I’ve always thought that I would make a terrific interviewer. It’s basically making conversation, which I’m amazing at, plus I listen to Fresh Air, like, all.the.time. Upon reviewing this transcript, though, I can see I have a little work to do on some of the basics. Terry Gross almost never interrupts people to ask questions about puberty or randomly starts cracking up in the middle of someone’s answer. On the other hand, maybe she does do that stuff, and they just edit it out in post? Hm.
For this edition of The Prompt and my inaugural interview, I talked with a bona fide American working actor and one of my oldest friends, Anish Jethmalani. Anish and I met doing a production of Richard II at the Chopin Theatre in Chicago in 1999, which is when I gave him the nickname “Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” Recently I got the chance to see him back at that same theater in a terrific production of Hatfield & McCoy by the House Theatre of Chicago. It’s closed now so, you can’t go see it. Sorry. But his next show is a production of The Merchant on Venice with Rasaka Theatre Company and Vitalist Theatre, running through April 15, so if you’re in Chicago, you’re in luck. Or if you have a lot of frequent flyer miles and feel like going to Chicago—same goes!
When I interviewed Anish, he had just finished an understudy put-in rehearsal for The Merchant on Venice, and he was very, very tired. However, I could barely tell, since he was a consummate professional, as usual.
Jessica Fidalgo: So how did rehearsal go tonight?
Anish Jethmalani: It went well, but I’m ready to close this sucker and take a break. I just went from one show right to the next to the next. It’s one of those things … you’re grateful for the opportunities, but it starts kind of catching up to you when you get a little older. I’m ready for some time off. I’ve got a few more weeks of this show, and I’ll be done.
JF: I bet Michelle and the kids will be glad to see more of you.
AJ: Yes, they’re anxiously awaiting the closing as much as I am.
JF: So maybe let’s start with some background. How old are you? We’re the same age, right?
AJ: I’m [redacted.]
JF: Right, and I’ll be [redacted] later this year. (Let the record show Anish is older. Also, I just realized Terry Gross NEVER reveals her age. Dammit, you are BLOWING this, Fidalgo!)
JF: And you grew up in Chicago, right?
AJ: Yeah, I was born in Chicago and raised in the city for the first four or five years of my life; then my parents moved to the suburbs. So I was raised in Glendale Heights, then decided to come back to the city and was able to get a theater scholarship to Loyola University. I’ve pretty much been here since.
JF: Were your mom and dad performers too?
AJ: My mom was, my dad not so much. My mom was actively involved in the Indian community here in Chicago, and she was interested in a lot of Sanskrit drama. She actually started a nonprofit and produced shows that were geared towards the Indian community. She also did this cable access show called “Chitrahaar,” which was around for a long time, starting in the late 70s through the 80s and into the early 90s, I think. The show was quite popular, and she co-hosted it for a few years.
JF: And you did your first play in junior high? Do you remember what it was?
AJ: It was Oliver! I played the Artful Dodger.
JF: Of course you did! I really hope there are photographs of this that you can find for me.
AJ: Yeah … I don’t know about that. (merciless laughter from me.) I remember I was going through puberty at the time. You can imagine an 11 or 12 year-old trying to sing those songs, and my voice was cracking, and I had no idea what was going on. (more merciless laughter from me.)
JF: No one had explained that to you?!
AJ: No, I kinda had to figure it out myself.
JF: And there was no Google!
AJ: There was no Google, no computer, nothing! (Cross talk; I ask random questions about boys’ voices changing and how long that process takes. IT’S SO WEIRD, RIGHT?)
AJ: But I had fun with it. I felt such joy performing in front of people and kind of just had no fear about it. I remember in junior high, in the drama club, a group of students from the local high school performed. I remember I was just transfixed by what they were doing. I was like, “I want to be part of that. That’s what I want to do.” So I signed up for the Introduction to Theater class and went on a whim to audition for the first play when I was a freshman. I ended up getting cast, much to my surprise, but that’s where the bug bit me.
JF: So you’re at Loyola, you got your scholarship, you’re majoring in theater … was your dad pretty chill about that? Did he want you to look at another line of work?
AJ: Well, when Loyola offered the scholarship, he was very supportive. I think he also, like, you know, wanted me to find something to fall back on.
JF: Your parents are first generation immigrants from India, right?
AJ: Yeah. He said, “Do whatever you want to do, just find something else that might be a fallback.” So I ended up double majoring in theater and econ, more to sort of check that box.
JF: To appease the patriarch?
JF: OK. So let’s talk about training.
AJ: I didn’t really start to understand that acting was a craft and there was a method to it until I was in college. Even then I didn’t really appreciate it until I did a stint at the Oxford School of Drama. Then I came to understand that there was more to it; there was a process and a technique of building a character and understanding a story. I had to learn the mechanics of what a play was – getting my hands around all of that and learning the craft of performing – as opposed to just being up onstage in front of a bunch of people and doing whatever I wanted to do. I don’t think I had that level of appreciation before that; and that level of appreciation got deeper and deeper as I started working, getting shows, tackling characters, working with other people and mentors, and seeing and understanding what they were doing. Learning from them and finding a process that works for me – I continue to do that as I go along. It’s sort of never-ending. I’m a very different actor from 20 years ago. Part of it is just life – you sort of feed off life, you learn from it, you carry your experiences with you, and that level of maturity sort of sets in. I’d say I’m enjoying it more now than ever before, because I’ve experienced all that stuff to be able to bring it to the character. It’s much more fulfilling now.
JF: Obviously you work – and have worked for as long as I’ve known you – ALL the time. Do you have an estimate of how many plays you’ve worked on at this point in your career?
AJ: If I had to just throw a number out there?
JF: Yeah, just throw a number out there. It’s fine. No one is going to check.
AJ: (mumbles while doing mental math) So 20-something years … maybe roughly 80?
JF: 80 plays? That’s a lot.
AJ: It’s a lot.
JF: So what’s your criteria for taking something? You must have to turn some stuff down.
AJ: Nowadays I have a little more freedom to be a little more judicious. For me, it’s gotta be an interesting story and an interesting character that has some sort of a journey. I want to know who I’m working with in terms of the director and maybe a few of the people who are going to be involved. The theater’s reputation kind of counts as well. Nine out of 10 times, most of the stuff I get is stuff I tend to lean towards anyway. It’s rare that I turn down something I’m offered.
JF: What about just sheer burnout or the need to just NOT for a while? Do you feel that?
AJ: That’s where I’m at right now, yeah. Just a string of shows over the last year or so; and in the last few years, actually, I haven’t had a substantial break. The show I’m in now, I’m going to wrap it up and take about a six-month break. Which is a little scary but also I’m welcoming it … kind of to recalibrate, and just go back, and live some life, and try to find some other things to do and enjoy.
JF: Is it scary in the sense that you kind of always need to be doing something or is it more just that feeling of keeping the career momentum going?
AJ: A little bit of both. Sometimes I’ll get restless and want to be working, so that’s part of it … but you always tend to think that people are going to forget about you, and you fall into that insecurity.
JF: Could never happen.
AJ: But I also think I kind of want to find another avenue for creativity, and I don’t think I’ve found that yet. I think there’s something to be said for trying to let life feed you for a while. I also know that I don’t want to be focused just on this forever. For me, it’s not sustainable.
JF: Do you feel that way just because of where you are in your life, as a dad and husband, or like the realities of the business?
AJ: I think it’s all that. There’s a lot of cynicism that’s built into the business, and I don’t even experience it on the levels that people do in New York City or Los Angeles. But it still gets exhausting after a while. I think with theater you have to be able to be reliant on so many other people; it’s a communal activity that involves more than one person to be able to make it work. And some things are not in your control. So for me, I’m hoping that I can find something that I can sort of shape on my own, versus being reliant on someone else to do it for me.
JF: Who are some actors whose work you love? Whose work can’t you stand?
AJ: Adrian Lester is someone I’ve always admired. His gift with language and the depth of his emotion are always wonderful to watch. And reality TV stars – particularly the one currently sitting in the Oval Office.
JF: What’s your biggest frustration with the business?
AJ: I think … it’s that theater in general kind of moves at a snail’s pace, as an art form. I see so much around us moving faster and being more progressive in terms of the opportunities it’s creating for people, and theater is just years behind that. Part of that is the material; we don’t seem to be inspiring people to write plays that will speak to different types of diverse communities. It’s changing for the better within the last decade or so, but I think it’s moving at a very slow pace. And I think the opportunities for women and minorities continue to be pretty awful, so I’d like to see more progress made on that front. Things have gotten better but it continues to be an industry geared towards white men. There’s also a classism aspect of it too, that I’m not a big fan of? I think theater is still pretty inaccessible to poorer communities. There are avenues and some outreach programs but, for the most part, it’s still a rich man’s spectacle. For me, there are days when I’m sitting on stage going, “Who am I doing this for?” Is this all sort of self-indulgent at the end of the day? It does feel like that sometimes.
JF: How do film and TV fit into all this?
AJ: I haven’t done a LOT, but it’s not as satisfying as being on stage. You hear that from other actors too who say they prefer the theater … I understand why. It’s not the same experience. You’re surrounded by all this equipment, and nothing is really organic or real about it. It’s all about what time of day it is and how much light there is; it’s much more mechanical and all about precision and angles. It’s more mathematical. That being said, the money is there. So the amount of time I’ve spent shooting one of these shows … in one day it’s as much as I would make during the whole run of a play. However, If I had to choose between the two, I’d chose theater.
JF: Let’s talk about colorblind casting and representations of race. You’re Indian. You’ve been hired to play races other than your own, right?
AJ: More often than not, I haven’t been cast outside my race. I’ve been mostly cast within my ethnicity. I would say that’s changed over the last few years. I think people have become more sensitive to that. The more diversity has come to the forefront of our national conversation, the more things have changed. A lot of that is because we have a younger generation of people who are sort of demanding it. Even just the last few plays I’ve done – I would never have been able to play those parts 10, 15 years ago because they would never have even thought about it. Playing a confederate soldier, a religious man from Kentucky [in “Hatfield & McCoy”] – that would not have happened, you know? Part of it I think has been what I call the Hamilton effect. Since “Hamilton” became such a huge hit, and people are seeing actors of color in roles that they normally would not associate with them, they’re, like, …”Well, maybe we can do that too in other kinds of plays!” Lin-Manuel Miranda is my hero.
JF: He’s a national treasure. What’s your take on the Edward Albee thing from last year?
AJ: I don’t know the exact circumstances of that particular production. I just think that the man was pretty particular about what he wanted all the way up until his deathbed and was very difficult to work with.
JF: Tell me if you agree with this. I feel like because theater is such a collaborative art form, and it so depends on individual artistic expression, you write a play, you put it out there in the world, and this idea that you can have some control over it forever is really kind of … absurd!
AJ: My question is, why are we still producing Edward Albee in 2018? What good do his stories do for us? They’re great plays, no question about that, and they’re still universal, but do we really need to revisit those stories again? Where’s the room to start to build our Albees for now, the African-American Albee or the Indian Albee? That’s what we need to be focusing on, not rehashing a lot of these old white guys. The industry is still sort of stuck on them. Whereas, when you go to film and TV, you look at the amount of young filmmakers that are really turning the industry on its head, telling diverse stories, and doing it in such different ways. We need that kind of innovation in our industry. Part of the problem is that we don’t have the audience. Our audience is fairly older, they’re whiter, and they’re wealthier, and when you have that combination, everything moves much more slowly.
JF: How does this progress relate to Shakespeare? I know you to be a Shakespeare aficionado, as I am myself.
AJ: Funnily enough, Shakespeare has historically been more amenable to diverse casting. People seem to be more comfortable with it in Shakespeare roles. I think Shakespeare’s stories are amazing, and the language is so beautiful, and there’s a lot of room to be able to appreciate it. The challenge becomes … how do you sort of let a younger generation in on his work? They need to continue to open up those channels. We see the bigger theaters are still catering to a predominantly white affluent audience. The play I’m doing now is an adaptation of “The Merchant of Venice,” but it’s a South Asian, contemporary take on Merchant, dealing with Muslims. Our playwright, Shishir Kurup, has been able to take the story, modernize it, and set it within the context of a specific cultural group. Those kinds of avenues of examining Shakespeare through another lens are really good and useful. People who have come to see this play, and saw it in its original run back in 2007, have been really blown away by it.
JF: Are your kids aware of what you do? Are they interested? My children could not care less about my acting background or the projects I’m into, for the most part.
AJ: Not yet? I didn’t really start to appreciate theater until I was 12 or 13, so that might change. We’ll see.
JF: Yeah, they’re little. Would you be fine with them becoming actors, do you think?
AJ: I don’t know … I can only hope they would consider other choices.
JF: Given the chance, you would … gently dissuade?
AJ: Yes. Yes. Gently! I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.
JF: If you had a time machine and could give young Anish a piece of advice, what would it be?
AJ: I would say don’t sweat the small stuff, be more adventurous, and take the leaps of faith. Enjoy the journey.
JF: Ooh, this is a good one I just thought of: Which superhero do you most identify with? I know you’re going to say Batman. Is it Batman?
JF: No, it’s not Batman. My superhero is my wife. She is my rock. (He does really like Batman, though. I fact checked that.)
JF: Well, I think this was good! I mean, I did very well, and you didn’t say anything too offensive.
AJ: I hope not!
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and to make me and Anish sound less tired. xo