Jeff Pearlman

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Ritesh Rajan

#386
We're both survivors of the mean streets of Mahopac, N.Y. and we've both had slices at Cacciatori Pizza. But while I sit at a desk and type drivel, this on-the-rise actor has played everyone from Ken in "Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures" to Linus on "Stitchers." Chalk one up for the ol' hometown ... POSTED December 26, 2018

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So this is sorta random, but the other day I was reading my high school yearbook on the toilet. It’s something that happens, oh, four or five times a year. I’ll be standing in our den, itching for a potty break and needing something light-yet-engrossing to peruse. Inevitably, I’ll reach toward a shelf and grab the ol’ 1990 Wampum, what with its faded photos and long-ago glories and hopes and dreams and prom pics and …

This:

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If one looks closely, he/she can see the word JEW written alongside the photos. The classmate who did so was trying to be funny. I still remember him writing the word over and over, knowing it was wrong but not wanting to make waves. In a way, it’s sorta perfectly representative of Mahopac, N.Y., my glorious-yet-painfully sheltered hometown. I don’t think the JEW writer meant to be anti-Semitic, just as I don’t think the kids who referred to my best friend as “one of the good n—-rs” considered themselves to be racist.

Wait. I digress.

Today’s Quaz Q&A stars a man who knows whereof I speak. Like me, Ritesh Rajan is a product of Mahopac. Like me, Ritesh Rajan didn’t (demographically) fit into the Mahopac typecast. Like me, Ritesh Rajan loves our hometown and takes issue with our hometown. Like me, Ritesh Rajan now lives in Southern California, where he has carved out an impressive career as an actor in such TV shows as “Stitchers” and “Criminal Minds” and films like “The Jungle Book” and “Campus Code.” He’s a fascinating guy with an inspired outlook, and one can follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

Ritesh Rajan, you are the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Ritesh, we’re both products of the mean streets of Mahopac who now live in California. And I’m very fascinated by your relationship/feelings for our hometown. Because, to be honest, mine are mixed. Great place to grow up, safe, good friends. But also hard-core Trump country, not diverse, definite strands of racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism. So … what says you?

RITESH RAJAN: I have to say, you and I have similar feelings about this. I loved where I grew up. I always enjoyed school, my friends, and what the town had to offer: a safe, beautiful and, at the time, charming place to live—not to mention an overabundance of delis and local pizza shops. I never once experienced direct racism towards myself growing up in Mahopac, but there was definitely an attitude shift post-9/11. The close proximity to New York City, along with community members losing loved ones, there was a slow looming tonal shift in the town. I believe my parents status protected me from a lot of it. They are both doctors, we have been there since 1992, and my dad still has a practice in town. We were also probably one of first Indian families to go through the Mahopac school system. Having an older brother and younger sister who went to the same school (they graduated in 1996 and 2008, respectively) and all of us being involved in school activities, the community knew us and this  helped combat the general ignorance that was floating around.

I would say it has gotten much worse in the past 4-to-5 years. I think people are in denial if they say it has nothing to do with Trump and the political climate. His actions and way of carrying out his politics has, without a doubt, emboldened people to voice their previously socially unacceptable views. I also feel diversity was lacking in the town which maybe adds to the issue, but who knows. It’s funny to me that our town name finds its roots in the local Native American culture yet there are zero threads to connect us back to that. In fact, I always wondered why the high school mascot was an “Indian.” I am an Indian. My parents were born and raised in India. My brother was born in India. Why can’t a conversation occur that changes the mascot to a local tribe name or just even a word that represents the town roots? Even our yearbook is called Wampum. Our school newspaper is The Chieftain. The short answer is I don’t think anyone cares or has even given any thought to it. I think it’s these many small things being ignored that add to the bigger picture. It’s hard to say why people feel and act the way they do without knowing each other’s stories, struggles, and environments. I do know that most of people in my hometown disagree with my social and political views—gotta love Facebook! I will say this, I still love going home. I find it grounding and, considering my career choice, that’s important.

From the Asian Bachelorette Calendar.

From the Asian Bachelorette Calendar.

J.P.: Gotta jump to an important one right here, right now. According to your IMDB page, you appear in the 2019 Asian Bachelorette Calendar. Ritesh … what?

R.R.: Are you jealous? Haven’t you always dreamed of being in a calendar? This project started off with a just a simple question: why aren’t there any Asian men on ABC’s “The Bachelorette”? WongFu, a popular YouTube channel, decided to take this issue head-on and create a spoof. The premise: one Caucasian Bachelorette and only contestants of Asian descent. I had the honor of representing Browntown, aka the Indians, by playing a dentist from Edison, NJ. Edison is basically the little India of the Northeast, if you are not aware. You should check the video out on YouTube when you get a chance. The video was so popular that the creators actually got a call from ABC to talk about diversity. WongFu thought doing a spoof pin-up style holiday calendar to promote diversity in entertainment would be a great idea. I have to say, it’s pretty hilarious. Do you want one? I’ll hook you up! We can post them all around Mahopac!

J.P.: So you’ve been in everything. Seriously everything. Films, TV shows, animated, soaps, etc. And I’m fascinated—how did this happen for you? When do you know you wanted to act? When did you know you could act? Was there an ah-ha moment?

R.R.: Well I knew pretty early on that I wanted to be in entertainment. I was always obsessed with martial arts and movies. I religiously watched Power Rangers; all I wanted to do was be a Power Ranger. I had the Green Ranger at my sixth birthday party. My mom put my sister and I into Taekwondo when I was 5, which basically made me feel I could be an action star. I am still trying to be an action star and practice martial arts today in hopes my dreams will come true. My first memory of acting was when my second grade class (shout out to Mr. Crasson, who was one of my favorite teachers) put on a production of a “Magic School Bus” episode. It was basically to teach us about the solar system, where I was given the roll of some nerd (getting typecast even back then) explaining the what the red dot on Jupiter was. I loved practicing lines and being on stage. I didn’t understand it at the time, but there was something about theater that just connected with me; I think it had to do with having the whole room’s attention.  As far as knowing when I was good at acting, that is hard to point out. I just got better everyday, at least I think so—haha! I read and saw as many books, plays, and movies as I could. I tired to involve myself in as many local productions just so I could exercise those muscles. I went to NYU Tisch for undergrad and that’s when everything solidified.

My ah-ha moment happened in two parts. The first one was in the Magic School Bus play I mentioned before. The second was during the audition process for a fifth grade musical. Every year, my elementary school (Fulmar Road, I am a Mahopac OG) did a spirit day. This was a big deal for all the kids and an event that every student looked forward too, especially because they catered McDonald’s for lunch … how could you not love that!? On this day, the entire fifth grade class put on an original musical where the whole grade tried out. Being a small, skinny, nerdy Indian kid, I was never the strongest nor the fastest. I never felt physically awkward, but it was so hard for me to be the best at something athletic, which everyone strived to be. I knew singing and staying on pitch came much more easily to me than other kids, but it didn’t seem “cool” at the time, so I let it sit in the back of my mind. When it came time to audition for this musical, I thought I would do well, but I remember being nervous. A fellow student, named Martin, had a mom who was in the Broadway production of CATS, so I felt he had the upper hand and would get the part. He could also carry a tune. I don’t remember the audition process very much, but I ended up getting the lead of the show. If you were wondering what the role was … I played an anamorphic version of a tuba. This was the first time my parents actually saw me perform and they have encouraged me ever since … probably because I didn’t suck. It was a more solidifying ah-ha moment and, if it didn’t happen, there is a good chance I would be a doctor today. Thanks Mr. Moriarty, hope you are watching from above.

J.P.: According to IMDB your first credited roll is “Mustafa” in Law & Order. So … how did that gig happen? What do you remember of the experience?

R.R.: Well, I was a senior at NYU and the school always had a strict policy of attendance. I had to miss class for the Law & Order audition. I personally didn’t care about it, but I got  a C+, which stopped me from graduating with honors. My parents were irritated … still very Indian. Obviously, I made the right choice, though. It was standard procedure: my agents in New York sent me out on the appointment, I read for the casting director, and was told to wait 30 minutes for the director of the episode. That ended up being two hours, but after reading for him, he was impressed. I got a call the next day saying I booked the role—I was ecstatic! I celebrated the next day by skipping classes and going to Halal Guys (at that time it was only on 53rd and 6th and I probably ate too much hot sauce, which I still do). The actual day of filming was pretty smooth. I only had two scenes but I remember hanging on set as long as I could to learn and absorb everything. We shot in a real pizza shop so instead of eating the catered meal, I ate pizza with the cast and crew on location. I was really proud of the fact that my first role was a character named Mustafa and I didn’t have an accent. Plus, doing the original Law & Order is a bucket list item for any New York actor. The show was cancelled that season I believe … oops!

J.P.: How hard is it to get into character? What I mean is—can you act and feel who you’re supposed to be? Can you actually turn into Ben or Tesh or Arum or whoever your character is? Or, is there always 5% thinking, “What should I have for dinner tonight?”

R.R.: This is a process that is very specific to each actor. I know people who write tons of notes or try to go method living as their character. I know people who do nothing. I personally enjoy the rehearsal process. It lays down the foundation of the character, because creating their specific thoughts and ideas is essential. The goal for me is to figure out which version portrays the most truth. It’s not about being right or wrong, or making the first choice. It is about creating a foundation you can live and be truthful in. If you live in that foundation you won’t be thinking about “when are we breaking for lunch?” When I am in the space, it’s actually difficult to think about anything else other than what my character is going through. Not as Ritesh, but as who I am playing. Ritesh gets upset, but how does Linus get upset? I know when Ritesh is speaking and Linus is speaking, because they are foundational different in my mind and body. I think all actors carry a certain color of themselves in the characters they play, but it’s a matter of management. Sometimes you get a character who is closer to you and it requires less work, but I would liken it to an athlete thinking about his weekend vs. the play at hand. Do you want to be JR Smith or LeBron? Obviously there are days when you are less focused, but I always think about how lucky I am to be doing what I am doing. I don’t take those moments for granted. Plus I want to do my best work, it will only allow me more opportunities to present my artistic talents.

Thanksgiving 2018 with the family.

Thanksgiving 2018 with the family.

J.P.: On Nov. 5 you posted on Instagram a message you received that read: “Ritesh motherfucking son of a bitch Rajan how dare you to eVen touch white girls in movies and tv series you perv asshole Asian bastard go fuck your mother sisterfucker rather pathetic how dare you asshole you sisterfucker dickhead go touch your sister instead brown piece of shit.” And, interestingly, earlier this morning someone on Twitter wrote how I don’t own guns so my house and family is unprotected. And I wonder—how seriously should we take these things? How seriously do you take these things? And how are we supposed to respond?

R.R.: I never take these things seriously or personally. Haters are always going to hate. Unless the situation escalated to point where I, or anyone I know, was in actual danger, I just find it best to use it as motivation. Clearly, this specific person follows my work, otherwise he wouldn’t know who I am. Sorry I’m a brown guy on TV kissing white girls. Most of my trolls are racially fueled and people don’t realize it’s still a frequent occurrence. Both friends and fans were shocked that I would receive messages like this, but it happens all the time. Responding is always tricky, because you don’t want to fuel the fire but, sometimes you want to stand up for yourself and others. In this case, I felt like it was a great opportunity to take negative words and use them to create a more positive and informed attitude about racism in this country. If we can make people more aware of the struggles other people go through, then I think we can be more understanding as a society and hopefully improve our relationship with others.

J.P.: You voiced Ken in the TV series, “Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures.” I’m super fascinated—how did you land the gig? What are the challenges of doing voice work? Is it fulfilling? Annoying? A mere paycheck? A terrific challenge?

R.R.: I worked with Mattel before on another Barbie show called “Barbie Dreamtopia.” I played a close friend of Barbie, named Derrick. He doubled as forest prince; he looked like me and was the only male in Barbie’s crew. I had a running joke with everyone that Barbie was tired of Ken and was into Indian guys now. The director referred me as a good fit for Ken to the producers of “Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures.” I sent in a tape reading a sample scene and that was about it. I remember just being grateful they would even read me. Malibu Ken, blond hair, blues eyes, six pack—very different than Mahopac Tesh. When I got the call that they wanted me, I was shocked. It’s pretty amazing to be part of a franchise as legendary as Barbie.

I really hope when people Google me (if they even do that haha) they see that credit and say, “NO WAY! KEN IS AN INDIAN GUY?” Hopefully, it will inspire some Indian young kid somewhere. VO work is really amazing and I fucking love it. As long as you take it seriously, you can show up in your pajamas. The microphones can pick up everything, so  if your voice is not 100 percent you can tell. I have to be aware what I do a few days before I record, because people will know if I’ve had too many beers beforehand. For Ken, I use my natural voice about one to two steps higher and my energy is much more boyish and punched up. I absolutely love it, I hope I will be Ken for as long as I can!

Side note, I watch a lot of anime. Everyone makes fun of me for it, including parents, friends, or anyone I come in contact with that doesn’t watch anime. I think listening to hours of Japanese voice actors, who are incredible, has paid off.

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J.P.: You played Linus Ahluwalia on the TV show, “Stitchers.” What is it like being a recurring part of a production? I’ve had people describe it as akin to summer camp—this sorta communcal experience where you form strong attachments. I know others who just wanted their show to end. How was it for you? And what is it like when a show ends? The emotions?

R.R.: I liken my whole experience on Stitchers to one of those traveling carnivals. There are so many moving parts. I mean that in the best way. Everyone comes together to create something they have no idea what the end result will be. Time, blood, sweat, tears, and, of course, money is all put into something you hope people will like. We all have our skills and when the show stops making money, we have to disband and pack it up. My personal experience was amazing. I met some of my closest friends and mentors on that show. I was lucky enough to have three seasons, which seems to be rare nowadays. There wasn’t a single day I wasn’t smiling or laughing at work. Being my first gig as a regular on TV, Stitchers will always have a special place in my heart. I loved being on it show even if I was starting to outgrow it (which I believe I was). I could spend all day with my castmates. I think we were very lucky in that sense, because I have heard horror stories about cast compatibility. I still talk to them daily. When we got cancelled it was a terrible, confusing feeling. I was ready to move on, but I was devastated.

I love what I do. We knew it was coming, but we still had hope maybe the network would give us one more season to finish it out. I received the phone call from my showrunner who thanked me for the last three years and I did the same. When I got off the phone I sat there and cried. It is a terrifying feeling. What people don’t understand is that the entertainment world can be feast or famine and I felt like I was going to have to go back to my former day job (Zumba instructor and Uber driver—yes this is it’s own question, ha!). It’s tough being fired and not having a consistent paycheck. It’s hard being a struggling actor, but I think it’s harder to fall from a higher place. You have tasted a form of success and all you can think about is getting back on top. You really know what you are made of when you are tested in a position of defeat. You have to bounce back and stay focused. That is all I said to myself for the next week. Work will come as long as I stay dedicated and focused. I was once told by a teacher that my job will be auditioning. Working will be a vacation. Pretty damn true.

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J.P.: You trained at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. Do you feel like all actors need this sort of training? Are there some people who are simply naturals, and others who require the work? And what did it do for you?

R.R.: I believe so, maybe in varying degrees, though. The truth is, there are people who are just better at certain things. Acting is no different, but it’s hard to articulate that because it can’t be quantified by some score or number. Great actors may never get commercial success and commercial actors may be terrible. It’s a crazy business. I personally benefited greatly from my training. It laid the foundation to my growing skill. Acting is hard and the reason why everyone thinks they can do it is because the good ones make it look easy. You would be shocked how to see many people can make walking across a room look awkward and terrible. I think training can keep you more consistent. It’s closer to sports than you realize. You can dial into your character faster and you can stay in character longer, which allows you explore more interesting choices, thus making you a better, or rather, believable actor. With practice and repetition, you can recreate results faster and more accurate than without a regimen. Of course the art form is much more fluid because it’s based purely on human interaction and characters needs, but training gives you the tool kit to make the audience say, “Wow what a great performance,” or, “That person was really living in the moment.” They don’t know why it was great, they just believe it was great because it seemed real to them. They have no way to measure or articulate it beyond its surface. My time in school was very important because, even though I learned quite a bit on set, it’s rare that productions will have the time to explore characters the way you do in school. There are just a hundred other things going on and the director may or may not have the time to prioritize that. It’s your training that gives you the tools to go home and lay the foundation to your work..

J.P.: When you’re working on a project, how do you know whether the finished product will be good or not? When do you know?

R.R.: Honestly, you don’t. It’s fucking terrifying. You just have to be honest with yourself. I know when I half-ass something, the result will reflect that. If you are working from your heart and soul, you won’t be unhappy with your result. You can’t control other people’s expectations or tastes, but you can control the quality of your own work.  Sometimes when I thought something was amazing people think it’s average and vice versa. Hone in on creating work that resonates with you and chances are it will resonate with others. More importantly if something does fail, understand why people didn’t like it. You have to be learning constantly and adapting. So much of this industry is out of your hand the only thing you can do is keep working hard and striving for self improvement. Luck favors the persistent.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH RITESH RAJAN:

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Emma Ishta, LL Cool J, Disneyland, espresso, Vincent Collins, Rajon Rondo, snowball fights, “As Good as it Gets,” Buzz Feed, Robinson Cano, the number 57, Abercrombie: Emma (we have been through it all, how could I not list her 1!), LL Cool J, espresso, snowball fights, Disneyland, “As Good as it Gets,” Buzz Feed, the number 57, Robinson Cano, Vincent Collins, Abercrombie, Rajon Rando (The Celtics suck … Huge Knicks fan. He also spit in Chris Paul’s face)

• Three memories from the Mahopac High senior prom: 1. Saying to myself that my prom date looked beautiful; 2 Drinking alcohol we sneaked onto a bus by emptying Costco sized contact solution bottles, washing them soap and hot water, and refilling them with vodka; 3. One of my best friends squeezing my hand, and almost breaking it, as he got his nipple pierced. It got infected the next day.

• On Mahopac’s Wikipedia page, both of us are listed as NOTABLE PEOPLE along with former Mariners pitcher Dave Fleming, the actor Jay Acovone, Sour Shoes from the Howard Stern show, Henry Winkler, Major League pitcher C.J. Riefenhauser, a motorsports journalist named Doug Auld and Ryan McClay, a lacrosse player. Who you have as No. 1?: Henry Winkler. He is the only person to have influence on me and, more importantly, both my parents would know who he is. When your immigrant parents know you are, you are doing something right.

• What’s the dumbest line you’ve ever had to utter on a show?: I said a lot of nerdy things on Stitchers, but I never felt uncomfortable saying them. On the next season of Barbie I have to make whale noises … I had no idea what the hell I was doing. What does a whale even sound like? I don’t think Ellen knew, either, while doing Finding Nemo.

• I’m sitting in a café. It smells moldy. But … they have free coffee refills. What should I do?: Find the source of the smell … take a picture of it. Text it to your friends who would find it annoying…oh and drink two cups of coffee. No more, no less.

• Five reasons one should make Mahopac his/her next vacation destination?: 1. It’s home to you and I. 2. It’s actually really pretty during the summer and fall. 3. Have you been to Kobu? 4. Meet a bunch of people who say they are from the Bronx and are super Italian but have no idea where their family is actually from. 5. Go see my parents—you will get some incredible Indian food you will never get in an Indian restaurant.

• Who’s someone famous you’ve met who made you nervous?: Will Smith and Micheal J Fox.

• What are the most overrated food products in America?: SPAM, pretzel sticks, Diet Coke.

• The next president of the United States will be …: A woman of color. If you don’t believe, it won’t happen.

• Two memories from playing “Softball Player” on an episode of the TV show “Baby Daddy”: 1. I spent a lot of time watching Taj Mowry growing up on Full House and Smart Guy. It was validating and fun to be able to share the screen with him…even if it was only for a scene or two. 2. Just being so welcomed by Jean, Taj, and Chelsea. I was a newbie and they were very kind and funny. I remember running into Chelsea at a Disney event right after Stitchers had aired and she remembered by name and gave me a big hug congratulating me on the show. It was all very sweet.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life