From Broadway shows to Hollywood movies and back – Manu Narayan, who has worked opposite Jessica Alba and Justin Timberlake among others, is surely not a stranger to the stage. BELLA got to hear him out as he dished on his challenges as an actor, his advice for those who want to be one, and what he loves to do when he gets a break from all the craziness.
When did you start acting and what has fueled your passion for acting?
I started acting when I was really young. I have always loved to talk to people. I guess that I am naturally inquisitive about the people around me. I think that curiosity coupled with my love to entertain people led me to the stage. I started out first as a singer when I was five. I started singing semi-professionally with a group of other children across Western Pennsylvania. A couple of years later, I did my first play. I love the demands that acting places on my creativity, my imagination in creating the role, and then on my body and mind. It takes stamina, attention, and listening to do 8 shows a week or 30 takes of a scene as if it is the first time.
You started in theater and crossed over to film and television, was this the trajectory you were hoping for with your career?
To have any type of career is amazing for an actor. I am so thankful to continue to have work in high profile projects that challenge me. To answer your question, because I have always loved the stage, it seems natural to me that stage was the jumping off point into film and TV.
How does one role differ from the other?
Well, as actors we try and embody each character through our imagination. Using the script as a jumping off point, we create the psychological and physical world of the character by imagining how the actor would walk, talk, and think. With that as a foundation, we use the given text and collaborate with our fellow actors and director to round out our character and tell the story authentically through whichever medium: theater, TV, or film. That is the simple version because of course there are others, such as the designers, editors, and crew who are integral to telling the story. But, each role is found at the nexus of what the writer has written, what the director envisions, and what the actor imagines. Therefore, each role is always different in infinite ways.
What is your biggest accomplishment so far in your career?
I would have to say Bombay Dreams. It is always a huge responsibility to star in a new Broadway show. You have to be carry the weight of the show and be a leader; you have to do all of the press and marketing events in the months leading up to and after opening. With all of that, you still have to be healthy enough for rehearsals, previews, the press gauntlet before opening. For me, Bombay Dreams also included a cultural responsibility. We were representing the South Asian Diaspora on a big stage and all of us knew it. There had not been a big musical on Broadway with a South Asian composer (AR Rahman), and where the leads in the cast were all South Asians. I did not see myself reflected in the mainstream American media while I was growing up. This was our opportunity to show a new generation of South Asian youth that their stories and faces were important and worth seeing and hearing from. I feel like that wonderfully talented cast and company really stepped up and walked the walk of celebrating and leading the way for South Asian Stories to be told in America.
From Bombay Dreams to The Love Guru and back to My Fair Lady and now Gettin’ The Band Back Together, you are returning to Broadway after 16 years. What took you so long?
I had other opportunities to come back to Broadway, but for many reasons I was not able to do those shows. That being said, I have been doing work that I am very proud of in TV, film, and regional theater, as well as concerts around the world.
And what has this experience been like for you?
I am so thankful to be back on Broadway. To be back in New York after so many years, and being so warmly welcomed by old friends, colleagues, and people on Broadway has been so humbling. What a great community of talented people. It is so nice to be in a city where the theater is celebrated in such a huge way. I am glad to be a member of the New York Theater community.
How was the transition going from a classic like My Fair Lady to the super cool jukebox musical Gettin’ The Band Back Together?
I wake up most days and still can’t believe it. Two Broadway shows in one year. In My fair Lady, I was cast against ethnic type. I played the Hungarian Zoltan Karpathy. Dame Diana Rigg was in the show and it was at Lincoln Center Theater under Tony Award winning director Bartlett Sher. It was a dream to work there in that beautiful production. It was a hard decision to leave. I had been working on GTBBT for years playing Dr. Robbie Patel and when the producer Ken Davenport said that he had found a theater and was going to Broadway, I couldn’t pass that up. Nor, could I pass up the opportunity to work with Marilu Henner, who has had such an amazing career and is the nicest person, and another incredible TONY winning director, John Rando who might be the best director in the world at staging a musical comedy. The two shows could not be more different, and I am so proud to have been a part of both.
What are your aspirations, dreams and plans for the future?
To keep working and being able to proudly stand behind my work.
You’re also into music! What role do you like better, the one of an actor or a musician?
I love both equally. But my musical collaborations with Frank London (of the Grammy award winning Klezmatics) and my bandmate in DARUNAM Radovan Jovicevic (formerly of Yugoslavia’s hit band Grupa Zana) have been so needed for my well-being. The actor life has a lot of downtime and for the most part, we can only act when given an opportunity by someone else. I have found that turning to music can allow me to be a self-starter and, in those times, when I am not given the opportunity to work as an actor, making music has kept me creatively fulfilled and sane. It is much better than not having a creative output.
What advice can share with young people out there who try to pursue a career in your field?
Be ready to say yes to whatever job opportunities come your way. The more you work, the more you get to expand your network. But in order to be able to say yes when you are starting out, you first have to create a lifestyle for yourself that allows you to be able to work for little to no pay. One has to figure out a monthly budget and living situation with low overhead so that you can say yes to those readings, workshops, and showcases. That is where you will lay the foundation for your future network. Because as those colleagues get more and more powerful in the industry, if they like you and your work, they will continue to want to work with you.
What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
Practice the piano a little harder because you are going to need it someday on Broadway!
When you’re not on stage, a set or recording, what do you do for fun and relaxation?
Go to the beach with my dogs and my wife. I also recently started baking loaves of bread.
Don’t miss out on seeing Manu in his brand new musical Gettin’ The Band Back Together on Broadway now!