Karen David still remembers the moment the acting and singing bug bit her hard. She was just six years old and under the babysitting supervision of her older sister. They watched Grease and Xanadu “and I just fell absolutely in love with all things Olivia Newton John,” David says.
When she told her immigrant parents that she intended to become an actor in Hollywood one day, they said they would support her, but that she should be prepared for a difficult journey. “You’re an ethnic minority, so you’re going to have to work 10 times harder,” they told her. So long as she kept her grades up at school, they’d take her to acting and singing lessons. On the weekends, they’d take her to Ontario Place to catch free concerts by legends like Smokey Robinson and the Temptations.
David, who grew up mostly in Toronto, moved to London to attend drama school, then joined the original cast of the West End musical Mamma Mia!. She played Spanish teacher Francesca “Cesca” Montoya in the BBC One drama Waterloo Road. In the U.S., she’s best known for portraying Princess Isabella Maria Lucia Elizabetta of Valencia in ABC’s musical-comedy series Galavant. She’s also a recording artist.
This month, moviegoers can see her in The Tiger Hunter, by director and writer Lena Khan. This charming independent film, which was CAAMFest 2017’s Opening Night film, tells the story of Sami Malik (Danny Pudi), an immigrant from an Indian village trying to make it as an engineer in 1970s Chicago. David plays Ruby Iqbal, Sami’s longtime crush since childhood, whom he is trying to impress. The Tiger Hunter opens September 22. I spoke to David over the phone.
You’re from a multiracial family. What was it like for you growing up?
When I was growing up, I grew up predominately with loads of Caucasian friends, so I was always the odd one out. And as a child I didn’t quite understand or appreciate my heritage at the time. I’m part Chinese, part Indian, and I’m also part of a tribe from where my mom was born in the northeastern part of India, in Shillong, which is a matrilineal society—the Khasi people. And then I have my Canadian and British side too. So that was really overwhelming for me as a child. You just want to fit in with everyone else.
I was bullied in school, too, for being a bit different. I had a really bad acne problem growing up. It was like this infestation on my face. I often just stared at the floor and hid behind glasses and my hair. My parents had that Asian sentiment—they would always say to me, “Don’t speak about the things you want to do. Just let your actions speak and just get on with it.” I was known as the mysterious one at school and quietly ambitious. I had wonderful teachers to get through those tough years when I was being bullied. Thank goodness for amazing teachers who are always encouraging and wanting you to give it your best and be your best! That played a huge impact on my journey.
Of course, now I embrace everything that I am—and that I’m not. And I celebrate that I’m this concoction of different things. It fascinates me every day listening to my parents telling me stories about our background and family tree. And I’m hungry to know more and hear more stories from them. That’s what made me love The Tiger Hunter. Lena [Khan, director and writer] captures so much of the true spirit of the immigrant journey, which is a story I can relate to so much.
What is your family’s immigration story?
We left India when I was a year old. I was just a baby. My mom and dad were only allowed 20 dollars to leave the country. They had to leave all their assets and everything they worked hard for behind, because the immigration laws at the time were very strict. I can’t even imagine what that was like to go forth into the unknown. That’s due to my parents’ bravery and courage and adventurous spirit—because they had a great life in India. My dad had this opportunity to come to England and to Canada, eventually. He took it not knowing what was going to happen—and only being allowed 20 dollars! He framed the 20 dollars in our living room at home. He would not spend it because he wanted my sister and I to grow up knowing that they took a chance—that we have dreams and not to let fear get in the way. They’ve been such a huge inspiration. If I ever had a bad day in this crazy ride of being an actor—you go through so many rejections, at the beginning especially—I only have to remember my parents’ journey and that story of them coming to Canada, and to England.
I imagine you must have drawn on your parents’ experiences to play the role of Ruby in The Tiger Hunter.
It’s been such a wonderful journey filming the movie because it opened up a lot of conversations with my parents. I guess other Asians and South Asians can probably relate to this. They’re so funny and quirky in many ways. They tell you stories you would have thought they’d told you eons ago, and they’ll just drop it nonchalantly into conversation. When I was filming Tiger Hunter my dad said, “Oh, one of my biggest dreams is I wanted to be a sports broadcaster.” I was like, “What?!” ’cause he comes from a cricket background and was a cricket player. “How did you not tell me that? That was so big! You went into finance. And now you’re telling me you always wanted to be a sports broadcaster? And that was your biggest dream?”
Or, I saw a letter that came in from Mensa asking him to become a member of Mensa. And my dad never did because he’s so humble and he thought, “I don’t need a tag or label to tell people I’m intelligent or smart. That’s not necessary.” That’s my dad. Are you kidding me? You’re a Mensa brain?! He would just drop these things on me, and same with my mom.
What was it like to work on this film, which has a cast primarily of South Asian actors?
It’s so wonderful to be able to come on set and be with who I feel are like my brothers and sisters, because opportunities like that don’t happen as much—which is really sad. It’s slowly changing where we’re seeing more people within our community who are providing these platforms and a voice for our stories—because they are mainstream stories as well. This is what our world has become. It’s a small world. There are different ethnicities, different cultures from all over the world. Where I grew up and lived—from Canada to England and now L.A.—they’re cosmopolitan cities, every walk of life. And that should be represented on film and TV.
It’s one thing to just read a script. It’s another thing for it to resonate so much. It’s like all the stars aligned with Lena’s project. It’s such a good script, such wonderful characters, such good people attached to the film. And that camaraderie and spirit that comes where you’re doing an independent movie, where everyone is so supportive of each other. And on top of that, you’re with your brothers and sisters and you fit right in. You feel like a big family and you’re supporting and rooting for each other. It was exhilarating. My gosh, the fun we had every day! We had the biggest smiles that we were doing something so special and telling a story that resonated with our parents and our grandparents and uncles and aunties and families. It was this wonderful positive pressure in a way, and a wonderful responsibility to do justice to their stories. That’s why this movie was so extra special to be a part of. And to see it go from an embryonic stage to where it’s at now is just so heartfelt and heartwarming.
A lot of what we hear about Hollywood in the media is about roles being whitewashed or not available to actors of color. Has that been something that you’ve experienced?
It’s funny, I often get asked, “What does it feel like to be an ethnic actor?” And I laugh, because here’s the truth in the matter: When I wake up in the morning, I don’t look in the mirror and go, “Oh hi, I’m Karen David and I’m brown.” I look at myself, “OK, I’m a human being and I’m like everyone else.” As my mom very succinctly puts it, we all eat, breathe, sleep and poop the same. I have dreams just as much as you do or anyone else and that’s how I march forward with my life and journey. I’m proud to be what I am, but that doesn’t hang over me like a crutch, so to speak. It’s something that I celebrate. I’m just like everyone else.
At the same time, when I walk into auditions, it’s been a bit of both, where they’ll advertise the role as wanting someone of ethnicity or someone exotic, and then all of the sudden they’ll cast a Caucasian person. It’s happened to me loads of times.
And then I’ll walk into the room sometimes and god bless the casting directors because they’re the ones that are very open minded and will show all possible options for a role. And so they’ll bring me in. They’ll call me back in to meet with producers—this is when I was first starting out. And I can see in their faces when I meet some of the producers—they’re very nice and lovely—but I can tell that they’re like, “Oh no, no. Oh, really? I think we’re going to go another way.” And that was to cast a Caucasian. So that has happened to me. There’s nothing you can do. I can’t change who I am.
How did you get the role of Isabella on Galavant?
When I went in for my audition for Galavant, Dan Foglemen had written the role wanting his dream person to play the role of Isabella to be Jennifer Lawrence. I told my agent, “Well the last time I checked in the mirror, I look nothing like her.” My agent told me to shut up and just to go to the audition because you never know. I’ll never forget when I was waiting outside with all these other actors who were going up for different roles in the show, this one guy going for the role of Galavant, he looked at me said, “You’re an Isabella, aren’t you? You’re reading for Isabella.” And I said, “Really, what made you think that?” He said, “Well, why not? Don’t be like that!” I wasn’t being negative or anything, I just really went into the whole process like an underdog because I knew it was a Jennifer Lawrence they wanted. So I assumed they were going to cast someone like her. It kind of took the pressure off me. Maybe that was a good thing. I just went into it with no expectation and I just wanted to do well.
I’ll never forget what he said. He says, “You don’t know. You can go through that door right now and you will be their Isabella.” And that’s the irony of it. Every time I got a call from my agent—“OK, you’re going to meet Dan.” “OK, they’re going to test you.” I would be like, “Really? Really?!” I was just expecting them to bring out this Jennifer Lawrence look-alike.
On the positive side, you have someone like Dan Fogelman who is never afraid to think outside of the box. He has a vision and he’s not afraid to try something new. He took a chance with a lot of us in Galavant and he believed in us and fought for us to the network. “This is my cast, this is who I want.” I’m so grateful. There are people like Dan—these gems that believe in you and support you and he said, “Well, you’re my Jennifer Lawrence” and that meant so much to me. Him casting me in Galavant—really, that’s when it changed my life and I’m so grateful to him.
When you were a child wanting to be an entertainer, were there any role models for you?
I never had people of ethnicities as actors to look up to when I was growing up. When I saw Jasmine and Pocahontas in the Disney shows, I looked at them and thought, “Well, our skin tone looks the same.” That was something I looked up to. Other than that, there really wasn’t anyone else. It’s really important that as a community we encourage the younger generation and pass the baton forward. There’s nothing that none of them cannot do. Whatever they want to do, whether it’s a physicist or astronaut or actor or writer, it’s so important that as a community we support each other and encourage each other, because that’s what’s going to pave the way and open the door and create more opportunities for all of us.
What are you working on next?
I have a show coming out with Ryan Hansen and Samira Wiley. It’s on YouTube Red. I’m really excited about it because YouTube Red ¾ they’re making some great shows. This one is called Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television. It comes out October 25th. It’s got such a great cast: Samira Wiley from Orange is the New Black and The Handmaid’s Tale, Jon Cryer, Joel McHale, Kristin Bell. I’m playing a forensics examiner. I had so much fun filming on it. It’s kind of like a modern day Police Academy. It’s very charming and funny and I just had the best time. And I’m not allowed to say yet—you could go onto my IMBD because I’m not allowed to officially say ¾ but I’m doing something for HBO in January which I’m really excited about. That’s more of a dark comedy.
+ + +
The interview is made possible by Comcast, and has been edited for length and clarity.
Melissa Hung is a writer and independent journalist in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter at @fluffysharp.