We’ve all heard of Bollywood heroes—but how does one become a Hollywood hero? Just ask Sendhil Ramamurthy.
When Heroes debuted on NBC this fall, it quickly became the unexpected runaway hit of the season. But few people were more surprised than the desi audiences. Is that a brown guy on TV? we wondered in shock as we saw heartthrob Sendhil Ramamurthy’s chiseled features dominate our screens. And wait… He isn’t working at a convenience store?
Our shock soon gave way to admiration, as we watched the character of Mohinder Suresh guide this motley cast of unlikely superheroes through a surreal world. But Heroes isn’t merely a supernatural drama—it’s a gritty, realistic narrative shedding light on human emotions and passions. The characters are real people. We just happen to catch them in the process of discovering that they’re superhuman, too.
“There’s something in it for everybody,” Ramamurthy says as he relishes the success of the hit show. “There’s a personal element and a supernatural element, and characters that appeal to everyone. But the thing that appealed to me most is that I’ve never seen a character like this for an Indian before. I’ve never read anything like this.”
Ramamurthy never set out to single-handedly change the face of South Asian roles in mainstream acting—in fact, when he started, he was just a pre-med student (surprise, surprise) at Tufts University trying to fulfill his core arts requirement to graduate.
“I took an intro to acting class my junior year, since I thought it would be easy,” he remembers. He skipped most of the classes, but the course required students to audition for a school play. He tried out for a production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country Is Good, and surprised himself by getting the part. “I didn’t want to go through with it, I was only trying out to satisfy the requirement. But I did it, and ended up loving it.”
He loved it so much that he took his passion to the next level: He decided to make a career out of it. “I worked in hospitals during the summers and I hated everything about it. I didn’t like being around sick people; I didn’t like being in hospitals. I was floating around,” he says. The play came just in time, and with it, a new purpose in life. His parents—both physicians—were surprisingly supportive. “I broke the news that I wanted to go to drama school, and they were as understanding as they could have been. Once they saw I was serious about it, the footed the bull for drama school in England and supported me in every play I’ve ever done. It was easier than I thought it would be.”
He met his wife, Olga Sosnovska, in drama school, and spent the next few years back and forth between England and the US. He did theater in New York, a TV series in England, and a play with the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company. He moved to New York, then back to England when his wife got a high-profile job there, then juggled auditions in LA, New York, and London.
“I never went up for stereotypical roles, and my agents didn’t force me to,” he says. “I hoped to do interesting theater roles, certainly not a major role in an American TV series. I didn’t think what I was interested in doing was available to me.”
And then the script for Heroes came his way.
While it was the first pilot he auditioned for this season, Ramamurthy didn’t have high expectations: The role called for an older man in his mid-50s. He thought it was a waste of time; his agents believed otherwise. Though he was the youngest to audition by far, there was something about Ramamurthy that drew the casting directors to him, and they kept calling him back. Soon they reworked the script and signed him on to lead the cast.
“What draws me to Suresh is the combination of his innocence and his curiosity. He’s driven by the death of his father—there are a lot of unanswered questions and guilt there.” The characters each get a few episodes that delve deeper into their personal histories, and Ramamurthy promises that audiences will get to the bottom of Suresh’s “daddy issues” in two upcoming episodes.
As we chat, Ramamurthy is battling the last vestiges of a nasty bout with gastric flu, hardly the kind of affliction you expect to defeat a superhero. But then, Ramamurthy’s character is the only one without any superpowers—much to his chagrin, at least initially. “When I first read the script, I was bummed,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘My friends are going to make fun of me. I don’t have a power.’” But the more he’s immersed himself into Suresh’s world, the more he’s come to appreciate the character’s unique place in the unraveling of the saga. “I’m the one who grounds everyone in reality; the audience can see everything through this character’s eyes,” he says. “I get it now. And now I like that I don’t have any special powers.”
But just when Ramamurthy overcame his “power envy,” the writers revealed that some interesting twists may be in store for the entire cast: People will be losing and gaining powers as the show progresses. “When I heard that, the next day I came to the set making fun of everyone,” he remembers with a laugh. “I was like, ‘You’re gonna lose your powers and I’m gonna get all your powers, ha ha!’”
But what is about to unravel remains a mystery to the actors and audiences alike—the writers like keeping everyone in suspense, and “we’re like rabid dogs when the scripts come, we tear them apart!” Ramamurthy says.
Judging by the ratings, viewers can’t get enough, either. Indian audiences in particular have responded warmly to Suresh’s character, but his accent… that’s another story. The writers initially wanted a heavy Indian accent, then British, and finally, when they decided the character would be Indian but educated in England, settled on a British accent with an Indian tinge to it. “The response from the Indian community has been mixed—some people are like, ‘Can he just not do an Indian accent?’ But it was a conscious decision.”
But while he’s excited to be able to perform in such a groundbreaking role, Ramamurthy is even more excited at the prospect of what the future holds for South Asian actors. “Look at Naveen Andrews on Lost—even though he doesn’t play an Indian, I’m sure him getting that role opened the door for a role like Suresh to be written. And Kal Penn has made his name in comedy,” he says. “I hope this is just another step toward Indians becoming more mainstream. I think there’s a lot of room for characters of Indian descent who don’t have to have an accent, period. They can sound just like we do.”
Is Hollywood ready for an Indian Friend? Or a Sex and the Desi? Or maybe—just maybe—a brown Dr. McDreamy? It looks like it’s only a matter of time.
Sendhil Ramamurthy was photographed for iSTYLE Magazine in Los Angeles by photographer Jessica Miller.
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