Actor Sarayu Blue on the importance of representation in the television industry
Sarayu has played diverse characters in The Big Bang Theory, Grey's Anatomy and Veep
For Indian-American actor Sarayu Blue, bagging the lead role in I Feel Bad (an NBC comedy created by Amy Poehler), was a pleasant surprise. Being a woman of colour in the film industry offered limited roles, and she often felt that her potential wasn’t being completely tapped. However, the industry is now evolving, and Blue has played diverse characters in shows such as The Big Bang Theory, Grey’s Anatomy, Veep, and the upcoming second and third instalment of the popular Netflix film series, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. The versatile actor will be seen in Netflix’s upcoming comedy series, Medical Police (premiering January 10), which is the highly anticipated spinoff from the four-time Emmy-winning series, Childrens Hospital. In a conversation with ELLE, she talks about her new role, and her experiences navigating the television world as a woman of colour.
ELLE: Tell us about your new role in the upcoming comedy series, Medical Police? What about this performance are you most excited about?
Sarayu Blue: I play Sloan McIntyre, a special agent for a covert division of the CDC. This show is so wonderfully campy and ridiculous, that there’s a lot about it that brings me joy. I was most excited, however, for the stunts and fight scenes. I grew up training in martial arts, so between that and my love for action movies, getting to dabble in stunts was a dream come true.
ELLE: Having juggled between film and television, do you think it takes a different mindset to prepare for both?
SB: I would say yes, the two certainly require different mindsets. Film shoots tend to move slower and make room for more detail, while TV can often have a faster rhythm all around. The style of acting and storytelling are inherently different as well. Once I started to understand acting for the camera though, it became more about adjusting to the tone and genre of the story and less about the medium. Also, the timing can be drastically different. There’s a fundamental strictness to the structure required in much of TV, often because of commercial breaks. In film, there can be a bit more flexibility and breathing room, depending of course, on the director and the ultimate vision.
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ELLE: What is it about medical drama shows that really draws you? Would you consider breaking out of the genre anytime soon?
SB: In all honesty yes, and I’ve already veered quite far away! While I love all genres of acting—comedy, drama, film, TV and theater—it’s comedy that has always had a special place in my heart. There’s music and rhythm to it, a liveliness that I’m drawn to.
ELLE: Do you have a favourite performance so far? Are there any anecdotes from your sets that have stayed with you over the years?
SB: I’d say one of my favorite roles was Emet, in NBC’s I Feel Bad. It was a special show in so many ways, and to have the point of view told from a female perspective only added to that. As an Indian woman, it meant even more because it is still rare for us to be seen in lead roles in the States. The biggest highlight for me though, was that the role allowed for so much physical comedy. It was this delightful I Love Lucy-type role, a true comedic gem.
As for a story that has stayed with me over the years, it’s actually from a different set. In 2013, I worked on a series called Monday Mornings with Alfred Molina. Alfred was a consummate professional. He treated the entire cast and crew with such kindness and generosity. He always took the time to connect with everyone who worked on the show, along with of course, being an astoundingly brilliant actor. One day, after he had finished a particularly challenging scene, we were walking back to our rooms. He was just ahead of me and he turned back and asked, “Was that alright?” I looked behind me, assuming there was someone far more experienced standing there, that he must have been asking. No one was there. Alfred Molina was asking me, a relative unknown, if I thought his exquisite work was alright. That’s when I realised, no matter how experienced and well-respected we are, we will always want to look back and see if our work was alright.
ELLE: Have you ever been intimidated on set? What are the challenges of being a woman of colour in the industry?
SB: Oh yes, I have absolutely felt intimidated. In fact, it took me quite a long time to feel comfortable on a set, partly because theatre had been my home for so long. In theatre, because of the rehearsal time, there is an inherent sense of ‘we’re all in this together’. On sets, you may be coming in just for a day, or a week, or two. TV/film can also be so technical, and that alone can be incredibly intimidating. The more I worked and started to understand the language and the ropes, the more I trusted myself to do my job well. I find the best way to overcome the challenge of an intimidating set is to have a strong support network and to get comfortable knowing that you’ve done good work, whether you get the validation on set or not.
Sarayu Blue on the sets of The Big Bang Theory
As for being a woman of colour in the industry, it’s tough to answer in a few sentences. I could write a book about it but I’ll say this; there is a lot of dialogue these days around being the only one in the room, and I think it’s such an important conversation. When you’re the only representation, of any kind, in a dynamic, it only adds to the challenge of your voice being heard. As an Indian-American woman, I was often the only one. The biggest challenges were being heard, seen, and cast in roles that were fully dimensional. Seeing women of colour play characters that are multi-dimensional and fleshed out is incredibly important to me. That is the kind of representation that changes the landscape. It illustrates our humanity, and on a professional level, it showcases the skillset that so many actors of colour have, but don’t get the chance to show. I often call the opportunity I had on I Feel Bad, a unicorn. It was, and still is, incredibly rare to see a woman of colour play such a relatable, multi-faceted, comedic character. I’m not sure if many people know this but originally, Emet was not written as a specifically Indian character. When NBC cast me, they re-wrote the storyline to be about an interracial family. It was an enormous sea change to see that kind of shift happen on network television, and even more enormous to get to be a part of it. We’re already seeing it, but I look forward to seeing such changes happen more frequently. May it become the new normal.
Photograph: Sarayu Blue
ELLE: You’ve done theatre as well; do you think every actor needs to have stage experience at some point?
SB: Who really knows what every actor needs? Ultimately, there is no formula and that can be both frustrating and liberating. I love theatre. Theatre will always be my home, and my classical training is absolutely the foundation that allows me to be free in whatever role I do now. You could argue that, like music, once you learn the classics, you’re able to really play in all forms. That being said, there are many brilliant actors who have never trained in theatre and it hasn’t hindered them one bit. I’d say there is no formula, and I’m also deeply thankful for my theatre roots.
Sarayu Blue in Grey’s Anatomy
ELLE: What is your idea of a dream role? Or a performance you wish you had done?
SB: One of my forever dream roles will always be Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I did the show in graduate school and it’s a role that still lives with me. I hope I get the opportunity to play her again someday. There’s something about Maggie…
ELLE: Any advice for people trying to make their way into the highly competitive film industry?
SB: What’s exciting is that we are in a time where it’s very possible to create your own content and get traction. So, if that’s a path you’re at all interested in and it’s available to you, it’s a very smart path to take. Creating your own work can be a great way to empower yourself and develop your voice. The next best thing you can do is take the time to hone your craft. Be impeccable with your work. So much is out of our hands, but in my experience, if you are professional and continue to bring quality to the table, that’s some of the best networking you can do.
Photograph: Getty Images (Sarayu Blue)