Bay Area Native Avantika on Becoming the First South Asian Lead of a Disney Channel Original Movie, “Spin”

Avantika Vandanapu
Avantika in "Spin", Image Credit: Disney

Spin is the 110th Disney Channel Original Movie, but the first to be centered on an Indian American protagonist. Starring Avantika (Mira, Royal Detective) as Rhea, she leads a busy life around school, coding club, and working at her family’s restaurant when she’s introduced to the world of DJ-ing by her crush. Once she realizes her natural ear for music, she must find the endurance to fully embrace her love for it and courage to pursue it.

Ahead of the film’s release on the Disney Channel, Avantika spoke with CAAM about her upbringing in Union City, California, her early experiences of working in the entertainment industry in India, as well as what it means for her to be the first South Asian lead of a Disney Channel Original Movie.

-Lauren Lola

CAAM: When you were younger, was there anything that sparked your interest in performing on screen? 

Avantika: I started off as a dancer, and that was kind of my first, I think, endeavor in performing arts. After doing dancing for a while, and kind of getting into character work and expressions in terms of dancing, I performed in a national competition in India, and that was kind of my first experience with filming because it was a reality show. After that, I was like, “Oh, I really love performing on camera.” It’s a different experience: the angles, the dynamics, and after that, it was like, I want to try my shot at acting. And that’s when I got into drama and got into drama classes and theater, etc. 

CAAM:For you, how [did] your upbringing in the Bay Area inform who you are both as a person and as a performer? 

Avantika: I grew up around the Bay Area and around San Francisco, and I grew up in a community that basically was all Asians. I spent my life with Chinese people, Korean people and Indian people. And that was kind of my upbringing. But in time, I think we’re also diverse and I did get a feel for many different cultures. 

It shaped me as a person, because I grew up very accepting of who I was because I was surrounded by so many Asian people. I think partly the reason why I’m so comfortable with myself and comfortable with the fact that I’m Indian is, you know, because of my upbringing, and I grew up doing Indian dancing and doing ballet. All of those experiences have kind of led to me being an Indian actor in America now. 

Image Credit: Disney

CAAM: When Spin came up, how did this role come up for you? 

Avantika: I auditioned for this project, actually, when I was 12, when I was working in India, and because I worked in Bollywood there for three years, and [got] an open call audition. It was my first audition for a Hollywood film ever. I sent in my audition, and I got a callback. And that was kind of my ticket to LA. 

So I met with Judy Taylor, who’s the Vice President of Disney, and I spoke with her. And you know, after that, the project kind of went a little bit on hold, because they wanted us to develop the script and make it more authentic to our culture. So it came back when I was 15-years-old and I re-auditioned for it. In those three years, I moved to LA, I auditioned a lot more. But it was so exciting to me to see this film that I auditioned for, like three [or] four years ago to come back. 

I auditioned for it, I got a callback, I did my producer session, and Disney told me in the room that I booked it. But it was a really full circle moment. I’m just so happy that the first film that I ever auditioned for is also like my first big film in America. 

CAAM: What does it mean for you personally to be the first South Asian lead of a Disney Channel Original Movie?

Avantika: It means a lot. I mean, I grew up not having that kind of representation on screen. And to now kind of be that girl for, you know, a lot of young girls who are like me, I know that they won’t feel as alone. That makes me feel so happy that they get to see someone who looks like them on screen and I’m very glad we’re taking strides in this direction, because we should be continuing to do so. It’s good progress, and I’m so happy to be a part of it. 

CAAM: I like how her culture is already so embedded in her being that it’s not even so much of a big deal. It’s just part of who she is. I love how the film portrayed that. 

So this is actually the second Disney production you’ve been involved with that’s been centered on South Asian characters. What do you personally hope to see more of in terms of South Asian representation in youth programming?

Avantika: I mean, I hope we make strides in the direction that we’re going in right now. Like you mentioned before, a big part of Spin is that her culture isn’t an aspect of her conflict. She is Indian, and she’s very accepting of it, and it is what it is. She likes wearing Indian jewelry sometimes and that is not a part of the conflict. I think it’s important to reiterate to South Asian youth that your culture does not necessarily need to be a point of conflict. You can grow to love it and you can have other obstacles in life that are not related to you being Indian. 

So in terms of that, I really hope that we have more stories in the future that are centered around Indian people just being people, and center more about their struggles as people rather than centering more about their struggles as Indians, if that makes sense. I think with Disney’s other production that centers around South Asian people, Mira, Royal Detective – it’s an animated show, it’s for young children, and it’s very embracing of Indian culture. I think as long as we keep making stories like that, and making projects like that, we’re going in the right direction. 

CAAM: What do you hope for audiences to take away from watching Spin

Avantika: I hope they take away that it’s okay to experiment in your time. Make sure you explore everything you want to do. A big thing about Rhea is that she’s navigating coding club and she’s navigating waitressing at the restaurant, and she’s doing all these different things. But at the same time, she learns how to take time for herself and find her own passion. So take all the time you need to find your passion. And as long as you can learn how to balance things, you can do whatever you want. The sky’s the limit. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Spin premieres Friday August 13 at 8:00 p.m. on Disney Channel.

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