Everything is coming up Vinny Chhibber. The actor is currently working on his new CBS pilot, a gritty drama called “Red Line,” hailing from big names Ava DuVernay and Greg Berlanti. It is about an African-American doctor who is accidentally shot dead by a white cop. Chhibber plays Liam Bhatt, a witty and openly gay high school teacher. I know, this short description itself is ground-breaking in many ways. It’s also probably why he is excited about this part.
Chhibber, who was born in Queens, New York and grew up in a small town in West Virginia, has been acting for about 10 years now. He’s done roles in The CW’s “No Tomorrow” and NBC‘s “Taken,” to name a few but that’s not all. Chhibber also produce, write, and direct features and short films that weave different, solid narratives together. It’s the kind of entertainment we deserve.
We spoke to him about his projects, the importance of diversity on-screen and how the South Asian community should, and is, supporting this endeavor, and his list of directors he can’t wait to work with.
The Teal Mango: Congratulations on your CBS drama pilot “Red Line.” I know we can’t talk about it yet but what’s the process like for an actor during pilot season?
Vinny Chhibber: Thank you! To answer your question, it can be many things all at the same time: energizing, inspiring, depressing, tiring, fun, scary, out of this world. You can go to so many auditions in a day. The most I’ve ever had was four. It is a challenge to feel like you’re doing your best work. The only goal for me in those circumstances is to be as open and honest as possible. If you get past pre-reads, which are like the 1st round of an interview process, most of the time there’s a call back, producer session call back, producer work session, studio test, then network test. I say most of the time because it’s always changing, sometimes your tape gets you a network test, sometimes there is no network test, and sometimes it’s an offer! I think with all the chaos that goes on during this time, it’s easy to forget that ultimately, this is an art form and there are very few actual rules, if any, so for me during pilot season, I celebrate my wins (and my friends’ wins), learn from my losses and be grateful that I get to do what I love, even if it’s just in the audition.
TTM: I know you’ve done roles in some great shows like “No Tomorrow” and more recently, “Here and Now” and “Taken.” Can you walk me through how you scored these roles and what they meant to you?
Chhibber: I was talking to a friend the other day about this. I know we’re constantly talking about diversity and inclusion in film & television. There are posts, tweets, articles and blogs about it everywhere, and rightfully so, as historically we (the industry) have paid lip service to that idea. So there has been a lot of talk with very little action. That said, things have definitely been changing the past few years. I’ve noticed that I’m able to go out for roles that don’t necessarily fit the ideological stereotype of what Indian is in our overall TV/film narrative. I have been fortunate enough to book roles that have been created by writers like Corinne Brinkerhoff (“No Tomorrow”) and Andy Callahan (“Taken”). Writers who made the choice to write characters who were informed by, not defined by, their ethnic or cultural backgrounds. I’d also like to point out that some of this change is taking place by production companies like Macro who are making investments into artists from communities who have been historically marginalized; both in front of and behind the camera. Some of this change is taking place at the casting level with casting offices like Bialy Thomas, who cast me in “Here and Now” and more recently, “Red Line,” that really look for and cultivate emerging talent regardless of skin color. I know we’ve still got a long way to go but it’s exciting to be a part of the paradigm shift that’s currently taking place in the industry.
TTM: As an industry insider and someone who has been making shorts and acting in TV shows for a little while now, what do you think has led to the wonderful uprising of South Asian talent? As you well know, this pilot season especially saw many desi actors and actresses get good parts.
Chhibber: I don’t know if I’d call myself an industry insider but I’ll do my best to answer your question. You’re right, this season, in particular, I think there were a number of desi actors and actresses, some of whom I’m very good friends with, that were cast and it was thrilling to see. What has led to it is a little complicated. I think there has always been talent, it’s just been a matter of talent meeting opportunity. I think that to sustain this uprising as you referred to it, we have to take control of the narrative by telling our own stories. Some of this is definitely taking place right now with some of the writers and producers on “The Resident,” and creators like Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling. Some of it is happening in the film world with people like Kumail Nanjiani, Tanuj Chopra and others. We’re even seeing it in comedy specials and now shows like “Homecoming King” , which I thought was just fantastic, and theatre where Snehal Desai and East West Players have produced plays such as “A Nice Indian Boy“ from new playwrights like Madhuri Shekar. But we can do more. I think the next step is supporting our artists, not just with posts and tweets, but financially. Literally investing in talent so that they can tell our stories, which are as much a part of the American narrative as anyone else’s, we just haven’t seen it yet. The Indian-American experience is terribly nuanced, diverse and compelling; your experience can be completely different depending on where your parents were from in India (Punjabi, Marathi, Gujarati) and where you grow up in America (small town in Georgia, big city in New England, Southern California). We have storytellers out there who are ready to tell those stories, they just need a little help, and it’s our responsibility as a community to do just that, help. Help by investing in their projects. Help by watching their movies at the theater. Buy tickets or rent them on iTunes and VOD. Help by dropping them a few bucks on their gofundme pages. Help by getting the word out. To me, this is the next step.
TTM: Did you always know you wanted to be an actor? It may sound cliche but desi parents and relatives will always do a double take if their kids want to pursue anything artistic. Did you go through any of that?
Chhibber: Oh, absolutely. Somewhere in her heart of hearts, my mom is still clinging on to the hope that I end up at Harvard Law School! With the exception of my siblings, who have always been supportive, my family was a bit of a challenge at first. Though I think most of them have come around now.
TTM: Growing up, who were some of your acting inspirations, especially South Asian, who you could point to and say ‘yes, there is room for me in this industry’? Did it give you a more first-hand perspective of why representation matters?
The first thing that pops into my head is activist Marian Wright Edelman’s quote, “you can’t be what you can’t see.” Of course, growing up I had Bollywood films at home, which were wonderful. Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, and Amitabh Bachchan are badasses but that world wasn’t where I was. I didn’t have really anyone but Apu from “The Simpsons” here in the U.S. I still remember the first time I saw the film “American Desi” with Purva Bedi, Rizwan Manji, and Kal Penn. It was awesome. That was really the first time I had seen someone that looked like me and talked like me on screen. Then a few years passed and the only thing I’d see with regards to representation were these kind of accent-ridden, disempowered Indian male characters that perpetuated a stereotype that I frankly did not identify with. The way Indian women were portrayed is a whole other story. I seriously didn’t know anyone that was Indian that was like that, which is initially why I started writing and then producing because were very few, if any, roles that I would audition for that I felt passionate about. I was and am fortunate to have found a producing partner who shares my perspectives of inclusion and diversity when it comes to story, and although we don’t get there every time, we’re always trying to find a way to introduce new voices into the mix. Now, when I’m working, I’m well aware that there are kids watching and I hope that seeing a character that they can identify with, even a little bit, helps them realize that there is a place in the American film/TV narrative for them.
TTM: I’m curious whether you watched comedian Hari Kondabolu’s documentary “The Problem with Apu,” about the character from “The Simpsons?” Did you have the same feelings about Apu and how he was portrayed?
Chhibber: Yes! It’s very good. I will say that I think Apu established not only for Indians, but for America, what the “Indian man” archetype was in film and TV here, and it’s something that we’re still dealing with today.
TTM: Do you consume a lot of TV shows yourself? What are some of your favorite ones that you actively want to join?
Chhibber: Well, first, I am absolutely on the show that I want to be on. Caitlin Parrish and Erica Weiss have written a beautiful script being produced by the ever-so-talented Ava Duvernay and Greg Berlanti; I can’t wait for y’all to see the finished product. But to answer the rest of the question, I watch a ton of film and television and there are a lot of great shows out there: “Elementary,” “The Good Fight,” (I loved “The Good Wife”) “Handmaid’s Tale,” “Game of Thrones,” “This is Us.” Oh, and there’s this kick-ass series that my sister told me about out of Norway called “SKAM.” Some concluded shows like “Mad Men,” “The West Wing,” “Rectify.” This is tough for me because I watch a lot of TV & film so this list will probably change tomorrow! As far as people I’d like to work with: Ava, Kathryn Bigelow, Ryan Coogler, Destin Daniel Cretton, Lexi Alexander, Reinaldo Marcus Green, Vince Gilligan, Soderbergh, Linklater, Mike Mills, Luc Besson, as well as Farhan Akhtar, Zoya Akhtar, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Anurag Kashyap. Yeah, I’d like to be a part of a Bollywood movie someday! Also, our director on “Red Line,” Victoria Mahoney, is a powerhouse. Just amazing.
TTM: Besides the CBS pilot, what are some of the other projects you’re excited about next?
Chhibber: I just wrapped working on Noah Baumbach’s latest feature starring Scarlett Johansson, there is a project called “Re-Date” produced by Macro Digital. It is currently in post production and of course, there is the new pilot “Red Line!” Beyond that, I’m continuing to produce and create with my production company, Chhibber Mann Productions. Right now we’re just wrapping up our third feature, “Lost In America,” which is a documentary exploring youth homelessness in the United States, and looking for our next project!