-med to studying music viewed by your parents?

My father was upset, with good reason. My family members are all in the medical field. And I had wanted to be a doctor well before college. So it was understandable that it was frightening for my parents when I suddenly turned around and changed what had been in the works for years. But I had been fascinated with acting for years and had been slowly building my skills. So when the opportunity arose I took it.
I think that I did not have a real-life picture of what a career in the arts would entail. In reality it’s a lot of rejection and, realistically, failure is much more likely than success. My parents probably understood that better than I did.

Somebody once said to me, only do this if this is the only thing you can do—if there’s nothing else in life that will fulfill you. And that was the case for me.

You pursued much more education than many people interested in the arts. (Reshma has a B.A. from James Madison, and M.A.s from the University of Kentucky and the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music—all in Opera Performance.)

Education was always important in my family, and that did not change for me once I decided to go into the arts.

Art is not something that should be taken lightly. You can have as much talent as God has given you, but you have to work hard to make it into something. Even though I changed course, I think that I took that same mindset that one would apply to becoming a doctor and applied it to becoming a performer.

Even with all of the opera that I was studying, the whole time I was taking acting classes too—including Meisner technique, Chekhov technique, and so on—because I really wanted to learn as much as possible.

Let’s talk about Bombay Dreams. I want to name a couple of songs that you sang as Priya, and get your reaction to these songs, performing them, quick stories about them, or anything at all. First, “Only Love” (a solo by Priya).

“Only Love” was a scary song to sing. For our production, this song had very little orchestration to support my singing.

And there’s no partner to play off of.

Yeah you’re right, it’s just Priya singing out to the audience, exposing her heart. It’s you and the audience and the music. Some nights I felt fabulous about my performance of that song, and some nights I felt it didn’t click.

And what about “How Many Stars” (a duet with Priya and Aakash, the two main characters)?

I always liked that song a lot. The style of this song was more of a belt than any other I sang in the show. I had just come from opera school, and opera singing is very different from musical theatre singing. Opera involves exclusively the use of head voice, while musical theatre involves a lot of belting.

How does being Indian impact your life as an artist?

I think that when you’re young, you spend a lot of energy trying not to be Indian—you don’t like the smell of curry in your house, you don’t like the idea of wearing a sari, and so on.

When you grow up, you begin to appreciate your Indian-ness; and when you are in entertainment, sometimes you represent it. And it’s a bit strange for somebody who grew up in the West because you were not really immersed in the Indian culture, so you’re representing a culture that you don’t really know as much about as you should. So there’s a learning curve as you try to catch up. That’s your job.

I’ve learnt a lot about what I want to represent as an Indian woman. And I don’t mean just on the screen—I also mean when I’m at a publicity event, or doing a shoot, or just when I’m out in public. I’m having a great time and I’m grateful for the situation I’m in, but at the same time I know that I, personally as an actress, have a real responsibility. Years from now, I want to be able to look back on what I’ve done, and be genuinely proud of it, and know that I have represented my culture well.

Diversity in “Community”

Danny Pudi is one of the stars of the new television comedy, Community, which airs  Thursday nights on NBC. The ensemble cast also includes Joel McHale (host of E!’s The Soup) and Chevy Chase.

The son of two immigrant parents—an Indian man and a Polish woman—Danny was raised by his mother on the south side of Chicago and, incidentally, speaks fluent Polish.

Previous television credits include recurring roles on Gilmore Girls and Greek, and appearances on ER, The Bill Engvall Show, and The West Wing.

Danny is a graduate of Marquette University, with a degree in Communications and a minor in Theatre. He studied improvisation at The Second City Training Center in Chicago, and has improvised, written, and performed throughout the country with the Asian-American comedy troupe Stir-Friday Night! and with the Indian-American comedy trio Siblings of Doctors.

Congratulations on the new show. Tell me a bit about it.

 Thank you. The show has a large ensemble cast, with Joel McHale as the lead. Joel plays Jeff Winger, a lawyer whose law degree is deemed invalid and law license is revoked, so he has to go back to community college. He goes there thinking it’s going to be a breeze. He meets this interesting group of folk who form a Spanish study group with him. Along the way, he discovers that life in community college isn’t as easy as he thought it would be, and he learns a lot more about himself than he thought he would.

 How does your character, Abed, fit into all of this?

 Abed is a frenetic, fast-talking, pop-culture junkie without much of a filter. He’s honest, gregarious, and fun-loving, but also very socially awkward. Basically there is the appropriate way of handling social situations, and then there’s Abed’s way. He’s a fun character to play because every social situation is a new and different thing to him.

 He has great admiration for Jeff, who is smart, funny, charming, athletic, basically all-around cool—pretty much everything that Abed is not. Abed views Jeff as an entryway into social circles that Abed would otherwise not be invited into. He becomes Jeff’s wing-man.

 What do you enjoy about doing the show?

 The people are the best part. I love being around this ensemble cast, this group of writers, these directors, this crew. The level of talent is top-notch. And we are all working together to do something new and quite different from what I’ve seen on television.

 And I love the premise of the show. The main group of characters is very diverse in terms of age, social standing, and so on. And this study group at this community college is a great place to bring together, in a plausible way, all these people who would not normally be together. It’s relevant because in today’s world, we are in fact interacting more with people we might not have interacted with in the past. You really can learn things from people that you might normally not give a chance to, and that’s what happens on this show.

 I also love the writing on the show. The writing is sharp, funny, and efficient—there’s not a wasted moment or wasted line of dialogue.

 Let’s go back some years. When you were growing up, did you know you wanted to be an actor?

 Well, I knew I wanted to be a performer of some type. My mom always signed me up for shows and plays and classes—especially dance classes—and while I didn’t always love the classes, I loved being on stage and making people laugh.

 As I got older I started watching shows like Saturday Night Live and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and started watching performers like Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers, and Chris Farley, and I would say that all of these were influencing me.

At Marquette, you were the recipient of the inaugural Chris Farley Scholarship. How did you come to win that award?

Chris Farley of course was an alumnus of Marquette. After he died, a scholarship was established in his memory, based on using humor in a positive way. I was nominated by the head of our Theatre program, and then I had to put myself on camera, discussing using humor in a positive way, for the Farley family. Next thing I knew I was meeting the Farleys and then I won the scholarship.

My mom was thrilled! (laughs) Polish people like free money! And the money was going to be applied to the next school-year, so my mom knew then that I would stay in school another year.

Tell me about the performance associated with winning the award.

Because I won that scholarship, I was invited to perform at an event called Comics Come Home—a benefit for the Farley Foundation. Jim Breuer and Dave Chappelle were the headliners, and throughout the night they had improvisers come out and do some improvisation. I got to improvise with some top-notch improvisers—Kevin and John Farley, Tim Kazurinsky, Tim O’Malley, Susan Messing, and Joe Canale.

This was a real trial by fire. I had never played improv games before, and here I was playing them with these really accomplished improvisers, and with Dave Chappelle in the wings, and with 1500 people in the audience.

It was terrifying and thrilling. And it was a real turning point for me. That night really served to point me to where I wanted to go. At that point I knew I needed to move to Chicago after graduation and study at The Second City.

You went on to study improvisation pretty extensively at The Second City and did a lot of improvisation around Chicago and across the country. How does your background in improvisation help you now as an actor doing a scripted show?

Well, for one thing, we do some improvisation in the show—so I rely on my improvisational experience in those moments. But even aside from that, improvising helps you develop certain skills such as staying open, listening, and paying attention to body language of your scene partners.

You’ve done quite a bit of stage theatre. Let’s talk about summer stock theatre.

(laughs) I have never been punched in the face, but I imagine that the feeling is comparable to doing summer stock theatre. And when I say that, it’s not entirely meant as a negative statement. I’m glad I went through it.

This was soon after college, in the woods of Northern Wisconsin. We lived in a shack in the forest. One morning I was awoken by a squirrel perched on my bed, staring at me.

We did five shows over four months. It was a rotating repertory theatre so each day we performed a different show. All in all we had two weeks to memorize lines, choreography and songs (for the musicals) for the shows.

What shows did you do?

Meet Me in St. Louis, Of Mice and Men, Run for your Wife, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

That’s intense!

Yeah, it was terrible and wonderful. I learned the importance of an ensemble, and that I was capable of much more than I had realized.

In the end, it was just too far away from civilization for me.  My family, my friends and my girlfriend [now wife] were back in Chicago (5 hours away) and I was stuck in the woods.  I felt completely out of touch with the real world, and this especially rang true on September 11th, 2001.  I woke up that morning and on television, after the morning fish index, there was a news story about a plane crashing into one of the World Trade Center towers.  We were shocked and didn’t fully understand what was going on.  But there was no time to wait and figure out what was happening—we had a show.  At 10:00 am that morning, while my family and friends feared the end of the world, I was performing Of Mice and Men for a group of vacationers and retirees. I felt helpless and just wanted to be home.  That next week my contract ended and it was one of the happiest days of my life.

 So, would I do summerstock again? No. But do I regret it? No.

 If Community becomes a big hit, people are going to look at you as an overnight success. In truth, you’ve been working hard for several years. What was it like, for the past few years, being a not-well-known actor in L.A.?

 I never really did the struggling actor thing in terms of waiting tables, temping and so on. I totally respect that choice, but I always had a good job. When I moved to L.A. I was actually able to keep my job as a recruiter for a Chicago-based actuarial recruiting firm. I could work from home, and had flexibility for auditions. I think that the people at my job knew that I was not destined to be an actuarial recruiter for the rest of my life, and they were very supportive of what I was doing.

You have an extensive background in dance, including folk, jazz, tap, modern, and Polish. How does that dance background help you as an actor?

It helps in both a general and a specific way.

In general, in the arts, work begets work. The more projects you have going on, the more likely that something good is going to happen for you. So, in that sense, doing dance can only help one’s pursuit of acting.

But more specifically, I play a lot of fun characters, and being able to move your body in different ways, being able to control and manipulate your body and be in touch with your body—these all help an actor in terms of character development.

You take excellent care of yourself physically. What do you do?

I run a lot. I’ve run four marathons. Ideally I run five or six days per week. It keeps me in shape and frees my mind. I’m always in a better mood after I run.

The last year or so I’ve been getting into yoga. (laughs) Even though I’m Indian, I got on the yoga bandwagon a little late.

I eat a pretty healthy diet. My wife and I both do. Bridget really motivates me in that area. She’s a vegetarian. I’m not but I limit my meat consumption, and eat lots of fruits and vegetables.

What’s the most interesting place in which you’ve shot?

I once shot a commercial for Verizon in the Bahamas, on the ghost ship from The Pirates of the Caribbean.

Tell me about some of the pilots you’ve shot that have never seen the light of day.

I did a pilot for Fox called Beyond. I had a small role. It was about some technicians at NASA. That was fun. I got to sport a lab-coat and a clipboard.

I worked on a pilot called Giants of Radio with some friends. Joel McHale was on that project too, and that’s how I met him. It was an improvisational, behind-the-scenes comedy, set at a radio station. Super fun. It was directed by Jason Winer who’s a really up-and-coming, really smart and talented director. He directed the pilot episode of ABC’s new show Modern Family. Jordan Black was also on that, Missi Pyle, Josh Myers, it was a great cast. Being able to improvise with some great people.

I did a pilot called The Rob Roy Thomas Project. This was a blast.. It was about an unlikely congressional candidate in Arizona who wins a seat and takes his team to D.C. I played a legislative deputy named Sanjay who was a bit angry and just wanted to go to D.C. to impress his dad, who was never impressed by anything he did. The scary thing about this project was that it was all improvised. Really, they’d put cowboy boots on our feet, put us into a room with a bunch of computers, roll the cameras, and say, “All right, talk whenever you want to talk.” Always scary but often hilarious. When that was done, I felt like I’d accomplished something pretty special.

That was my last pilot before Community.

You are in the midst of stepping onto a much huger stage than you’ve ever been on before—

[with mock seriousness]Are you insinuating that performing in front of 50 people in Donny’s Skybox Theatre in Chicago was not being on a huge stage?

Yes in fact, I am. Really you’re in the middle of that quantum leap right now. This is pretty much what any actor dreams of when he moves to L.A., but the odds of it happening for any given actor are pretty close to zero. So how is it for you personally?

You know, I’ve never dwelt on “making it”. Just being able to make people laugh and work in a creative environment is enough for me. Of course, if I can make a good living doing it, that’s a really nice bonus.

People say you won’t really feel the change until people start recognizing you. And I’m not at that point yet. On the rare occasions when people stop me, they think I’m the guy from Slumdog Millionaire, or Antonio Banderas—a young Antonio Banderas, maybe circa Desperado.

Maybe it’s not something you’re trying to process as it’s happening.

I think that’s right. If somebody says to me, isn’t it amazing?—I’ll agree that yes, it is amazing. I appreciate how unlikely all of this is. How incredibly unlikely.

I feel like If I were driving, and a meteor came and barely missed my car but created a giant crater on California Boulevard here in Pasadena, that would be just as likely as what I’ve been experienced over the past month.

If a chupacabra were bounding across my line of vision right now, that would be just as likely.

If I suddenly were granted the power of laser vision, I don’t think it’d be that surprised at this point.

But rather than dwelling on the improbability of all of this, I’m devoting myself to doing my work as excellently as I can and to enjoying it.

For me, the joy isn’t just from the fact that I’m on a network show. It’s far beyond that. I’m on a show that I truly love and believe in and am genuinely proud of. This is a very special thing—maybe a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I just want people to watch the show and love it as much as I do.

You can become a fan of Danny Pudi on facebook.

Ranjit Souri lives in Chicago. He and Danny Pudi write and perform together in the Indian-American comedy trio Siblings of Doctors, along with Rasika Mathur.



 

 




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