By Phoebe De Croisset
This Indian-Russian-Afghan-American actress is the definition of multi-ethnic. She doesn’t fit in a box – and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Jacket Re/Done Jeans Citizens of Humanity Rings Jennifer Fisher, Kismet, Personal Earrings CatBird
You are the product of an Indian father and Russian mother. And were born in Afghanistan! How have these cultures influenced the way you define yourself?
They’ve mostly confused me! As a child, I had to speak 3 different languages just to get some milk! Anywhere we moved, we had to make something of ourselves. My dad went from journalism to working in a gas station to working at IKEA, then kiosks in the mall, to owning restaurants, to being a spy. Just kidding! But only about the spy part.
Do you remember the first time you became aware of your multi-ethnicity?
When I was little I didn’t see that my father was much darker than my mom – although some people thought he was black. Then I met his family and realized he and my mom were different from one another. Not until much later, though did I realize what that actually made me. My multi-ethnicity is probably part of the reason why it’s so important to me to play different roles. I need to transform myself to understand the world and to be me.
You’ve said that an ethnically-mixed child brings together “what is considered separate, different, and even unable to co-exist. Do you think children of mixed backgrounds are inherently stronger, better, more evolved? That these children can, as you put it, “revolutionize differences?”
I think peoples’ collaborations are much more intriguing when there is diversity. Observing two people interact is probably the most fascinating thing on earth. Observing two people you’d never think would interact is out of this world epic. I think I brought something together for my parents, not just a as their child, but as an ethnic mix. A mixed child has these unshakable perspectives ingrained in his or her DNA. I think there’s something to say for that. My parents’ marriage didn’t last too long, but I am able to revolutionize their differences just by existing.
After living a somewhat nomadic life, you settled in the US for the tail end of your teen years. Do you think your upbringing helped or hindered you as you struggled (as most teens do) to define yourself?
As difficult as it may seem, it was a blessing because in a way, I felt like I was part of everything. I was so naive when I came to Hollywood. I was so fascinated by different cultures that I assumed my own multi-ethnicity was my greatest asset. I thought being able to transform into different characters must be in my genes. But some people had no idea what to do with me.
Do you consider your uncommonness an advantage in the industry you work in?
I totally embrace it. But there’s always going to be someone who doesn’t get me and I have to keep fighting – that’s the truth of it. Just recently I changed my twitter bio to “I am an Indian-Russian-Afghan-American. I do not have a Russian accent. But I can do one really well.” Here’s my mantra: There’s a beautiful place for me in the world that accepts me for exactly who I am. And hires me because of my uncommonness!
Do you think it’s important to push the industry to break with stereotypes?
Yes! It’s so annoying that Brits get to do all the classic stories – including Tolstoy! I’m also annoyed with the endless discrimination I experience as a woman, and as someone who is not entirely white or brown. I just want to get to tell stories. Heck, I want to play a boy! It’s it our nature to want to preserve what’s comfortable and known, but continuing to work to break stereotypes is what’s most rewarding to humanity.
What is the best advice you were ever given?
Talk to people like they’re children.
Where is your happy place?
Anywhere my bare feet can touch the earth.
What was the last thing you googled?
Obama’s mom, Ann Dunham.
Words to live by?
C’est la vie!
Vest BLK DNM Jeans Citizens of Humanity Rings Jennifer Fisher, Kismet, Personal Earrings CatBird
I need to transform myself to understand the world and to be me.