Sendhil Ramamurthy’s foray into our collective television screens began with singular episodes on “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Numb3rs,” and “Ultimate Force.” It wasn’t until 2006, when NBC’s sci-fi drama “Heroes” premiered, that he became a household name thanks to his character Mohinder Suresh.
Since then, he hasn’t really slowed down. His credits include “Covert Affairs,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Office,” and “CSI: Miami.” With this impressive roster and years of experience, Ramamurthy also carries the torch of being one of the first South Asians who represented the diaspora on-screen and continues to do so with his return to NBC in his new show “Reverie”, which premiered on May 30.
In this thrilling virtual reality drama, he plays Paul Hammond, the designer of a program known as Reverie. It allows user’s minds to step into a simulated reality made up of their memories and desires. Reverie is so great, though, that their minds are stuck in the program and the users go into a coma. Ex-hostage negotiator Mara Kint (Sarah Shahi) is brought in to help, to go into their simulated reality and bring them out, while she deals with her own traumatic past.
We spoke to Ramamurthy about playing non-archetype, three-dimensional characters, how “Reverie” displays the pros and cons of modern technology, working with Shahi and the rest of a very talented, very diverse cast, and the rise of South Asian representation in the media.
The Teal Mango: I know it’s been a long wait for “Reverie.” Its trailer was released during Upfronts last year and now the audiences finally get to see it. I’m excited for everyone but what’s the waiting period been like for you?
Sendhil Ramamurthy: The wait is always a sting. We’re at the mercy of the scheduling Gods. There is so much stuff going on. NBC has so many shows! They also had the Olympics, which took away a couple weeks of programming. We got caught up in all that but we’re finally here. I’m excited. I’m not a patient guy, waiting is not my strong suit. I’m glad the torture is over.
TTM: “Reverie” has such a timely concept with the rise of virtual reality but the show also has an emotional hook to it. Do you think that’s why people will connect with it, because it shows both sides of the coin, so to speak?
Ramamurthy: Definitely. There’s obviously that fantasy aspect to it when people go into Reverie (their virtual reality), and that’s great, it’s incredibly real. It’s not like you’re in a fantasy world. That’s why you have the effects we have. It’s all great and cool. I’m proud of the digital guys and all the work they did. I love watching that stuff. At the end of the day, there has to be some connection with the characters, as well. That’s what will keep the audience’s coming back for more. The audiences will connect with the core cast members, the cases and clients we have and the people who go into Reverie in the episodes. It’s emotional and it has centered every one of our stories, whether it’s them finding out something about themselves or finding out something about somebody they love. Those emotional beats in Reverie are what will keep people coming back for more episodes.
TTM: I loved the pilot. It ends with a twist, it leaves you wanting more. I specifically enjoyed Paul Hammond. He’s obviously smart, he’s humorous, he’s concerned about Mara. He’s a good, three-dimensional character. What was it like to play this role?
Ramamurthy: It was fantastic. Ever since I read the pilot, I was very intrigued by Paul and especially, once I found out what his backstory was, I got really excited to play him. On the outside, Paul is this very smiley, happy guy and we find out that’s actually just a mask for some of the things he’s experienced in his childhood. He’s suffered quite a bit with panic attacks and depression. He has found Reverie helpful in dealing with those things. He really does see the potential that Reverie has to help people. That’s what keeps him going. He wants to push the boundary of the program because he believes in it so strongly. It has helped him so much. He wants to give other people that opportunity, to have that in their lives and make it better. That’s what the thought was when the program was designed. It’s there to help people and I think, like we’ve seen in the real world today, sometimes technology like this can have unintended consequences. I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg was thinking about Russians being able to meddle in our elections. He was probably thinking ‘my God, how cool is it that I can connect all these people, and have this community on Facebook.’ But there are other aspects. We explore that, too. As great as Reverie is, there are things that are not great about it and raises bigger questions about technology and its role in our lives. I like that the writers didn’t shy away from that but they delve into it. It’s important for people to see.
TTM: Since you brought up Paul’s backstory, I wanted to ask what you can tease about his larger arc this season. The pilot is a great introduction for him.
Ramamurthy: There’s an episode in the first half of the season where Paul basically takes Mara with him into one of his own virtual reality’s and we get to see a little bit of what his childhood was like, what his parents were like, what he suffered as a young person. It’s a really cool episode. I was talking about the emotional beats we have and in this case, it was unexpectedly emotional. I knew what was coming yet when I watched it, I found myself tearing up a little bit. It has some really sweet moments. I hope the audiences connect with it. It was one of my favorite episodes to do for sure.
TTM: I think “Reverie” has a great, talented cast. You guys are not just a representation of the tech world but the real world. Do you think that helps set the standard for representation in some ways?
Ramamurthy: Yeah, absolutely. You have to applaud NBC and Mickey Fisher for making it one of their priorities. My character’s name is Paul Hammond, and they chose me for whatever reason to play him and I just love that. We have an incredibly diverse cast. It’s not diversity for diversity’s sake. I won’t include myself but the rest of my cast is talented. I feel so lucky and privileged to watch them and learn from them as we shot this first season. I really hope I get a chance to do it again in more seasons.
TTM: I know you’ve been friends with Sarah Shahi for a while so what was it like to collaborate and work together?
Ramamurthy: It was great! I hadn’t seen Sarah in a while. Back when we were both on USA Network shows, we knew each other and met up at press stuff. I’ve always been a fan of her work. I really enjoyed her work on “Person of Interest,” and her show “Life” with Damian Lewis. I think this role that she has here in Mara Kint, she gets to use the whole palette. Emotionally, she goes through the wringer. She gets light, comedic scenes. It’s great that when you know someone, you know how hard they work, what a good person they are, to get a role where they get to just fly. I’m really happy for her.
TTM: Talking a little bit about your own career, you became this big name when “Heroes” blew up and people loved your character Mohinder Suresh. You’ve done different shows since then like “Covert Affairs” and “Beauty and the Beast.” From then to now, what has your experience been in terms of South Asian representation, how South Asian actors are cast, how their characters are formed?
Ramamurthy: I won the lottery when I got the role on “Heroes.” It was a fully formed character. For me, to get a role like that at that stage of my career was amazing. I said more lines in the pilot episode than I had said in the sum total of everything I had done on-screen before that. I had a proper role. I’ve been lucky enough to go on, to continue working, since then. I’ve been lucky that I find roles that are informed, some of them more than the others. I’ve always had an opportunity to stretch myself and do something different in every role. That’s how you learn.
Now when I watch TV, I see more and more South Asians in television. It’s kind of becoming the norm and I love that. I love that people are coming up and getting the chance to show what they can do. I hope it continues. There’s a lot of talented South Asian actors and writers and directors and producers. I want us to spread out and go out into more avenues. I think there is so much more to do. It would be great to have one of these ‘urban comedies,’ I hate that term, but I’d love for us to have one of these mainstream romantic comedies with a bunch of South Asian actors and a studio takes a chance on it and says let’s see what they can do. Have it be written, directed, and acted by South Asians. That would be really, really cool. I think that’s not too far away now.
TTM: I sure hope so. South Asian representation is definitely getting stronger and while there’s a long way to go, what do you think has caused this increase?
Ramamurthy: I think people want to see the world that they live in represented on TV. It’s not believable when you have a show with all white people. It’s changing all around. There’s people of every color, race, religion in the world and I think the saying ‘rising tides lift all boats,’ that’s happening with South Asians and it’s happening with other groups, too.
TTM: I know you went to med school and shifted gears to acting. I’m wondering what the inspiration was behind that. Did a part of you know you wanted to do this?
Ramamurthy: No, actually! I was the last person that would get on to the stage or anything of that sort. I had to do it to graduate from Tufts University. I had to take an arts class so I took Intro to Acting because quite frankly, I needed the credit. But then, once I went in there and was forced to get up and perform, or some version of performing, something about it really stuck with me and I started to really enjoy rehearsals. That’s how I fell into acting, because of a graduation requirement!
TTM: Well, it’s really paying off so that’s good! But growing up, I’m sure there weren’t as many South Asian faces on-screen who you could look at and say, ‘okay, I can also break into the industry.’ So, who were some of you acting inspirations?
Ramamurthy: Right, there weren’t any that I could look up to. I just looked at actors I loved and said ‘I’m going to have to be that good if I’m even going to have a shot at this.’ I looked up to Gregory Peck, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino. Spencer Tracy blows my mind and I loved everything he did. I’ve followed Sam Rockwell for a long time. I’ve been a big fan of his. I did look a lot to English actors. I thought that’s the way forward for me, following these guys, and they all started on stage. That’s why I went to drama school in England. I had to get the best training I possibly could for the stage because I’m clearly not seeing anybody that looks like me in TV and film here. In England, I saw they did a lot of color blind casting. There were South Asians at the Royal Shakespeare Company and all of these places, I thought this was a great place for me. And I did get to work at the Royal Shakespeare Company and get better at what I do.
TTM: I know “Reverie” is just premiering but do you have any upcoming projects you’re excited about?
Ramamurthy: It’s difficult because we’re held by contract so we can’t take on any other TV work. I’m doing an animated series right now, which I’m really enjoying. We don’t have a release date yet. It’s a DreamWorks Animation TV program and that’s all I can say for now about it. Hopefully, some more stuff comes up once we know whether “Reverie” will get a second season, so I have parameters and can figure out what to do.
TTM: “What do you want your audience’s one takeaway be from “Reverie”?
Ramamurthy: I hope it’s something that gives people hope. The show is about a program that was designed to help people and to give people some kind of positives in their life. With that, sadly come some downsides. I hope people take the hope part of it. It’s also a cautionary tale. We’re all glued to our screens. I was on the subway and nobody looks at each other anymore. Everybody is looking at their screens all the time. Hopefully, we can learn to disconnect a little bit. This show can also show you the dangers of technology. There’s a little bit of both you get with the show.