Ajay Mehta: Acting Day-by-Day
Ajay Mehta is a South Asian actor whose career boasts
roles in films and on television shows including 24, The Sopranos,
Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and Without a Trace.
His recent projects include Ode, a film about a young, gay
South Asian, and Americanizing Shelley, which deals with
assimilation, a topic quite relevant to our community. A multitalented
actor, Mehta's work has demonstrated that South Asians in film and
television can move beyond stereotypical roles such as gas station
owners and cab drivers.
Mehta took the stage for the first time at age three
and a half, encouraged by his father, himself a theater fan. Mehta's
mother also supported his acting ambitions. Having parental support
meant a lot to Mehta: "[Acting is] just something that's always
been there, as opposed to being a doctor or a scientist." In
addition to his parents’ influence, Mehta cites role models
ranging from Hollywood to Bollywood: Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman,
Helen Mirren, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Prithviraj Kapoor, Mehmood,
Jeremy Irons, Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable and Betty Davis. He is inspired
by their "craft and commitment to acting which shows in their
work, be it drama, romance or comedy."
Although he grew up in
New Delhi, Mehta moved to Hong Kong early in his career. It was there
that he achieved some success in television and commercials. His first
big break, however, came with the mini series, Around the World
in 80 Days, where he worked alongside heavyweights such as British
actor, Sir Peter Ustinov. Mehta eventually settled in New York and
continued to develop his acting skills in many different roles on
stage, in films and on television.
However, Mehta’s path hasn't been without
challenges. There have been occasions when Mehta found his own beliefs
conflicting with the demands of the entertainment business. One such
problem arose when he was asked to smoke on camera: "I am a non-smoker
and sometimes you're asked to smoke; that's been the extent [of] any
'problems' I have had." More significant problems arise, however,
when directors request that Mehta exaggerate South Asian stereotypes.
Mehta takes such situations in stride, negotiating the delicate balance
between his own opinions and the demands placed on him: "One
has to deal with stereotypical characters played by South Asians,
and it’s tough to be an actor, so my responsibility is to portray
[such a] character in the best light that I can."
Mehta is cognizant of the difficulties inherent in
his chosen profession. He notes that the most important qualities
that one needs to succeed in acting are "integrity, goodwill…being
able to build your reputation and—[this is] the most important
thing, remembering everyone [who] has helped you [along the way]."
Although Mehta is pursuing a career in which he is invested and from
which he derives great joy, he is careful to note that acting is not
quite as glamorous as it might seem: "It is hard work, and you
may think it is easy to do but it's not. There's a lot of work that
goes into it. Every aspect is about understanding what is going into
a character and what's coming out of it."
Top Row: Jayne Atkinson, Ajay Mehta, Peter MacNicol. Bottom: DB Woodside
As a South Asian working in a business
where our community is underrepresented, Mehta notes that "a
lot of Desi writers, directors and producers are [now] working on
primetime shows and making independent films.” This recent development,
according to Mehta, “in turn brings about change and exposure.
[Commitment towards diversity] has to come from within the community
and Hollywood will change accordingly." Although South Asian
actors are still limited in scope in the types of rolls they are being
offered, Mehta sees "a healthy change within a few primetime
shows." The key to increasing South Asian presence on television
is "to applaud the network when a Desi character is well- represented
and not just…complain if you didn't like the portrayal."
Mehta feels a sense of accomplishment when he can
"make people laugh, even if just for a second, and…relieve
them from a hard day or [from] problems." Mehta also tries to
keep disappointments in perspective, so they are short-lived: "You
feel bad for a bit but as I always say 'disappointed but not defeated,'
and I go to the next project. It's a tough, tough business to be in
and you need to have the stomach to deal with it."
Currently, Mehta is continuing
his work on 24. "It's a brilliant show,” he says,
“and I just finished working on my fourth episode—'10p.m.-11p.m.'—this
week. I have to say it was a wonderful production team to work with…such
an excellent cast, directors and crew…an experience I'll never
forget and most certainly cherish."
In addition to working on screen, Mehta has been
exploring life on the other side of the camera: "I have a comedy
project [called] Are You With Me? In 2005 I did a one-man
presentation in Los Angeles, and I'm currently shopping it around
to the industry."
Mehta also has some tips for aspiring actors and
actresses. His technical advice is that "as an actor you do bring
your own personality and personal experience[s] to the character,
so...[what's most important is] the fusion between the two and how
you create that balance and [create] the character that you play."
Mehta suggests that budding actors focus on the act of creating and
communicating a character and try forgetting themselves temporarily:
Additionally, Mehta indicates that "acting is a very personal
thing, and it needs a lot of passion and conviction because every
role is different. Ultimately, it's what you have that day that goes
Swati Patel is currently a senior at New York University who studies economics and pre-dentistry. She aspires to be a TV personality for a morning news show and is originally from Tampa Bay, Florida.
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