Interview with Sunita Deshpande
(November 2018)

Sunita Deshpande played Seema Nadeem in the third season of DAREDEVIL, and here we talk about her role, the importance of diversity and working with actor Jay Ali. Many thanks for this interview!

SPOILERS if you haven't watched all of DAREDEVIL Season 3 yet!

Kuljit Mithra: Hi Sunita, it is nice to speak with you again. We had chatted briefly before Season 3 came out about my review where I touched on seeing a South Asian family on my favourite show. To a lot of people this may seem like a minor thing on American TV, but unfortunately it still is so rare it's noticeable. Can you briefly describe what the initial casting call was like, and what interested you in the role?

Sunita Deshpande: The initial casting call was in Julie Schubert's office. It was a tough day because I had two other auditions, so preparing three auditions for various roles was rough as you can imagine. I initially went in for a day-player role - a role where a young woman was describing how Daredevil came out of nowhere and rescued her and her father. Sometimes a script is so well-written you don't feel like you have to ‘act’. The words just fall out of your mouth in the most real way. It just comes from your heart so it feels like you are saying the lines yourself. You can just be. I felt a great kinship with the scene and the moment. I’ve always loved Marvel and was attracted to the script because I have a close relationship with my father. I adore him, he has set such a strong example for me when it comes to being humble, kind, and authentic - so creating a strong emotional reality wasn't very difficult. At the end of my read Julie was like, "SO good. So fucking good." I went, "Really?!" HA! Sometimes I am so engrossed in a role and I am in my own world after the take I kind of 'snap' out of it. She then said, "You know, there's also a recurring on this show I think you'd be very good for. Can you speak Hindi?" I told her I speak Kannada, but I could learn lines overnight from my father, so we scheduled an audition the next morning.

I loved the dialogue between Seema and Ray. It felt less stilted than other TV shows out there and it felt genuine. It felt like a real couple that happenedto be Indian. I also liked the fact our characters were struggling with money. Most Indians on TV play doctors and lawyers - those that are 'model minorities' - and while that is some of the population it is not all of the population. I didn't grow up in a ultra-wealthy home unlike most of my Indian friends so it resonated. I prepared the best I could and came in and auditioned. She told me, "I hope you get this. I want you to get this." Julie is the kind of casting director you can be yourself with. She made me feel comfortable and I know that had so much to do with me getting the part as I'm a very sensitive person. I owe so much to her.

Mithra: Is it a big deal to mention seeing South Asians on TV?

Deshpande: Diversity is always a wonderful thing. Again, like I said, it's nice to see the minority within the minority. (Indians that aren't usual doctors/cab drivers.) For instance, growing up outside of Tampa, I like country music and know how to line dance. How many Indian girls do you get to see do that? Usually we're cast winning spelling bees, which is fine, but I also think there is something funny about the reality of me screwing up in yoga class while some white girl kicks my butt in every position. I'm thinking ‘my people invented yoga and I'm embarrassing them’. There's a hilarious reality in that. One time, no joke a grandma in Santa Monica was kicking my butt. I was embarrassed but I also was like, “Get it, grandma. Respect.”

Mithra: Tell me a bit about your acting background... I see some theatre, movie and TV work on your resume on your site, but the improv work (and the work with Tina Fey) stands out for me.

Deshpande: Comedy has been my savior in many ways. As most children of Indian immigrants will tell you, acting was not an option - at all - for me. It was a 100% "NOPE. NEVER. ABSOLUTELY NOT." I knew at ten I wanted to be an actor. In fact, I think my grandmother knew it when I was even younger. I'd always be putting on 'shows' for my parents at dinner. Like free dinner theater except it was probably pretty bad. I'd make signs that would say "Tonight's Show: 8 p.m." and my parents would eat dinner and look at their weird kid make up a show. My grandmother saw me running around the house doing different voices or impersonating people and got me to watch The Sound of Music - I thought (because of the strange happy woman twirling on the cover) it was going to be a boring movie but I fell in love with it. I still get chills thinking about seeing Julie Andrews sing in that opening scene. I wanted to do that too. Later I saw Robert Downey Jr. in Chaplin, he was doing his bit in front of Akroyd as Charlie, falling down and getting up and reaching for the hat - the whole bit - and I thought, "That man is not Charlie Chaplin yet he is Charlie Chaplin. I want to be able to do that one day." I didn't know why he was good, I just knew he was good. I wanted to have that ability.

In high school I lived and breathed Drama Club, it was my escape from being Indian in a very white Florida town (at one point I was the only Indian out of 2500 kids and it SUCKED) and so thank every Indian God, drama was my escape from it all. I auditioned for 12 universities my senior year and was offered about nine acting scholarships but I wasn't allowed to take them. In retrospect, I can understand why my parents pushed me away from acting and told me not to do it (my dad still calls it my 'hobby') because boy....if anyone has tried to make it as an actor they’ll get it. Boy. You have to give everything to it and it can be a heartbreaking profession. So I listened to my parents and I got an advertising degree instead. I'm lucky they didn't push me to be a doctor. A lot of my Indian friends were, but I think becoming a doctor should be a calling – not a safe means to an end. My saving grace in college however was my improv troupe and I LOVED IT. It was how I got to secretly be a drama major. We'd meet Tuesdays and Thursdays and it fed my soul and kept it alive. Improv is my favorite sport in the world, anything can happen and it teaches you the art of spontaneity which is life. Improv doesn't care what you look like - you can be an uppity princess one minute and a creepy troll the next. Improv doesn't cast on looks, it casts on talent, and you get to choose the lighting, genres, production quality, etc. all in the moment. Improv will always be my first love.

Years ago I met Donald Glover when I was interning at UCB (and yes he is the NICEST GUY EVER) and he was the one that wrote the part in 30 Rock and e-mailed me, asking me to be in it the next day. I called in sick to my day gig and we shot the scene. When I got to set the assistant asked me if I was the principal and I said, "No I'm here to play a PA." That's how green I was! I didn't tell anyone, not even my parents. That day on set with Tina was incredible. I was sitting there and it was like sparkles were all around me. Happiest day of my life and I was like I have to go for this. I will always credit my career getting started because of Donald. My mom happened to flip on the TV one night and was like "Hey, that looks like Sunita!" She thought it was all in her head until her friends started calling saying they had just seen me on TV.

Mithra: You had revealed that initially your role was only going to be a few episodes but was expanded later to eight. I'm assuming you got the scripts weekly, so when did you find out about this change, and what do you think changed the writers' minds? Did you see a noticeable change in your character?

Deshpande: I’m very lucky. It was a wonderful surprise. Erik Oleson came up to me on the first day at the table read and introduced himself saying, "Congratulations, your audition earned you your part." I knew there were other actresses with more credits against me, and I was so flattered to have been chosen. Daredevil makes you sign NDAs and so I was not allowed to see scripts until the table read. It's so exciting when you get to the table read! The collaboration was amazing. One of the coolest feelings in the world was having these words said to me on set. "Hi, I'm from Marvel, we've been watching your dailies - you are stunning on screen and your scenes are magical. We love what you're doing and we'd like to write you into more episodes." Swoon! Remember I told you acting can be heartbreaking at times? It can be so swoon-worthy at others. Yum. This was such a wonderful learning experience and I got to be around such seasoned, talented actors. I loved that I got to show my dramatic chops on Daredevil.

Mithra: One of the themes I mentioned in my review was "family". She obviously loved her son and husband, but what do think family meant to Seema?

Deshpande: Everything. Family means everything to Seema. She's independent and intelligent, but she also understands that traditions and heritage are rooted in something bigger than just herself. Seema is the opposite of self-absorption. There are so many things about Indian traditions I didn't fully understand until I got older and out of the angsty phase. Actors work on their characters in different ways. In real life, I am lucky to have fallen in love before and I know what it means to be in a long-term relationship. When you are with the love of your life, you are not looking over your shoulder for anyone else - you're so happy being with your one person. Ray was Seema's man. For me, I came from a place that Ray was my first love, my true love, the only man I had every given my heart to, the only man I had been with physically and intimately, because of my conservative upbringing and that resonated for me. I saw him as the kind of 'bad boy' that the Indian community had sort of cast out, not getting perfect grades and becoming a doctor/lawyer - but Seema knew better. She saw the good Ray had inside of him. The man he wanted to be. I saw him grow from teenage boy to man and we made a home together. I respected and admired him. We had great chemistry. I wanted my parents to love him and see what I saw in him - a good man. As much as the #MeToo movement is out there right now, there needs to be a nod to the good men out there as well. Ray was one of them. I wanted us to be close and grow old together. Nothing can replace family. That's your home base. Seema would also be lying if she said she didn’t like Ray’s hair, but I imagine she put him in his place when it got to his head. ;)

Mithra: Seema and Ray had a good trusting relationship, but once Seema found out Ray was lying about things (for her protection), things changed. It was a difficult choice, but do you think Ray should have told Seema the full story about how much trouble he was in?

Deshpande: I think it made sense for Ray's character to not tell Seema. I don't mean to sound general at all in this way - but I think traditionally a man wants to protect his woman and his children. It might sound like caveman thinking, but ultimately on a primitive level men want to protect. They want to look like they are in control and that they have it together. There is so much pressure in the world on men. To be rich. To be successful. To have status. It was exemplified by Ray wanting to prove his worth by having the pool. Ray wanted to provide. To be a good man. It’s why Ray lied. Ray was caught in his own mess and he didn't want to bring his family into that mess, he wanted to solve it on his own. The sad part is if you've ever been in a long-term, trusting relationship and you spot that first major lie, it causes a sickness in the pit of your stomach. If you see one rat on a ship, you know there's other rats. Women have intuition and we know when our man is lying and that was a really difficult thing for me to deal with as a character because I've been there in real life too. Seema wanted to protect her son (number one) and was heartbroken over her love's lies. Totally understand where fans are coming from siding with Ray, but Seema did not know that part of Ray’s story.

Mithra: I must admit, after Ray's death and seeing Seema in the FBI office, I was disappointed... but I'm glad we found out it was all an act because she saw the phone video. That was a great scene with Elden Henson. Any comments on how that all turned out in the end for Ray and Seema?

Deshpande: I was so flattered to know I was written into that final scene with Elden. He is absolutely lovely to work with and such a gentleman. We'd never worked together and I felt so good about our work together. He's a gem. I'd say my main comment is ask any married woman with a kid about Seema's character - I'd say they'd side with what she did. When you’re a mom, no one messes with your kid. Mama Bear comes OUT. I thought of my cousins with kids and my friends and came from that place as Seema. So I thought it was very realistic.

Mithra: So I've been talking about "Ray" and "Seema", but what was it like working with Jay Ali? He really made this character work, I was sad to see him go.

Deshpande: Jay Ali is one of the sweetest actors I've ever met. I knew at the table read this was going to be a magical pairing. I learned so much watching Jay on set, especially his incredible work ethic. I love Jay like an older brother. I look up to him and I know he is going to only do amazing, phenomenal, fantastic things. I felt the magic every time we worked together. There are no words. He and Dex (also omg Wilson Bethel is so funny and hot and kind!) were so fun to be with on set. Lots of laughs. I wasn’t there for Jay’s ‘final’ day on set but he told me the whole cast and crew was so bummed out and he was like, “Guys! I’m here!” Lol. What game-changer Jay Ali was as Ray Nadeem.

Mithra: Thank you once again for this interview. Now that DAREDEVIL is out, have you been paying attention to any of the critical or fan reaction to the show?

Deshpande: I've been floored by the reaction of fans to the show and Season 3! I've taken Tina Fey's advice as to not googling myself too much. LOL. But I love how happy fans are with the show and especially the character arcs of the Nadeem family. I owe so much to Erik Oleson - he is a man of true vision. He wanted to show an authentic Indian family and didn't rely on stereotypes or accents. Plus I got to learn Hindi. He is a hero that is truly super.

Mithra: I'll post the video teaser here for A SARI FOR PALLAVI, but what can you tell readers who want to check out your short film? Thanks again Sunita.

Deshpande: Thanks so much! It’s a comedy starring me – and me! A Sari for Pallavi was a short play I wrote in a Labyrinth playwriting class. I wrote it because I wanted to get something funny and dark off my chest about growing up Indian. I have never seen a promiscuous/slutty Indian girl so I decided to write that role for myself. Basically it's a fight between old world traditional Thini and American-born promiscuous Pallavi over what to wear to a wedding. Thini promises Shruti auntie that Pallavi will wear a sari but Pallavi wants to wear a slutty dress to get her ex-bf jealous. It got to top 10 at the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Festival 2016 out of 1500 plays and I raised 20k to make it into a short film. It's going into the short film circuit and I play both parts! Kind of like the Parent Trap meets Broad City! Today we found out it got accepted into the Oxford Film festival!

Thanks so much for interviewing me Kuljit! This was very fun!

(c) 2018 Kuljit Mithra & Sunita Deshpande
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