Indian-American actress Reema Sampat broke new ground with her role in the latest season of “Orange is the New Black” on Netflix.
Sampat portrays Shruti Chambal, a prisoner at the fictional maximum security prison. Shruti is gutsy, intelligent, and knows exactly how to survive in this difficult environment. It’s certainly rare to see someone of South Asian descent in an orange jumpsuit on screen but luckily, Sampat was up to the challenge.
The actress has worked on TV shows like “Shades of Blue” and “Jessica Jones” along with starring in the pilot “Surina & Mel.” Beyond acting, Sampat is involved in philanthropy and activism, ranging from advocating for representation to helping establish the Save a Gato Foundation in Puerto Rico.
We spoke with her about portraying the first South Asian-American inmate on “Orange is the New Black,” why it’s important to see accurate representation on-screen, and working with Surina Jindal and Melanie Chandra on their pilot.
The Teal Mango: Congratulations on the successful sixth season of “Orange is the New Black.” How does it feel to play Shruti Chambal, the first inmate in the show’s universe who is of South Asian descent.
Reema Sampat: I’m honored to play the first South Asian inmate on the show! It’s a privilege, and I love that so many South Asians finally feel represented on this show now.
TTM: Shruti is just such a different character as opposed to what we usually see South Asians play on-screen. She was pretty fearless and dominating, and most of all, she’s a prisoner. How did you prep for the role?
Sampat: To be honest, I listened to Drake the entire time I was in the audition waiting room! After I got the part, being on set really got me in the right frame of mind. The prison cells were shot in a studio, but the outdoor scenes were shot at an operating detention center in Queens, so when we arrived we got to see what it’s really like. Of course, it still wasn’t “prison,” so I’d say the writing and working with these super talented characters naturally got me in that state of mind.
TTM: The show is so vastly popular and especially this season, with multiple new characters and a whole new setting, how exciting and nerve-wrecking was it for you as an actor to see how the season and your character plays out with the audience?
Sampat: It wasn’t nerve-wrecking at all! In fact, this whole season was such a labor of love for all of us. We spent a lot of time together shooting the kickball scenes, even though much of it still wasn’t shown. Those long, cold days playing kickball really bonded us. We really were playing and tried to win! I loved getting to ultimately see how it all came together in the end. I’m proud of it!
TTM: Do you know yet if we’ll be seeing Shruti again in season 7?
Sampat: Let’s keep our fingers crossed!
TTM: You recently also shot the pilot for “Surina & Mel” with Surina Jindal and Melanie Chandra. We spoke to both of them and we’re so excited this content is being made. What was the experience of working on the show and primarily with castmates and crewmates who are of South Asian descent?
Sampat: I’m so proud of both of them for creating their own opportunities when no one else would do it for them. They’ve created a show about two girls who have to navigate adulting in New York City, along with their quirky group of friends. What I love is that all of these characters could be played by anyone of any ethnicity, but they’re played by South Asians. That is the kind of work we get excited about doing. Our cultural background comes second in this show. Getting to work with my friends is an absolute blast, and we’re looking forward to what the future brings for this show. There is definitely a large demand for it!
TTM: Your TV credits are very impressive, ranging from “Jessica Jones” to “Shades of Blue” to working on shorts like Kabir Chopra’s “Swiped to Death.” What has been your experience as you audition for these roles. Have you ever felt pigeonholed because of your ethnicity?
Sampat: Yes and no. Yes, because there are still many pilots and films that portray South Asians in a negative light. No, because the parts I actually book are the ones that don’t. That’s very telling to me, and just confirms that I’m on the right path and don’t have to settle for parts that perpetuate this narrative that all South Asians have traditional parents who want them to become doctors and get married right away.
TTM: As someone who is breaking into the entertainment industry, how do you see the growth of South Asian representation on and off-screen?
Sampat: It’s slow and steady, but I think because of films like “Crazy Rich Asians” that there will be more opportunities for us, which will in turn encourage more South Asians to pursue careers in this industry and to create opportunities for themselves, much like Surina Jindal and Melanie Chandra have. That’s the key, creating your own opportunities.
TTM: What inspired you to pursue acting? Who were some of your role models, especially because growing up, you probably didn’t see too many brown faces on TV.
Sampat: I’m going to be honest. I’m not one of those actors who will “die” if I don’t get to act. I have many outlets that allow me to be creative in different ways. Acting feels great though, and it’s actually the most challenging of my creative outlets. It stretches my imagination, and that’s what got me started and continues to keep me going. I don’t feel like I’ve even scratched the surface of my potential.
Growing up, it never really dawned on me that there weren’t “brown” actors on screen. I just naturally gravitated to actors that inspired me because of their talent. Lucille Ball, John Ritter, Mary Tyler Moor (I watched way too much “Nick-at-Nite”), Julia Roberts, Keri Russell, Michelle Williams, Alicia Vikander, Al Pacino, Leo DiCaprio, the list just goes on. As you can tell, no brown faces. However, now, I am currently crushing hard on one brown face in particular – Zenobia Shroff. She was the mom in “The Big Sick,” and she’s in the latest season of Showtime’s “The Affair.” She’s amazing to watch and so nuanced. She takes roles that are stereotypical on the surface and adds so much depth to them. I admire her.
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Meet Farrah, played by the incredible @reemasampat. A woman in NYC trying to figure out how to stay sane in the tumultuous world of online dating. Who’s tuning in on August 9th to see what she gets into? #WebSeries #Actor #NYC #NYCFILM #Acting #IndieFilm #TV #OnlineDating #DatingStruggles #WorstDateEver #PostBreakUpDating #InterracialDating
TTM: What are some of your upcoming projects you’re excited about?
Sampat: I have a couple of projects in the pipeline that I can’t talk about just yet, but I am even more excited to get “Surina and Mel” off the ground, along with “Swiped to Death!” However, the best project of all is being a new mom and raising my daughter. I feel so blessed to be able to do what I love and still have a family.