“I don’t look like Tom Cruise’s kid… maybe Tom Cruise and Salma Hayak’s,” says Avan Jogia, the 27-year-old Canadian actor, singer and director of Indian and English descent. He is joking about Hollywood’s treatment of racially ambiguous actors, and how he is trying to fit in.
“So, I usually get cast in parts where they don’t have to show my family, because that makes it easier,” Jogia adds.
Having spent more than a decade in the industry — his first TV movie, titled ‘A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story’, was aired in 2006 — he has witnessed discrimination of mixed-race people from close quarters. Though he considers himself lucky that he often landed roles that weren’t essentially stereotypical, he laments the lack of choice.
His major break happened as high-schooler Beck, in Nickelodeon’s Emmy nominated series, ‘Victorious’ (2010-13). The show had four successful seasons, and Jogia became a teenage sensation. What’s more, his wavy shag hairstyle was so popular it almost got dubbed the “Avan man wave.”
Jogia went on to do a mix of consequential and insignificant parts. The ones that stand out are: Danny Desai in ‘Twisted’ (2013); the titular character of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen in ‘Tut’ (2015); Roman Mercer, the guy with hidden psychic powers, in ‘Ghost Wars’ (2017); the freshly married Dan Delaney in ‘Paper Year’ (2018); and ‘Now Apocalypse’s’ (2019) dreamer Ulysses Zane.
‘Tut’ gave him the opportunity to work with Sir Ben Kingsley, another mixed-race actor, who proved to be a mentor.
In his latest Hollywood feature, ‘Zombieland: Double Tap’, Jogia is seen sharing screen space with the likes of Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg and Emma Stone. It’s a brief part — of “a silly millennial, a faux guru” (in his own words) — but it packs quite a punch.
Jogia also dabbles in writing. In 2010, he scripted a short film, ‘Alex’, which he also directed and starred in. More recently, he published his maiden book, ‘Mixed Feelings’, a collection of poems, short stories and drawings that focus on living as a mixed-race person in a world increasingly fixated on racial identity. It is part-autobiographical.
“The purpose [of the book] is to start a conversation,” he tells Gulf News tabloid! in an exclusive interview over the phone from Los Angeles. He has just wrapped up a long promotional tour of the US and Canada that saw him running from city to city “performing poetry” (as he calls it) at one bookstore after another, while his elder brother Ketan, also a musician, would play accompanying notes on keyboard. (The siblings are even part of the band called St Ivory.)
Excerpts from the interview follow:
You’ve been on a whirlwind tour promoting your book, ‘Mixed Feelings’?
Oh, yeah. I’ve been floating! [Laughs]
Tell us what prompted/inspired you to publish it.
When I first started coming to the concept of ‘Mixed Feelings’, I didn’t realise that there are a lot of ‘mixed’ people in the world, who are mixed everything — Indian, Filipino, African — and they all have similar experiences. At first I started writing poems for myself, and then wanting to expand upon the idea, I started doing interviews with other people. Those interviews have gotten into the book.
Having said that, I’ve always been writing poetry. But this would be the first time I published anything. Yes, I definitely write poetry about mixed experience. So, this was a nice task for me to write all my poems based around one particular subject which I thought was really interesting and challenging but also deeply cathartic.
How has Hollywood treated you so far? Would you say you’ve been lucky in that most of the TV shows you featured in didn’t necessarily have you play a desi or mixed race?
Yeah, I think it’s interesting how I don’t really get hired so much as a desi person, or even as mixed race. I have been mostly treated as racially ambiguous by Hollywood. If I was to wait around for a part that was only for me — that is, mixed race — I’d wait forever; and there would be no part. So, I cast well for movies where there’s no family. As soon as there’s a family, they’d start asking questions who to cast as the parents. You know, I don’t look like Tom Cruise’s kid; maybe Tom Cruise and Salma Hayak’s. It’s limiting in ways, but I feel I am [more] blessed than others.
Mixed race actors often land inconsequential or stereotypical roles in American films and TV shows, but not many of them choose to be vocal about this.
I think that being vocal about the way the industry is is very important. The industry gets stronger, healthier and more inclusive, and it also represents more of society better when it is challenged. For instance, how are you treating women? How are you treating Indian people? How are you treating African Americans? The society needs to be asked these questions. And I feel I’ve been lucky enough to be in a position where I can do that, without it directly affecting my ability to employ myself.
Also, I grew up before all the changes in the industry came about. So, I didn’t speak up or question a lot. But now that the industry has changed so much, I feel empowered to ask questions about how we represent Indian people, or people of colour in general, on cinema and in television. There are many other actors who are doing this as well. Like, Riz Ahmed. So, for me, it’s a new revolution trying to make sure that people tell our stories and make sure that people see how we should be represented, or we tell them how we should be represented rather than them telling us.
You’ve worked mostly in American productions. Have you ever been approached by Indo-Canadian filmmakers like Mira Nair? Or, maybe, someone from Bollywood?
I would love to be approached by Indo-Canadian filmmakers. But I think I would love there to be a community around this — people who want to make films with each other a bit more. I know it’s hard for people to first of all connect with those they need to speak with.
Bollywood is an incredible industry. It is something I have always wanted to explore. As a North American, it’s sort of hard [for me] to get in contact with the people [in India]. My agents don’t really know anything about that industry, so it’s breaking in and deciding how to get involved, with who to speak to, which is the most confusing part. I mean, you think that as soon as you are in the industry, everyone is talking to each other and knows each other, but it’s actually not like that. I’d like to be able to speak to people in the industry in India, and be able to get films that I want made made.
You know, I have written scripts, and would love to be able to produce them for the Indian market; films that are for the diaspora and will also work with the native country.
Was it hard getting this far?
It was trial by fire! I took acting classes in Canada. They led me to my first agent who had come to one of the shows. That’s how I bagged a few TV commercials and stuff. And my career started growing in Canada.
But I knew that if I wanted to really do this, I needed to go to America. And so, at 17 years of age, I dropped out of high school and moved to LA. My parents gave me six months. They said that in six months if I get a job as an actor, then good for me, I’m an actor; If I don’t, I’d need to come back and finish my school. I didn’t want that to happen. So, I worked really hard. I got a part in ‘Victorious’, and that’s what kept me down here. And that’s how it all began.
‘Victorious’ remains your most successful acting assignment. Do you agree?
I’d say it’s the most culturally relevant. It’s global. Having been aired in 164 countries, its reach is huge. I have fans in places I’ve never been to. And to think that ‘Victorious’ was almost a decade ago. I was so young at that time. To be 10 years older and looking at footage of me as a young person is a completely different experience. There are so many recordings, photos and videos of me at every age, my entire life. I don’t think many humans get to experience this.
How was it like sharing screen space with the legendary Sir Ben Kingsley in ‘Tut’?
Another mixed race actor, and an idol of mine! There’s literally nobody in the industry other than him who is mixed in the same way that I was. I had no other people to model my career after. He’s a huge influence on me, and a great inspiration as an actor because of his dedication to his craft and skill. And, to be able to work with him! I see it as playing tennis with the top player, like Federer; your game gets so much better!
Then there were times when we weren’t acting, when I was able to speak to him heart-to-heart, and get advice about acting and craft.
In all your work, ‘Now Apocalypse’ is one crazy show. Comment.
Yes, it’s really out-there! Gregg Araki [the director] has made some really amazing films in the 90s that are sort of alt-culture. I was a huge fan, and had even auditioned for one of his movies that never happened. But he had liked my audition, and told me that we should definitely work together sometime. Later, when he was writing ‘Now Apocalypse’, I was on board.
Tell us a bit about your early days, your family and childhood.
Me and my brother were raised in government housing in Canada to a lovely and loving family. My parents did everything to enable us to follow whatever path we wanted to. There was freedom to express and be yourself. My mother was a hairdresser, and my father, a goldsmith. They never stopped us from pursuing arts.
Can you speak Hindi/Urdu?
No, but I am a Gujarati, so I understand what my Ba [grandmother] is speaking about [in Gujarati], like, food and ‘Don’t climb over the couch’ sort of things. And I can speak a little bit, back and forth, but no Hindi, which is something I would try to do because that’s something I want to get better at, especially if I want to engage more with the Indian market or filmmakers.
Many of your Instagram photos have you sporting a tilak on your forehead. Do you apply it as a routine?
No, I use it when there’s a festival or celebration.
Are you dating/married?
No, not married. I am probably in love!