OC Interview: OPEN CHEST Interview with Model, Actress Lisa Ray

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Lisa Ray

Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow…

 

 

 

Model turned actress Lisa Ray is no wallflower, having exploded onto the mass radar back in the early ’90s at the tender age of 16, clad in nothing more than a then-risqué red swimsuit on the cover of India’s Glad Rags magazine. Since then, it’s no secret that this exotic beauty has gone on to rack up quite the resume with major ad campaigns with the likes of Rado Watches, L’Oreal and Lakme, to name a few, and a diverse film portfolio with principle roles in movies with acclaimed filmmakers such as Deepa Mehta and Shamin Sharif. But what’s little-known is what she’s been up to in recent years, post being diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare form of cancer in 2009, which, by default of its magnitude, drastically changed her perspective on life from that point forward. My one-on-one with Lisa is not intended to be biographical in nature (I’ve already done that interview in the past), but warrants some discussion of the same in order to understand who she was in the past and who she has become today, post ‘graduation’ (as she calls it), from this debilitating and mostly fatal disease, which for her, was liberating and pivitol to her understanding of life!

The Stardom…

Your journey started quite early on in your life. At the tender age of 16, you were discovered while vacationing in India and ended up getting a lot of attention for your Glad Rags magazine swimsuit cover at a time when India hadn’t yet opened its door to emancipation the way it has today. Coming from small town Etobicoke, Canada, can you recall what it was like being catapulted into the mass public eye after appearing on this cover?

 

I wasn’t in India when I first made an impact, but once I returned my life changed forever. I was thrown into an entirely new world and I learned how to adapt and blend in quickly. I’ll be writing about this in my upcoming memoir so it’s hard to condense that experience into a few words.

 

Great! Things moved very quickly for you after the Glad Rags publicity. You grabbed the attention of many corporate brands like De Beers Diamonds, L’Oreal hair care products and Lakme Cosmetics, for which you headed mega ambassadorship campaigns, Rado being the longest to date. What was this phase of your life like in terms of the changes associated with such tremendous visibility—being considered the epitome of beauty for this era, bearing in mind that you weren’t reared for this industry as many are, but instead, stumbled upon it by being at a certain place at a certain time?

 

I never expected to be that sought after, that famous. It was wonderful but it also came with a lot of responsibility. For almost a decade, I worked non-stop, travelled the world and experienced things beyond my years. I missed out on a carefree lifestyle. People underestimate the pressures in my business.

 

Your first foray into the entertainment business came with your special appearance in Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s music video for the legendary hit song, “Afreen Afreen” back in 1996. Was this the point that spiked your interest in forging a career in acting?

 

No, everything was happening simultaneously. I was getting Bollywood offers as soon as I landed in India—I simply wasn’t interested in pursuing them at that point.

 

 

Before we get into discussing the acting part of your career, what was it about the idea of acting that made you decide to take a sabbatical from your professional life to take courses to learn the craft and steer your already successful modelling career into the world of acting?

 

I wanted to immerse myself in drama school and act abroad. In India I was pegged as a ‘glamour queen’ and only got offers to act in big Bollywood productions, whereas my heart was in small, human-scaled independent films with a social conscience.

And you’ve done many such films over the past almost decade, from comedies like Bollywood Hollywood (2002), to social dramas like Water (2005), to seemingly controversial same sex romances like I Can’t Think Straight (2007) and The World Unseen (2008), just to name a few. What’s your thought process behind what you decide to commit to because there doesn’t seem to be an obvious pattern—is it the stage of life you’re in perhaps?

 

Yes.

 

Fair enough! Two critically acclaimed filmmakers in particular—Deepa Mehta and Shamin Sarif, whom you’ve worked with in two films apiece—share certain parallels I’d like to discuss in a little more depth with you. They are both South Asian, female and err to the controversial bend of filmmaking. Deepa towards social discussion and Shamin towards the dynamic of same-sex relationships: Let’s talk first about your time with Deepa, in particular, your role in Water. Looking back, this seems to have been an integral role in your career thus far. When I interviewed you during the press junket for this movie at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) back in September 2005, I asked you why you agreed to do the movie. Your answer: “Why not! It’s a privilege to work with her (Deepa) in any event, let alone twice.” Now that time has passed and you’re in many ways, very much a different woman today, if I were to ask you this question again, would your answer be different?

 

Water was a brilliant film and I personally don’t understand the perceived controversy around it. That reaction was mainly within the Indian community. Otherwise it was an extremely well received and critically acclaimed film that I consider a landmark in my career and otherwise.

And Shamin’s movies, both of them you acted opposite the tremendously talent Sheetal Sheth, both times in roles where you both played same-sex lovers, although one was a period drama and one was a pop-culture comedy. Clearly you’re an actress who thrives on picking roles that are not just varied but in some people’s estimation, off the beaten path. Why choose to do these roles?

I love being a part of human stories—stories that celebrate the triumph of the human spirit, of overcoming adversity or simply examining the human condition. This really appeals to me.

How did you prepare your mindset to being these women in Shamin’s movies?

 

Working with Shamin is always a treat. She is a smart, insightful and remarkably humourous human being with great integrity. We dug deep into our own psyches, as well as that of our characters, in working on telling these stories.

 

What was it like working with Sheetal?

 

Lovely. She’s a lovely human being and a very dedicated and talented actress. I learned a lot working with her.

How did you work together to find that fit within the interplay between your characters, and I ask you this because the dynamic between you both seemed effortless?

 

I can’t answer that, but it’s obviously a great professional dynamic that we share.

 

 

 

What to you is the importance of telling these rarely told, at least in our culture, stories?

 

It’s because they are rarely told. These stories need a voice.

 

The Unexpected…

 

On June 23, 2009, the world became aware of the fact that you had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma. This is a very rare form of cancer that affects the plasma cells that produce antibodies, without which, we have no immune defense. I’d like to shed light not only on the condition itself, but your journey throughout the fight. What are the characteristics of this condition?

 

Myeloma is tricky to diagnose — fatigue and loss of memory were my symptoms. It’s basically a malignancy of the bone marrow that affects 7,000 Canadians a year. It is considered incurable but with increasing awareness, research and funds, we are close to changing it into a chronic disease as opposed to a fatal one. You can learn more by logging onto www.myelomacanada.ca. (Pause) I recently shot a campaign for Hillberg and Berk — a great jewellery designer based out of Regina (Canada), where a percentage of sales will go towards helping move closer toward a cure.

 

What were the circumstances around the discovery?

It’s a long-winded answer and the shortcut is to share; I’m writing about this in my book.

 

Looking forward to that read! What was the first thought that came to mind when you found out what you had been diagnosed with and what the condition actually was?

 

It was a relief. I knew something was wrong and I was tired of being tired all the time. Once you know what’s wrong, you can do something about it. .

How long before the formal announcement came out did you actually find out?

Two months.

 

Where were you at the time?

Toronto.

 

What were the immediate changes to your life?

I was in denial for a long time, so the breakthroughs came about gradually…first my body started changing and then thankfully I learned how to ask for support from others. (Pause) And to be transparent, vulnerable and open.

Where did you go internally to garner the strength to take on the fight?

 

It was the cumulative effect of all my life experiences and lessons. Additionally, a bit of yoga, my father’s unwavering support and insights, and the support I got from others like Sindi Hawkins, the ex health minister of BC — she was a significant support for me.

 

Did you ever have a doubt that you wouldn’t pull through?

 

No, never.

 

You decided to share your step-by-step journey during this time with the public, by keeping a blog at http://lisaraniray.wordpress.com. Why?

I started writing to make sense of what I was going through and didn’t anticipate it would be so well received. I wrote to understand myself.

 

 

 

What’s the significance of calling your account the “yellow diaries?”

Yellow is the colour of the third chakra, which is the seat of willpower. Yellow is representative of my will.

 

One of your blog posts, called “MM Memos and Gangajal” dated March 14, 2010, states “I have a new vision of myself now.” Explain?

 

It’s more evocative. I can’t explain rationally, a lot of what I feel and write.

You now lend a great deal of your time in support of cancer-related initiatives, one being a breast cancer docudrama called 1 a Minute, which was produced by Indian-American producer and cancer survivor, Namrata Singh Gujral (who I had the pleasure of interviewing back in the spring of 2007). Upon research, I discovered that a lot of talent have participated in the doc, including Olivia Newton-John, Jaclyn Smith, Mumtaz and William Baldwin, to name a few — all either cancer survivors themselves or have been effected by loved ones who have had the disease. (It was released by Warner Bros. in October 2010.) Tell me about this doc and your experience in it?

Namrata reached out to me during my cancer journey and we connected as women and as potential ‘cancer graduates.’ I admire her vision and energy and was honoured to be a part of her documentary. I shot for it while I was in the thick of my treatment, bloated on steroids yet peaceful and optimistic.

It’s interesting that you refer to yourself as a ‘cancer graduate.’ Explain the significance of this over the term most widely used, ‘cancer survivor?’

 

My friend Brett Wilson coined this term and it resonated with me the first time I heard it. I’ve learned so much through my cancer journey that it’s only natural to refer to myself as a graduate ready to take that knowledge and use it in the world.

There’s a lot of support and visibility available for breast cancers but very little for the form that you’ve experienced. What is it about multiple myeloma that people should know, and how can we support the fight against it as a public?

I agree with this perspective. Cancer has become politicized. In order to garner a fair share of funds for research, raising awareness is the first step. Myelomacanada.ca is a great organization. The David Bloom chair at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital is a significant place to donate funds. I will have more information on my official website which is launching shortly.

 

The Present…

 

Let’s talk about some recent work you’ve been involved in. You just worked on a theatrical production with the legendary actor, Kabir Bedi, which premiered at the Luminato Art and Cultural Festival here in Toronto this past June. Tell me what the play is about?

The play is called “TAJ” and that says it all. It’s a compelling story about love, loss and memory.

 

What character do you play?

Jahanara. She was the eldest daughter of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal. After Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his own son Aurangzeb — who wrested control of the Mughal Empire away from his father — Jahanara sacrificed her life to look after her father. She was a very learned and liberated woman for the times. She was however, horribly burned in her youth, which marred her legendary beauty.

 

Why choose to do this role?

The opportunity to spread and promote the message of love, and examine its shortcomings as well.

 

What were the highlights of the play for you?

Kabir Bedi, Luminato, Tom Diamond, Lata Pada, kathak, sufi singing…love. And Lisa Ray.

 

You’ve also worked on a TLC series that you shot for four months late last year. What’s this about?

I’m very excited about this project. It’s a colourful, entertaining and an informative deep dive into culture and tradition. I’ve never seen another show with our format and that’s why I wanted to be a part of it.

 

When will it air?

It launches in India in early July of this year.

 

It’s been a while since you’ve done a feature film. Anything coming down the pike?

Yes but nothing I can announce at the moment.

 

If you had the choice to play any role, what would it be and why?

 

Noor. A compelling historical figure who was half Indian, half American. The daughter of a Sufi mystic and a spy in the Second World War. She was known as the ‘spy who would not lie.’

What actor, actress, director have you not yet had the opportunity to work with but would jump at, given the chance?

 

Many. I’m open to working with many different people and always open to new experiences.

Do you have a different perspective on what projects you choose to participate in as an actress today?

 

Yes, They have to be aligned to my core values. Only I know what they are.

 

You’ve opened your own Moksha Yoga studio. Tell me what lead to this decision to go into business at this time in your life?

 

It was serendipity and intention mixed. I’ve always wanted to open a yoga studio; I have been practicing for many years. I trained in Moksha Yoga in 2009 and after I finished treatment for multiple myeloma, I met Paris at the annual Moksha reunion. Paris had done the training with me and was in the process of opening Moksha Yoga Brampton and looking for another partner. It was a natural fit and she and my other partner, Annette, have been very understanding about my travel and work schedule. We are very excited to share a healing and beautiful space, as the only Moksha Yoga studio in Brampton (Canada).

Your personal relationships with family, close friends and significant others – how if at all, has the way you interact with them and value them, changed today versus the pre-cancer years?

 

They have become even more significant. I make sure to carve out time to spend with others.

Is there a significant other in your life at present?

Yes, but no comment other than that.

 

Do you believe in preordained fate or calculated destiny?

I believe in a combination.

 

Who is Lisa Ray “the woman” today?

A seeker and a student. Always learning, always loving.

 

The Future…

 

Five items on your bucket list?

Learn to rollerblade
Learn to love more.
Write, write, write.
Build an artist’s retreat.
Get married.

 

Four must haves?

Comfortable shoes
Relationships
Love
Growth

 

Three ways you feel happy?

Spending time with people I love.
Giving back.
Lazing on a beach, hanging out with minimal clothing.

 

Two things that you’ve changed in your life recently?

From ‘performer’, I’ve added ‘entrepreneur’ to my CV.
I’ve become a mom to Lulu my Russian blue point cat.

 

One place you call home?

My heart.

Epitaph…

 

What is the single most valuable lesson you’ve learned in life so far?

 

Don’t negotiate your dreams. What you believe is what you become. And relationships — nurturing and developing them is essential.

 

What would you need to accomplish that you have not already done so, in order to say that you ‘did it’ in this lifetime?

So many things…my focus is on giving back —“social opportunity.”

First Published in the Entertainment Issue, July 2011. www.AnokhiMagazine.com

Index
David’s Shoes; Davidsfootwear.Com
Réva Mivasagar; Revadesigns.Com
Shrimpton Couture; Shrimptoncouture.Com
Rac Boutique; Racboutique.Com
Alynne Lavigne; Alynnelavigne.Com
Theory; Theory.Com
Vivienne Westwood; Viviennewestwood.Co.Uk
Maisonette 1977; Maisonettenewyork.Com
Christian Louboutin; Christianlouboutin.Com
Jimmy Choo; Jimmychoo.Com

Clothing Credits:
Photo i, v:
Back In Black.

Beaded Halter Top & Harem Pants – Vintage Halston, Shrimpton Couture, (Price Available Upon Request)
Shoes – Christian Louboutin, Available At David’s Shoes, $1,495 CDN
Earrings – Alynne Lavigne Vintage Collection, $25 CDN
Ring – Alynne Lavigne Vintage Collection, & Ring, $55 CDN

Photo iii, Right:
Golddust Woman.

Gold Jumpsuit – Vintage Bill Tice, Shrimpton Couture, (Price Available Upon Request)
Shoes – Christian Louboutin, Available At David’s Shoes, $1,495 CDN
Earrings – Alynne Lavigne Vintage Collection, $25 CDN

Photo iv:
Pink Rose
.
Silk Blouse – Vivienne Westwood Anglomania, Available At Rac Boutique, $395 CDN
Trousers – Theory, $170 CDN
Shoes – Christian Louboutin, Available At David’s Shoes, $1,495 CDN
Earrings – Alynne Lavigne Vintage Collection, $25 CDN
Bracelet – Lisa’s Own

Photo iii(middle):
La Vie En Rose.

Silk Dress – Maisonette1977, Available At Rac Boutique, $460 CDN
Necklace – Alynne Lavigne Vintage Collection, $55 Cdn

Photo iii(left):
Torquoise Dream.Dress – Réva Mivasagar, (Price Available Upon Request)
Shoes – Jimmy Choo, Available At David’s Shoes, $995 CDN
Earrings – Alynne Lavigne Vintage Collection, $15 CDN
Ring – Vintage Christian Dior, Alynne Lavigne Vintage Collection, $175 CDN

Makeup:
Mac Face And Body Foundation
Eyes Mac Wonder Women Eye Shadow X 4 Valiant
Mac Smolder Eyeliner
Mac Fiber Lash Mascara
Mac Cremeblend Blush So Sweet, So Easy

Cremesheen Glass Fashion Whim
Cremesheen Glass You’ve Got It Clear Lip Glass

Hair
Tresemme Hair Care: Tresemme Extra Hold Hair Spray, Tresemme Curl Locking Styling Spray, And Flawless Curl Mousse

Crew Credits:
Produced By Hina P. Ansari
Photography By Vincent Lions/Judy Inc.
Hair And Makeup By Dee Daly/TRESemme Hair Care/Mac Cosmetics/Judy Inc.
Styling By Ryan Catney/Judy Inc.

OPEN CHESTTM is a registered trademark of RG Media Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.

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