Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Around the World in 80 Days’ Leading Lady Aneesh Sheth’s Incredible Journey

Aneesh Sheth in Village Theatre's Around the World in 80 Days (Mark Kitaoka)
As posted in STACKEDD Magazine

When I received an email pitch from Aneesh Sheth, she said to me, “I am currently making my debut at Village Theatre in their production Around the World in 80 Days.” Having seen the production, I was aware of her work. The email continued, “Playing the Indian princess has always been a dream of mine, and for a very long time only a pipe dream. What makes my story of being cast as Aouda different from many other actors is that I am an out transgender actress making my way in the industry.” That sentence caught me by surprise. I had no idea that I was seeing a transgendered actress when I saw the show.

She continued, “Getting to play a non-transgender character, not to mention the leading lady as well, is not only a personal success but an important step for transgender individuals who may share the same dream and a huge step in the types of roles we are offered. There has been much controversy over the ‘appropriateness’ of whether transgender actors should play only transgender roles.”

Aneesh’s promotional website says that she was born in India, coming to the U.S. very young and studying piano and singing for years. Attending Tisch (NYU’s art school), she is clearly deeply trained. And she lived that portion as a man.  The website also details her transition to a woman and a new career as a social worker. It hints at how she felt she had to give up her career, as well as her former sexual identity, when she transitioned. Yet, she’s acting again, and busier than ever.

Well before she began her transition, she scored a role as a transgendered Indian in the national tour of the musical, Bombay Dreams, as the character Sweetie. In an interview with STACKEDD, she says that in India, there is a segment of people known as, “hijra and in India they are considered a third gender. If I meet someone who has seen me in Bombay Dreams, I can see them doing the whole journey in their heads as they put two and two together.”

Aneesh says that she visited India several times, growing up, but didn’t personally know anyone who is hijra. “They are everywhere in India. You see them… they’re considered part of a lower socio-economic class, so you’d see them begging, or you’d see them come and bless babies and you’d pay them and it was considered auspicious. But the attitude has changed a lot. There are a lot more trans people in India who are (no longer) part of the lower socio-economic class. There’s now a trans (tv) anchorwoman.

“Yet there’s still a very traditional and conservative attitude about it. Yes, these people exist and should have the same rights, but God forbid we should know anyone or they should be part of our family. Not so very different from the western world, if you think about it.”

Aneesh says that she didn’t have any hesitations playing that kind of role, and the feedback was that she was very natural in it.

I asked if there was a specific moment she remembers that triggered her decision to finally transition. She remembers clearly, “In 2007, I was out of work as an actor and was looking for something to do. The Trevor Project was opening a call center in New York City and looking for volunteer counselors. During my first week of training, there was a young woman who came to speak and it was the first trans woman I met who was happy living her life and working in a professional job and being seen as a woman and not as a stigma. It was the first time I felt this (transitioning) is what I could do.

“In February 2008 I started transitioning and in March 2008 I was offered a full time position at the Trevor Project. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a social worker. “

She didn’t think she could transition and also stay an actor! “If I transition I can’t do my career, if I continue my career, I can’t transition. People would ask me if I wanted to transition and I would say no because I want to continue the career that I have. Until I realized that transitioning would make me a lot happier, regardless of what business I was in.

“I never felt like anyone would hire me as a woman. As a male actor of color, I struggled to find work. The idea of being a trans female of color put me in an even smaller niche to have a sustainable career.”

Surprise, surprise! That prediction turned out not to be true at all. Aneesh says, “I have worked far more as a woman than I did as a man. (While working as a social worker,) I got an email from a castmate from Bombay Dreams who was on Outsourced (a one-season tv show based on a movie, on NBC) about a man who goes to India to open a call center. I booked a gig. I had to run around and set up a video scene and send it off to them. During the process I got an LA agent. I played a transgender character in India (in Outsourced).

“A friend suggested it was time for me to be the new me and ride this wave in television. ‘Hey, you don’t have to give up what you love because you’ve become transgender.’ My agent was good about sending me out for stuff for all transgender roles, like Orange Is The New Black and Transgender. I’m blessed to be able to be seen as these transgender actors.”

Not that she’d want to only be seen in transgendered roles, right? Aneesh says that when she moved to Seattle – she moved here for her husband’s job – people met her as a woman. Full Stop. “I didn’t have the opportunity to have that (transgender) conversation with anyone. (I thought,) ‘They’re seeing me as a women, I’m going to work as a woman.’ I realized that it didn’t matter if people knew or not, they were hiring me as a woman. I have trepidation because I don’t have a goal of being viewed only that way, but it’s a very important step for trans people in this business.”

What’s her ultimate goal? “To walk into the room, be seen as a woman and get women’s roles,” Aneesh says, promptly.

So, does that mean Aneesh is tired of talk about the transgender issue? “I struggle with getting tired of talking about it because I would just like to have a career like any other actor can have a career and not have to capitalize on something that makes me so unique. But at the same time, I think we’re at a period in time where being trans and being in the entertainment industry is so relevant and I definitely feel like I want to lending my voice to that conversation.”

Does she feel like she has to justify herself and her choices? “Yes. And no. I think the experience of being new in town and having so few people know who I am, I have gotten feedback on people who don’t know I’m trans and congratulate me on my work, and as an actor that’s a lot of the affirmation that we seek that we’re doing good work. The other side of it is that (when) people do know I’m trans, I almost have to go in and prove that I’m not just a trans actress, I’m an actress who happens to be trans. That distinction for me is really big.

“It’s not something I’m ashamed of or want to hide. I’m actually proud of my journey as an actor and person. I like to tell people as well, so it’s a difficult balance to know when to have that conversation, when it’s appropriate. It’s less of a problem here in Seattle because it’s so liberal, but you also have to be careful about who you tell.

“There are people who have strong beliefs. Especially in my transition you experience people who don’t believe in what you’re doing with your life and don’t want to have a part of it.”

Still, Aneesh is successfully making a real living as an actor. She says, “I was told when I moved here that I would work a lot because Seattle is a white town. And I have experienced that. I am one of few women of color in an audition unless the project is seeking ‘ethnic’ actors. Because of that, I am blessed that I have worked a lot. I shot a feature (film), five commercials, (performed in) this play at VillageTheatre. I will be teaching acting, soon, as well.”

In March 2013, Advocate Magazine honored Aneesh Sheth on their 40 Under 40 List. Clearly, she’s got a lot going for her and a lot of future ahead.

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