EXCLUSIVE: Sarayu Blue won her part starring alongside Nicole Kidman in Lulu Wang’s Prime Video limited series Expats at a time when she didn’t know if she “could lift the boulder back up the hill.”
In an interview with Breaking Baz, the Indian-American actress recalls how she had just gone through the jubilation of landing the lead role in Aseem Bahra’s NBC series I Feel Bad in 2018 and the devastation when it was cancelled after just one season. The episode had a real impact.
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Landing the role in the Amy Poehler-executive produced comedy had been “an enormous thing,” says Blue, because it was a role that was ”never written Indian…. and I tested against three white women for it.” She instantly corrects herself by replacing the aggressive “against” with a softer “with.”
The role of Emet Kamala-Sweetzer in I Feel Bad, was that of a concept artist and a boss, juggling the demands of her husband, children and parents. Blue recalls it had this “I Love Lucy-type feel” that she thought could grow into something important.
“It was so big for me,” she says. “I was only the second Indian American woman ever to have a lead in a comedy in the United States — Mindy Kaling being the first.” Then it was cancelled. Holding back her emotions, she adds: “Not getting a shot at season two and really developing it into a really innovative experience broke my heart.”
“I don’t know if I can lift the boulder back up the hill again,” she sighs.
Then she smiles and says she is “so grateful to Lulu and Nicole” for casting her to play socialite Hilary Starr in Expats.
Starr is an affluent lady who lunches with her best girlfriends, all part of the wealthy expat enclave in Hong Kong, at swanky restaurants after which she’s chauffeured home to a luxury apartment that she shares with her husband David Starr (Jack Huston) and where migrant worker Puri (Amelyn Pardenilla) pampers her day and night. Puri then she spills “Miss Hilary’s” secrets to the other migrant domestics when they gather to lark about and share more tittle-tattle about their mistresses over bubble tea on rare days off.
Nicole Kidman plays Margaret, a landscape architect who resides with her family on another floor. Wang serves as creator, director and writer for Expats, and also executive produces the series with Dani Melia for Local Time. Kidman is also executive producer with Per Saari for Blossom Films.
Blue says that Wang and Kidman were her “advocates and champions” who had offered her the “undeniable, very rare opportunity for a South Asian girl who’s not a household name getting shot number two.”
“That’s unbelievable,” she says with a Hilary Starr-like purr.
Everything leads to Hilary Starr
When Wang and I spoke early last fall about this beyond-captivating, six-part series adapted by The Farewell filmmaker from Janice Y.K.’s searing 1998 novel, I had seen one episode, and I asked her about Blue, whose work I wasn’t overly familiar with at that point.
I must say that Paula Woods and Samantha Fetner, Wang’s publicists at Paula Woods Consultants, swiftly contacted Amazon Studios and had me sent rough-cut links of the series while Wang was still editing. I viewed it all in one sitting. (By the way, the Amazon MGM Studios series launches today with two episodes. New episodes launch weekly until the February 23 finale.)
Since then I’ve caught up with nearly everything Blue has done on screen — from a handful of lines in shows about doctors to, well, what she does in Expats. And everything, it seems to me, led to Hilary Starr.
Then I ask myself why isn’t Sarayu Blue a bigger star. Not for the fame of it all, but for the work. The good stuff. Why not a White Lotus or a True Detective?
There’s no obvious answer, Blue says she would like to “continue to play human beings,” and achieve “career stability and longevity — because that’s what I see a lot of counterparts get.”
She tells me about a conversation she had with her manager recently. There was a role she’d read for, but didn’t get. ”That’s okay,” she told her rep, “I knew I wasn’t going to get it.” She told him that throughout her career, she would “rarely book roles that are not written Indian.”
Recently, the success of Beef and Everywhere All At Once has seen an uptick of opportunity for thespians of East Asian heritage. Although Blue acknowledges Never Have I Ever, the Mindy Kaling comedy hit on Netflix in which she has a recurring role, we both wonder when the boom time for American female actors of South Asian backgrounds will come.
Her seven episodes in Never Have I Ever evoked feelings of fun and a “sense of community,” as she recalls the the “amazing chemistry” she had with Poorna Jagannathan and the joy of playing “people that are nothing alike and in no way stereotypical.”
Same with Hilary Starr. A scene springs to mind of her looking radiant, elegantly gowned and expensively coiffured, having lunch with her pal Olivia Chu — a fine Flora Chan. Somewhat nonchalantly, certain confidences are exchanged. You realise that the seemingly effortlessly effort to strike a powerful note is all in vain. These women have all the trappings but they don’t have it all. Hilary is married but lonely, which is why she spends so much time with Puri (newcomer Amelyn Pardenilla), who is a professional vocalist.
Blue sublimely captures Hilary’s vulnerability — and her exasperation.
Hilary is childless. What’s unique about that, Blue says, sensitively articulating a topic that I am not really equipped to tackle, is “that we just so rarely see in women — and women of color — questioning motherhood, and if that’s a role they want to take on. I really want to see more people allowed to honor the in-between times and say, ‘I don’t know.’
“I love that you see her really searching. She’s talking to her friend, she’s talking to her mother. You see her trying to understand it with her husband. There’s this very real, almost little girl in Hilary asking, ‘But how do I know? But what if that’s not something I want? What if I like my life?’ It’s interesting to consider that question and how it gets handled by different people.”
Pausing a moment, she continues: “And also, I’ve seen characters without children who are quite confident about it: ‘I never liked kids. I didn’t want kids. I know I don’t want kids.’ Often, they’re represented as these one-dimensional, ambitious career women. But this idea that you could potentially just be a multi-dimensional human being and be loving, bitter, petty, wonderful and funny at different times — and perhaps not want to be a mom — is a truly grounded choice.”
Blue says she has been “so blown away by Lulu’s intentionality with the storytelling and the direction. Watching it, I thought, ‘Look at all these actors of color with dimensional characters. Isn’t that always the dream?’ Among our friends, we always say, ‘Gosh, I just want to play a person.’ I mean, it sounds reductive but is it too much to ask to play a person?”
We talk about her cast mates — Kidman, Pardenilla, Chan, Huston, Ji-young Yoo, Ruby Ruiz, Brian Tee, Blessing Mokgohola, Sudha Bhuchar and many others — and the obvious care that Wang and her creative team and executives put into assembling them.
I wonder what the casting process had been like from her perspective? Blue remembers arriving at her audition and pretty immediately realizing “just how monumental” the project could be, being a fan of Wang. She didn’t have scripts at that point, but knew Kidman was involved and that her character would be multi-faceted.
Her session with Wang often began after 10pm because the director was working pre-production in Hong Kong. “I remember being really scared because I thought the project was so huge, and I knew I really needed it,” she says.
From her gut she knew the role was going to ask a lot. “It was one of the most powerful moments for me, because I am kind of a, ‘Let me at him, let me do it, put me in the ring’ [actress]. I want to get my hands dirty, and this was one of the first times the voice in my head was like, ‘You ready? You said you want to get in the ring? You said you want to throw down. You said you want to do a role you can sink your teeth in to.’ I really had to tell myself, ‘All right, I’m terrified. Let’s go.'”
There would be much to challenge for the entire ensemble cast. “Lulu doesn’t shy away from the ugly and uncomfortable moments, and these characters, these expats, are at some point not likable, and that’s a really important part of the story. I couldn’t shy away from that,” says Blue. “My job is not to be likeable… My job is to serve the story.”
She and Kidman share some scorching scenes together. Blue says that it was “really fun” to act opposite the Academy Award-winner. “We had amazing chemistry. It was fiery. That’s what I love about all these women: we’re fiery, and we’re not just strong.
I recall Jessica Chastain gently chastising me long ago for using the term “strong women” as Blue says the word “strong” can “take away the depth of the humanity. There’s a vulnerability to every single human.”
She continues: “I see it a lot with Black and brown women characters. Their description is always ‘strong.’ I always want to say, ‘Well, give them the vulnerability and humanity. That’s what’s in our show in so many ways.”
‘You’re not going to survive’
We’re sitting in the Ospero diner at the Pendry Hotel on Sunset Boulevard, a favoured spot of mine, late one recent morning. It’s warm outside, but Blue prefers to remain inside. It’s something to do with being born and growing up in Madison, Wisconsin where it was “so cold” that she’s shivering now just thinking about it. Her parents moved there from India when her father, a professor of Sanskrit, landed a role at the university there.
Blue was in school at the University of Iowa, but decided to leave for a semester to be an extra in the Keanu Reeves movie Chain Reaction. Her dad was “pretty pissed.” Though his parents were “never stereotypically like angry” about the thought of her becoming an actor, her father couldn’t see how she would make a living. He would watch American TV shows and movies: “We don’t see Indians in them. You’re not going to survive.”
Blue leapt at the chance to try and reassure him. She studied at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, while also appearing in some Shakespeare plays in Santa Cruz. She did a term studying theater at a university in Holloway, north London. During her time there she saw Diana Rigg and David Suchet in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Albert Finney in Yasmina Reza’s Art, adapted by Christopher Hampton. Watching those artists on stage made her even hungrier.
Later Bill Rauch, now Artistic Director at Oregan’s Shakespeare Festival, cast her as Varya in Alison Carey’s version of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.
Chekhov, I feel, is apt because there are a few literary flavours in Expats and one of them is definitely Chekovian. ‘That’s the thing,” Blue says, excited as the theater nerd in her “jumps out,” as she puts it. “Lulu does the slice of life. She’ll take an uncomfortable moment and then pivot, and suddenly you’re in a moment thats funny or cuts the tension somehow.”
I mention Judi Dench once telling me the shocking statistic that 90% of UK Equity actors can barely afford to live, and Blue agrees that’s it’s very much the same here in the States. “That’s part of the reason there was a strike for so long,” she says. “So many actors could not even earn enough to qualify for health insurance, and to qualify for it you only need $26,000 a year. That’s unsustainable in terms of surviving, and it’s really not okay. I always say that, even though it doesn’t seem like it, acting is a job. It’s a career.
“I’m very lucky that I’ve worked as much as I have. Most of my career has been really getting something and then not getting something for a long time, then getting something again. I am really passionate about actors being able to be paid and survive.”
However, she says that there needs to be a dismantling of the systemic inequality that holds many back. Many can’t find proper representation, let alone pay for a publicist, meaning A-list stars garner the most recognition, she argues.
If you want to see more diversity at awards shows, she tells me, “Start giving the awards to the people who are playing the roles that are seen as more functional.”
As she says this, my mind immediately strays to the sheer grace Myra Lucretia Taylor displays playing Jeffrey Wright’s housekeeper in American Fiction. Beatrice Straight [in Network] and Judi Dench [for Shakespeare In Love] won Best Supporting Actress Oscars for far less time spent on screen than Taylor does. Like them, Taylor steals every scene she’s in.
“If we really want inclusion, whether it’s in awards or more importantly in all mediums, we have to start really being intentional about amplifying people who aren’t necessarily in the shiny positions,” she says succinctly.
Let’s all help to push that boulder back up the hill.
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