It takes more than just a pretty face to make it in Hollywood. When it comes to setting herself apart from the pack, Melanie Chandra has proved she has the the recipe for success. The multi-faceted Indian-American actress has quickly established herself as an unstoppable force in the business with high profile roles alongside of some of industry’s most sought after names. Instantly recognizable from her role on the hit CBS medical drama ‘Code Black,’ she continues to challenge herself and evolve with every project she takes on.
Her latest role in Rucha Humnabadkar’s “For Here Or To Go,” which hits theaters on March 31st, is no exception to the rule. Written by Rishi S. Bhilawadikar, the film centers around a young Silicon Valley software engineer named Vivek Pandit who is poised to become a key hire at a promising healthcare startup, but when they realize his work visa has less than a year remaining, the offer disappears. Having learned the hard way about the flaws in his “it’s just paperwork” mentality, Vivek battles forces beyond his control to get his visa extended, whether at his existing company or a new job. Along the way, his eyes are opened to the similar struggles of his own roommates and those around him. American in mind and Indian at heart, this is a contemporary story of ambition and ambivalence fueled by one’s immigration status that characterizes the dilemma of modern cultural displacement.
In addition to her work in front of the camera, Melanie Chandra is also a making a difference behind the scenes. As a philanthropist, she co-founded the Hospital For Hope, which provides much needed healthcare in a neglected part of India, empowering 100,000 villagers for a brighter future. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Melanie Chandra to discuss her unique journey as an actress, her role in ‘For Here Or To Go,’ bridging the diversity gap in Hollywood and the amazing work being performed by Hospital For Hope.
You became a familiar face in the world of entertainment. What got you involved with the creative arts and led to you to pursue acting as a career?
I had always dreamed of being an actress from the time I was a really young girl but my parents had encouraged me to focus on school, academics, math and science. I did for so long! I played the good Indian daughter and got my degree in engineering in New York City and got a great job. I was surrounded by the arts in New York City. Living there, you are surrounded by theater, dance and everything else. I decided that I wanted to take an acting class, so I did. It awoke the little girl in me and I knew that I had to go for it!
Pursuing a career in this business can be scary. Did you have reservations about taking the plunge and going in a new direction?
Of course I did! I was leaving security behind. I didn’t know exactly how I was going to make money or where everything would lead but I had a really big dream and ambitions. What I’ve learned in my life is that if I set a goal for myself, work hard and if I’m diligent and focused, I can accomplish things. That is something I definitely encourage young people to do! Dream really big and work hard! I’m doing some work right now that I’m really proud of but I have so many other things I want to do in my career. It was definitely risky but I knew I had to do it. There was something in my gut telling me that I had to do it!
I’m sure there were helping hands along the way. Tell us about the people behind the scenes who gave you a push when you needed it.
That’s a great question. Early on when I was still working at my full-time corporate job, I was doing improv and theater classes and putting on these small shows here and there. An up-and-coming talent agent from a really big agency saw my work and approached me. He was totally astonished that I wasn’t pursuing it full-time. He said, “What are you doing in your full-time job? You are meant to do this!” So, we began a discussion and he was the first person who really encouraged me to go for it! After a year of continuing to work my full-time job, I left and I gave him a call. I was like, “Hey! I’m ready to do this!” He was able to start submitting me for auditions and from there I started booking things. It was him really that helped me get into this!
Very cool! Let’s talk about your latest film, “For Here Or To Go.” What drew you to this project?
The filmmaker, Rucha Humnabadkar, approached me about it. She had an idea that I might be right for this role given some of my previous work and also my personal experience. I was attracted to telling the story because it was telling the story of the lot of my good friends at the time. I went to school in the Bay Area and had a lot of friends that were Indian immigrants but I never fully understood what they were going through. When I read the script, it illuminated that for me and made it so much more clear. I saw so much intensity in the story along with so much passion to tell the story. I knew that it could have an impact. I’m always drawn to work that could potentially move people or impact them in a positive way. I was really inspired by it!
What did you bring to this character that wasn’t on the original written page?
That’s another good question. When I was working with Rucha, we were workshopping the script and she really encouraged me to use my personal experiences in approaching this character and I was able to. In a script, only so much is written. There is only so much spoken dialogue, so you have to fill in the backstory in that world. I was able to take a lot of the misconceptions that I had or judgments that I had and use that for this character because my character didn’t fully understand why her father was away from her for so long or why Vivek, the protagonist, couldn’t just stay in America. I was able to bring my personal experience with that struggle to this character.
The film has a terrific cast who brought the story to life. What did these actors bring out of you creatively?
I had a lot of fun with the cast! Everyone was super easy-going and playful onset. I think they fostered a sense of fun and collaboration. The same goes for the director too. What I love about working with Rucha is she wants to make the scene work, yet she fosters a sense of collaboration, so we were able to give our input to make sure the scene was full and we were able to bring ourselves into it. It was a very playful environment and we were all working toward something very meaningful.
Every project brings challenges. What stands out as the challenges you faced or lessons you learned on this project?
Well, it is an independent movie so you are constrained on time and budget. That really taught me to show up prepared! You cannot be that actor that needs 1,000 takes because there’s no time or money for that! [laughs] That really helped me learn to prepare as an actor. The hours were rough of course and I was traveling away from home, so for me there was a lot of back-and-forth and the challenge of being in a new environment with a completely new casting crew who I didn’t know. It really pushed me to get out of my comfort zone!
What goes into fleshing out the character before you step on set? Any method to the madness?[laughs] You know, my process is different for every role. Sometimes you can identify with the character and your point of view and energy is spot on but other times it’s the polar opposite! In cases like those you really have to work hard to meet the obligations of the character. It’s all about finding what is the inner struggle of the character, what they really, really want in life and how you can align yourself with those same needs and wants. I think that is a starting point with any character. Then you have to layer so many things on top of it but it all starts with, “What does this character want?” Not only in this scene but in life.
This film speaks to diversity. As a working actress, what do you see on the front lines? Are you seeing more diversity as you move forward in your career and what types of roles do you seek in today’s climate?
I think diversity is getting much better in Hollywood but we still have a very long way to go, especially for female driven stories. Right now the majority of leads on television and in film are male. I’m sure you’ve seen the statistics. Oftentimes, these female roles are being written by men. There’s nothing wrong with that but I would encourage more female writers to write stories about women because we find that when they do, they’re creating these characters that are very three-dimensional. By that I mean, it’s not a character that is not simply an idea but an actual authentic character. For me, I want to play female roles that are three-dimensional, those that can be the heroes of their story and that are representing a voice that we haven’t seen yet in pop culture. One of my passion projects is building female tech CEO characters. You don’t see many girls on-screen that have a tech, science or engineering background who are also leading ladies and who are approachable. You often see those characters as side characters who may have their own little quirks as the sidekick best friend, the goth/hacker/skater chick or something like that. For me, I want to represent this new generation of females. Diversity, when it comes to Indians in particular, I think the time is ripe right now. You see a lot of Indian faces on television and a couple popping up in movies but we need more faces that are the central characters of the show. Across all minorities, we need to bring more diverse characters to be the heart of the story and not just the supporting characters.
When you look back on your body of work, how have you evolved?
I think I have deepened my level of work. I will preface this by saying I have a long way to go! I know that but I know that I’ve deepened my work from when I started years ago. I think when I started I had a superficial idea of what a character is. Now, I have so much more experience as a human being, experience in theater class and on set that I feel my characters now can be a lot more nuanced than they were when I started. I’ve also learned what it means to be a professional working actor. It’s my job! It’s not just about your craft but how you conduct yourself in this whole industry as well.
Your work on screen is impressive but you do amazing things as a philanthropist. What can you tell us about Hospital For Hope and its mission?
Hospital For Hope got started with a couple of my classmates out of Stanford University. We had all volunteered in this very remote, rural region in India over one of our summers. We saw what impact just a few college students could make! The community was very impoverished and the government wasn’t supporting any of their healthcare initiatives. When we graduated and we were all working full-time, we decided we really wanted to make a difference and give back. We wanted to address those health issues and the best way to do that was to build a local hospital. It was incredible because this region of 100,000 people didn’t have access to a properly functioning hospital that would be accessible to them. The five of us banded together and helped grassroots fundraising get-togethers all across the United States, made some great partnerships with larger nonprofits that helped us get off the ground and we built a hospital! That was a couple years back and now it’s fully functional and we are serving about 1,500 patients a month! We are very, very happy with what we have achieved. Of course, there are many other things we want to build out with it but this was just our way of giving back to the place where our parents came from. In the United States we are so privileged and we have many things we take for granted, so it’s easy to forget what is happening in the areas back at home, where our parents grew up. We are just doing our best to help out!
That’s amazing and inspiring! Building on all talked about today, what is the best lesson we can take from your journey?
Dream big! Word hard. Work hard at your craft and be the best you can be. Be professional and when things don’t work out, learn from it and move on right away. There is no need to dwell in the past. Everything we experience is a learning and growing opportunity, so always keep that in mind!
‘For Here Or To Go’ hits theaters on March 31st. Visit the official website for the film at www.forhereortogomovie.com. Follow the continuing adventures of Melanie Chandra on social media via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Visit her official website at www.melaniekchandra.com.