Many viewers tuning in to AMC’s buzzy new drama “Dietland” have instantly been drawn to Indian-American actress Ami Sheth’s portrayal of Sana, an artist and acid attack survivor.
Based on a book of the same name, “Dietland” is a scathing look at the beauty and fashion industry through the lens of Plum Kettle (Joy Nash). She is ghostwriter for a magazine editor, Kitty Montgomery (Julianna Margulies), and is frustrated with the treatment she gets because of the way she looks.
Plum finds herself pulled into two feminist factions; one is a sisterhood that may or may not be violently attacking male harassers and the other preaches female empowerment. It’s while straddling these two worlds that she meets Sana. Despite her disfigured face, Sana is confident and self-assured. She soon befriends Plum and becomes a source of inspiration for her.
We spoke with Sheth, whose TV credits include episodes on “Blindspot,” “Elementary,” and “Bull,” about working on a such a topical show that prioritizes women in both front of and behind the camera, how she prepared for her role as an acid attack survivor, and how seeing South Asian people on TV inspired her to become an actress.
The Teal Mango: Congratulations on your excellent turn as Sana on AMC’s “Dietland.” You play an artist who is an acid attack survivor. Sana is also a feminist who wants to help other women. It’s a very complex character. What attracted you to it?
Ami Sheth: Initially, I was drawn to Sana’s self awareness and strength. Despite everything she has been through as an acid attack survivor, she has dedicated her life to helping other women. I really fell in love with this character. She is so complex and nuanced. The “Dietland” writers are phenomenal. The role also requires hours of prosthetic work, which is something I have never done before and was excited to take on.
TTM: What can you tell us about her role in season 1? what motivates her to be a part of Calliope House and what are her eventual goals? What kind of research did you put in, considering Sana’s backstory and how she is such a survivor.
Sheth: Calliope House serves as a safe place for women in trouble, to explore who they are and learn how they can make the world a better place for others. Throughout season one, Sana befriends Plum and helps her through her journey of self acceptance and in turn learns a lot about herself. They have a wonderful unexpected friendship as they both are outcasts according to society’s beauty standards.
My research for the role of Sana came mostly from speaking with acid attack survivors, reading about cases, and watching documentaries about it. One woman I spoke with was Pragya Singh, the founder of Atijeevan Foundation. She is an activist and survivor herself. The organization seeks to provide rehab, medical care, psychological help and also helps survivors find permanent sources of income. In a lot of ways, these women helped me shape the strong, supportive, and giving character of Sana.
TTM: “Dietland” has a stellar cast, including Julianna Margulies and Joy Nash and Robin Weigert. It’s packed with powerful women, including of course, creator Marti Noxon. What is it like to be surrounded by them and working on a show whose theme is also women empowerment?
Sheth: Working on “Dietland” is truly one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had. All of our directors are women, which was a very new experience for me as most of the shows and films I’ve worked on have had male directors. Overall, the feeling on set was extremely supportive and nurturing and we became like a little family.
TTM: The drama doesn’t shy away from tackling some very topical themes, especially body image issues and society’s norms of beauty. Why do you think it’s important right now to have shows like “Dietland” emphasize these issues?
Sheth: Absolutely! Shows that push the envelope are so important now and alway have been. We need to continue to break barriers in entertainment and get people talking about difficult subjects. “Dietland” gets to broach these serious subjects with humor and fantasy.
TTM: While I’m sure you can’t discuss spoilery things about the second half of “Dietland,” what can you tease about what’s coming up and why people should be paying attention?
Sheth: The first half of the season follows Plum trying to keep the “status quo” but the second half is when all bets are off. She breaks out of her shell and makes some outrageous decisions. Each upcoming episode will leave you a bit shocked but in a good way!
TTM: Your previous work also includes “Blindspot,” “The Blacklist,” “Bull.” What’s the best part about working on these shows and being in the TV industry right now?
Sheth: In each of these shows, I get to play a very different character. I love that all these opportunities are opening up for South Asian actors. Not just South Asian roles but roles that are open to anyone who can bring the character to life.
TTM: As a South Asian-American actor, do you think accurate representation of the diaspora has increased? What do you think has contributed to this?
Sheth: I feel like accurate representation comes from varied representation. Each of us comes from a different upbringing, whether growing up in the U.S., Canada, Europe, India or anywhere else in South Asia. There is no one universal story. So yes, as more stories are told with South Asian characters, representation gets more accurate. We need to continue to get more writers, directors, actors, and producers of South Asian backgrounds to join the entertainment field so our stories continue to be told. We also need to support each other. I am part of a wonderful organization called Kalakars that helps get our stories made.
TTM: Do you personally notice differences from when you go out to audition now to earlier, especially in terms of stereotypical characters?
Sheth: Previously, the roles available were few and pretty stereotypical. Those roles still exist but the difference is, now there are also more varied characters. There are also now roles that are open ethnicity, which was unheard of in the past.
TTM: Growing up, who were some of your inspirations in the industry? I’m sure there weren’t many South Asian folks on-screen at the time. What motivated you to keep going?
Sheth: I really never thought I could be an actor growing up because there was no one that looked like me on TV or in films. Acting was just a hobby, a creative release. I actually went to school to be a veterinarian and practiced for a while. Over the past 15 years, I started seeing more South Asian faces in media and it has been so inspiring. I knew I was always going to act even if i never became an actor and just did it for myself. The desire has always been there and then doing it wasn’t optional anymore.
TTM: As “Dietland” wraps up its first season on-air, what are some of the future projects you’re excited about?
Sheth: We hear soon about the possibility of Season 2 so fingers crossed! Im also excited for the premiere of a great short film I star in called “Brunch Wars” by Kamran Khan. It was was made through our South Asian collective I mentioned earlier, Kalakars.
“Dietland” season 1 is now airing on AMC.