Indian born and New York based actress Swarnima Singh defies the commonly held perceptions of the young, female actor: talented, eloquent and passionate she shares her thoughts about starting out as an actress, racial stereotyping and acting in the time of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Swarnima Singh in a shot by Tiye Bazzey
What made you decide to take up acting? What were your first steps in the industry?
Growing up, I always loved to play act all these different characters: I created entire storylines, essentially a whole new world. As I grew up I had so many ideas about who I wanted to be and what I wanted to pursue so, acting was this amazing opportunity for me to become everything I could’ve ever wanted. I could be a doctor, a rock star, an astronaut: the possibilities seemed endless. What other profession lets you do that? I trained in the art of acting so I could hone my skills and learn as much as I could. The next thing was definitely just getting “out there” and doing as much work as I could to gain experience.
What are some words you would use to describe Swarnima the actor?
Swarnima the actor is open, adventurous, expressive and vulnerable. I picked these because I can identify all the ways in which I much more open as a person than I once was. Acting pushed me to express myself with a lot more ease and I am so thankful for that!
Which challenges did you encounter throughout your professional journey?
I originally come from India and I am also a woman so, needless to say, I’ve met some hurdles along the way. I think one of the most interesting challenges I have faced is dealing with the “box” that people will try to put you in when you normally enter the industry and sometimes with me it isn’t really clear which box I actually fit into. This is a unique challenge because it is both an advantage and a disadvantage. To explain better, when a breakdown calls for a character who is South Asian, I can risk losing out on opportunities because I might not look or sound like the stereotypical ‘brown’ girl so often portrayed in western media. The representation of South Asian characters has been very limited; the situation has definitely improved but we are still in the early stages of it. Now we have actresses like Jameela Jamil, Priyanka Chopra and Mindy Kaling but we can still count their names on one hand: the challenge is to continue growing in the direction of finding space in an extremely competitive industry.
What profession would you see yourself in if it weren’t for acting?
The last few months have been so unpredictable that I found myself thinking about this very thing. I love creative expression and I love art. One of my fondest interests is music: I love singing, writing songs and I do find myself missing that part of my life since for the last few years I have been more focused on acting. I have been listening to a lot more music from India and I have been thinking about delving into classical Indian music as well as classical Indian dance forms. I guess on some level it has always been part of my plan for the future to find something in conjunction with acting to expand into and while it’s very early days, I might want to create a project or a business idea involving these aspects. I think if it weren’t for acting, I would probably find myself in another profession that allowed me to still use my creativity in one way or another. Production & direction are also fields I am curious about.
How did the Covid pandemic affect your industry? Do you find that it is already recovering?
The Coronavirus pandemic has had an adverse impact on the arts without a doubt. The nature of work specifically in the film, television or even theatre world is so physical in terms of contact, that the effect it’s had has been unavoidable. I personally had an off-off Broadway sketch comedy show postponed until further notice just at the cusp of the lockdown. Things do seem to be looking up however, with small productions using smaller casts and precautions on set, but we are still erring on the side of caution. However, we are in the age of technology and my industry has been quick to adapt to remote work as well which has been a blessing!
How did you spend your quarantine? Were you part of any remote projects?
I was lucky enough to be part of a few remote projects through quarantine and it has been a fascinating experience because we are not only the actor but also the cinematographers, directors, producers in some capacity. I did a commercial that was filmed by myself at home for a new learning app and currently I am part of two online play readings which are part of a new writing festival that’s helping raise funds for Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, London which is happening via Zoom. Other than acting, I used the quarantine period to cook, garden, do virtual museum tours and do a little learning about the mysterious world of stock markets, though I think it’s remained a mystery to me!
Another one of my remote projects was a music video I was a part of that is coming out on the 3rd of July. The song is called “Heartbreak Paradise” by the up and coming indie-pop and folk artist Dhruv Kapoor. It’s about a long-distance relationship and the hardships faced by the additional stress of the Coronavirus pandemic. One half of the video was shot with me in New York and the other half with a Mumbai based actress to better highlight the difficulties of being on two opposite sides of the world. It was directed by Gorkey Patwal and Faizan Ansari who are both wonderful creatives based in New Delhi, India.
Swarnima Singh in a shot by Chloé Singer