The comedian-dancer-actor seen vigorously twerking in the music video Turn Down for What went from what she desciribed as “the freak dancer” to playing a “freak wrestler” in the American series Glow. Sunita Mani also had a recurring part in Mr. Robot and was most recently seen in the thriller Evil Eye (Amazon Prime Video). Mani plays Pallavi, a young woman constantly seeking the approval of her mother who, in turn, is obsessed with finding a suitable match for her only child while being haunted by brutal life experiences.
In the alien invasion black comedy Save Yourselves!, Mani plays Su, one half of a New York couple that goes off the grid and commits to a week-long digital detox, even as chaos unfolds around them.
Speaking from her home in New York City, the Indian-origin performer, who grew up in Tennessee and studied writing, speaks about seeking ethnically agnostic roles and why comedy has become a gateway for South Asian talent.
How did performing arts come to be? Was your family encouraging of it?
I’ve always had a performance streak and I’ve always been very encouraged and supported by my family to have as many outlets as I could handle. I was so energetic and extroverted as a kid so I naturally sought out ways to engage in group activities. I grew up doing everything that I could – academic standings and also athletics, student council, clubs and dance. I never declared that I’d pursue the arts, I was just sort of inclined to do them, but I did feel that it was a leap to go to a liberal arts college for writing. I was young and it felt like a middle ground between pursuing the sciences or the stage.
How deep do your Indian roots run?
I try and embrace my Indian heritage as much as possible. I’m lucky that I have a present, cultural connection through my parents’ South Indian community back home in Tamil Nadu as well as through family in the States and India. I grew up watching Hindi films with my cousins in Florida when I was young and cherished trips to the Indian grocery store. I could definitely use more practice tying my own sari and I’m not so hip to current Indian trends in music and film.
Only recently am I diving into Indian cinema and music because, for better or worse, I’ve spent a long time prioritizing American cultural institutions. I did have a really fun time watching Made in Heaven and Indian Matchmaking. And I enjoy searching YouTube for Tamil Kuthu dance videos.
What appealed to you about ‘Save Yourselves!’ and ‘Evil Eye’?
Save Yourselves! is a fantastic lead role that I sparked to instantly. The script was brought to me by dear friends Alex Fischer and Eleanor Wilson (who co-wrote and co-directed the film) so I was very much invested from the get-go. The premise was so fun and clear to me and I could visualise the movie we were making, especially once I knew that John Reynolds was cast as my co-star.
Evil Eye was a different story. At first I was a bit sceptical if I was the right person for the role. I was drawn to the mother-daughter aspect of the story and Usha’s trauma being fleshed out, but I also felt that the movie could go either way. But after talking with the directors, who were so intelligent and thoughtful about what they wanted to do with the script, and eventually learning that Sarita Choudhury was attached to play the role of Usha, I was excited and ready to jump on board.
In ‘Evil Eye’, Pallavi needs her mother’s approval. Is there any overlap with your real life?
Yes, there is overlap indeed. I feel close to Pallavi in a lot of ways. I could bring my specific Indian-American cultural experience to this role in a way that I’ve never had to – straddling two cultures, seeking the approval of my parents, wanting to make them happy but also needing to define myself against their wishes and tradition at times.
The fear and the intrigue of exploring that familiarity in Pallavi drew me in, as well.
Was this the first time you were part of an all-Indian cast? And was there a palpable difference, given the cultural commonalities?
Yes, I’ve never been on set with so many people who had Indian backgrounds. It was lovely and comforting. Naturally, we would be an all-South Asian cast, due to the nature of the story. It was a different feeling in that I could relax into my identity in a way that I hadn’t before. It felt like we all had a common understanding and experience of what this business is like for us, what the world is like for us, and thusly we could be free of that context following us everywhere we go.
Your acting career is diverse, and includes ‘Mr Robot’ and ‘Glow’ and now ‘Evil Eye’. It’s hard to slot you in a pre-defined category.
I strive to take on roles that resonate with me, no matter the genre. It’s taken a long time and a lot of work to get to a place where I can land these roles. I’m very invested in and inspired by the community of writers, filmmakers, and actors that are my friends.
I didn’t consider the entertainment industry when I got into it, I was just interested in being a part of a group of friends who wanted to make fun and funny videos and live shows. And then, we all sort of became this rising tide that have lifted each other up in the industry.
Why has comedy become a route for original South Asian talent to emerge into the mainstream?
It’s so nice to encounter other South Asians in comedy along the way, but I suppose I can only speak for myself when I say that I gravitated towards comedy because it gave me a way to cope with my own existence. Growing up, I could use laughs and laughter to gain a sense of control and companionship where I felt I lacked it. I suppose it’s a trope that comedians are self-deprecating and use humour as armour, to deflect harsh realities.
But I can relate to that, growing up being quite different than and othered by my peers. Comedy felt like a survival tool as well as a way into people’s hearts. I do love bringing people that joy and relating to people when I feel unrelatable.
Are representation and diversity increasing in the American entertainment industry?
Yes I do, because it seems marketable. And in that capital, there are real and raw and ground-breaking voices emerging amidst the general commodification of diversity. We’re having a moment, and hopefully/eventually, there will be more equalised seating at the table.