Monday, 10 May 2010

Sendhil Ramamurthy: from Tennis-loving immigrant kid to international star

The achingly chic PR girls are fidgeting and whispering to each other like infatuated school girls as we wait for Sendhil Ramamurthy to arrive. The girls are usually the picture of elegance and poise but Ramamurthy’s imminent showing is pushing up the girls’ combined temperature in spite of a typically miserable London chill hanging in the air.

As Sendhil saunters in to the imaginatively named Soho Hotel in, er, Soho, I can understand why. He is quite ludicrously handsome, classically tall and dark, sharply dressed and with features so finely chiselled that his jaw line could probably slice a frozen steak. Small wonder he’s twice been named in People Magazine's annual '100 Most Beautiful' list. To top it off, he is blessed with that buoyant and typically American graciousness that cynical Londoners find terribly annoying, but which certainly enhances his appeal. The former star of the monster hit US TV series ‘Heroes’ was in London earlier this month to promote “It’s a Wonderful Afterlife”, his first major film project in several years.

The movie is the latest by Panjabi force of nature Gurindher Chadha. Sendhil plays a police officer drafted in to investigate a series of murders in West London, involving poisoned Indian curries and a mother’s quest to get her plump daughter married. The film is a typically cheery but underwhelming Chadha romp with plenty of fat jokes and, er, Zombies. Sendhil does try to make the most of a mediocre script, but the role barely scratches the surface of his undoubted well of dramatic ability. “...Afterlife” may not have won over many critics but fans are queuing up at cinemas and the film continues the evolution of Sendhil Ramamurthy from Tennis-loving son of brainy Indian immigrants to cross cultural, global superstar.

From Pre-Med to West End
Ramamurthy was born in Chicago in 1974 to characteristically overachieving, upper middle-class South Asian parents originally from Tamil Nadu; his father is an anaesthesiologist and his mother a neonatologist. Perhaps tired of the icy weather that often grips the Windy City, the Ramamurthy clan (Sendhil has a younger sister who is a doctor) moved to balmy San Antonio, Texas when Sendhil was 20 months old.

Growing up, Sendhil was a gifted Tennis player, participating in local and regional tournaments before being gently nudged by his parents to concentrate on his studies. The love for Tennis is still evident but the disappointment of not continuing and turning professional has been offset by his tremendous success in showbiz. “I still travel lock, stock and barrel to Tennis tournaments around the world and play whenever I can, especially in charity tournaments”, says Sendhil with a hint of nostalgia. Having relegated Tennis in his life’s priorities, he followed in his parent’s footsteps, studying pre-medicine at Boston’s Tufts University.

Much like all great thespian stories, Sendhil’s entry into the business of performing came about by chance. During his final year in University, when American students are frantically trying to complete their graduation credit requirements by taking up easy-to-finish subjects like The Fundamentals of Golf or The Philosophy of Star Trek, Sendhil Ramamurthy took up an acting course. Part of ‘Intro to Acting’ involved performing in a stage play, titled ‘Our Country’s Good.’ He recalls wistfully, “I was immediately smitten. The liberation you feel on stage is amazing and I knew straight away that acting was what I wanted to do for a living.”

His parents were unsurprisingly taken aback but decided to support him, even sponsoring a trip to London to study drama and work on the West End stage. “They were less than thrilled at first”, says Sendhil. “I was pre-med, so I was going to go into the family business more or less. But I came to my senses, luckily, and backed out, and decided to go to drama school. Now they're happy that I'm playing a doctor on TV at least. It’s funny, because they don't quite understand what the hell Heroes is all about. After each show I have to explain to them what exactly happened”.

Smart Choices
Travelling to London was the first of two key decisions that laid the foundation for his eventual, global success as an actor. Whilst in the city, Sendhil took up roles in ‘A Servant of Two Masters’ and the acclaimed ‘Indian Ink’, and did a stint at the Royal Shakespeare Company whilst studying. The second decision was to not take on stereo-typical roles created specifically for actors of South Asian origin; clich├ęs like doctors and accountants with exaggerated accents, stingy grocery store owners or terrorists. “I’m just not into it”, he says. “I made a decision very early on in my career to turn down auditions for roles like that. I don’t fault other actors for doing that. Sometimes you just need to work. But for me personally, I would rather just go and do something else.”

Following his stint in London, Ramamurthy took on bit parts in movies, but more significantly joined the army of working actors on US Television; a part of Hollywood which has recently matched the movie industry in terms of revenue, global popularity and artistic excellence with such mega hits as ‘The Sopranos’, ‘24’, ‘C.S.I.’, ‘Lost’ and of course ‘Heroes’. Sendhil himself picked up roles in a number of acclaimed series, including Grey’s Anatomy, Casualty and Guiding Light, before landing his life changing gig as geneticist Mohinder Suresh in ‘Heroes’.

Ironically, ‘Heroes’ creator Tim Kring wrote the part for a 55-year-old actor. The 32-year-old Sendhil however, sent in a hastily prepared audition tape and was shocked to even be called in for a test. “I was saying, ‘Are you guys sure?’”, he recalls. “I almost talked myself out of the biggest job of my life!” Tim Kring says, “The character I wrote was in his late 50’s. We saw several auditions but the casting director kept coming back asking that we need to take a look at this one actor in particular. She said, ‘Trust me, you want to see this guy.’ Sendhil walked in the room and opened his mouth and we all looked at one another, so I went off and rewrote the entire character.”

The show itself was an expensive gamble for NBC with its effects-heavy production values, large ensemble and the geographic spread of the storylines. However, “Heroes” has become a global phenomenon, a commercial and critical success with weekly audience figures averaging 16 million. Sendhil recalls an incident in Singapore; “After the first season, the cast went to a fan event where they told us it would be like 500 to 800 people and we got there and there were just under 8000. That was freaky. It was scary but cool. These people screaming for you, you're kind of hoping they don't kill you too. When we came to Europe, we had an even bigger response. It's great to see that the show hasn't become just this genre, sci-fi show. It really has become this global thing.”

The cast have become international stars, not least Sendhil Ramamurthy. His good looks and distinguished accent (his character is from Madras but supposedly had a lot of elocution) has earned him an army of female fans around the world. His intense performance as the troubled son investigating his father’s mysterious death has won him plaudits from critics as well. In many ways, Sendhil’s character is the very soul of ‘Heroes’, a sort of counsellor for the ‘Superheroes’ coming to terms with their powers.

Desktop Screen Saver
Just a decade ago, it would have been unthinkable for an actor from the parched South of the vast Indian sub-continent to enter the imaginations (and desktop screen savers) of countless American females, let alone be given acting roles that didn’t involve being a terrorist or the tourist with the funny accent. Sendhil joins real life edgy lothario Naveen Andrews (who plays Sayid in “Lost”) in forcing women around the world to fan themselves furiously.

The key difference between the two however, is that unlike Andrews, Sendhil doesn’t come across as the sort of heartthrob who will nick your wife, girlfriend or mother for that matter; but it’s an attraction that baffles Sendhil. “It is flattering but I can’t quite get my head around it”, he says, smiling sheepishly as the PR girls let out a loud sigh. Unfortunately for the girls and millions of others Sendhil’s been happily married for nearly a decade to Olga Sosnovska, an Anglo-Polish actress he met at drama school in London. The couple have two children – 4-year-old daughter Halina and son Alex, 2 who dutifully travel with dad whether he’s filming in Mumbai, promoting a show in Singapore or watching Wimbledon.

A total departure
Ramamurthy’s evolution continues this year with a new TV series titled ‘Covert Affairs’ in which he plays a volatile, womanizing CIA Agent in a total departure from his role in Heroes. Significantly, the role doesn’t have any ethnic undertones and is being executive produced by Doug Liman, the man behind ‘The Bourne Identity’; the internet is already awash with chatter about the series, months before its July premier. "I get to play a character very different from what I play in 'Heroes'. It's a childhood fantasy come true. I'll be running around shooting guns. I don't only get to play out an action fantasy I get paid for it.”

Sendhil is also spreading his wings beyond American TV, first with “It’s a Wonderful Afterlife” and, later this year, with “Shor”, a Bollywood production by Ekta Kapoor, the gifted and prolific young Indian film and TV director. The 36-year-old Ramamurthy is set to play an Indo-American who returns to India as a humanitarian but gets caught up in the Mumbai underworld. Whilst his role involves a grand total of 20 Hindi words, the film will no doubt broaden his appeal in the land of his forefathers.

In spite of the multi-million dollar salary, the sex symbol status and global popularity, Sendhil remains modest, composed and even. “I pinch myself every day. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have consistently worked and to have worked my way up to where I am today”, he says.

Sendhil’s is a story of gradual accumulation, of hard work and – most importantly – of sticking to his convictions; of having the confidence in his abilities to reject hackneyed roles as well as leaving ‘Heroes’ just as the show threatens to fall victim to Hollywood’s “bigger and noisier is better” mantra. It is perhaps a reflection of his heritage and the work ethic that is characteristic of the South Asian Diaspora community. That heritage has also helped him remain grounded and focused on building a successful body of work and in the process break down cultural barriers and stereotypes; and becoming the embodiment of South Asia’s collective confidence, and global ambitions.