In Conversation with screen and stage actor Hari Bhaskar
By Steph Prizhitomsky
The up and coming actors’ scene in New York is absolutely booming, and it feels like wherever you turn, there’s someone working tirelessly to fight their way up to the top from various places with various backgrounds.
Here’s a bit of my chat with Hari Bhaskar, a screen and stage actor from Kerala, India, now based in New York City.
So just to start off, tell me a little bit about your journey as an actor. Where’d you get your start, and why’d you want to become an actor?
I was in Dubai for twelve years from 1999 to 2011, and then in 2011 I moved to the state of Kerala in India. Over there, the school that I went to, they were particular about both extracurriculars as well as academics. It wasn’t just academics alone which was the case when I was in school in Dubai. The thing was I wasn’t very fluent in my mother tongue called Malayalam at that stage in my life. I was around 12 when I moved to India, but I was really good at English. Our theater was also being done in English, so I was like ok; let me try my hand in theater. And that’s how I started, and I loved it like I really loved it.
When I was sixteen, we did a play in school called Jesus Christ Superstar. We had these recording sessions where we had to be in the studio from 11am to 1 the next day. I started developing a comradery with my co stars and that was when I realized, shit I want to do this for the rest of my life. I decided I want to make this into a career. It’s been a good seven years.
You trained at Stella Adler. How would you say that’s impacted you as an actor from your experiences there and the technique you learned?
I did my Bachelor’s in India in Delhi, and my parents wanted me to go abroad for my studies, but they didn’t specify in what, so there’s a loophole right there; might as well use it for acting.
Stella was actually the last place that I applied to as well like it wasn’t even my first choice. The advertisements kept on popping up, so I thought ok fine might as well check out Stella Adler.
I applied. I reached the interview round. I then passed the interview as well. I was doing theater in Delhi, so over there I met a person who connected me with someone from Stella Adler. She was a part of the 2019 batch. She said you should join Stella Adler especially the New York campus. Once you graduate from school, you can get a lot more opportunities in New York as compared to LA.
I applied for the three year program at Stella Adler, but I didn’t get the three year, and they gave me two options. Either I do the two year program in New York or the two and a half year program in LA.
I was thinking two and a half years sounds a lot better than two.
But she told me I should do the New York program, so I was like ok. That’s how I chose Stella Adler. The main reason why I’m getting the opportunities that I’m getting today is because of Stella Adler; the training I got over there.
But I think more than the training was just the way that I was able to discover myself as a person. I still remember a scene study class in school. It was in my final semester. My scene study class wasn’t going well. My teacher asked me, Hari, how long do you have left in school? I said three months four months tops. He told me you really gotta pull your socks up. He kinda roasted me in front of everyone.
I had to do one more scene before we went into our final projects, and that scene was from this play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph. When we were doing that scene for the first time, my teacher asked me what my objective was in the scene.
I guess it’s school that’s ingrained this mentality into me that’s: never admit that you don’t know. If someone asks you a question, always find a way to give an answer.
But for the first time, I said I don’t know, and I felt this burden fall off of my shoulders. My parents, especially my mom would say, you need to know the answers to everything; you can’t just say I don’t know. And teachers would also say the same thing in school. But that one time when I said I don’t know, I felt that was like the turning point for me as an actor.
We did the scene once again, and my teacher told me that was the best he’s ever seen me act at Stella Adler.
Stella was like therapy for me in many ways. After I graduated, especially after I did that final project, I thought holy shit, I’ve changed a lot as a person, and now each and every single day, I see I’m changing as a person.
It’s sort of a bittersweet relationship that I have right now. The training definitely made me a better actor, but I’m not in touch with too many people from Stella Adler.
You’ve worked both onstage and on the screen. How would you say your experiences have differed in theater versus film acting?
I think for me, film is not having too much preparatory time like in theater. Theater, you have that time to get into the characters and play around with different objectives, and once you fix your objective, you can play around with actions as well.
It’s not a rushed process. You have time to process everything which I don’t feel like you get that breathing space in film.
In film, it’s a very rushed process, but also one thing I noticed about filmmakers is that a lot of them don’t know how to direct their actors as well. They can be very concerned about the aesthetics rather than the actual performance.
So if you do something in one shot like say you’re crying; they’d be like oh my god; you cried so beautifully; do that again. But when you try to reproduce something exactly, it naturally becomes fake.
Theater is so authentic because you can never repeat stuff exactly.
But in film, people necessarily wouldn’t know that cause they’re just watching one take.
In a sense, you have to sort of fake your way through. Especially when directors ask you to repeat a certain thing that you’ve done, and it becomes inauthentic.
What’s been your most difficult challenge on the road so far?
There were places that were really accepting of my accent, my skin color. I recently did a theatrical adaptation of the Great Gatsby where both Daisy and Nick Carraway were actors of color. Both of us were from India. There are some places that are really accepting, but I still feel like there’s a lot of discrimination that happens in terms of accents and skin color.
I remember I went for an audition for a play in Brooklyn. When I went through the first round, there were four actors that were East Asians and then me, the only South Asian. And then for the callbacks it was only one of the East Asian actors and me, and we were both called back for the same role which was like a dumb cowboy/someone who carries bags/worker number 2.
Nowadays obviously there’s more representation, but at the same time, it’s like Indians are only cast in Indian ethnicity based projects. We are not getting cast in roles that are ethnicity neutral.
You wouldn’t cast a white person for an ethnicity based role, you would cast them in any role. If it’s a quintessential rom com, it always has to be two white people. You have films like say Black Panther or Crazy Rich Asians, but that’s still focusing on their ethnicity whereas a movie like say the trilogy Before Sunrise or a movie like A Star is Born, you’re focusing purely upon the characters.
As BIPOC artists, a lot of the time, the focus is not on the characters of the story, the focus is on our ethnicity.
So that is still for me personally the biggest challenge: getting roles irrespective of my color.
So thinking ahead, what’s the most exciting project you have coming up?
In April, I’m doing a staged reading in Key West Florida, so I’m really excited about that one. I’ll be in Florida for like a week, and we have some popups in New York City before that. That’s definitely one that I’m really excited about, and the other is I’m doing a short film shoot in Syracuse at the end of February. The script is really good.
Thinking even further ahead, do you have a dream role in theater or a hypothetical one you’d want in film?
In theater, I would definitely love to do Sweeney Todd. Sweeney Todd is one of my dream roles. Sweeney Todd and definitely Jesus Christ Superstar. I would love to play Judas. In terms of film, I would love to do an action film, complete with stunts. It’s something that I haven’t really done before, just all out action. Hand to hand combat and shooting and all that kind of stuff. I also love to play really twisted sadistic characters, no sense of gray or anything, just pure badass like you really hate that guy.
Do you have a movie or an actor or a play that’s like a guidebook to acting for you that you can revisit over and over?
I grew up watching Indian actors. They’re people I really love to fall back upon, and I get really inspired.
What advice would you give to other actors new to the business moving overseas to pursue their careers?
Don’t expect anything from anyone. If you render your services to someone, don’t expect anything in return. A lot of the projects that I’ve done it’s like you do the work and then people will just discard you after that. Once the project is done, it’s like you’re completely forgotten; they won’t even turn an eye towards you.
So one thing I would say to future actors who want to move abroad, it can get lonely. Do the work and just go home. Be a professional. Be on time, know your lines, be a nice person, just do the work.