Back to contents

A Storied Career

5 months ago / by Abhijit Masih
Anjali Bhimani

Anjali Bhimani’s acting life spans decades and mediums, from the bright lights of Broadway to the silver screen. She shares how she charted her own course as an actress and the progress South Asian women are making toward more authentic and prolific storytelling in Hollywood.

Anjali Bhimani, the renowned and award-winning actor, has straddled both stage and screen from Broadway to the silver screen. She has done extensive work on stage including Bombay Dreams on Broadway. You would have seen her in Ms. Marvel, Dead to Me, Modern Family, and many other shows. Her repertoire is not restricted to acting alone; she has given her voice in video games such as Overwatch and Apex Legends. The multi-faceted actor spoke to SEEMA about her initiation into the world of entertainment, her first break, and about using different mediums to tell engaging stories. 

Tell us about your early years growing up in the U.S.

My parents were raised in Mumbai, and they moved here to the States to do their internship and residency. They were both surgeons and they moved to Cleveland, where I was born and spent most of my younger years before I went away to college. They definitely instilled the love of education and science in my youth. They also were very into the arts. My parents met doing a play in medical school. So it was already part of my blood before I even knew it. We had such a wide breadth of interest in our family. My mom is an incredible, creative artist and my father loved the theater. 

How did you find your own career path?

I was a very stubborn kid, and you couldn’t pressure me to do anything I didn’t want to. But there was definitely a bit of judgment or skepticism. I remember one thing very distinctly. I remember an uncle once saying to me—so what are you gonna do? A movie with Tom Cruise? I was like, okay, easy. Don’t make fun of me. I’m going to be doing things with my peers because there are amazing people in my class doing amazing things. And you just watch. I think there was just that skepticism, because particularly in that generation, I don’t think there were as many prominent examples. There was also the misconception that in order to be a successful actor you have to be famous. But we don’t have to be famous. If we’re a doctor or an engineer, we just have to do our job. Do it well, make a living and do good in the world. So that’s all I was aiming to do. I’m glad to say that I think the skepticism has diminished over the years. I hope I’ve proven that I can do this.

How did your career in Hollywood begin?

It was part of what I was doing from a very young age. I would do all of the different creative options that we have in the school system. But I don’t think I really understood that it was a viable career until high school. I realized, people go to college for this, get a degree, and then go out in the world and have a job. This is amazing. So I think that’s when I started taking it seriously, in terms of a future rather than just a hobby. My parents did offer help, they were obviously concerned because it’s generally a competitive field and historically people don’t make a lot of money doing it. That’s beginning to change, thank goodness. I didn’t want to do it on the side. If I’m going in, I’m going in. I didn’t want to fall back, because then I’ll fall back. I’d rather just lean completely into it. I started taking it very seriously and then it made my schedule crazy. I’d work on the  school play for a few hours and then drive to our local community theater to work on the play there, come home and do my homework, and start the whole thing the next day. So that’s commitment, especially at that young age. I loved it. 

How challenging was it for a South Asian woman to get work in Hollywood and how did you get your first break?

I never thought of myself as a South Asian woman. I didn’t immediately put myself in that category. Obviously I am. But I am also a petite woman, I’m a brunette woman, and I’m a loud woman. I’m all these things. My particular heritage and look would obviously lend itself to that kind of casting. But since the theater is so open to the audience using their imagination, I don’t think it was that difficult for me, especially starting in theater. Now, I was also very lucky, because my very first show out of college was with an extraordinary woman—Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman, who has become a dear friend. She casts the person and then writes the show around the cast. She’s very keen on seeing the essence of who you are more than necessarily how you physically present in terms of your cultural background or your skin color. We went on to do the Odyssey and all of these other beautiful works and the big one on Broadway was Metamorphoses. It was so dear to all of our hearts.

You have worked in theater, TV, animation, and video games. What have been the challenges for each medium?

I think it really is just this selective stubbornness. If I want to do something and if I don’t know, I’m going to learn. I think the biggest challenge honestly, is our own minds. It’s so easy to come up with reasons why you can’t do something. At that time, it would have been so easy for me to say, oh well, there aren’t that many parts for South Asian women, so I can’t work. But my opinion has always been well, somebody’s working; it might as well be me. I am more than just what I look like or where I come from. It is so invigorating when you suddenly realize I can do that thing because you just put your mind to it. Obviously there were low days. There were days where I didn’t have the faith, didn’t think I was talented or didn’t think I was good enough. But the overarching thing was—I want to. It’s really a service industry to be an actor. I know I have this particular vessel that is very emotional and very expressive. So when I get the opportunity to tell a story in any medium, in voice-over, animation, Broadway and film, it excites me to be able to reach out to the audience member and say I’ve got you. No matter what is going on in your life, you get to relax right now. I am going to do the heavy lifting. I’m going to tell you this story. I’ll cry, I’ll sing, I’ll dance, I’ll do all of this stuff. At the end of the day, when you leave, you will have this new experience. But you didn’t have to change anything in your life because I did it for you.

What’s your advice to young South Asian women, who want to get a-foot-in-the-door in Hollywood?

Don’t look for the door. You make the door. You have a different set of things that you love in your life, and that you care about in your life and things may be different priorities that you don’t even realize. No one else can tell you who you are. You have to show the world who you are. So part of that is deciding what you want. And part of deciding what you want is trying everything you can. So I think, especially now when there’s so much access you can talk to people. You have access to producers, directors, whomever. Just reach out and start putting yourself out there. If you are desperate for something, no one wants to necessarily deal with you. But if you are excited about it, and you are asking people to see that passion, everyone wants to open doors for you.

You are also highlighting the struggles of South Asian American women, through a show called The B Word. Tell us about it. 

This is a work of art by a writer named Sabrina Besla. She has written many screenplays and pilots and this particular one happens to have five South Asian American women dealing with their lives in Los Angeles. The challenges that they have to face and how they all deal with that, how it keeps them together, and how it breaks them apart. It is such an unusual and necessary viewpoint for people to have, because we talk about diversity all the time, but representation only goes so far until we include people in the party and include them in the story. So The B Word does this in a beautiful way, dealing with real life issues in comedic and dramatic ways. Sabrina is just an incredible writer. I cannot wait for the world to see how brilliant she is. 

How different is video game voicing compared to acting? 

Voice acting is still acting. It just happens to be that you are mostly conveying it through sound and through your voice. It’s storytelling one way or another. I look at all of these different mediums as different branches of the tree. The roots and the trunk are still the very same, they’re just different branches. I was a gamer growing up so it was second nature to me. What has been really special is that a lot of the characters and video games historically have been two-dimensional with no deep portrayals of women or cultures. In the time that I came back to games as a performer, there was this beautiful flowering, this beautiful boom of unique characters, which had different backgrounds, different genders and different sexual orientations. So players could come into a game and play all of these different characters. There was something that they could identify with. When I was younger all I had to look at was Wonder Woman. But now little South Asian girls have Symmetra, Rampart, and Ms. Marvel. They have all of these beautiful characters who are unique with their backgrounds and their experiences. My character (Symmetra) is on the autism spectrum, and that is something so special for people on the spectrum and their families to see. So I love that video games are at the forefront of that. 

How did your book, I Am Fun Size and So Are You, come about?

I started a web series in 2017, because I had fallen in love with this online community that I had started to connect with through the games. They have been so giving, artistic and supportive, that I wanted to give something back. I started this series, where I would answer their questions, not by giving advice, because I don’t believe in telling other people what to do. I just give my opinions and you decide if that works. Just by telling stories on how I went through things. Then in 2021, I decided that this feels like it should be a book. We should take all of these episodes and expand on them. I wrote the book in three weeks, edited all of that and it was published through my company last year. It seems to have done very well. We had a bestseller. 

What are some of the exciting projects you’re working on right now?

I am very excited right now, because there is a new gaming endeavor that I have been a part of creating that surrounds basic culture. So one of the branches of my tree is a tabletop version of these video games where you actually play a role as the character. We are currently in the process of creating a show called DesiQuest—a role-playing game set in a fantasy universe. Playing games have historically not been something that has included people of other cultures in a particularly prominent way, and I know a lot of companies have been doing their best to add elements of that. But I do believe that this is the first time. It’s an entire game and an entire show, another party that we can invite other people to and we’ll have guests on the show who are new to our culture. So that people understand that this is not just for us, this is for everyone. We’re having so much fun with it. Jasmine Bhullar, this incredibly creative Punjabi woman, has created this fantastic world for this game

The Oscars were special this year for Indian cinema. What does this recognition mean for the Indian film industry and for South Asians in Hollywood?

I think it’s exactly what I’ve been talking about. Because there wasn’t a door open, they had a party and invited everyone to it. They made this incredible film (RRR) and said, come, join us and that’s one of the reasons that it is such an international sensation. I admit I did not know about the Telugu film industry. My whole understanding of Indian cinema was Bollywood. It’s expanded my view. It’s expanding everyone’s view. Now that they understand there’s a party that they’ve been invited to, everyone wants to be there. That’s inclusivity and those two gentlemen, Oh, my goodness, NTR and Ram are both so gracious, kind and lovely. I’m so grateful for what they’re doing, not just for Indians in India, but for all of us who need another tether to understand our own culture.

SIDE BAR

Anjali’s Favorites Few

Drink

Coffee! I love coffee. Close second is Chai, with a little bit of almond milk or coconut milk in it. I will stop everything for that. 

English Movie

Oh, that’s so tough. So many beautiful ones. I can’t do it.

Indian movie

I watched Silsila like 9,000 times when I was little. I was just in love with Amitabh Bachchan. “Rang Barse” is still one of my absolute favorite celebration songs.

Book

Every book by Frank Herbert tied with the series His Dark Materials

Song

Chaiyya Chaiyya. When we did Bombay Dreams, we did that dance on a moving turntable just to simulate the train and that was a fantastic experience. 

Fan girl moment.

Meeting Ram Charan recently was pretty memorable. 

Co-star 

Linda Cardellini from Dead to Me. There was so much respect and love put into that show. The scenes that we had together were emotionally very difficult because of the storyline, and yet she was so gracious, and I felt simultaneously challenged and valued. She’s just an incredible actress, and a very sweet human being. 

Place to travel

Barcelona. We have been keeping our eyes out for the possibility of having a home there some day. It’s very inspiring.

PQ Suggestions

There was also the misconception that in order to be a successful actor, you have to be famous. But we don’t have to be famous. 

I am more than just what I look like or where I come from. It is so invigorating when you suddenly realize I can do that thing because you just put your mind to it.

Don’t look for the door. You make the door.

When I was younger all I had to look at was Wonder Woman. But now little South Asian girls have Symmetra, Rampart, Ms. Marvel. They have all of these beautiful characters who are unique with their backgrounds and their experiences.

I look at all of these different mediums as different branches of the tree. The roots and the trunk are still the very same, they’re just different branches.