BEFORE / AFTER
Ten years ago, Amara Karan was an unhappy investment banker when she decided to quit and go to drama school - a gamble that paid off. Wes Anderson gave her a breakthrough role as the chain-smoking enigma of The Darjeeling Limited, and Amara’s acting fortunes flowered just as the financial crisis engulfed the City of London. She recently starred opposite Riz Ahmed in The Night Of, HBO’s must-see miniseries about race and unrest in post-9/11 New York City. The sharp suiting required for her role as lawyer Chandra Kapoor must have brought back memories of her past life in pinstripes. Still, Amara barely recognises her former self.
Richard O’Mahony: What brings you to the wilds of Bushey, Hertfordshire?
Amara Karan: I’m staying here with my boyfriend, temporarily. I’m currently of no fixed abode, I’m proud to say.
RM: Proud in what sense?
AK: Well, while everyone my age is clamouring to get on the property ladder, I’ve decided to run for the circus.
RM: Where are you working right now?
AK: I’m travelling a lot between Manchester and London at the moment, so Hertfordshire is a good base. I’m filming a TV series in Manchester for ITV called Bancroft, and then in London I’m shooting a film called The Death and Life of John F. Donovan - it’s the first English-language film by Xavier Dolan.
RM: Oh wow! He’s quite the prodigy, isn’t he?
AK: Hell, yes - he’s electrifying to be around. The part I’m playing was originally written for Adele - he directed the music video for her song Hello - but for whatever reasons she was unable to do it. Well, that’s what he told me, anyway.
RM: And you snatched the part from her!
AK: It wasn’t quite like that. He’d seen me on The Night Of, got in touch, told me about the role and said he’d rewritten it with me in mind. I play a teacher to a 10-year-old boy, played by Jacob Tremblay, who wants to be an actor, but he’s struggling to have his aspirations understood by his classmates and his mother, who’s played by Natalie Portman. The teacher is observing his struggles and can see he’s brilliant.
RM: Is that a situation you can identify with?
AK: It’s a lovely story because it has an interesting genesis. And it’s accurate in its depiction of the way things happen creatively: you tend to go on a journey via different people.
RM: Do you enjoy the nomadic actor’s lifestyle?
AK: I do, actually, because I enjoy working, and travelling is part and parcel. I’m self-employed so you never know where the next job is going to take you; that sense of constant renewal can be exciting. And then, the opportunity to play these two sensational roles at this point in my career is a dream come true. If I wasn’t working, though, maybe I wouldn’t be so keen on living out of a suitcase.
RM: But the more glamorous aspects of the job must make up for it? Some people become actors solely for that.
AK: I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy those parts. I was at the BAFTAs this year - The Night Of had been nominated for the International prize - and it was wonderful to be there with everyone who worked on the show, seeing it being so well received by peers and the media. I want the work to be received far and wide. So I enjoy being at the centre of that kind of attention.
RM: I heard that when you decided to embark upon a full-time career as an actor, you sort of surveyed the acting market and found there was a gap for a young British-Asian female. Do you still apply that same level of assessment to your career?
AK: I thought I was smart back then. I actually find it hard to plan, as a rule. Sure, you can have these strategies and ideas: I was aware that I was someone different in the industry back then because of my ethnicity and my Sri Lankan heritage and I had a hunch that that difference could be my opportunity. Superficial differences can give you an edge, but now I’m bringing my own experiences as a human being to my work. It’s a much simpler strategy.
RM: It’s been more than a decade since you took the leap into acting.
AK: Yes! And, I’m a totally different person. I’ve been through such a huge transformation, I don’t actually recognise that person from back then. I was so miserable when I was working in finance. I hated the long, late hours. I hated living this unbalanced life, working non-stop. I constantly felt like I wasn’t making a difference in my work or to my team. I didn’t click with any of the people. And that’s something very important to me: I have to love the people I’m working with. Even now as an actor, a project is only going to work if I get along with the people. I’m a team player and I love to collaborate; acting has been tremendously fulfilling in that regard.
RM: It does beg the question of why you got into investment banking at all.
AK: I studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford, which is basically grooming for corporate governance. I loved studying PPE, by the way. It was intellectually stimulating and opened a lot of doors for me. And, at 21, unsure about what I wanted to do, I was enamoured by the prospect of the seemingly glamorous new world of banking and mergers and acquisitions. My father had worked in finance so the route into it seemed clear and I was encouraged by my family to follow it. To be honest, I think banking was just a delaying tactic before getting into acting.
RM: Why do you think you wanted to delay it?
AK: It wasn’t conscious. I’d wanted to act from a young age and I continued to act at university, but the idea of being a professional actor seemed farfetched and so far removed from my life then that I just had to bury it. I really thought I could completely channel my energy into finance and went into it with the earnest belief that I was going to make it work.
RM: When was the lightbulb moment?
AK: It was more the culmination of everything. And the fact that I wasn’t able to continue acting while I was working in banking made me even more miserable. Then, I became estranged from my father and that was the crunch. At 23, I’d just had enough, so I quit.
RM: So, did you already have a plan of action when you left*?
AK: I was stepping into the unknown. I had no connections to acting and zero understanding of the industry. I didn’t know what a casting director was; I had no idea that an actor might need such a thing as an agent. So I had to do a lot of research.
RM: Presumably your banking career buoyed you financially?
AK: I’d worked in banking for only a year, between 2006 and 2007, but on a very high salary for a graduate, so I had a little bit of a bridge before I’d become destitute. But I knew the clock was ticking, so there was a lot of pressure. I started calling up drama schools and TV studios, trawling industry directories and making random cold calls, saying, “Look, I don’t know anything about this. Can you help me?” That’s all I could do; I was starting from zero.
RM: What was your family’s reaction?
AK: Naturally, my mum was absolutely devastated. It would be a while before she would even watch any of my work. But my family were there for me and helped me emotionally through the transition.
RM: What about your old colleagues?
AK: I wasn’t close with my banking colleagues, so I felt I could just get the hell out of there. If I had been closer to them, maybe I would have felt like I was betraying them… I’m not in touch with any of them now.
RM: You did get out just in time, though!
AK: What I can say is that my timing was impeccable. I couldn’t have foreseen what was about to happen, but it’s been interesting to watch what’s happened in the past decade since the banking crash in 2008 and how we’re now all questioning the political, corporate and economic institutions we once took for granted.
RM: Did you have in your mind’s eye an idea of what kind of actor you wanted to be?
AK: I read about other actors’ approaches, but it’s so individual, isn’t it? I mean, I couldn’t just do what Elizabeth Taylor or Meryl Streep did. Working with Wes Anderson was an eye-opener in that sense; he had really thought about the kind of filmmaker he wanted to be. At times when we were making The Darjeeling Limited, I felt a bit overwhelmed. But gradually, I’ve realised that by applying focus you create those singular moments in your performances.
RM: Did you feel like you hit the ground running when you were cast in The Darjeeling Limited?
AK: Oh gosh, yes! I’d been pounding the pavement on the audition trail for months and had had a slew of humiliating and nerve-racking experiences. Auditions were just so unnatural to me: you meet a group of strangers and then after a few minutes you have to act out a totally different person in front of them. Even now, I find the process challenging. So, yes, I was very aware of what a tremendous opportunity working with Wes Anderson was for my career and how sought-after the role was, too. I think there were plenty of other actors in line for it.
RM: Can you tell when a part is going to be successful?
AK: You can never be sure how a part’s going to be received, but when we were shooting The Night Of I could feel the scenes were really powerful. The script was just brilliant. There’s a lot of me in the character Chandra Kapoor - even some of her less savoury traits - so I was able to use as much of myself as I could to portray her. I guess I did sense that it would be the breakout role for me, but I had to push those thoughts to the back of my mind and just focus on the job.
RM: How involved are you in the business side of being an actor?
AK: I want my work to travel far and wide and anything that helps it do that - press, events, interviews - is important to me. They’re all part of communicating the story to the audience. I have a manager, an agent and a publicist, but in the beginning I had to figure out the day-to-day administration of being an actor myself. Having been broke, I’m mindful of how to organise my affairs so that will never happen again. I have to stay solvent and live a reasonably comfortable life in order for me to be able to do my best work as an actor.
RM: Are you earning more or less now than when you were working in finance?
AK: I’m earning more now.
RM: Have you ever seen the film Baby Boom with Diane Keaton?
AK: No, I haven’t.
RM: Oh, you must! It’s the quintessential 1980s left-a-good-job-in-the-city movie. In a way, you’ve become a poster girl for that, too.
AK: I guess that’s just a reflection of the uncertainty and questioning that everyone faces at some point in their careers and in their lives more generally. I hope people can relate to my story, and that it empowers people to not feel hostage to their own situation.
RM: Is it everything you imagined it would be?
AK: Yes, and more. But it’s just acting. It’s a joyous thing, yes, but there are other ways to be happy. There’s not just one route.
*) Contranym 2: LEFT
A contranym is a word that has contradictory meanings, depending on its context. The word “left” can mean both remained (“after the party there were two pizzas left”) and departed (“they left the party early”).