“Finally I’m in a place where I’m doing the kind of work I want to do, and I’m being seen in the way that I want to be seen,” says Sri Lankan-born actor Sanjit De Silva. Landing the part of an American CEO in Sarah Burgess’s new play, Dry Powder, a high-stakes financial drama which opens this week at the Public Theater, is a milestone in De Silva’s decade-long career as a working actor in New York City. “I hope this trend continues,” he adds smiling.
De Silva left his native country in 1984 at age seven, not long after the outbreak of a civil war that would tear apart the South Asian nation for the next 30 years. (His parents each belonged to the opposing ethnic groups in the conflict, which made normal life untenable for them in the country.) After a brief stint in Africa, the family moved to America in 1986. Now based in Brooklyn, De Silva recently spoke to me about his experience establishing a career as an actor in his adopted country, both as an immigrant and a person of color, and about his current role in Dry Powder.
In Dry Powder, you play a character that typically wouldn’t go to a non-white actor. How did you feel about getting cast in this production?
I play the CEO of an American luggage company. Me—this face—is playing the CEO whose name is Jeff Schrader. To me, that’s such an incredible thing for an actor of color. When they first asked me to come in and read for this role in this four-character play, to be directed by Hamilton’s Thomas Kail, it was really exciting. I knew the play was incredible and the role was exactly the kind that I want to be playing at this point in my career. When I was cast, I only knew that John [Krasinski] was going to be in the production. Later, when I found out that Claire Danes and Hank Azaria were also cast, well, that was the icing on the cake.
So there’s no reference in the play to indicate that this character might look like you?
No, not at all. There’s actually no mention of race. The story line is about this hedge fund company that’s facing a crisis and how they’re thinking about buying this luggage company that could possibly save the day. And it’s a given that the company’s CEO is American. There’s no need to explain it, which is great. In fact, when I told a friend about my getting a role in this play about the finance world, the first reaction was, “Oh, are you playing somebody in an outsourced call center?” And this was another South Asian person saying this—making that assumption because it’s the kind of role that we usually get.
But you have actually been cast non-traditionally before, in a production of Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing and the Broadway production of War Horse.
Yes, although Awake and Sing was a production by the National Asian American Theater Company, which has a goal to do plays written specifically for white characters and cast them with Asian-American actors. With War Horse, I remember I was having a beer with the two directors of that production and they said they really wanted a cast that looked like New York City. I said to then, “I want you to realize how amazing this is for me as an Asian-American actor: to get cast as a Welshman on Broadway!” I’ve also been non-traditionally cast in classical plays, but never before in a new play. It takes a kind of imagination from someone behind the scenes. Just like now with Hamilton. I think there’s a real sea change going on. People are recognizing that America’s diversity should be reflected on our stages and on the big screen.
That brings up the hot-button issue of last month’s Academy Awards. What’s your take on the #OscarsSoWhite campaign?
I think we’ll see this again. It’s not going to go away. The Academy does have some responsibility, but they don’t control what gets made. If there aren’t enough films that get produced that have roles for actors of color, then how can we possibly be nominated? Personally, I think there were some people who should have been nominated and didn’t, like Michael B. Jordan for Creed and Ryan Cooglar the director, but the work has to be out there. So it’s exciting that people like Thomas Kail, and the people at the Public who produce these shows, are taking the risks. They’re the ones making the right decisions.
Let’s go back to how you got started in this profession. I understand you didn’t initially plan on being an actor.
You know, you come into America as an immigrant and you’re told you have work twice as hard if you want to make it. So your only options are to be a doctor, a lawyer, or an accountant. My grandfather and my uncle were doctors, so I took a pre-med major at Washington University in St. Louis. That’s when I stumbled onto the drama department and realized I really enjoy doing this. Because my parents insisted that I had to do my pre-med requirements, I ended up being a double major in biology and performing arts, with a minor in film. But then, about six months before I was to take the medical college admission test, I got the opportunity to perform in Martin Sherman’s Bent. I was transported. For the first time I thought maybe I can actually do this and that maybe I’m good at this.
So, instead of going to medical school, what did you do?
While I was still in college, a friend helped me get a summer internship with Spike Lee’s movie company in Brooklyn. So, in 1998, after college, I came to New York to work as a production assistant. But as I was doing that I realized that I wanted to be in front of the camera. So I took a temp job and started taking acting classes, because I didn’t have any proper training. I applied to the top five graduate programs in the country for acting and got accepted by four of the five—and my top choice, New York University, gave me a full scholarship. Those were the three greatest years of my life.
As a person of color did you find it difficult getting work?
I was actually able to get an agent pretty easily because I was labelled as the “hot EA guy”: ethnically ambiguous. I made a decision to stay in New York rather than go to Los Angeles because I wanted do theater as well. But I did get a lot of TV roles pretty fast, early on. I got guest star and best-friend roles, but I realized that it’s a much harder game to actually get a lead in a series, that there was a ceiling. The big lesson I learned was that you have to make your life as important as your work. If you’re always waiting around for the next job, your value slowly starts to diminish, because the fact is your life as an actor is a series of rejections.
So what did you do instead of waiting around for the casting agents to call?
I was part of a theater company for artists of color, called Rising Circle Theater Collective. I met my wife, Deepa Purohit, there. She’s Indian American and was a co-founder of the organization. We felt like we had to take the initiative and create our own work. We couldn’t just wait around for other people to give us jobs. One of the centerpieces of the company is INKTank, a development lab for playwrights of color.
Then, after doing War Horse for two years, I felt needed a break from the stage. It was an incredible experience, but a very physical show and I was a little burned out. So I wrote this short film, set in Brooklyn, called Time After, about a South Asian couple who’re trying to decide whether to start a family or whether their careers are more important. It was inspired by my wife, who had the lead role. I ended up playing opposite her in the film, which I also co-directed and produced. I wrote it because you just don’t see film or TV where the leads are South Asian and I still feel that we’re the face of America as well. I learned so much from the experience, and it definitely made me want to direct more. So now I’m working on two different pilots: one with a friend of mine which centers around an African-American woman in New York city looking for love, the other based on my own family, growing up Sri Lankan-American in this country.
You mentioned earlier that you feel that you are exactly where you want to be in your life and your profession. What does that mean for you specifically?
This isn’t an easy profession to be in. Being an artist of color, who’s married with a child, and to be able to afford to live in New York City and have a career, I never thought it would be possible. But I’ve been doing this professionally now since 2004, and here I am. Success isn’t about making millions of dollars, it’s about getting the opportunity to make your living and make your life as an artist. If you can do that, that’s an incredible gift, and I don’t take that for granted.