Well-written and developed South Asian characters on television was a rarity even just a few years ago, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed for Sujata Day. This feeling was magnified when she was auditioning for roles after moving to Los Angeles. Luckily for her and for us, she scored the role of CeCe in Issa Rae’s web series “The Awkward Black Girl.” It ran from 2011-2013 before HBO picked up Rae’s comedy show “Insecure,” in which Day now stars as Sarah.
Day also has an engineering degree, she’s written short films like “Raveena and the Vampire,” “Larry and Lucy.” Most recently, she wrote and starred in “Cowboy and Indian,” a short feature that throws a curveball to the worldview of the white savior complex. Day’s work as an actor, writer, producer, and musical talent is proof of what a South Asian in Hollywood is capable of. She is not afraid of breaking barriers and is paving the way for many South Asian women who want to do the same.
We spoke to her about her many TV roles, all her industry inspirations, and what it means to be a desi in Hollywood right now.
The Teal Mango: First of all, I love “Insecure” and cannot wait for the third season. I know that the shoot for it began recently. How does it feel to be part of such a hilarious, revolutionary show?
Sujata Day: I feel hashtag blessed to be part of the “Insecure” family. I love that you said revolutionary because that’s exactly what this show is. Seeing black women be regular people and not stereotypes is totally revolutionary. What’s more exciting is what happens behind the scenes. There are women and men of color working on the crew from the production assistants to the cinematographers to the directors to the writers. Stepping on set feels like a Hollywood utopia and I feel hella spoiled. It’s inspiring to all of us involved. Many cast members are developing projects outside of “Insecure” and I know for a fact that we’re inspired by Issa Rae and the entire team. We’re all dedicated to telling stories by and for marginalized folks who haven’t had the opportunity before. I feel like we’re on the front lines of a New Hollywood and it’s invigorating.
TTM: You first starred as CeCe on the web-series “The Misadventures of the Awkward Black Girl” before “Insecure” happened. What was that move like for you, especially since you play different characters on both shows?
Day: Being a rider on the “Awkward Black Girl”/”Insecure” train from day one was a unique and special experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. CeCe was the first time I got to play a character that was closest to myself. Before CeCe and “ABG,” I was constantly auditioning for stereotypical Indian roles where the characters had accents, wore hijabs, or escaped arranged marriages. None of us from “Awkward Black Girl” actually thought we were also making the move to “Insecure.” I was very aware that it was a different show set in a different world. So when Issa texted me that there was a small role for me in the pilot, I was honored. Playing shady ass Sarah, who is the polar opposite of the understanding bestie, CeCe, has been so much fun for me as an actor. I will say, it’s still super weird being mean to Issa after playing her bestie for so long. The move from “Awkward Black Girl” to “Insecure” hit me when we filmed the beach episode with the We Got Y’all kids. It was a magic hour, that time of day when the light is perfect for shooting as the sun starts to set, and cast and crew were standing outside as the We Got Y’all kids got off a school bus. I thought about how far we’d come from Issa’s dad’s Inglewood office to a full-on HBO production with crafty trailers and script supervisors. A tear rolled down my cheek. One of the kids looked up at me and said, “Are you CRYING?” and I lied to her face, “No, it’s windy.” The kid did not believe me.
TTM: Why do you think seeing your character Sarah, a flawed and multi-dimensional South Asian who isn’t specifically defined by her ethnicity, or even seeing characters like Issa and Molly resonate with the audiences?
Day: It’s so important for people of all ethnicities to be seen as authentic and not just caricatures. Every single character on “Insecure” is a testament to our talented writers. Sarah is that judge-y girl at your office whose dad obviously pays her rent. Sarah, Issa and Molly all feel like someone you actually know in real life. Showing multi-dimensional characters onscreen directly translates to a better understanding of the “other” for people in parts of our country who may not personally know a black person, or lesbian, or Indian-American. Seeing more non-stereotypical brown and black girls onscreen created and written by brown and black girls will inspire a new generation of storytellers to amplify their much-needed voices and help create empathy and understanding in this divisive climate.
TTM: Congrats also on “Cowboy and Indian,” a short thriller that showed off your multi-talented skills because you wrote it, directed it, and starred in it. What was the motivation behind this? Can you tell us a little bit about the film?
Day: A couple months before writing “Cowboy and Indian,” my friend asked me to go to Joshua Tree to be in her music video. I’d never been to Joshua Tree before and being in the desert got my creative juices flowing. I started brainstorming phrases in my head like “Indian cowgirl” and “cowboys and Indians.” I wrote the script over Christmas and started prepping after the holidays. Around that time, I got a tax statement for some random stocks from the consulting firm I worked for after college. I called and asked how much the stocks were worth and they said $5500. I told them to send me a check and that’s how I funded my short. Best decision I ever made! You’ll never regret investing in yourself and your art. Since it’s only an eight-minute movie, I don’t want to give too much away and spoil the plot. The film’s currently available to watch on Vimeo so head on over there after you finish reading this!
TTM: As a South Asian in the entertainment industry, did you feel it was creatively necessary for you to take charge on “Cowboy and Indian” or your other short “Wallflower” to ensure that the narrative was accurately portrayed and not stereotypical?
Day: “Wallflower” was super fun because it’s the first music video from my band Naked Hipster Project with my Biffle Will Collyer. We wrote “Wallflower” in our spare time and didn’t expect anything from it. Our Naked Hipster Project songs led to us writing a song for a villain character on a Nickelodeon show. I didn’t think of “controlling the narrative” while shooting the Wallflower video as much as I just wanted to sing, dance and act silly with Will. “Cowboy and Indian” was a whole different experience. It was really important for me to control the narrative because I felt like only I, a Bengali-American girl, could accurately tell this particular story. I played with the theme ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’ I wanted the audience to be aware of how they saw each character in the beginning and how that opinion changed in the end and to examine why they assumed certain things, maybe stereotypical, at the top of the film. I also knew exactly how I wanted it to look visually so taking the reins on “Cowboy and Indian” felt easy and natural.
TTM: With the rise of actors like Mindy Kaling, Priyanka Chopra, Kumail Nanjiani and more in the mainstream media over the last few years, how has the personally impacted you and your own path?
Day: It’s an exciting time right now, where there can be more than one South Asian on television at the same time. The amplification of voices like Kumail Nanjiani, Hasan Minhaj, Hari Kondabolu and so many others proves that there’s room for us all. “Master Of None” inspired me to create my own shows and movies centered around the experiences of a first-generation Indian-American girl. Seeing Mindy Kaling in a leading role on network television gave me hope that more doors would eventually open for South Asian women in entertainment, both behind and in front of the camera. No one brown girl will ever be able to tell a universal story for all brown girls. Every brown person who came and conquered before me paved the way for the next generation. I want to inspire and support others!
TTM: Did you always know you wanted to be an actor? Growing up in a suburban Pennsylvanian town, were there any brown heroes on TV that you could relate to?
Day: I knew I wanted to be an actor when I played a Young Miss in my high school production of “Showboat” and heard the audience bust out into laughter every time I delivered my one line. After that moment, I began plotting my escape to Hollywood. I performed in plays and took acting classes in between taking engineering finals. Growing up, I watched my share of Bollywood movies, but all the heroines were stunning models and former Miss India’s so I could never fully relate to them. Jess in “Bend It Like Beckham” was such a turning point in my life. Even though it was a British film, Gurinder Chadha really touched on a universal immigrant kid story. I had never seen “me” onscreen before that moment and it pushed me even harder to create, write, and act. Kal Penn’s character in “Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle” also changed the game. Harold and Kumar were me and my friends and it was refreshing to see non-stereotypical Asian-American leads go on crazy stoner adventures. I was a bookworm and so many of my brown heroes existed in books like “The God of Small Things,” “Interpreter of Maladies,” and “Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee.”
TTM: You’ve appeared on some really funny shows like “The Grinder,” “Life in Pieces,” and my personal favorite, “Brooklyn 99.” With the latter, your episode was really great and you worked with some big names like Nathan Fillion and Andy Samberg. What was that entire experience like? Do you like gravitating more towards comedies?
Day: Working on “Brooklyn 99” is a comedy actor’s dream come true. It’s a little nerve-wracking to shoot a guest star when the regular cast has been working together for years. But there was literally nothing to worry about because the cast and crew were so welcoming and friendly. During my first scene with Andy Samberg and Stephanie Beatriz, Andy started improvising with me at the end of the scene and I improvised right back. After cutting, everyone laughed and Andy turned to me and said, “That was fun!” I died. The scene got cut from the actual episode but it’s moments like those that make you remember why you got into this industry in the first place. I want to give a special shout-out to Mike Schur who directed the episode and is just a kind, wonderful person. I really wanted to have a scene with Chelsea Peretti because I think she’s one of the funniest human beings on the planet but it wasn’t in the script. Since my acting bug was sparked by the audience’s laughter in my high school auditorium, I gravitate more towards working in comedies but some of my favorite binge-watch shows are dramas.
TTM: Who are your acting/directing inspirations?
Day: My biggest inspirations are creator/actors like Michaela Coel, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and Donald Glover. And, obviously, Issa. These guys are masters at crafting a story and bringing it to life in the most authentic way possible. I’m inspired by people in the industry who practice what they preach like Shonda Rhimes, Ava DuVernay, and Ryan Murphy. These powerhouses are knocking down existing power structures in Hollywood and constructing new ones. Hitchcock, Tarantino, and Kubrick films helped me shape the look and feel of “Cowboy and Indian.” Satyajit Ray, a renowned Bengali, is one of my biggest directorial influences. He excelled in independent filmmaking that depicted real lives of Indian individuals at a time when most of India’s filmmakers preferred the fantasies of gaudy Bollywood musicals. Ray’s portrayal of Bengali women onscreen was revolutionary because they had hopes, dreams, and existed without any sense of exploitation. I want to follow in the incredibly talented footsteps of Barry Jenkins, Sean Baker, Jill Soloway, Ryan Coogler and Jordan Peele.
TTM: What are some of the future projects you’re working on right now that you’re excited about?
Day: What am I not excited about? I’m a huge believer in not putting all your eggs in one basket and I have multiple television and feature film projects in different stages of development. Series-wise, I have a workplace comedy set with Issa Rae’s Color Creative/Charles King’s MACRO, a family comedy at John Legend’s Get Lifted, and a dramedy at Super Deluxe. My recent addiction to animated shows like “Rick & Morty,” “Big Mouth,” and “Bob’s Burgers” spawned an animated comedy of my own that I can’t wait to introduce to the world. I’m pitching a couple features and one of them may be turned into a series. I’m honestly just excited to develop projects for and by brown girls. Hollywood’s doors have never been more open to people who look like me. Web series and new media have transformed the industry for the better and there’s no excuse right now to not create your own content. Grab your phone, bribe your friends with pizza, and shoot something!