Shaan Sharma knows about the insides of Hollywood, being both an actor and producer, not to mention a casting session director, author, and acting teacher. He even provides on-camera acting training and mentorship with his site www.shaansharma.com.
We had the opportunity to catch up with Sharma and gain insights into why and how he gravitated towards the world of acting and how the journey has looked for him as a South Asian in Hollywood.
The Teal Mango: Can you tell us a little bit about your work background?
Shaan Sharma: I was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota! It’s such an amazing place to grow up. It’s safe, beautiful with stoic, passive-aggressive gorgeousness everywhere. I went to Wayzata High School, which was such a wealthy school district that it was practically a private school education. That’s where I got my start in acting; eight plays, including one I got to co-write and direct with all my friends.
I’ve had 45 jobs since I was 14 years old. I’ve had every position in a restaurant except being a manager. I was finally was able to break free of hospitality when I became a Casting Session Director in LA 10 years ago. It’s the perfect job to go along with being an actor. For some reason, if you work in casting, people are nice to you. Go figure.
TTM: Being South Asian comes with certain career expectations from our community, particularly of our parent’s generation. Is your family supportive of your artistic career choice?
Sharma: I knew in 8th grade that I wasn’t going to college so my parents had plenty of time to come to terms with it. It helped that they were so busy fighting with each other, I could kinda get away with anything. Like playing piano and acting. Now, even though I didn’t go to college, my mom can show everyone that her son is a doctor AND a lawyer AND a successful businessman because I’ve played them on the TV! That’s even better, really.
TTM: What would you consider the highlights of your career?
Sharma: It’s been an amazing last four years, it’s when the bulk of my work as an actor in LA has occurred. The highlights would be my first national commercial, in which they made a CGI version of me and created this beautiful fantasy world. I got to shoot it up in Washington State. I also got to shoot such an awesome series for Amazon called “Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street.”
I remember when they gave me a page and a half of non-sequiturs as a time-lapse monologue. I ended up just filling in the blanks and writing a five-minute monologue to pull it off. It was received so well and was so fun to do on set. I also just shot the new CBS show “Seal Team.” Such a thrill!
But I can’t just highlight my acting experiences. These last two years, I’ve gotten heavily involved in serving my union, SAG-AFTRA, where I now sit on the LA Local Board of Directors and serve on the Conservatory Committee. We’re making huge changes and improvements, building a loving, passionate community of members educating members and supporting each other, and celebrating one another’s successes. I am so lucky to be able to make a living doing what I love doing. I want that for every artist.
TTM: What was it about this industry that drew you in?
Sharma: I almost failed the 9th grade. I ended up going to summer school and one of my teachers was the high school musical director. I was a dark, brooding, loner-nerd back then. On the first day of summer school, someone sniped at me. I grabbed a box of pens on the desk and whipped one at every kid in the classroom. Next thing I know, I’m being pulled into the hallway by my ear. Mr. Mahn tells me, “Do anything like that again and you’re going back to Junior High.” A friendship was born. He put me in the fall musical with a solo as a sophomore. My star had risen. That man is the reason I got laid and graduated high school. He’s a legend.
TTM: Tell me about your journey to becoming an actor?
Sharma: I used to work all the time in Minnesota. When I moved to LA, I didn’t book a job for three years. I just wasn’t a good enough actor at the time. I needed to go back to the drawing board and really learn how to be a master of our craft.
Once I got the training I needed, that’s when my career started to take off. When I was still living in Minnesota, acting was something I did on the side. I was mainly a musician, as a singer-songwriter. I had a small music booking company and would book myself and a hundred other performers all over the state. I also used to produce large-scale community fashion shows to spread awareness about acting and modeling scam schools and “talent searches.” Since coming to LA, acting, casting, writing, and teaching have taken my full focus.
TTM: Why is it important to have South Asians represented in Hollywood? Do you see a growing trend when it comes to this?
Sharma: It’s important to have people of every background in Hollywood so that the needs of storytellers can be met. It’s better for everyone if you can find talent locally to save time and money. I think we’re seeing diversity being made a priority in entertainment. As someone of East Indian descent, it’s always great to see the arts being valued as much as the career paths that most Indian parents encourage their children to pursue.
I was pretty much the black sheep of the Indian community in Minneapolis for telling other kids to follow their dreams instead of being doctors and engineers. When I see desis on TV, I personally cheer because I can imagine how many aunties and uncles may have tried to talk that kid out of the arts.
TTM: Tell me about your involvement in SAG and why you do it?
Sharma: I wrote an article for Backstage that got the attention of union leadership. Before I knew it, I was in meetings with our National Executive Director, David White, connecting him with my commercial casting director/session director friends. That led to me being invited to teach at the Los Angeles Conservatory. Six months later, I was added to the committee. Six months after that, I was in charge of the Commercial Department. A year later, I’m on the Board of Directors. It’s crazy.
I have only one goal with my union service: to make every member feel the power and value of their membership. I’m engaged in leadership to encourage SAG-AFTRA member leadership to direct more resources at services that help our rank and file membership be more successful: a place to self-tape for free, to rehearse, to find friendship and creative partners, to save money on the many costs associated with our industry, and to get the best ongoing education to keep us bookable.
I want every union member to incorporate union volunteering and service into their artistic lives because our union is what makes doing this as a career possible. If you do even one thing to serve your union, you’ll feel a sense of ownership over it. It’s a lot harder to break a union that every member feels responsible for.
TTM: Are you happy with all the work you’re getting to do?
Sharma: We can’t compare our journeys to anyone else. There is always someone richer, more accomplished, younger, hotter, luckier, etc. You have to enjoy your journey and not just focus on the destination. I’ve built my life around the principles I preach, like pursuing excellence in your craft, being strategic with your focus, investing in your career, and surrounding yourself with incredible people who share your passions. I am so happy.
I am not satisfied, of course. I want to grow as an artist and experience the highest levels of art in our business. But the fact that I can choose how to spend every minute of every day, and feel expressed and appreciated; it makes me so happy. My students, my friends, my loved ones, my union, my creative community; I love them all.