It takes courage to dream. But turning that dream into reality requires sheer hard work and perseverance — two qualities that Zenobia Shroff has in abundance. The actor, whose Oscar-nominated movie The Big Sick propelled her to the peak of her career, is no stranger to hardships — having moved to New York as a young girl, Zenobia’s paved through a path that’s been fraught with instances of racism, xenophobia, bigotry and sexism. Undeterred by obstacles, Zenobia refused to budge from her goal and today, she’s in high demand with channels raging bidding wars over her. In a tête-à-tête with ELLE, the actor opens up about her 30-year long journey in Hollywood as an Indian actor and how life has changed tremendously post The Big Sick. Excerpts below:
ELLE: Your journey began with the legendary theatre actress Pearl Padamsee who encouraged you to pursue acting in New York. How did you end up making the bold decision of moving away from your family?
Zenobia Shroff (ZS): “If I look back on it, I wonder if it was foolishness or ignorance. At that time, I had just finished my Masters in Psychology, and I was going to become a therapist. Also, from a young age, I had been involved in a lot of creative pursuits — since I was 16, I had been working as a print model, and I was also a part of Shaimak Davar’s dance group. Pearl was my high school mentor; I had done a couple of plays with her and she felt quite strongly about me pursuing this field. So when an opportunity came up in New York, Pearl told me not to waste time anymore — she picked my audition piece and trained me for it. I left India with two suitcases, 500 dollars, a six month visa and never came back.”
ELLE: That’s quite inspiring. So, you hold a Masters degree in Psychology, you’re a trained bharat natyam dancer, and you also write and perform sketch comedy. What, out of all these, including theatre, are you the most passionate about?
ZS: “There’s a certain power in standing on stage with no safety net and fully being in command of your craft, knowing it’s going well because the audience is giving you instant feedback. But I love the magic of film. I love television. I like to entertain people and I’m good at that — but somewhere deep down, the psychologist in me is still alive, and in my heart, there’s two of me. I’m a very confused Gemini.”
ELLE: Would you say you’ve gotten to know yourself better through acting?
ZS: “I would say yes. Acting, in the end, is the expression of the human condition in its very myriad forms. Meryl Streep once said, “I’m interested in what it would be like to be you.” In being other people, you get to know who you are — as well as who you aren’t.”
ELLE: In your 30 years of experience, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt?
ZS: “Stay in the game. There’s no shot at winning if you’re not.”
ELLE: How has your life changed post The Big Sick?
ZS: “The Big Sick changed the game for me. That’s what got me on the map. It’s been nothing but a rollercoaster ride, especially when Amazon bought it in a bidding war at Sundance Film Festival for 12 million dollars. Suddenly, I had six agents who wanted to meet me, and I was soon auditioning for every major network, every major platform, every major casting director. In November last year, I booked a multi-episode arc on The Affair — Showtime’s big summer hit — that’ll air on June 17.
“The next surprise came when the movie was nominated for the Screen Actors Guild Award. I’ve walked red carpets before, but this was a whole new level. I was with all the A-listers of Hollywood, and it was a magical night.
“What’s more, I got another show, The Resident, without even auditioning — and this was truly unprecedented… I finally felt like all the years of hard work and sacrifice were paying off.”
A still from The Big Sick
ELLE: Did you ever feel ethnicity played a factor in your journey?
ZS: “I moved to New York in 1989, and my initial years were very hard. Ethnicity was a big factor. I had a thick middle class Bombay accent, and it was unheard of someone who looked like me and sounded like me to be on TV, forget about a play. I was told countless times that I should change my name, because it sounded Italian. And it was doubly complicated for me because I was a fair-skinned Parsi, and I had to explain that being Parsi technically meant being Persian. The xenophobia was strong.
“I think Priyanka Chopra threw the door open with Quantico. She represents India very well. But the truth is America is not a white country anymore. There are more women of colour in charge — but you’re still hustling.”
ELLE: One of your most memorable roles?
ZS: “Little Zizou will always be special to me. Before that, no one knew who I was… It was my first big role and I had a lot to prove.”
A one-woman play by Zenobia
ELLE: What have the challenges been like in your journey?
ZS: “Acting is not a very forgiving profession, and you really have to buckle up for the ride. Everybody thought I was a little crazy. But I knew that the path would lead me home. That was the goal — but it involved a lot of struggle, because I still had to put food on the table. I was waitressing, baby sitting and auditioning, all at the same time, while trying to be a working actor.”
ELLE: Some actors you’d like to work with?
ZS: “I admire Meryl Streep, but there’s also Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, Frances McDormand and so many more.”
ELLE: What advice would you give to your younger self?
ZS: “I’d tell myself to plan my life more and give more attention to my personal life.”