The Picture House in Pelham, New York, hosts a January 22 screening of Brahmin Bulls and Q&A with Sendhil Ramamurthy. The film will be released on VOD later this year.
Waiting by my phone for my latest interview to begin, I’m a bundle of jittery excitement. It’s not every day that I expect a call from an actor who has transformed South Asian American media depictions beyond mere ethnic caricatures, and in the 10-plus years since he broke into showbiz, Sendhil Ramamurthy has done just that. His career trajectory mirrors his personal history, marked by unconventional paths, a patchwork of traditions, and a steadfast resolve to stray from stereotype: a Tamilian lineage with an upbringing in San Antonio; a pre-med major in Boston turned drama school graduate in London; a recurring role on hit American TV shows like Heroes and Beauty and the Beast alongside a part in 2011’s acclaimed, offbeat Bollywood crime drama, Shor in the City.
I look over my notes once more in the few minutes I have left. We’re scheduled to chat about his most recent release, another exercise in cultural convergence, as Sid Sharma in independent filmmaker Mahesh Pailoor’s Brahmin Bulls. The story of an estranged father and son whose cautious reunion is threatened by the return of a woman from their past, the film festival favorite stars Ramamurthy opposite veteran actors Roshan Seth, Mary Steenburgen, and Michael Lerner, as well as Justin Bartha of The Hangover series fame.
At precisely 10 a.m. — a welcome surprise these days, when punctuality is an increasingly rare trait — my ringtone blares and his signature baritone seeps through, tentative yet friendly as he asks if he’s dialed the right number. True-blue Texan that he is, he warns me good-naturedly that he only has a few minutes to chat before a Cowboys game will command his attention. There’s no time for nerves. I take that as my cue to fire away.
AJ: Congratulations on Brahmin Bulls! I hear it’s been a pretty long time in the making — since the writers’ strike in 2008, apparently?
SR: Yes, that’s when we started coming up with the first ideas for it. Mahesh and I always wanted to do something together, and so we talked about it, he wrote it, and sent a draft to me during the writers’ strike. There were actually 26 drafts.
SR: That’s pretty normal for films, though. It was a very different draft from what it’s now turned out to be. Then it took a long time to rake up the money to make it. We shot the whole thing in 21 days, but then it took a very long time to get the money to edit it together, do the music, and so on.
AJ: So this is really a labor of love and a huge time commitment.
SR: Yes, very much so. But totally worth it. Mahesh and I had actually worked together a long time ago, in 1999. He was still an undergrad at NYU and I had just finished drama school. We found each other in New York, did this little black and white, 10-minute short film. Even then, I could tell that he had talent and was going to go places. I did a few more shorts for him when he was at graduate school at the AFI (American Film Institute). After I finished the shorts, it was like, “ok, we have to do a feature.” We finally got it together!
AJ: When you get a role like Sid, who is written specifically for you, does it add pressure because now you feel like you’re really expected to deliver, or does it make things a little bit easier because you know the writer has etched out a character that will suit you?
SR: I felt very confident in the character because I knew it had been tailored to me. I also had a lot of input, so I got to shape him in ways that suited me, but also pushed me in ways that I wanted to be pushed. I always put pressure on myself to do well, but this wasn’t a 100 million dollar feature that was riding on my shoulders. So in that sense it was very free.
AJ: If you got to be part of writing your character, were there any things that were lifted straight from your own background or personality — other than the fact that the character is Indian American and plays tennis?
SR: Not really. That was kind of one of my “things,” that I didn’t really want any of me in him. The tennis part was fine, because it fit the story, and I loved getting to finally do that for a film. But I wanted the character, as a person, to be as different from me as possible.
AJ: And how is he different from you?
SR: He’s a bit of a lost soul who doesn’t really know what he’s after. I’m not like that. I have very definite ideas of the things I want and my goal is to pursue them and get them. But Sid is lacking in confidence, because he’s never gotten over certain things from his childhood and has chips on his shoulder. For a character in his 30s, those seem like very simple things to get over, but I know so many people who are like that. Forget about 30s, I know people in their 40s who are still just trying to figure things out. I never understood how you could be so lost, and so completely rudderless, at an older age. That’s so alien to me. Also, Sid has a really difficult relationship with his father, and I have a really good relationship with my father. So I found that aspect very interesting to explore — what’s it like to grow up with somebody who you fundamentally don’t get, and who doesn’t get you? That has to shape who you become as an adult.
AJ: And when your on-screen dad is Roshan Seth, who I’d like to believe is a pretty easy person to get along with, does that make it more challenging to play a difficult relationship?
SR: I had already been shooting by the time Roshan showed up. We were doing other scenes that he wasn’t in because he hadn’t come over yet — visa issues! So I didn’t get to spend any time with him beforehand. We got to know each other in between set-ups. He’s such a great guy, and he’s had so much experience. I thoroughly enjoyed working with him, having him as a sparring partner, and learning from him.