Meet Leo award-winning Vancouver based actress cum director Agam Darshi, whose three films hit the film festival circuit this year
When famous Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra hit the world screen with her earthy and bold looks in the famous American series Quantico, the world thought that Indian women have finally stepped out of their saree-clad image to take up more challenging roles in the entertainment industry. However, Chopra’s appearance is not a revolution but part of the revolution already started by some great North America born artists who have broken the stereo-typical image of South Asians actors roles in the world cinema. They have gone beyond playing ethnic roles, appearing in their non-sexy Indian outfits and speaking in heavy Indian accents. Agam Darshi, the multi-talented, UK-Born, Canadian actor is perhaps one of those revolutionaries.
Darshi stepped into the entertainment industry with her first appearance in Canadian TV series Renegadepress.com in 2004. Her journey has been a roller coaster ride since. She has appeared in more than 40 TV series and 20 films. Though she has been juggling between comedy and drama, she is best known for her characters as undercover cop, computer geek or a someone who is part of group saving the world from disasters.
Call it a co-incidence, Darshi’s film career has given her some memorable roles in many science-based movies and TV series. She is known for her role as Khali Bhatt, a tech-genius in TV series Played and Syfy series Sanctuary as con artist Kate Freelander. She took home the Best Supporting Performance by a Female in a Motion Picture at the 2013 Leo Awards for her role in the feature “Crimes of Mike Recket”.
In 2016, her two films premiered at the Toronto Film Festival — Brain on Fire, based on the critically acclaimed novel by Susannah Cahalan and Colossal, a film about a woman (Hathaway) who discovers that severe catastrophic events are somehow connected to the mental breakdown from which she is suffering. Darshi plays party girl Ash, and found working with the Oscar winner ‘inspiring’.
Darshi was born in Birmingham, England, and raised all over Canada. She currently splits her time between Vancouver and Los Angeles. A multifaceted artist, Agam has also written and directed numerous short films and is currently focusing her attention on theatre. She has written and will star in a one-woman show, which will have its Vancouver premiere later this year. She was also the force behind the launch of Vancouver International South Asian Film Festival (VISAFF) which is in its third year now. She spends her time between Vancouver and Los Angeles. After her encounter with the world of guns, money, fast cars, drugs, suspense, and danger, Darshi is now-a-days busy being a super mom. She has recently given birth to twin boys.
In an exclusive interview with Desi Today, Darshi talks about her life, journey and upcoming projects. Here are the excerpts from the interview.
You are part of two films premiered at TIFF — Brain on Fire and Colossal, can you elaborate more on your roles in these films and what inspired you to take these roles since both the films seem to be on almost the same theme of mental illnesses.
They are both very different films, and different roles. In Brain on Fire, I play the role of Dr. Khan a brilliant and compassionate doctor who is trying to find a cure for Chloe Grace Moretz character.
In Colossal I play Ash a party girl and friend to Anne Hathway’s character. This film is much more fantasy based and metaphorical. Whereas Brain on Fire is based on a true story of a journalist who finds herself going crazy. I just love good writing. That to me is why I say yes to certain roles, and both films are well written and smart, and that’s why I accepted them.
How was the experience working against Anne Hathway?
Anne was lovely. She was super professional. Her head was in the scene the whole time, but she’s a really kind and generous actor. There is a reason why she won an Oscar and it’s because she really take her job seriously!
Not exactly science fiction, but these two films are based on science and medicine, is it just a co-incidence or you are passionate to work in the science-fiction or science based themes? What attracts you towards such films?
Total co-incidence. I’m passionate about working in films that inspire me, or characters that inspire me. It doesn’t have to be science fiction, it just has to be interesting. But I guess science fiction or science based films, have great ideas and open the audience up to new ways of thinking, so I find that exciting and it’s probably why I gravitate towards them.
You are also part of another Canadian comedy Chokeslam, tell us something about the role in this film? What’s unique about working in Canadian film industry vis-a vis Hollywood?
Yes! I play a psychiatrist named Doctor Hayden. I’m a crazy woman who is trying to help the main character (Chris Marquette) in his love life. I really love this role. We shot in Regina Saskatchewan, which is a great city. And my director Robert Cuffley was so receptive and fun to work with. I took a big risk on this role. It’s a comedy – and I believe that if I’m having fun – then it’ll be funny. So I just made my role fun. It improvised a lot, and created a quirky character that Robert loved.
You were born in UK and raised all over Canada, but can you tell us more about your family and your growing up days in various Canadian cities especially Vancouver? Which city attracts you more? What is it that you love most about Vancouver?
I moved around a lot throughout my life. I think that’s why I’m a gypsy now! My husband and I love living in LA and in Canada, and have no problem moving around and travelling.
I was born in England, and moved to Montreal when I was 3. From there I moved to Ottawa when I was 6, and Calgary when I was 14. After University I moved to San Jose California for a year and then back to Canada, and settled in Vancouver. Now I have a place in LA and come back to Canada for work. I have lived in Toronto a few times for different series I’ve filmed there. Every city has a unique charm. I think Vancouver is the most beautiful, and I love the outdoors. I always come back here feeling grounded. Nature is really important to me and my wellbeing. But Montreal is a fun city with a great vibe. Calgary people are probably the most friendliest… It’s hard to say which city I like most. I think Canada is such a wonderful country with so much to offer.
When did you discover you had passion for acting and films? How difficult or easy was it for you to convince your family about your choice of career especially belonging to a South Asian family where the expectations from a girl are to either be doctor, teacher and happily married after?
I always loved acting. I was the kid who would direct my cousins and put on plays in front of our families. I lived a lot of my childhood in my fantasy world, and I think that’s the reason why I became an actor. I love fantasy and stories, and the idea of being someone completely different.
I also have the most supportive family ever. My parents saw my passion for the arts at an early age and they never tried to deter me. I was never very strong at math, and sciences never interested me. But anything art related — I loved. So I think my parents saw that, and figured if I just pursued what I loved, I would do well.
I think overall – I’ve been very open with my parents. Every decision I’ve made in my life has gone against the norm for a South Asian girl. I became an actor. I didn’t get married right away, and when I did I married someone who wasn’t South Asian. Ultimately my parents trust me and just want me to be happy. They know I work very hard, and they trust that no matter what I will find my way. I think it’s really important for parents to trust their kids and believe that they will make the best choices for them. We might make mistakes along the way, but we will come out on top in the end, if we’re supported.
Tell us about your first break in Renegadepress and how has been your journey to the world of Hollywood so far?
RenegadePress was my first audition in the TV world, and I got the part! It was so excited. And it was a safe wonderful learning experience. When I first started acting, I had very little expectations and was very naive about the process. As a result I ended up working a ton, and booking great jobs. I didn’t have to ‘struggle’ at the beginning of my career, like so many actors do. The struggles came later in my artistic journey.
Acting as a profession is a roller-coaster, and moving to LA has been one of the biggest ones, because there are a lot of great actors in that city and it forces you to bring your best work to the table. There are huge highs and there are many lows. I’ve had the opportunity to work with great actors, on great projects, in great roles, and I’ve also been recast and been unemployed for numerous months. I’ve found people who totally believe in me, and many many others who don’t at all.
At the end of the day, this journey has made me so much more humble as an actor, artist and human being. I love what I do. And I find I do it so much better now, because I know how hard I’ve worked to get here. I don’t want to take it for granted.
You are perhaps one of the very few South Asian actors, who have broken the stereotypes and risen above the typical roles of South Asian ethnicity, did you have to work towards it or you took the roles as they came? Do you think Hollywood has evolved about its approach and projections towards South Asian origin actors?
I have been very fortunate. My career is varied and the roles I have been able to play have been interesting and different. I think the biggest thing is that I don’t see myself as an outsider in Hollywood. I feel like I belong there as much as anyone, and I think when you think that way, people start seeing you that way as well. Yes I’m Indian, but I’m also so much more than that as well. I try to bring my humanity into every role I play, and humanity is universal.
I think over the last number of years Hollywood has evolved enormously in their approach towards casting South Asians. There used to be a time when if you were South Asian you would play typical Indian roles, where the characters wear saris, and have accents. There is nothing wrong with that, if the role is well written and interesting. But these days with Archi Punjabi and Priyanka Chopra on the map, there are so many more interesting roles available to South Asians. Hollywood is realizing that South Asians can play sexy, tough, complex roles — not just the ‘smart doctor’. It’s an exciting time to be an actor.
You are also a writer and director, tell us about your latest projects?
I wrote a 1 woman show. It’s currently untitled. But it follows the story of 4 South Asian women from different parts of the world at different time periods. I’ll be workshopping this play at the end of the year in Vancouver.
VISAFF is your brain child, what inspired you to start it? Its mission is to ” bridge the gap between South Asian film and mainstream audiences” — can you elaborate more on the mission?
I went to India for the first time in 2008. It was a life changing experience. Before that I always felt like I wasn’t ‘Indian’ enough. But when I went there I realized there is no right way of being Indian. There are so many different cultures and people and languages in India. So that shifted the way I thought about myself and my own choices in life.
From there I realized that I’m proud of being Indian and I wanted to share that. I wanted to create a platform for South Asians to showcase their work both within the realm of Bollywood and outside of it. I wanted Canadians to understand that being South Asian doesn’t just mean wearing bindis and saris – it’s so much more complex. That’s the ‘gap’ I wanted to bridge: the one between Canadians and South Asians. It was about time we had a real discussion about who we are and our similarities with mainstream Canadians, not just our differences.
So I approached Patricia Isaac another Vancouver actress and we began our VISAFF journey.
Do you have any plans to work in mainstream Bollywood? Any offers?
I had offers to work in Bollywood in the past, but I declined them because I don’t feel like it’s really my world. I know a lot of actresses who love Bollywood and could probably do a better job working there than me, because they love it so much, and have immersed themselves in it their whole lives. Don’t get me wrong, I do love Bollywood films and I really love a number of Bollywood actors, but the truth is, I grew up in Canada watching Hollywood movies, and is where my heart lies…However if Irrfan Khan or Amir Khan called up and asked if I was available for a film, I’d definitely say yes!
Your message for aspiring young actors and South Asian youth.
Create your own work. If Hollywood or agents are not knocking on your door, then create work for yourself. Write scripts, do theatre, produce films. Do whatever it takes to make your passion a reality. And remember 5% of an actor’s life is glamor, 95% is hard work, but if you really love it you won’t mind the work.