She could have fell, fell out of the sky;/She could have fell right out of the sky./Who’s that girl? (Who’s that girl?)/Who’s that girl? (Who’s that girl?)’
The answer to these lines, from Hey Girl, the catchy theme song of the Golden Globe- and Emmy Award-nominated American TV sitcom New Girl is, “It’s Jess.” Zooey Deschanel, who plays ‘Jess’, the show’s lead actress, doubles up as singer-composer of the song, and sings this answer herself.
But for many fans of the show, for the local American media fraternity, for the international desi Indian community, for hot-blooded males forever on the lookout for their next pinup girl, for young hip females eternally in search of their next style icon, and for the ever-curious social media enthusiasts at large, the refrain could very well refer to the other ‘new girl’ on the show—the stunning, funny and gifted young actress of Indian origin, Hannah Simone, who has come right out of nowhere. And if reactions on the internet are anything to go by, she has been stealing hearts of audiences and critics alike.
It is a testament to Hannah’s talent that within a year of moving to Los Angeles to follow her dreams on a much larger platform than her earlier country of residence, Canada, could provide, she secured a hosting gig on a reality show WCG Ultimate Gamer on the cable channel Syfy. Immediately after, she won a parallel lead role on Fox’s New Girl, as Cecilia ‘Cece’ Meyers, Jess’ childhood best friend and an upcoming model. The show is only in its second season, but Hannah has already landed herself a part in The Usual Supects and X-Men director Bryan Singer’s digital series, H+, and a role in Oscar-nominated director Spike Lee’s remake of the 2003 South Korean film Oldboy.
“My life right now is probably the best example of a dream come true,” says Hannah with a slight, throaty laugh over the phone from Los Angeles, where she now lives. “When I was in school in India and was doing these little theatre productions on stage, if you told me that this is what I was going to be doing a few years later in my life, there’s no chance I would have believed you.”
Simone graduated with a BA in international relations and political science and then worked for the United Nations, in its human rights and refugees office. She has also worked as a researcher for a Canadian statesman and as a social news VJ for MuchMusic, a Canadian TV channel, for which she interviewed world leaders and discussed issues like AIDS, climate change and bullying. With a résumé like that, she could not have seen this coming.
At the same time, having first started modelling at the age of 13 in Cyprus and then earning a degree in Radio and Television Arts in Canada before moving on to theatre, VJing and acting, in a way, Hannah also had a career in the glamour world laid out.
“I’ve been really blessed to have a mother and father who would tell me that it’s fine to have several passions in life all at once, and that none of them has to fit in the same box,” says Hannah. “Because that’s essentially how life is—we are who we are, it’s other people who try to put us in a box. So growing up in countries like Saudi Arabia, Cyprus and India, I kept my eyes open to the human rights issues around me, especially women and children’s rights, and have been very involved in making people aware of the same. At the same time, I love theatre, I love ‘improv’ and I love making people laugh, and I need both these parts in my life at all times.”
Over the course of the conversation, it is evident that Hannah’s intelligence runs beyond her résumé, and it is not merely chance that in an industry that’s quick to pigeonhole Indians into exotic and accented call centre employees and models into catty and ‘hot’ bimbos, in New Girl, Hannah plays the character of a hot Indian model who defies all these stereotypes and is completely her own person—a funny, confident and loyal friend who makes decisions both good and bad.
The former VJ attributes such a role to both a sign of changing norms in Hollywood as well as her responsibility as an Indian artiste to make the right choices. “That’s one of the things that attracted me to my character of ‘Cece’ in New Girl,” she says, “The showrunners were only looking for someone funny for the role, and not someone ethnically specific, and that gave me the freedom to play the character the way I wanted to play it.”
And that is the reason, Hannah goes on to explain, that the only time the topic of Cece’s ethnicity comes up is when Schmidt, played by Max Greenfield, needs to flatter her and rolls out his knowledge of all things Indian, from Slumdog Millionaire to Deepak Chopra. “And that’s the right way to do it,” says Hannah. “Those lines are written because they cast someone Indian and not because they wrote an Indian stereotype and cast someone who fits the mould. I find that very refreshing—to be on a mainstream network comedy and not have to play into any ethnic stereotypes.”
“I also think it’s really important, for us as Indian actors, that we choose roles and play characters that are not defined by their ethnicity,” she continues. “I believe that’s precisely how we will slowly start to open up that door of being seen just as a girl or guy instead of being seen as an Indian girl or guy.”
But Hannah isn’t opposed to playing characteristically Indian roles either. In fact, on Bryan Singer’s digital series H+, she plays Leena Param, a young Indian girl who has grown up in the Mumbai slums, dreams of going to Bollywood and even has a ‘filmi’ dance sequence on the show. And in this case, it was the challenge of playing the stereotype responsibly that got her interested.
“I find that a lot of times people want to play these… Indian characters as victims,” she says. “But I didn’t want to keep perpetuating the idea that you are a victim just because you are poor. So I approached Leena as an empowered, ambitious woman who was choosing to become a surrogate in the story because she saw that as a means to taking a step up and a step forward in her life, and not because it was some kind of sentence. I was very protective of the character because being an Indian woman, living in and going to school in India, and always being surrounded by so many strong Indian women, you tend to become strong yourself.”
This strength of character is something Hannah sees in herself too, she laughs, and is among the things she believes she has inherited from the Indian side of her heritage—her father, Narendra Simone, who is originally from Mathura and is now a prolific author with over seven books to his credit. Her mother is of German-Italian-Cypriot-Greek descent.
“My father’s such an amazing inspiration to me,” she enthuses, “My proudest Hollywood moment was when I took him as my date to the Golden Globes, where New Girl was nominated, and I shared that huge moment of success with him. My father’s always been the greatest storyteller for me and has taught me how to use my imagination, which has been the basis of what I’ve learnt about acting. That, and the fact that Indians as a people take such good care of each other and [their] families, has been the core of who I am as an Indian.”
“And of course,” she adds with her distinctive happy laugh, “food, food, food, food, food! I’ve inherited my love for great Indian food too.”
Like every other Indian, she also loves “classic Bollywood films” but Hannah’s unique sensibilities are resonant in her choice of favourite Indian films too. The self-confessed Madhur Jaffrey, Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair fan is more an admirer of movies like Monsoon Wedding, Fire and Earth than of mainstream commercial ‘Bollywood’ cinema.“It’s so inspiring that Indian directors went back to their homeland to make great independent films that dealt with issues that are usually difficult to talk about,” she explains.
Ask her if she’d like to follow in their footsteps, and she chuckles, “I have no idea. Cece and I are in the same boat in that sense, because we both don’t know what’s coming up next. And that’s what I love about life, you know? My love for the performance arts and for social work will continue forever, but beyond that, I’m just excited to roll with it and live in the moment.”
And at the moment, it is a great time to be Hannah. The new Indian girl on the block gets calls for Indian projects because she is of Indian origin, and at the same time, gets noticed by the likes of Spike Lee for roles in mainstream American projects because she is TV’s latest breakout star. “I’ve strived to be ethnically ambiguous throughout my career. My ethnicity is now an advantage and I have the great fortune of playing anything,” she smiles. “It’s really the best of both worlds.”
Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on November 17, 2012
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