Karan Soni on Getting His Room 104 Role With 24 Hours’ Notice and Playing a Part That Was Not Written As Indian

By
Photo: Getty Images

Mother-son love dominates households the world over, but especially in India. (Ask anyone married to a desi man if she feels like the other woman.) One of the standout episodes of Room 104, the new Duplass-helmed HBO series, makes great use of this phenomenon. Titled “The Internet,” it’s set in 1997. Our only visible character, a harried, wannabe novelist, is locked for nearly the full half-hour in a phone call with his mom. Anish needs his manuscript sent to him, in a bad way. He’s got a life-changing meeting with an agent coming up, a book to finish, and of course, he forgot his laptop. Actor Karan Soni paces the dinky motel room for which the series is named in a sweat, walking his oblivious mom through the mechanics of email with a growing frustration in his voice that betrays just how deep their relationship is.

Featuring only Soni and Poorna Jagannathan as his mother, the scene manages to do a lot with a little. From nearly her first line, Jagannathan establishes her character as one we haven’t seen rendered so well before: the loving but passive-aggressive, alternately icy, and helicoptering desi mom. Jagannathan’s character seems almost at times to be trolling Anish, so hypnotically layered is her cadence. To pull it off, Jagannathan told Vulture by email, she channeled her own, super-sweet mom, as well as her split attitude toward her 11-year-old son. When he talks, “There’s a part of you that is in wonder and amazement and so much love, and then there’s a part that’s totally bored and needs to just reach for the wine.”

Both actors were born in India — Soni in New Delhi to a middle-class family, while Jagannathan is the daughter of a diplomat. Her accent gives away the upper-crust, Brit-lite India that she belongs to, though her character’s origins are notably humble. But that inconsistency doesn’t detract from her possession of the role. The Duplasses are known for encouraging improvisation, and she sprinkles her rejoinders with “beta” and “raja” — the latter, meaning prince, less known than the former, which means son. The episode — not written with Indians in mind — wasn’t meant to be a model of representational politics at work. Soni took the part a day before shooting, after the original actor dropped out because of a conflict; Jagannathan came in the day of to fit his casting. Still, their backgrounds infuse the episode with life, from the spirit of the dialogue, to the details of its final twist. Vulture spoke with Soni about the odds of this opportunity, his phone calls with his own mom, and why — in terms that reveal a comic anxiety level on par with Anish — he was sure he’d fail at the job.

How are you doing?
Great. Can I ask, are you Indian?

Ha, yes.
I wasn’t sure if the name was just like a New Age thing, or …

Well, my last name is Rao. So that helps. What about you? Were you born in India?
New Delhi, and I lived there for 18 years. I came out here when I was 18 to go to college, to L.A. My family was planning on moving out, but their green cards took a little longer. They came out when I was a sophomore.

I thought I detected a faint accent in the episode that sounded legit rather than a Hollywood directive.
It was very thick when I came here. I worked with someone at my school, at USC. My teacher was like, Once you pass age nine or ten, it’s almost impossible to completely lose an accent. I did lose it quite a bit, but Indians can always tell.

No one else?
I don’t think so. I think a lot of white people can’t tell, or at least they’ll act very surprised.

That’s funny, because the opposite can be true. It’s happened to me and to people I know, that white people think we have an accent even though we don’t. Like, they think they should be hearing one, and so they do.
Really? That’s so strange. I can always tell when Indian people are born in America. They have the most American accent. I can hear, even the way they say their name. I’m like, “You don’t even try.”

How did you get cast for this role?
It was an unusual casting situation because I got the job the day before we had to start filming, like less than 24 hours before. It was given to someone else, a different actor, and they had a scheduling conflict. So it was like 2:00 p.m. on a Wednesday, and Mark (whom I’d worked with before — like five or six years ago — we’d always stayed friends; he’d never asked me to work on any of his projects) texted me, “Do you want to be on my HBO show Thursday or Friday?” I right away was like, “Yeah.” He was like, “Let me send you the script.” To myself, I was like, I’m gonna do it [before getting the script]. [Once I saw it], I was like, This is a very unique and difficult job. It was like a one-person show, and we shot that in two days, which is very fast. Most shows take five days. We did like 15 pages a day. I was like, This is crazy. Mark said this was not written for an Indian person specifically. It was written more generically. And so, Mark — what he likes to do is for you to be free and improvise, not a lot, but there’s a bunch of stuff where there’s little moments where I can make it seem more believable that we’re actually related. When we have banter.

All the “betas.” I love that she calls you “raja,” which is what my mom called my brother.
That was improvised, from Poorna. She was really playing the Indian mom character. That was not written into the script that much. He said, Draw on your own experience and make it your own. Because he didn’t have time to rewrite it for me.

So, the actor who dropped out was not Indian.
No, he wasn’t.

Poorna must have come in late then, too.
She was brought in that morning, or a few hours before. There was a lot of drama going into it. At the time, I was on a show on Starz, and I was a series regular. Under that contract, I wasn’t allowed to do HBO. I didn’t get cleared until 7:00 p.m. that night. So, they didn’t find someone to play my mom. I met Poorna for five seconds and we started shooting. I had no relationship with her. I think it was good. I had to imagine that it was my mom, and my mom luckily is very bad at technology, so that was a very easy kind of thing, a testament to the quality of the writing. And then the director did a lot of stuff on the other end — I basically had an earpiece and I could hear Poorna’s performance live. She was in a different room. He gave her a lot of stuff there — at one point when she was chopping vegetables, I heard the sound of that. That’s something my mom does all the time. She’ll ask for a phone call so I’ll carve out the time, and she’ll start cooking or something, and I can hear her and she’s not paying attention. I find it really frustrating. Apparently Doug hid the actual laptop in the room, and [Poorna] actually couldn’t find it. So I’m on the phone during this pause. There was stuff like that. I was unaware, and Poorna obviously couldn’t see what I was doing at all.

Poorna was interacting with you in real-time?
She had a mic and she was being recorded live. I could hear it at the same time, in my earpiece. That way, if we wanted to improvise or have a movement, we could do that. It would be usable on the show.

Was that your first time acting with someone who wasn’t there?
I’d done a show where we had an earpiece because one of the cast members played someone inside a computer. We had green-screen TVs. We were on a spaceship. We couldn’t see her, but we could hear her performance live, and we had to say the lines on time. It was very rehearsed.

This was just, I barely knew any of the words. I had to grasp at it, and the stakes were much higher. It did feel like the most unique experience. I couldn’t compare it to anything else.

Anish is anxious throughout, but it sounds like you were actually anxious, too?
Completely anxious. I pulled an all-nighter that night. And then I drove to Glendale, about 15 minutes from where I live, where the studio was. I met the director, and he was a first-time director. As an actor, there’s plenty of insecurity. You have 22 minutes on-camera. Normally if you’re not getting something, they can cut to another person’s face. Not having that option at all was a big insecurity. And not having a grasp on the material, going through all the stuff the character goes through, a lot of genres — comedy, thriller, a very emotional part. And then, getting there and learning that I was with a first-time director was another thing that, Oh god, I can’t even feel that I can trust what he’s doing.

A lot of that stuff, I think, was good, because the character is going through so much frustration. When I’d see it, I could definitely tell that I didn’t know the lines, specific moments where it really looks like I’m searching for the word. It was almost believable. I remember thinking, God, I can’t remember this one thing. In a way, it worked out. The whole process was very stressful. I didn’t sleep, I memorized the first 15 pages and felt pretty good about it. Then I drove straight. I’d basically been up for 40 hours. They were like, “You’re doing great.” I was like, “Guys, I can’t stress enough that I haven’t slept and I haven’t looked at the second half of the episode.” They were like, “We’ll figure it out.” Very supportive. The next day was more start and stop. I felt good when it was all over.

Forty hours? That’s crazy.
I like sleeping nine hours a night, so for me it was too long.

But worth it, I imagine. It’s interesting to hear the part wasn’t written for an Indian. It’s rare things go that way — universal parts to Indian actors, rather than Indian parts to white actors.
I feel like I’ve been very fortunate. When I went to theater school, most of the people I graduated with aren’t working. I’ve consistently worked and made a good living. I do feel a lot of times you’re not given the opportunity to fully show your potential. I just haven’t had a chance to show it. For me, this was a chance to really — you can’t hide. You’re on-camera the whole time. You have to juggle all the genres, have to be real with it and show a raw side of yourself, or it’s not going to work. I’ve never been given that opportunity. I just feel very lucky that early on in my career I got to do something like this. That’s a testament to Mark and Jay. That’s kind of their brand, as far as I see it. They can see the potential in other people that people don’t realize in themselves. With Mark, I was freaking out about not having enough time, but he was the most calming. He was so confident. In a weird way, if someone is so confident in you, it makes you be like, Oh, I guess they’ve seen something in me I haven’t seen. They’ve hired so many writers and directors who haven’t done anything, which never happens. When you hand it to someone like that, it’s very sink or swim. But they know who’s going to sink or swim.

They’re down for high-stakes experiments?
Yeah, exactly. Mark pitched HBO the show with this story. It’s semi-true to what happened to him in real life. They write in such a way that it’s such a universal story. They could have adapted it with any pair of actors and it would have worked. A lot of people who’ve seen it are like, I have had that same conversation.

Do you think Mark saw in you a shared quality with the character?
When he told me he thought I could do it, I very honestly was like, He is making a mistake. I was like, What has he seen that makes him think I could do it? On the page it didn’t read so much that the character was getting annoyed. I was like, I don’t think Mark has seen me talk like that. What he said to me was, “I just want this to be a very sweet episode. I need you to bring this sweetness to it at the end where you really feel for this guy, where you don’t want him to fail.” This poor kid, he can’t catch a break. When I got on this, I was really like, I’m just going to draw on my experience, and that was that I get really mad at my mom when I talk to her about stuff like this. I don’t think he’s ever seen me snappy or anything. When I’ve been around him, I’m always at my best behavior. When I watch the episode, I feel ugly. That is unfortunately how I talk to my mom if we’re alone and she’s saying something annoying — I will be really mean.

I actually thought you were surprisingly nice to your mom, given how difficult she was being.
Really? I was like, This guy isn’t even giving her a chance.

What else is going on for you?
I’m also shooting Deadpool 2 and a few films. One is going to Toronto [Film Festival], called Unicorn Store, with Brie Larson and Joan Cusack. It’s Brie Larson’s directorial debut. And a movie called Zombie Office Uprising that’s coming out next year. Mostly movie work, not so much TV.

What about the Starz show?
Actually, that night, that show got canceled. My agent called and he said, “I have good news and bad news.” I was like, “What’s the bad news?” That’s my style. And he was like, “It looks like your show’s gonna get canceled. Because they released you to do HBO. That’s the only way they would have done it.” So I was like, “What’s the good news?” He was like, “You’re doing this show!” I was like, “I haven’t learned the lines yet!”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Karan Soni on Getting Room 104 Role With 24 Hours’ Notice