Scammer TV season marches along with Hulu’s The Dropout, the best recent series to analyze the very American story of a person lying their way to fame and fortune and scamming investors and allies before a highly publicized, rabidly judged downfall. The Dropout stars Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of the blood-testing company Theranos, and Naveen Andrews as Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, the business partner and secret boyfriend with whom she built the company. Theranos grew to be worth billions of dollars despite never providing consistent results from its Edison machine, and The Dropout paints Holmes and Balwani as an increasingly toxic pair whose relationship is fascinating in its oddness and codependence.
“At the outset, I think their intentions were good. The idea, her idea itself, was a good idea,” says Andrews of Holmes, who in January was found guilty on four of 11 counts of fraud. If Theranos had ever figured out how to make the Edison work, “the story would have had a very different ending,” he adds.
Andrews spoke with Vulture about whether Balwani, whose trial begins on March 9, is a likable figure, the real-life text messages between Balwani and Holmes that informed the series’ scripts, and the green juice and truffle oil that signify the series’ depictions of wellness and wealth.
Was this a role that you pursued, or did the project come to you?
Well, I couldn’t fail — like everybody else — to be aware that Elizabeth Holmes was in the news when the story broke. But I wasn’t particularly interested because I’m an old person, and I’m not into these young people with their start-ups and money and what have you. So I kind of forgot about it. And then the script came and then I thought, Oh, Christ. This story has Shakespearean dimensions. I thought of Macbeth, to be honest, with Sunny as Lady Macbeth.
Sunny is the force pushing her forward. They’re both obviously part of it, but there are moments when Sunny asks, “Well, don’t you want to do this?” And that keeps the forward momentum going.
Yes, and also I thought about the role in terms of support, in terms of whoever was initiating the push. It could be interchangeable at times. That also makes for an interesting dynamic — I mean, the whole relationship. Both Amanda and I had to make a decision very early on about the depth and the intensity of their relationship. Early on when you’re shooting, you’re taking a gamble to some extent. You’re not 100 percent sure, yeah? But then these events were playing out involving the real people in real time — the trial was going on as we were shooting scenes, and it actually worked to our advantage in a very strange way because these texts were released between the pair that series creator Liz Meriwether then incorporated into the script, which gave us a collective sigh of relief. We both felt, Ah. Maybe we were in the right ballpark.
Was it taking a gamble in terms of how intensely you were playing the romantic dynamic, and then the texts came out in which Sunny says to Elizabeth, “My heart is missing its heartbeat,” and she described him as “the breeze in the desert for me”? And then those texts supported that reading?
[Laughs.] Well, absolutely. Because who among us hasn’t sent texts like that? “I love you, tiger!” I felt that he was besotted with her, desperately in love. And then the romantic aspect of the story that was interesting to play was, How far will you go for the person that you love? What are you prepared to do for the person that you love? And it seems, to me, that he took it all the way, didn’t he?
Are there interviews with Sunny that you were pulling from in trying to mimic his mannerisms, or were you going your own way in crafting the character?
Both Amanda and I wanted to physically resemble our characters, which we felt was important. For me, gaining 25 pounds and using prosthetics because I am a slip of a thing. And then what’s interesting about that is what that does to you as an actor — how you move. There was a certain kind of rigidity or tension to him, which I felt was apparent, even when you see him supposedly relaxing. There’s always tension there. That gives you tremendous freedom. It’s quite liberating as an actor.
When Sunny is introduced in the series, he has this very layered manner from the beginning. He’s a little bit offended by Elizabeth perceiving him as old; he’s a little bit amused by her narrowness. There’s this duality there. What kind of tone were you trying to establish for Sunny early on, and how did you calibrate his transformation over the season?
I try to find a natural empathy, and from the outset, both of us realized that we had to approach these characters without any kind of judgment. It’s imperative that we did not hold judgment over them and come to the characters with our own preconceived notions of individual morality — or you couldn’t be free to create a human being.
What we’re trying to do is render human beings onscreen, so I felt the fact that he was born in the Sind province of what is now Pakistan, as a Hindu, brought up questions of displacement, questioning one’s own identity, and a certain kind of ruthlessness which I can personally empathize with. He was born in 1965. I was born in 1969, but I was born in Europe — I was born in London, yeah? So the way I think, intellectually, is European, whereas I know from my family in India, you have to make a shift because it’s very different. I always felt that there was this huge void of insecurity in Sunny, and what made him interesting was I don’t think he was aware of it. And that is what makes it interesting to play. If you’re not even aware that there’s this huge insecurity motivating a lot of what you do and feel, then the results should be interesting to watch, I think.
Sunny uses food in his relationship with Elizabeth in an almost controlling way: He encourages her to try scorpion; he orders dinner for her on their first date; he creates her obsession with green juice. Why do you think food was so essential to their somewhat codependent dynamic?
I felt throughout the script, with all the characters, food is a constantly recurring motif. There’s a scene [in episode “Iron Sisters”] where Sunny is eating a cookie with Elizabeth’s face emblazoned on it. It’s not just with those two characters, but I’m glad you picked up on that, though. If the relationship is imbalanced, then it opens the door to all sorts of mini toxic behaviors that each of the partners can practice on each other to undermine one or the other.
What was in the green juice that was used on set?
Oh God, these vegetables that I was grinding up in a mixer — god-awful. Carrots, celery. I don’t think there was any beetroot; that might have ameliorated [the taste]. The thing itself seems toxic.
I want to talk about the argument scene in the episode “Green Juice.” It’s probably the most direct time Sunny is manipulating Elizabeth and that she’s standing up to him. The scene ends with both of them crying in different rooms. Can you talk about what went into shooting that scene and how you harnessed the emotion needed for that?
I felt that throughout the piece, there was a kind of violence underneath Sunny that occasionally erupted. It happens when they’re first together, inadvertently; it’s not directed at her, but it’s something that he is able to show her, and she’s able to see it and not, for want of a better term, be put off or move away or retreat in that scene they have together in Beijing, with the burning of the money from the wallet. And in the scene that you’re referring to, I think it’s very significant that at the end of it, she says to him, “Are you coming to bed?” Within a relationship, there’s so much complexity. I know from life, there are things that are incomprehensible, really. When I look back into the past, at some of the relationships that I’ve had, can they really be described as healthy for either of us? Behind closed doors, things happen.
I did have a question about that physical moment you mention in the Beijing scene — how Sunny slams his fist when talking about his father’s death. He wiggles his fingers when talking about selling his company for $40 million and flicks away the Prius salesman. Did you add those flourishes?
They were things that I naturally added and went on with instinct. There’s an episode that you haven’t seen yet that has what you’ve referred to featured quite significantly. I feel people from the subcontinent use their hands as a mode of expression that’s quite unique, if I may say so.
When the character is walking in Beijing, with his hands clasped behind his back, that was very much my father. I thought, Yes, I recognize this.
Oh, good. I’m so glad you sensed that. And mine, too.
Music and dancing are also prevalent in the series. When they’re in China, Sunny asks Elizabeth to dance, and she says no. Later on, in the Theranos offices, Elizabeth is trying to seduce him through this hip-hop-inspired dance number. It’s almost like Sunny wants to be playful in those moments but doesn’t know how.
Yes, yes. Are they dancing to Nick Jonas’s “Jealous”?
There’s a scene in which you guys dance together to “Jealous” in the episode “Iron Sisters” and a scene in the office in which she is dancing toward you in “Flower of Life.”
Yes, Lil Wayne’s “How to Love.” But that’s also informed by what’s just happened — and what’s about to happen. Obviously, all hell is about to descend on them. I don’t know if it’s a case of him not being able to join in but not wanting to, as opposed to the scene where they’re actually both dancing. It was kind of oddly sensual, that scene with the Nick Jonas music. [Laughs.] And so wrong as well. Completely wrong.
Are you naturally a dancer? Do you have any hype songs, like how Elizabeth listens to Missy Elliott or Alan Ruck’s character listens to Katy Perry?
As I said, I’m an old person.
My dancing days are long gone.
When you did have dancing days, what did you dance to?
Oh my God, I don’t know if you’ve seen this film — Bride & Prejudice. I did a Bollywood number, and I think they had to train me for nine weeks for me to even get that going. Things that came naturally to my fellow cast members took me a long time to even perform adequately, I’m sorry to say.
When you were reviewing scripts, where did you see opportunities to make Sunny charming and likable?
[Surprised] Is he?
I think that he is, in the beginning. If you take a step back and think, Well, he loves her, and he’s trying to help her fulfill this dream, I don’t necessarily know if that’s likable, but it is understandable.
Yes, I find it comprehensible. My overriding desire was to make his actions comprehensible because outside of this story, there’s a certain kind of — just me as an individual, not as an actor, just somebody following the case — feeling that is completely incredulous. How could this possibly happen? I guess when you’re building a character, if you’re assessing how to do anything at all, it’s to make it understandable to some degree. Not all of it is going to be comprehensible. Some things will just evolve and happen on their own. I was very lucky to have the privilege of working with Amanda, who also works in a very instinctive sort of way. It doesn’t always happen. But if it’s working, certain things can occur by themselves because of the energy you bring to it.
The end of episode two feels like this real turning point, in which Elizabeth says that she loves Sunny, and his response is, “I know.” It felt almost commanding to me. I’m wondering where that line delivery came from.
Oh God, I didn’t see it that way at all.
I felt that you’re hopefully — hopefully, I stress — in the moment of how your character would think and feel at any given time. So I don’t know if I had a consciousness of what I was doing. Usually the best things to do with acting — this is just my feeling; don’t listen to me — happen superfluously, where you’re not even aware of what you’re doing. Something else hopefully is coming through you. Without sounding all pretentious, that’s how I feel the work should come. It should come through you, yeah?
So you didn’t see it as “commanding,” that line delivery. What did you see it as?
When I saw the first episode again with Amanda, what became apparent was, yes, she’s 19 and he’s 17 years older, but he sees her as a peer. She’s surrounded by other teenagers, but she’s well beyond them and above them. She’s looking for a partner that sees her as she sees herself, which he does. And that sense of safety and security, when you find that person, I think he’s aware of [that] without it ever having to be discussed. Do you see what I’m saying?
I do, and I think that leads into my question. At the end of the third episode, Elizabeth becomes who she is — she’s standing in front of the mirror with the all-black outfit, the red lipstick. You come up behind her and hand her the green juice, and you both look very determined, staring into the mirror together. Were there any other versions of that expression?
Really early on, I think we were doing camera tests and we hadn’t started shooting. I was doing the camera test, and Amanda came up behind me without me knowing. I could just feel her. She came up behind me dressed as Elizabeth, with the black outfit, the lipstick, the eyes, and the hair. The effect was unsettling, deeply unsettling, but oddly thrilling at the same time. I was privileged to witness and feel that. So we’d experienced that in real life because Elizabeth Holmes, it seemed to us, consciously set out to create this iconography, and he was utterly supportive of it. He didn’t think it was strange or weird, no.
In “Green Juice,” Sunny has this outburst at a restaurant about being served truffle oil on his food although he didn’t want it, but the scene is really about his other frustrations. What are your personal thoughts on truffle oil?
I love truffle oil! I probably overuse it, so it’s quite sad in the context of that scene. It’s almost like a psychosomatic response, isn’t it?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
More From This Series
- Elizabeth Holmes’s Old Tweets Are Miraculously Still Up
- The Dropout’s Camryn Mi-young Kim on Capturing Whistleblower Erika Cheung
- How The Dropout’s Actors Compare to Their Real-Life Counterparts