Nikesh is a London-based actor working in stage, television and film. He debuted in Disconnect at the Royal Court, won the EEACTA Award for Best TV Actor (Indian Summers) and the BBC Radio Drama Award for Midnight's Children. He recently appeared in Doctor Who, and is soon to be appearing in Four Weddings and a Funeral and Disney’s Artemis Fowl.
Thanks so much for coming to meet with us! We know you are working on some really exciting projects at the moment! But, before we get on to that, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background. So, where are you from? Where did you grow up?
No thank you for having me, loving the work Burnt Roti magazine is doing. Yeah, so I’m a Londoner. Born & raised in Wembley, I’m a Wembley boy! I’ve lived there my whole life and still live in NW London.
So when did you realise that you wanted to get in to the arts? Or acting even?
I definitely deviated from that ‘norm’ so to speak. During school, I knew early on that I wanted to do something different from what my Asian peers wanted to do, and definitely different to what my parents had expected me to do career wise. It’s funny actually because at first I really wanted to be a journalist, but when I explored that during an internship I realised I wanted to work on the arts desk. Intuitively, I knew I wanted to do something within that space.
In retrospect it was actually at University when my friends had asked me ‘have you thought about drama school?’ and instinctively, my answer was ‘WHAT is drama school??!’ It wasn’t something that I thought was available or was ever presented to me as a viable option. Just wasn’t in my vocabulary, nor had I been exposed to it before. Thankfully my parents were very supportive of my decision to go despite not understanding what it entailed.
We’ve all been there for sure! I read Philosophy at University, so I understand. So, how did your parents react when you told them you want to go to drama school or even read English at University?
Both times actually, they were very much like, ’okay, but what will you do with it?’. In fact, when I started to apply for drama schools, their response was ‘you can do it for a year’ - not quite comprehending, that I was committed to becoming an actor! I guess part of that, is our conditioning within the Asian culture. Our parents only reference to acting is either Bollywood or Hollywood, and both seemed somewhat unattainable. So I think the preconception or even misconception was rife. However, after much persuasion, they decided to ‘give me a year’ and I realised that I just needed to stay committed to my passion, and hoped that they would see it eventually.
What was your experience like in drama school? Which predominantly is known for being very English or upper/middle class. How did you navigate around that space?
To be quite honest with you I felt like my experience was perhaps an anomaly. For want of a better word, the faculty was very conscious of keeping the talent “diverse” in my particular year group so I didn’t feel like I was out of place.
So what was your first performance? Or work? What was the most memorable to you?
The first real gig I got was playing Othello at University. In the audition I actually wanted to play Iago, and that’s the role I auditioned for… but then they gave me Othello. At first I thought, ‘ugh, did they give me that role based on the OBVIOUS reason? Because I am a person of colour?’, but then I put those thoughts to the side, and decided to free myself from that constant second guessing that we as actors do. Now I make a conscious effort to just accept the decision - it’s hard enough as it is, trying to get roles and to add that extra pressure of profiling or boxing - I think is unnecessary.
Agreed. So did anyone from your family come to see you perform?
It’s a funny story actually, so I invited my parents to come see me perform as Othello. You know, if you ever want some hard, cold, brutal, honest criticism, you should ask your mum. Asian mums - they are hardcore!! At the end of the show I asked her, ‘so, what did you think?’ and you know she goes to me ‘OH…. You spit a lot don’t you?’
I was trying to explain to her, that there’s this thing called diction….. but you know, she just wasn’t convinced. You know how it is! So, in a way, I guess that was my first, real review!!
What has been one of the most challenging or emotional roles you’ve done?
Definitely, Indian Summers. For a number of reasons actually. Firstly, learning about partition and all the multi-layered issues around that. I mean, not only is SO recent, but completely absent in our schooling - certainly my schooling anyway. When we look at the curriculum, it’s the Tudors, Romans, WW1, WW2 and Cold War - yet so much more has happened, and we are not educated sufficiently in that. What excited me about this role, is that, for once, the ‘Indians’ would not be on the periphery of this story. It was an ambitious show, not without its flaws of course. But the very fact that this story was being watched across living rooms all over the UK, made me feel somewhat more gratified.
What did your family think of the story? Or even watching you on Indian Summers?
They loved it, I mean, perhaps that’s biased, they are my parents after all. But in terms of historical drama, what even is their point of reference? Lagaan?! In one episode I recall, Sanjeev Bhaskar played an untouchable and during our conversation in the scene, I spoke a line of Gujurati. I mean, I got to speak a line of Gujurati, on primetime TV, to essentially a host of white people across the country! When does that ever happen? So for me, that was quite a powerful moment, for my family as well.
There’s been a lot of talk recently, especially amongst South Asian actors, about the stereotypical, racially profiled roles within film and TV. How do you deal with accepting/rejecting those roles? Or what are your thoughts around that?
Hmm… of course I agree with the actors, but on the other hand, I think a lot of that comes with experience and age. Mostly, if you have done a few roles already, you have that confidence, but when you’re just starting out, you don’t really have the luxury to say no to roles. At the end of the day, you have to eat. I respect what high profile South Asian actors are doing - opening up that conversation and almost forcing others to rethink their outdated methods. However, I don’t wake up every single day and remind myself that I’m British Asian, you know? I’m not naïve to say that I’m not aware of it but at the same time, is it really necessary to be just Asian or a person of colour? The danger of that is being reduced to just a skin colour or ethnicity. When writing isn’t very imaginative, it robs people of being recognisable as human beings.
What were your biggest challenges when you first started out? Do you think they are still prevalent in the post “me too” world we are in now?
To be honest, I was quite fortunate, I had a very good agent who worked really hard to send me out to castings that were ‘colour blind’ so to speak. So in an odd way, I feel like I had experienced the inverse of that. For example, I once went to a casting, and the role was to play the son of a estranged white father. I walked away thinking, ‘no way they are giving that to me, I’M BROWN!!.
Ironically, I got the part. It’s hard enough when we start putting blocks on ourselves, but it made me go, ‘we know what the stats are, we know what the numbers are, but we HAVE to go in and give it our all and go in there and give them a problem. Give them a real effing problem. Make them re think their bias or discrimination.’
What do you want to see changed?
In a big way, we are living in a very exciting time, where the old system is being shaken, and it’s definitely opening up new doors and new opportunities. For example, The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla, if you just look at what he did there, it was like opening up a whole massive bag of just pure raw experiences. People are now articulating stuff in a way, that perhaps before was just not even possible. It’s almost like the wool has been lifted and it’s instantly becoming clearer.
So, to change tracks…I kind of know what you are working on (obviously) but we are dying to hear more about what you are working on now! Can you tell us a little bit about the projects you are working on?
So I finished filming a new Disney Film called Artemis Fowl which is an adaptation of a very popular young adult books. The film is due to come out in the Summer of 2019. I play a character called Foaly, who is a centaur! He is sort of like the nerdy Q in James Bond, but…a centaur.
Amazing, and do you have any other projects lined up? Or what else are you working on?
Haha, I know exactly what you want me to say!! So yes, I am working on Four Weddings and A Funeral at the moment. We are currently filming here in London - produced by the legendary Mindy Kaling. Without giving too much away, (which I really can’t!) but what I can say, is…it’s truly amazing.
So how did you come about getting the part for this role?
It’s a funny story really. By complete fluke, I was actually on my way back from a wedding (I know, I know) and I came across the script which is a work of pure genius. I think it really is a testament to Mindy Kaling and her character. When you look at the writers room there are people from all backgrounds, ethnicities, ages and genders, and you just think ‘of course this is why it’s so savvy’. The table reads are always wild!
So, without giving away too much, how much can you tell us about the show?
I really can’t give much away! But, what I can say, is anyone who is a fan of film - there are definite nods to the scenes in the film but it’s a modern day adaptation. It’s unique, not only in the script and screenplay but also the casting, direction, and the writing. I’m really excited for it to come out. I think you just have to watch it to see!
Okay, okay… we won’t ask anymore! How was your experience working on such an iconic story, and right here in your hometown?
I think it’s definitely one of the best things about working on this project - not only is it in my hometown of London but in so many ways it showcases all the things we celebrate and love about London. It really is a melting pot of so many different cultures, and that multiculturalism is so well celebrated and embraced in this show. It did make me think that it took the Americans to come all the way over here, to show us that.
What are you hopeful about for the future in this industry?
You know what, so many things. I recently did a radio show, and at the end of the show, the presenter said to me ‘I really enjoyed that, we should really get you in again and make you do non Indian roles’. My instant reaction, was of pure shock! I mean, on a medium like radio of all things! Does that really matter? But on the other hand, it did made me think, ‘huh, well, at least those thoughts and those conversations are opening up’. I really admire the younger generation, the way they just call shit out and tell it how it is. Why shouldn’t we? Why should we just accept it as it is? Things do need to change and I think collectively that change has got to come from below and has to come from all of us. I think we will get there for sure.