Actress and singer Karen David has the best of both, actually, many worlds. The Indian-Canadian-British and now American actress has a roster of accomplishments. From being a part of the original West End musical “Mamma Mia!” in London to working with esteemed musician A.R. Rahman to playing fantastic, powerful roles in various American shows like “Once Upon a Time” and “Galavant,” David has soared in the industry.
Most recently, she starred in an episode of NBC’s time-traveling drama “Timeless.” She played the younger version of Indian-American FBI agent Denise Christopher, a burgeoning cop faced with an emotional dilemma: to come out to her mother and save the world or just let things be. David’s performance was nuanced while still emulating Jaffrey’s poise.
We spoke to her about working on this character and learning from Jaffrey, what it’s like to play not one but two inspiring Princess roles as a woman of color on American TV, how she got those parts, and what accurate representation means to her.
The Teal Mango: Congratulations on your “Timeless” episode. It was amazing and you were amazing. What did it mean for you to be able tell this unique story for an American audience, about an Indian-American woman and cop coming out during the 80’s? It also meant stepping into the shoes of Denise Christopher, played by Sakina Jaffrey.
Karen David: As an actor, especially as a South Asian actor, you dream about having storylines that break through our cultural stereotypes. Things just checked off about coming onto this episode, number one being I’m such an ardent fan of Sakina Jaffrey and her work. She is one of those actresses that you just look up to. She’s very hard-working and such a lovely, funny human being. I was so excited to go into the meeting but at the same time I was horrified in a wonderful way. This is someone I love and who is so good and so revered that I thought, ‘these are some big shoes to fill, no pressure.’ I watched episodes of “Timeless” and specifically her scenes to pick up on her mannerisms just to get her rhythm right.
I had some sort of an idea going into the meeting to show what I could possibly do for the character. I was delighted and so excited and, like I said, horrified but in a good way when I got the role because I then knew that it was really important to me to do justice for this character, which Sakina plays unbelievably and amazingly. But also, doing justice to the storyline, because its such a groundbreaking script, written by Lauren Greer and Arika Mittman. I wanted to make “Timeless” fans and Sakina’s fans happy. She just welcomed me from day one, right from the table read. There was this camaraderie and sense of family on-set, which makes such a huge difference. Going on to a new set is like being a new kid at school and you hope everyone likes you and you fit in. They were all so lovely. It was a hug-fest from day one.
Sakina took the time to really talk to me about her adventures of playing this character. I asked her questions about the role and if she had any ideas that she would like me to add to the character. I often approach my roles like a painting. I don’t know how to paint to save my life but the process of it, I kind of follow a similar approach, that it is about layering textures, and so for me, the first layer was very much about getting to know Sakina, talking about the character, right down to watching the way she walks. I felt like I was back in drama college, it’s the first thing they teach you with trust exercises. Hats off to Sakina, she didn’t have to do that but she did. She embraced me and trusted me, which meant the world. It was such an honor to be part of this episode for all these reasons. What it represents to young people, that we have to be our authentic selves. This episode was really important, it felt like it emulated the whole theme of loving who you are, being proud of who you are, no matter what cloth you are cut from. You are you and you are unique and you are valid and your voice is important. With this episode, they just presented it in such a non-preachy, beautiful way.
TTM: Yes, it was very authentic.
David: Thank you! The writing, cast, and crew are great. All the stars aligned for this episode. This show is just so different, there is nothing like it on TV. They deserve many seasons.
TTM: I totally agree. Nothing about this episode seemed forced. It was organic and real. I thought you successfully mirrored Sakina’s mannerisms but you also brought your own take to the character, which is a difficult balance to achieve.
David: You know, thank you. It wasn’t without her help. We had a wonderful director, Alex Kalymnios. It was total girl power in this episode. It was about a strong, driven Indian-American female character. It was special. We were all cheering each other. My only heartbreak is that I didn’t get the chance to act alongside Sakina. We both wanted to do a scene together, that would’ve been wonderful. I had such fun with Abigail Spencer, Claudia Doumit, Matt Lanter, Goran Visjnic, and just everyone.
TTM: It seems you’re attracted to these fierce roles. I think your big U.S. television debut was with ABC’s musical comedy “Galavant,” in the sense of a series regular role. You played a no-nonsense and brave princess. Two seasons was too few for this show but what was your experience with it? What did you learn playing Isabella?
David: It’s like how Steve Jobs said that when you look back on your life and connect the dots, you begin to understand what led you to where you are now and you know why things happened or why they didn’t. Before “Galavant,” I had done the “Scorpion King” sequel. That brought me over to America and from there, it transformed to guest roles on TV. I was reading many scripts and I came across “Galavant,” and I remember my eyes lighting up because I thought, ‘my gosh, I’ve never read anything like this.’ It was so unique, it lifted our imagination to another level. My inner child was coming out. The fact that it was Dan Fogelman [“This is Us”], a genius of a writer and Alan Menken, the Disney king of music, it was a dream come true. Anything even beyond reading it seemed like a dream, so to be playing the feisty strong Princess was exciting.
I’ve been blessed that I’ve been able to play such great characters, that I’ve not been typecasted. With “Galavant,” I loved the costumes, I loved the comedy. I couldn’t have hoped for any other job than that one to be my first big show here. The memories and friendships will be a part of me for the rest of my life. There is so much love for the show even now, especially with it streaming on Netflix, it’s reached a bigger audience. We’ve been talking with the team and they’re very much exploring the possibility of what the future is to bring it back. There are huge fan campaigns. We all embraced it. Look what it did for “Timeless” after it was cancelled last year. A strong fan support played a major role in bringing the show back. It’s all about the timing of it but we all would very much like to see more “Galavant.” Alan has talked about a musical or reincarnating it into a movie format. It warms my heart when new fans come to me and say they’ve just watched “Galavant” and they loved it.
TTM: One of my favorite parts about “Galavant” was the music, it added a whole new dimension to the show. You obviously have a great, extensive background in music, so to be able to bring that on a TV show must be great.
David: When my dad saw the pilot, he just said to me that this is such a dream role for you. You get to sing, dance, act. All the things I love to do. He said, ‘this is great, what a wonderful opportunity you’ve been given.’ Roles like this one don’t come along every day. We didn’t know how far we would go but every day, everyone was laughing constantly on set. We were so grateful for the experience. We got two years on ABC and I’m grateful for it. To play this funny, naive, strong yet vulnerable princess, it was amazing. To sing Alan Menken songs, to work with lyricist Glenn Slater, who are both Disney kings. I remember being in high school in choir class and singing Menken songs. Never in a million years did I think I’d be recording songs he’s written for me and my character, someone had to pinch me. I got to work with incredible people whom I consider family.
TTM: Talking about princesses and Disney, you played another iconic character on “Once Upon a Time.” Princess Jasmine! Ever since the show began, I think everyone was waiting for the Aladdin and Jasmine story to be told and then it happened with such a remarkable take. How did that come about?
David: I really think it was serendipitous. What kid, especially a South Asian girl, doesn’t want to play Jasmine? She’s a legend. We all have our vision and our interpretation of what our own Jasmine would be like. It was literally serendipity. I had just finished “Galavant” and I had gone to England to do a show called “Cold Feet,” which I then wrapped up and moved to L.A. As I was settling in, I had that moment of ‘oh my God, will I ever work again?’ Then my agents called because they had this meeting for me set up at “Once Upon a Time.” Of course, I was excited.
The irony in all this, whilst I was doing a Reddit AMA a year before, someone had asked me what role I’d ever like to play on “Once Upon a Time.” Now, growing up, I loved them all but the ones I could relate to were Pocahontas, Esmerelda, and Jasmine. I had said those three and it’s just so funny how, a year later, I got this meeting. It blows my mind. A lot of fans had started this fan campaign and started tagging me and Adam Horowitz and Eddy Kitsis [the creators of “OUAT”] to cast me as Jasmine. When the fans saw me as Isabella on “Galavant,” I think they thought I would make for a perfect Jasmine.
Casting never advertised the role as Jasmine. Everything was incognito, they said it was for Sinbad and Scheherazade. I was still excited for that but it got me thinking if they would do the Jasmine and Aladdin storyline at some point. The character description said she was strong and wasn’t afraid to go into battle at any point. She’s a warrior. I drew some inspiration for her from Isabella. In my mind, I thought of my horse riding boots which still had mud on them. When I went in to audition, I thought I’d leave them on because if she is a warrior, she wouldn’t care what others thought of what she wore. So, I wore a paisley blouse, the same lucky one I wore for my “Galavant” audition because I could see this warrior girl doing that. I tied my hair in a side pony and just went in. In the waiting room, I saw all these beautiful women dressed as princesses, their hair all done up, their makeup pristine, and wearing these beautiful gowns. I thought, ‘oh my God, clearly I’ve got this wrong.’ They were all looking at me, probably thinking ‘what is she wearing?’ I immediately called my agent to see if I could go home and change and if I had time to just come back in later.
My agent told me to follow my gut. I spoke to Veronica, the casting director, and she asked if I had questions. Of course, I asked if I was dressed appropriately for the role, because she is a warrior, not a princess. She said it was a secret and that it was for the role of Jasmine. In that moment, all my nerves just flashed before me. It was this big, overwhelming moment. It was the moment I had dreamed of. I was speechless. I’m glad I didn’t know until the last minute that it was for Jasmine and that I had no time to soak that in, I would’ve been extra nervous otherwise.
But it was exciting and a wonderful challenge had presented itself and it was up to me to rise to the occasion, so to speak. When you go to drama college, this is what they prepare you for – to not be afraid of being in the moment and trusting yourselves and those you’re working with. When I found out I was cast as Jasmine, I felt such a rush of emotions. This was an awesome opportunity, but it also meant that I had a huge responsibility to portray Jasmine in a way that would be embraced and loved by fans of all ages, little kids and big kids, too. I had to do this iconic character justice in the way I portrayed her. What I love about “Once Upon A Time” is that they take these Disney characters and put them in such vulnerable positions, we get to see a non-fairytale side of them we never get to see. We see them when they are nervous, or scared, and how they overcome the challenges presented to them. I think that’s how I would want kids to see these characters in today’s times. It’s not all perfect but that’s okay. I was excited to explore these sides of Jasmine. Adam and Eddy wanted to show other sides of her also.
TTM: I know you got a chance to hang out with the cast at the wrap party and the series finale aired last week, too. Looking on it all, what was your takeaway from this journey?
David: I think with “Once Upon a Time,” the imagination can stretch far and wide. Over 7 seasons, they have created an incredible fandom, united in a strong belief of hope and in what is possible. That’s a big theme this show carries; always believing. I love that they celebrate imagination and creativity in this show. It’s a show, much like “Timeless” and “Galavant” that unifies families and you can all watch it together. That’s what makes these shows so wonderful.
TTM: I wanted to talk to you about your music career, working with A.R. Rahman, and how he influenced your music style
David: My first job out of drama college was the original cast of “Mamma Mia!” That’s where I met Rahman, he was in town that night and I was performing. Rahman was working on the workshop for “Bombay Dreams.” I had never done a musical before, this was my first foray into it. Of course, all my friends were confused as I had studied the likes of Chekhov, Isben, and Shakespeare. They all thought “Mamma Mia!” would be a huge flop. We still joke about how very wrong they were. That one night, Rahman happened to be in London, watching me perform on stage. Next thing I know, when we finished the show at about 10.30 pm, my casting director called me to say that Rahman loved my performance and wanted to meet me. For me, it didn’t ring a bell in my head who he was. I get on the phone with my mom, (she calls to check on me often and I do love her for it), and I told her about possibly meeting with Rahman. She paused for a second and was just like, ‘yeah, I think you better go!’
I met him and within an hour, I’m in the studio singing demos. He just put me straight to work. I was so inspired by his creativity. It’s on a whole other level; it’s spiritual and beautiful. He wants you to perform with every part of your being, it has to resonate when you’re performing. I think explaining it wouldn’t even do it justice. To have that experience at such a young age and at the beginning of my journey was just something else. This is the chapter where our friendship began and working with him for the years ahead, he opened my eyes in exploring and incorporating more unique sounds and lyric writing with my music. He made me a better songwriter. I have learned a lot from him and this experience helped with my album when I signed to BMG Music shortly after. We wrote some great songs together. I’m really proud of the work we have done.
TTM: Are you working on new music right now?
David: When I was doing my music, when I had my record deal, it was all music. I didn’t have time for acting. When BMG merged with Sony, I lost my whole A&R; team immediately after having a top 4 airplay hit in Europe. It was creatively soul-destroying because I couldn’t do anything else for two years. My acting agent was excited that I finally had the time to pursue acting again and take meetings. Looking back, she saved me. I was so upset about the whole process with my music and not having the freedom to write – it was like cutting off my arms and then some! She made me channel my creativity into my acting instead. It worked. I started booking roles almost immediately, which then led me to L.A., and changed my life.
But then the acting took over in such a wonderful, fierce way, I then had the opposite problem of not having time to do my music. When I started doing “Galavant,” it became more challenging with finding time to go into the studio and record new music. Now, I’m actually going back and recording more music and it feels so amazing. I’m trying to get an EP out this year and do a mini tour. I’ve been going to the studio as much as I can during filming. It’s like my haven. People ask me if I like acting or singing and I just wouldn’t be able to choose, it’s about what dictates my schedule. Both fuel me creatively. I would never give up either. I just wish there were 48 hours in the day. It’s a fancy problem to have.
TTM: In the last few years, South Asian representation on TV has increased. Have you observed that as someone who works in the industry, especially when you go to auditions?
David: The funny thing is, whilst I am incredibly proud of my roots, I don’t define myself by the color of my skin. I grew up in Toronto and London, England, so there is a Canadian side of me and a British side of me, as well. I’ve always thought of myself as a girl who has these childhood dreams just like everybody else who has dreams. At the end of the day, I want to continue to grow, constantly learn and do good work, being the best I can be. I can’t express enough how reaffirming it is to know that there are casting directors out there who are visionaries and are helping change the future of diversity and representation.
Thankfully our industry is changing. It warms my heart to see a more realistic and accurate reflection of the world we live in being portrayed on TV as far as representation goes. We are all diverse, including South Asians, Asians, African-Americans, Latino, Native Americans, I could go on. This is what diversity is so why wouldn’t you portray all these walks of life in TV and film. It’s simply speaking the truth, but that truth is so important to tell. One thing I admire in different communities is they all support each other. I think it’s important for the South Asian community to come together and support one another, as we are doing but there is still a long way to go. When I see another actress or actor of diversity doing well, I am so thrilled because it means they are opening doors for all of us. That’s the way I look at it. When I see other people doing well, it inspires me. It’s important to create platforms for our stories. Equal representation is important. We still have a long way to go but we are making progress, as long as we are united and supportive of each other.
TTM: It’s a good starting point.
David: Yeah! Absolutely. We’re seeing Asian and South Asian parents being more open to their kids who want to pick up a camera, or direct an idea they came up with their friends, or act. This all helps with the future. You’ve got to put in the work because there is room for everyone if you work hard and respect people.
TTM: What are some upcoming projects you’re excited about?
David: I’m recurring on “Criminal Minds,” (which just got picked up for season 14 by CBS). I’ve been excited to play the role of Special Agent Mary Meadows and wreaking havoc (laughs). I’m also filming a Mother Teresa semi biopic film. I filmed a little at the beginning of this year in India. The rest of it is towards the end of the year. I’m excited about that, too. It’s been an inspiring journey. I’m playing a young girl whose life is affected in a positive way by Mother Theresa’s actions. I’ve got a lot of work to do to prepare for that one. I’m like a kid on this journey who’s following her childhood dream.