While many may not know her by face or name, there is a new and up-coming actress to watch this fall TV season, Melanie Chandra.
Most recently staring as Farreda in HBO’s comedy series The Brink, starring Jack Black and Tim Robbins about the long-standing tension between India and Pakistan, the 29-year-old native of suburban Chicago and Stanford alum can currently be seen alongside Marcia Gay Harden (Fifty Shades of Grey), Luis Guzman (Narcos), Raza Jaffrey (Homeland) and Bonnie Somerville (NYPD Blue) in CBS’ new medical drama ‘Code Black’ as first-year resident Malaya Pineda.
In the interview belong, we discuss a wide range of topics ranging from her time cheerleading for the Stanford Cardinal to her lifelong devotion to the martial arts, her non-profit work in India and the recent Hollywood influx of Indian actresses.
Without further ado, here is the Q and A! Enjoy!
RC: To begin, my first question is what attracted you to ‘The Brink’ and the role of Fareeda?
MC: “Like any of my roles thus far, I had to go through a competitive audition process. When I got the audition notice, I was immediately drawn to the opportunity at hand, to work on HBO and alongside a star cast of actors I’ve looked up to for years – Jack Black, Tim Robbins, and Aasif Mandvi.
I also hadn’t seen anything like it on television before. It was so new, different, and original. I also loved the opportunity to play such a fierce and outspoken character with some very amusing dialogue.”
RC: The average American doesn’t know much about the two countries other than cricket, how accurate is the show’s portrayal of the real-life tension between Pakistan and India?
MC: “There’s an underlying reality to the higher concepts of each storyline for sure. We had an incredibly smart team of writers (including Aasif Mandvi who brought his Daily Show flavor to the table) who didn’t hesitate to dive into the scary nuclear and geopolitical threats we would rather ignore. And with matter-of-fact, somewhat daring accuracy. India-Pakistan relations included. The Brink is both courageous and fearless in that sense.
Another great element is the show’s portrayal of Rafiq and Fareeda’s family, a well-to-do educated Pakistani family, caught between extremes of liberal political persuasion – this exists, yet hasn’t yet been fully portrayed like this before.”
RC: In the show, your character (Fareeda) is outspoken, independent and seems to be attracted towards Jack Black’s character (Alex Talbot), what’s it like to work with Jack and how close is the character of Fareeda to the modern-day Indian woman, considering the long history of them being treated as second-class citizens?
MC: “Fareeda is initially repulsed by Alex, but warms up to his antics when she realizes there is a man with heart and good intentions beneath it all. Jack Black was an absolute delight to work with from an acting and a personal perspective – he’s so kind and a person of great integrity, great values. And as an actor, he’s so generous and supportive. I very much respect him.
Fareeda is aspirational for a modern-day Indian or Pakistani woman. She is educated, independent, and speaks her mind about things she is passionate about, and in her case, she is passionate about girls education, which I believe is a core pillar of women’s empowerment. She won’t settle for anything less than equality of men and women, in a society where women still very much face inferiority, dependence, and exploitation.”
RC: Up to this point, what has been your most rewarding role?
MC: “Each role, now matter how big or small, is an opportunity to grow as human and to unlock different facets of yourself, so each role is rewarding in its own unique way. I would say that the current role I’m filming, a young resident Malaya Pineda on CODE BLACK, is the most challenging to date, and because of that – from the amount of hours we put in (14 hours daily on average), the research, the rehearsal involved – I would say it feels the most rewarding.
I walk out of set each day with a sense of achievement. We are challenged to be seamless with medical procedures and terminology while creating these characters with full and complex emotionality in high stakes situations, every single episode. I’m really growing as an actress. We all just hope that our hard work is appreciated by audiences!”
RC: With the influx of Indian actresses such as Priyanka Chopra (Quantico), yourself in CBS’ ‘Code Black’ and Archie Punjabj in ‘The Good Wife’ this fall TV season, what is your opinion of Hollywood looking to Bollywood for more talent?
MC: “I’m such a big fan of Archie and Priyanka and am truly inspired by all their accomplishments. I’m all for Hollywood looking to diversify and especially bring on more Indian talent to the mainstream, whether that comes from India (Bollywood), or the greater Indian diaspora, like here in the US.
There are so many talented Indian-American actors popping up on primetime TV right now, it really is an amazing time for us in Hollywood. It wasn’t like that when I was growing up; back then I never saw anyone who looked like me on TV. But now, I think networks are finally starting to understand that diversity is a MUST – they need actors who mirror global citizens and show what’s reflected in the real world.”
RC: For those not familiar with you, you won were crowned Miss India America 2007, during your time at Stanford, you studied Mechanical Engineering, what inspired you to make the jump from engineering into modeling and acting?
MC: “I had always dreamed of being an actress when I was little girl. Unfortunately, it wasn’t something that was part of the conversation growing up. My parents had immigrated to the US with not much in their pocket and the focus for me was always on education and earning a good job to support the family. Still, I explored other creative pursuits – piano, dance, always performing in our schools variety shows.
I went ahead an put my education at the forefront, but there was always this voice inside me that kept reminding me of my dream. Toward the end of college I entered the pageant as my experiment into the world of media. After I graduated, I went off to NYC to work at a consulting firm, to put my college degree to work. In NYC I was able to explore live theater and improv comedy on my weekends.
I started to take classes and loved it. I was also approached by a modeling agency and started casting for projects if I could slip out of my lunch hour at work. One thing led to another and I decided I was going to leave my job and follow my dream of being an actress, with modeling as a way to earn income to pay for my acting courses.”
RC: You are also a co-founder of the non-profit Hospital for Hope, that provides healthcare services in rural India what inspired you to get involved in something like that?
MC: “I’ve always been interested in learning more about my ethnic roots and doing my part to help those in need. I was in college and applied for a fellowship to volunteer in rural India over the summer, and I just fell in love with the people there. They had such strength of spirit in extremely impoverished living conditions.
I taught English, set up health camps, planted trees, and more. But I knew I could do so much more, even from abroad. Over the next few years I teamed up with some fellowship alumni who were also passionate about helping this region, and we decided to address the villager’s greatest need: credible and effective health services.
It’s just five of us who volunteer our time on top of our full time careers, and with the help of incredible partnerships, grants, and supportive donors, we’ve been able to fundraise and construct a hospital that currently serves a region encompassing ~ 100,000 villagers, and we have more health initiatives on the way!”
RC: As a fellow martial artist(second-degree brown belt American Kenpo) do you still keep up with your training from time to time?
MC: “I trained in Shotokan karate for about 12 years (while earning a 2nd-degree black belt) and also Taekwondo for a few years. Since getting into entertainment I haven’t been able to keep up with it as much as I’d like, but I’d love to get back into it for sure.
I’m sure you know that once you train in a discipline for so long your instincts never go away, it’s all about building up the strength, flexibility, and stamina again. My dream would be to land a role that would require me to get back into good fighting shape and allow me to put those skills to use!”
RC: Outside of modeling and acting, what are some of your hobbies and interests?
MC: “I love dancing – I used to do a lot of Bollywood dancing as well as hip hop – and so I’ll drop into classes whenever I can. I also love traveling, some of my favorite places being Capri, Croatia, and South Africa. I went on two safaris there earlier this year and it was the greatest two weeks of my life. I’m also into playing the piano, something I picked up when I was a little girl.”
RC: Sports question: You’re from suburban Chicago, yet you went to Stanford and was a former cheerleader, who do you rout for, Bears or Colts?
MC: “Bears all the way!”
RC: Lastly, as an Indian-American actress, do you fear being typecast into roles, and do you hope to use acting as a platform for other Indian-American topics and issues?
MC: “About typecasting – I never really saw it as an obstacle nor do I fear it as holding me back. But maybe that’s me. Sure, the types of auditions coming my way initially were somewhat specific to being Indian, but I’d still proactively pursue things that were not.
I think typecasting is only an unfortunate thing for an actor if it reinforces a negative, disrespectful stereotype. But being typecast as an intelligent doctor or an talented engineer (as Indian actors sometimes are)? I’m fine with that – it’s reflective of society, and hey, those are really smart professions.”
RC: Do you hope to use acting as a platform for other Indian-American topics and issues?
MC: “When I was I growing up in Chicago and watched TV, I never saw anyone who looked like me or came from Indian roots. I feel very privileged that I’m part of the first crop of Indian-Americans to represent us on screen at a mainstream level — but that’s not the reason I’m doing it.
I come from humble beginnings, I have no inheritance that has brought me where I am, all I have is that I’m not afraid to dream big and work hard. I hope that by saying I can do that, and through the exposure I may get through acting, that other Indian-Americans, can do that as well.”
Special thanks to CBS and Melanie Chandra for their help with this interview. Be sure to catch Melanie in ‘Code Black’ on CBS Wednesdays at 10 pm (EST).