Culture

Sense8 star Tina Desai on working with cult directors and losing her inhibitions

From sweet supporting character to Netflix star handpicked by the Wachowskis,her career is on a rise

The first time that Bengaluru-born actor Tina Desai entered our collective consciousness, it was as Sunaina, Dev Patel’s firecracker paramour in the star-packed The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), alongside British heavyweights Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy. And after she had reprised her role in the sequel [The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015)], the business management graduate struck gold a second time when she joined the diverse cast of Netflix’s blockbuster sci-fi drama Sense8, helmed by the legendary Wachowski sisters.

Desai plays Kala Dandekar, a shy Indian pharmaceutical executive who goes on to marry the rich owner’s son. But she is also a sensate—a species of human telepathically connected to others like herself across the world—and finds herself drawn to fellow sensate, Wolfgang Bogdanow (played by Max Riemelt), making for some sizzling on-screen chemistry and one of this year’s top #couplegoals. ELLE caught up with the rising star in Mumbai. Here’s everything you’ve wanted to know about the show, its cool creators and our very own homegrown sensate. 

ELLE: How did Sense8 happen?

Tina Desai: I was on holiday when they sent me two scenes from the first episode. I sent them a self-taped audition, which led to a second round of auditions in London. But then I couldn’t go because I was shooting for The Second Best... So,
I did a Skype call with Lana and Lilly Wachowski instead. Our half-hour call turned into an hour-and-a-half-long conversation and the next thing I knew, I had landed the role.

ELLE: What was it like to work with the Wachowskis? 

TD: Exciting, daunting and the most creative experience I’ve ever had. With them, there is no such thing as a rehearsal. And it’s never about perfecting your performance or the take. Instead, the camera keeps rolling and you do retakes with different energies and emotions. So, a single scene could actually have been shot over a span of months, in different countries with different people.

ELLE: What has been the most challenging part for you?

TD: The shoot. The fact that we don’t rehearse, and film one particular scene in different ways… it’s a challenge to maintain continuity. 

ELLE: How many cities did you shoot in? The jet lag must have been crazy. 

TD: We shot in nine cities for the first season and in 17 cities for the second. For season one, we went from east to west and from one time zone to the other. Sometimes, we wouldn’t even know what day it was or which time zone we were in. Season two was more streamlined—we started in Italy, and then headed to Mexico, Chicago, San Francisco, London and Kenya. So, the jet lag was a lot less.

ELLE: Do you relate to your character Kala?

TD: I do, in a way. I believed in Ganesha, but I’m agnostic now. When you play a character, you have to put some of your experiences into the performance.

ELLE: You were apprehensive about the lovemaking scenes. How did you prepare for them?

TD: It was not something I was comfortable with since I had never done it before. I watched a lot of movies to understand the dynamics, and, luckily for me, we had shot the orgy scene before my lovemaking scene. That was super awkward because suddenly all of us were naked with each other, but everyone kept cracking silly jokes to make it more comfortable. I watched what the others were doing—a lot of breathing and throwing your head back [laughs]. And for the scene with Max, I trusted him to take the lead.

ELLE: There are lots of fan theories, but the most debated is whether the sensates are related or not. Weigh in. 

TD: Actually, intriguingly, the sensates are one while being eight. So, it’s not like being siblings as such, but more about being one person. It comes across as narcissistic, because it means that you are in love with yourself—but then again, we are physically different, like alter egos. 

ELLE: Gender and sexual fluidity are a big part of the show. Did the Wachowskis (the directors are both transgender women) have discussions on the subject?

TD: Not really. It was on the script and we were expected to be aware of these things. When I went into the show, I didn’t know a lot about alternate gender and sexuality—I didn’t even know what transgender was. I’ve learnt so much along the way. 

Tina Desai

Poly crepe top, Rs 15,500, Hemant & Nandita. Leather trousers, price on request, Hermès

ELLE: The LGBTQ pride parade scene in season two was quite something—you shot in front of millions of people.

TD: It was beyond anything I could have ever imagined. I’ve never been to a pride parade, let alone one with four million people! It was incredible—the city shut down to celebrate. There were Sense8 fans too, who were cheering and screaming our names. 

ELLE: What was it like to work with such a diverse cast? 

TD: It’s amazing how different we as people can be, just because of our cultures. But at the same time, I learnt that we are also very similar: we all have insecurities, we all trash our politicians, and we all have ambitions.  

ELLE: What has been your greatest learning in the course of these two seasons?

TD: I realised that there’s nothing like travelling, when it comes to opening up your world and making you understand just how small you really are. It’s also made me a lot less judgmental. I don’t know if it’s Sense8 or just growing up, but I’m a lot more aware of the fact that there is no right or wrong, and that it’s all about respect. 

ELLE: What’s next for Sense8? 

TD: What’s really cool about Lana is that she is very unpredictable—she can really surprise you. When I got the first two scenes for the audition, I thought I knew what to expect, but I was completely wrong. So until I have a script in hand, I won’t make the mistake of predicting anything. 

Top image: Viscose dress, Rs 1.31 lakh, Salvatore Ferragamo

Photographs: Sushant Chhabria, Styling: Rahul Vijay, Art direction: Reshma Rajiwdekar, Hair and Make-up: Kritika Gill, Assisted by: Sujala Newar (Styling), Location courtesy: Good Earth, inlay salon, Mumbai