OC Interview: OPEN CHEST Interview with Actress Melinda Shankar

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Melinda Shankar

Unplugged & Loving It!

Canadian teen sensation, actress Melinda Shankar has managed to defy all odds. At the tender age of 19, this Guyanese beauty has become a veteran in the teen acting world, and has done what very few South Asians before her have: bagged principle roles in two major globally syndicated TV shows,

Degrassi: The Next Generation (Epitome Pictures Inc.) and How To Be Indie (YTV), and that too, at a relatively young age. Known the world over as “Alli” and “Indie”, she continues to enthral audiences everywhere with two very different characters, both of which she has become known for and amassed a huge cult following for.

True to her Aquarian nature, this forward thinking adventurous actress sees obstacles as opportunities, challenges as a road to better things and is about as down to earth and honest as can be. I chatted with her post ANOKHI’s 5th Annual Gala in February this year, and discovered that although she’s young in years, she’s old in perspective. She talked about what inspired her to become an actress, how her positive outlook helped her to become the success she is today, how the unflinching support of her family keeps her grounded, and how going back to Guyana helped her connect with her roots. And this is only the beginning!

Read on…

Sweetheart, we’re chatting right after the ANOKHI Awards Gala where you were presented with the Actress Of The Year 2011 award. How did you feel when you were told that you would be receiving this award?

You know, I was nominated for a Gemini award for Performance Of The Year, but I was so much more thrilled to get Actress Of The Year because that’s huge. I mean it was on the same exact calibre for me to be nominated for an ANOKHI award as it was being nominated for a Gemini [the Canadian equivalent to the Emmys]. Getting the award was special to me because it was the recognition of not just my work, but all the hard work my sister and parents have put in for me. The award, for me, was something I could give to them. It wasn’t even for myself. It’s one of those things when you realize it’s all worth it, and I thank you and ANOKHI for this.

It was well deserved, dear. So let’s go back to where and how it all began for you. You grew up in Ottawa, in an environment where there weren’t so many people around you from your culture. How did that external environment shape your perspective on life in your younger years?

My parents, being from South America, didn’t have that much opportunity to introduce us to our culture. It’s now that I am realizing that I don’t know enough about my culture or background. I think that would be the only negative part, but there was never a point where I felt different from anyone or stood out at all, so that was nice while growing up.

So there was no confusion for you growing up?

No. My parents spoke English, wore the same clothes [as others], so it’s not like there was a huge difference between my home life and school.

It’s evident that you’re very close to your family as you speak of them often and with a great deal of warmth and affection on the couple of occasions we’ve chatted. Tell me what it is about their influence and guidance that has helped shape who you are today.

My parents have always been the kind of people who made sure we stay on the right path and exceed in our goals, but they never pushed us or told us what to do. They just gave us creative boundaries. If we wanted to do something, they never said no. I started doing dance and karate at the age of three, and I am still doing it 16 years later. My brother is in hockey, and the lead guitar player for a band. They never said no and they knew that if they gave us opportunities we would use them in positive ways, because that’s just how they raised us.

Unlike you, many people from strong cultures like ours who have or are striving for a more artistic career have been faced with tremendous challenges on the home front because of, and understandably so, the dynamics associated with traditional, professional careers having more of a guarantee to success as opposed to the kind of career that you have delved into. Bearing this in mind, do you feel that the support you have received from your family early on in life has helped you get to this successful position as a mainstream actress so early on in your career and life?

You know, I think where I am today would not have been possible without the support and encouragement I’ve gotten from my parents. Living in Ottawa in my younger years, my dad used to drive me five hours to Toronto for a five-minute audition, and then drive back. He’d drop everything for me. I am an actor, my brother is an actor, so between the two of us, my dad would be in Toronto three times a week, which isn’t easy for someone with a household of six to look after.

Why do you feel your family was so supportive of you in this manner?

My mom was an actor in South America, her dad was a director and my great-grandfather was in theatre also. In a third world country, entertainment isn’t a priority where people are just trying to live day-to-day and make enough money to keep their homes, so they tried to give their town a little entertainment. Our parents were raised with that kind of mentality.

Understood! There was a certain point in time when you knew you needed to actualize your desire to become an actress. What was that moment for you and what was it that convinced you that you had to move to Toronto to make it happen?

Well, there were always hints of it from the very beginning, when I used to tell my parents that I wanted to be on TV, and I loved the competitive environment of dance and karate. I loved being in the spotlight. But the actual realization came to me when I went to see Nelly Furtado in concert during Grade 4. Before that concert, I had experienced a year of auditioning without any success, which obviously brings you down and makes you wonder, what if this isn’t the right place for me to be? But that night, I realized that there is no ‘what if,’ because this is the only thing I want to do. I was truly inspired and after that night, I’d walk into auditions with the mentality that I already got the job. Since gaining that mentality, I have been booked for every job I have auditioned for!

Wow! The power of positive suggestion. So do you think this positive attitude of yours has contributed to your success in getting these roles when you have auditioned for them?

I think it’s not a coincidence. I think at some point it would have to be attitude.

Yes, you create your destiny with your own perception on life. The epiphany you had during the Nelly Furtado concert changed your attitude, and clearly changed your destiny from that point forward.

Absolutely!

Okay, so now you’re in Toronto! How did you make the transition between small town Ottawa and the comparatively large city of Toronto? How did you make this place home?

 

When I came here, I left everything I knew, and I knew I had nothing but my job. I came here and thank God for the cast of Degrassi. To this day, I have never had any issues with anyone on set because we are all really close on and off set. When I moved to Toronto, they were my family, they were my friends. It was there that I did my school and where I had my job.

And like most careers, learning and honing your skills is a prerequisite to getting the grounding you need in order to be taken seriously — at least until you have a portfolio of work as your anchor. What did you do in this regard to hone your skills in acting?

I never really took a long-term acting program. I took one of those on-camera courses where you learn what to do when you go for an audition. I came to Toronto with this new job, not knowing anything, and the first year of acting in Degrassi for me, was my acting course. I watched my performance and that of others on the first season. I believe the best learning comes from doing and I must be right, because of the overwhelming positive feedback I get from both the team on set and from our viewers.

Let’s rewind a bit to when you got your roles for Degrassi: The Next Generation and How To Be Indie. When there is a plethora of aspiring actors who have spent years going to acting school and more years still on the audition circuit, why do you think you were able to get these two incredibly successful syndicated TV show roles? Do you attribute it to your attitude, the fact that you were at the right place at the right time or a combination of both?

Definitely a combination of both. With Degrassi, there was already an established male character and they were looking for someone to play his sister, so it was a race-call. I didn’t have any experience walking on set but the male character and I looked alike and we had good chemistry, coupled with the fact that I walked into the audition with the attitude that I already had the role.

Interesting! Both shows are very different from each other and you play very different characters. Tell me about both of them.

On Degrassi, my character’s name is Alli Bhandari. Her home life is completely separate from her out-of-home life. In fact, she avoids speaking of her home or trying to even be there, because her parents are so extremely strict. She is boy crazy and dresses a lot more scandalously then she does at home, and due to the severe restrictions she lives with at home, she runs with it when she gets her freedom to do so. Consequently, she gets in a whole heap of trouble and has to deal with some harsh learning experiences as a result. On How To Be Indie, the character is completely different. She’s a lot younger and although, like Alli, she’s trying to balance her South Asian lifestyle with her Canadian lifestyle, the show is told from a comedic perspective and is a lot lighter, and therefore much more relatable to every race and family as comedy is a universal language.

Why do you feel that these two shows have gotten the tremendous audience followings that they have, not just in Canada but around the world? What do you think it is about these shows that excites the world and keeps them coming back for more?

Degrassi has a long history of being on air, and so it has such a huge fan base which I was blessed to walk into. To walk into an established show that was already big without me being on it, due to it being around for thirty years, and the sheer ethnic diversity of the characters that people can relate to is the reason for Degrassi’s success. The writing is so real that the audience feels like the characters are like their friends and that the issues being addressed are ones that most kids are either experiencing or know someone who is at their own high school. It’s funny, because a lot of parents come up to me and say they want their kids to watch the show so they don’t have to explain the awkward things in life. How To Be Indie’s success is in part due to the great scripts — they’re so funny. When rehearsing our lines, we have to take breaks because we can’t read them without having laugh attacks.

The interesting thing is that both of the roles that you play are very far removed from the life you have grown up living. You haven’t had the cultural duality aspect that both of these character’s deal with in terms of figuring out your identity. What’s it like playing these characters who are so far removed from who you are in the real world?

For How To Be Indie, I just have fun with it, but for Degrassi, where I have intense scenes, I really need to get into the crux of what my character is feeling. I get messages from girls dealing with the same issues, who are raised with strict parents, and they thank me for showing them that they are not alone and that they are not the only girls dealing with these issues. I’ve had scenes where my character had to break down and it is kind of hard to stop the emotions because your heart just goes out to these girls who live with this kind of pressure. Coming from a household where we were able to openly talk to our parents, it is hard to imagine not being allowed to be myself.

You are absolutely right. So how has playing a role like this opened you up to the experiences that a lot of women from these harsh, culturally constrained backgrounds are faced with? Has it changed your outlook on life because this is new for you?

It has. I have done a lot of fundraisers, because it’s all about women’s empowerment for me. I want to change this still-existing belief where women are expected to stay home, cook and clean, not have an education and eat last.

So when you go out into the community to help inspire others and put out the message that you are really not limited because of your gender, how does that make you feel?

Wonderful! The way I talk is not formal, it’s just kind of this is just what it is, this is the reality of it and I think from that, they kind of appreciate it more as a friend as opposed to someone telling them things from a place they cannot relate to.

As a young adult, what have you learned from your career so far on a personal level?

I have learned that your age has nothing to do with getting you places. I am inspired by one of the actors on How To Be Indie who started when he was 13 years old. It’s not easy, what we do, working 13 hours a day memorizing 20 pages of script. He was focused on his game all the time, which got him more  roles and since then, he has had his own TV show. This has inspired me because no matter how old you are, if you are dedicated to what you do and you put yourself out there, people will notice and you will, as a result, get wherever you want to get in life and be whoever you want to be.

A good work ethic always pays off. Let’s talk about the Disney project you were in.

Last year, Disney remade Harriet the Spy with Jennifer Stone from Wizards of Waverly Place and Vanessa Morgan from the Latest Buzz. It was great that the casting directors were colour blind when casting. It was an open race audition and I got the role of a little science nerd.

You also did a feature film with Aidan Quinn that is coming down the pike. Tell me a little about that movie and your role in it.

The film is called Festival of Lights. It’s an indie film written and produced by Shundell Prasad, who was born in Guyana and moved to Queens when she was really young. She was in her apartment one day and had this idea for a script, so she wrote, directed and produced it herself. As a first-time director and first time everything, this girl pulled it all together, which is pretty amazing. The movie stars Jimi Mistry, who plays my father and Aidan Quinn, who plays my step-father. Because parts of it were filmed on location in Guyana and my family is from there, they made my father the production manager since he knew his way around and was familiar with the lay of the land. Some of the movie was even shot at my father’s and mother’s homes — the homes they grew up in. We still have family members that live in Guyana.

So this was more than making a film for you; it was going back to your roots.

Yes! I was three years old the last time I was there. That, coupled with the fact that this was the first time I played a character of my actual ethnicity, and that too, in the same village my grandparents lived and acted in, was pretty special. It meant a lot to my father, to me and to the country itself.

So tell me the gist of the story and why people would want to watch it.

It’s about this family — a mother, father and young daughter, which is me — who, like many people from third world countries, want to come to North America for a better life. The father (Jimi Mistry) tried to get his family over the border not completely on the up-and-up, and got caught and detained by the cops, but they sent the mother and me to New York. Then the movie flashes forward a few years, when I am this girl with the worst attitude, hating life and hating the world. The mother is remarried to a Caucasian (Aidan Quinn) and my character has a lot of resentment towards my mother because she didn’t try to get my father out of jail, but remarried instead. The whole movie is the girl’s journey back to find her father and reconnect with him.

What is the significance of the title of the film?

One of the few memories my character has with her father is celebrating Diwali and attending the Diwali parade. This memory signifies being loved for her. She doesn’t love her mom because she feels her mom has a new family where her step-dad doesn’t love her because he doesn’t treat her the way he treats his own daughter or his wife. My character feels she has no one, so she wanders off to try to find love. During this journey, she gets abused and raped, and then married by the end. She goes through all of this because she doesn’t have stability at home.

When will the movie hit the theatre circuit?

It’s aimed at later this year.

We’ve talked about your upbringing and your career. Let’s shift gears a little to you as a role model for aspiring actors. You know that very few young actors get to the heights you have and rarely are they South Asian and as young as you are. For those aspiring to follow in your footsteps, what advice would you offer to get them on the right track from the get-go, bearing in mind what you have already experienced?

I think with a lot of actors and especially actors of colour, they just have it in their head that it’s unrealistic for people of colour to be consistent in this career. But I can prove that wrong in my own experience. I have gone out for many colour-blind auditions. Rather than being a hindrance, I think at this point in time, it’s a benefit to be of colour because diversity is such a great thing right now and people are noticing that just by having a diverse range of cultures and ethnicities in their programming, they have a stronger chance for audience connectivity and overall sustainability since this reflects society. That’s why I think there hasn’t been a better time to get into careers like this if you’re a person of colour.

You’re right. Just look at young Hollywood, for example. Like you, teen star Selena Gomez is female, comes from an ethnic background and is on a popular syndicated TV show. You are on two (wink)!

[Laughs.]

How do you feel about this comparison?

I think it’s definitely an honour. I think the one difference between being on a Canadian show and a US one is just the amount of advertising that goes into US shows. This leads to more notoriety in the States versus Canada. I mean yesterday in the States, I had people pull hair out of my head and say “I have Alli’s hair!” I have had my phone taken, my number asked for, but here, although it can get crazy, it’s still manageable most times.

Let’s talk a little bit about this whole pop culture teenage star phenomenon. Other than regular pressures of trying to stay on top of your game and keeping a competitive edge, and you are “only as good as your last job”, there is also the pressure of a young star coming into their own as an adult — this is a pressure that becomes more severe the further up the public totem pole you go.  Add to this the sheer level of power, access and privilege this gives you, and it’s no wonder there are so many teenage stars that look for ways to escape all this craziness going on both internally and externally. Then there’s also the mass media and public scrutiny that demands to know absolutely everything about you, from what you eat to how you dress. It’s almost no wonder that a great many of these young stars fall prey to the darker side of the industry: drugs, alcohol and sexual irresponsibility.

I think this is directly related to the fact that when you sign to a major corporation, whether it’s Disney or Nickelodeon, they kind of own you and take over. And they just want you to be as perfect as humans. So at this height of public access, you’re asked not to be human, which clearly is not going to go anywhere healthy or good. You make one mistake and it gets blown out of proportion with stories and rumours beyond your control, like a photographer takes a picture of you with a drink in your hand and all of a sudden you’re labelled an alcoholic. between access, mass adulation and media scrutiny, has the US teen stars totally controlled by their companies where you have to be what they want you to be. In Canada, we have more control over which jobs we want to do. I have done things from Disney to playing a nerd to playing a skank to playing a funny homegirl to playing a wife. And I have been able to do all of this without restrictions because I’m not locked down to a particular company. I think being able to be ourselves, we don’t have the same level of pressures as the stars in the States do to be someone we’re not.

But there is going to come a time when that move to L.A. will be inevitable for you, because you will have done everything you can professionally in Canada. There will be a point where you will need to make that move happen. How do you intend to deal with the Hollywood machine?

I think by already knowing that it is what it is, I’ll be one step ahead. Over there, you start when you’re five years old and from the get-go, you have to be perfect and fake all the time. From my perspective, I didn’t grow up in that pre-teen fame environment, so I’m already one step ahead of the formula. I know myself and I know what’s healthy for me. It’s about knowing you’re comfortable with yourself, because if people don’t see that you are comfortable with yourself, they will try to make you something you’re not. I’ve seen it.

So how do you control that, really? I am looking at it from a businesswoman’s perspective, where there are companies that have invested millions of dollars into a movie and need to at least recoup their investment, if not make a profit. Their star profiles are what help them get visibility by media and in turn by the masses who pay to go see the movie. clearly these producers are going to milk the crap out of these big star names and at some point, you’re going to be faced with that ownership.

And I’ll do my part, as it’s mutually beneficial for them and me that the movie becomes a success, but I won’t allow the whirlwind to scoop me up. I’m too grounded for that, and besides, I have a family that won’t tolerate such behaviour. [Laughs]

There’s also a point when family can get a bit too in your face. Like the Lindsay Lohan saga.

Absolutely. Her mom was her manager and she pushed her and clearly got her to where she is, but at some point, it was obviously too much — her rebellion came to be, well, we all know what.

Teen stars really do have quite the challenge. You’ve got growing up to do, a career to manage, school to get through. How do you personally balance it all?

It works out because it’s what I want and I’m doing this of my own accord. Also, I’ve been doing this for a number of years now so I know what works for me and that’s what I do.

You’ve made some interesting points that I think a lot of people don’t realize.

Thanks!

Okay, so I’ve gotta ask: A pretty little thing like you must get a lot of male attention. How does that feel? It must feel pretty cool at your age — at any age, for that matter.

[Laughs.] It depends if it’s friendly or creepy. People contemplate whether I should have security with me all the time, but I don’t really want that when I’m shopping or when I’m with my friends. If I am with my boyfriend, people always think we are just cast members, since we both work on Degrassi, so if a creepy guy comes up to me and asks questions, I feel pretty safe around him because he’s a lot bigger and stronger then me. As much as it was flattering in the beginning, now I just try and avoid these situations as I can see them coming now.

Absolutely. So, you just mentioned your boyfriend.

Right.

How does a teenager with everything going on in her life all at the same time actually have time for a dude?

[Laughs.] Well, he is on the cast of Degrassi.

Yes, you mentioned that. Which one is he?

Owen (played by Daniel Kelly), the douchebag on the show. He’s really the sweetest in real life. He is a football player and is built, so I’m always safe around him. He is on set when I’m there most days, and since he’s in the same line of work, he gets it when I’m MIA for a week and I get it if he’s in L.A. for a week. We don’t need to explain it, which is the best part. Before we were dating, we were best friends, so if nothing else, he is just more like someone to talk to, someone to vent to. If it was anything close to stressful, I don’t think I would have time for anything added.

What are your top two must-haves for being in a relationship?

The person definitely has to be funny because that’s my way of dealing with stress, to laugh. In stressful situations, I can’t help but laugh and people think it’s a disorder. [Laughs.] Even atfunerals, it’s so awkward because I can’t stop laughing hysterically. Secondly, I need someone who is very family-oriented because I am. Family comes before even my job for me. And in the future, if I were to have a family, I would want it to be the same as mine. I’m one of those old-fashioned people; I think ahead in everything.

No, dear, I think it’s more than that. Your insights at this young age are a sign that you’ve got an old soul. Especially since your insights are not due to overcoming severe challenges in life, which is how most of us learn them. I think this is also why even in a bad situation, you laugh — you see the positive in things rather than wallowing in the negative.

I’ll give you an example. When I was really young and I would get into trouble, I would laugh while I was being told off. I was always the kind of kid to laugh it off because either way, I would still be in trouble, right, so it’s better to laugh than cry about it.

I love your attitude, although it would never have worked in my household as I’d have gotten into even more trouble for laughing! (Pause) On that rare occasion when you actually get a day off, what do you do?

I shop a lot. Fashion has always been one of my passions. If I wasn’t in acting, I think I would definitely be a designer. I am always drawing out sketches and making jewellery. And I have had a couple of custom-made clothes made where I draw it out and take it to a seamstress and they make it for me.

If you were to meet someone for the first time who had no clue who you were, how would you describe yourself in one sentence?

I am a very relaxed homebody who is really goal-oriented and focused on myself as a business more than as a teen right now.

A famous quote you live by or are inspired by?

The one I live by is “everything happens for a reason.” My mom always told me when I was growing up that if I didn’t get a job I wanted, it was because there was another even better one I was supposed to get, and that getting this one would conflict. It’s this idea that I live by, always.

First published in The Live Beautiful Issue, March 2011, www.AnokhiMagazine.com

Crew credits:
Photography by Tony Di Lorenzo
Produced by Hina P. Ansari
Hair and Makeup: Wendy Rorong for TRESemmé using M.A.C Cosmetics/Plutino Group
Stylist: Ryan Catney/Judy Inc.
Photography Assistant: Helen Tran

Photo i: Royal Red. Dress, Greta Constantine, Price available upon request; Necklace, Alynne Lavigne Vintage Collection, $85 CDN; Earrings, Crush Lane using Swarovski Crystals, Available at Made You Look Boutique, $125 CDN; Bangles, Alynne Lavigne, Vintage Collection, $25 CDN each; Bangles, Richard Wyman, $75 CDN each; Shoes, Christian Louboutin, Available at David’s Shoes, $925 CDN
Photo ii:
Blue Valentine. Blazer, Sessún, 260 CDN; T-Shirt, American Apparel, $20 CDN; Skirt, American Apparel,$69 CDN; Belt, Greta Constantine, Priceavailable upon request; Shoes, Christian Louboutin, Available at David’s Shoes, $925 CDN; Earrings, Alynne Lavigne Vintage Collection, $25 CDN
Photos iii:
Pink Passion. T-Shirt, The Furies, $98 CDN; Trousers, Sessún, $210 CDN; Belt, Greta Constantine, Price available upon; request; Shoes, Christian Louboutin, Available at David’s Shoes, $685 CDN; Chain, Alynne Lavigne Designs, $189 CDN
Photo iv: Saffron Sweet.
Dress, Kumari’s, $295 CDN; Dupatta, Kumari’s, $195 CDN; Jeans, American Apparel, $85 CDN; Shoes, Emilio Pucci, Available at David’s Shoes, $650 CDN; Bracelets, Alynne Lavigne Vintage Collection, $60 CDN each
Photo v: Purple Heart.
Gown Greta Constantine, Price available upon request; Earrings, Alynne Lavigne Vitage Collection, $45 CDN; Rhinestone Necklaces, Alynne Lavigne Vintage Collection, $125 CDN each; Rhinestone Bracelets, Alynne Lavigne Vintage Collection, $65 CDN each; Sterling Silver Cuff, Aimée Kennedy, Available at Made YouLook Boutique, $170 CDN; Shoes, Christian Louboutin, Available at David’s Shoes, $685 CDN

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