Monday 24 March 2014

Interview with Aneesh Sheth

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Aneesh Sheth, a young Indian-American actress and transgender activist, an Advocate Magazine's 40 Under 40 list honoree, known for her roles in "Outsourced" (2011), "My Inner Turmoil" (2011), and "Arbore" (2012). Hello Aneesh!
Aneesh: Hi Monika! Thank you so much for this honor!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Aneesh: Sure! I am an actress and activist originally from New York City. In 2010, I made my way to the West Coast, first in San Francisco and then to Seattle in November of 2013, where I currently reside.
Monika: When did you decide to pursue an acting career?
Aneesh: I was lucky enough to have parents that were very supportive of the arts, and to live in New York where there is an abundance of it. Ever since I was very little, my parents took me to see lots of theatre and opera and somehow I got bit by the bug.
I think I was cast in my first show at age 7, and just continued my journey in theatre and film from there. When I was ready to leave for college, I made the choice to pursue a career in acting and I was very lucky to have supportive parents who encouraged me to pursue my dream.

Monika: Which actresses or movies are your inspirations?
Aneesh: Sandra Oh is a big inspiration for me. She’s extremely talented and keeps her head above her “celebrity status”. She focuses on the work and stays out of the limelight. I’ve always admired her for that.
I’ve recently read Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness, and Janet is an incredible writer. It is so inspirational to read stories of others who have lived experiences similar to mine and to see how far they’ve come and what they’ve achieved.
Monika: Your debuted as an actress in 2011 playing the role of Kami Sutra on NBC's Thursday night sitcom "Outsourced" …
Aneesh: Kami Sutra on NBC’s Outsourced was my network television debut. Until then I had done a few documentaries for LogoTV and PBS, and mostly theatre. I was very glad to hear that the producers were eager to hire someone trans to play a transgender character, something that has become a very heated topic of discussion lately surrounding Jared Leto’s portrayal of Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club.
Monika: You also played the role of Priya in My Inner Turmoil (2011) and Cypress in Arbore (2012)…
Aneesh: I got the opportunity to play Priya in My Inner Turmoil after hearing about the audition through a friend. She knew the screenwriter and introduced us. The short film shows the struggle of a young woman who identifies as trans but feels forced to live as a man in her public life for fear of rejection from family, friends and society.
It is a story I think a lot of us can relate to. What was so special about this story was that Priya, the main character, was not only dealing with the duality of genders but with the duality of culture as she had recently moved to the United States from India.

Copyright 2011 Kurt Jones.

Arbore was a short film I got to work on with a talented group of young adults studying to be filmmakers at Ex’pressions Digitial College in Berkeley, CA. It was my first horror film and was a lot of fun to work on.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Aneesh: Currently, I am in rehearsals for a one-act play entitled “Sexual Healing”, by Seattle-based playwright, Sarah Harris, which tells the story of a transgender woman and her quest to find true love.
This is the first play of its kind being produced in Seattle. I hope it begins to open doors and windows for transgender characters in theatre. Then in June, I will be participating in a staged reading of a new play, “At the Very Bottom of the Ocean” by Benjamin Benne where I will actually be playing a cisgender woman.
And in April I will be a co-host alongside YouTube's Grishno on a monthly web-show called "The TransView". Our first live show is Saturday April 5, 12pm Pacific, 3pm Eastern. Be sure to tune in on Grishno."
Monika: Apart from acting, you are involved in many projects advocating the transgender cause, including The Trevor Project and The Stigma Project. Could you elaborate more on this aspect of your activism?
Aneesh: I like to be involved in my community and have always involved myself somehow. I also volunteer as I have done in the past with the Trevor Project. I began my time there as a volunteer call center counselor for LGBTQ youth.
I also volunteered at Beth Israel Medical Center on a Neurology Surgical Step-down Unit. Most recently, I was on the board of directors for the Stigma Project, an organization that uses social media to help curb the stigmas of HIV.
Monika: What is your general view on transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers or books so far?
Aneesh: I think it is great that filmmakers, writers and directors are starting to bring the lives of trans people to the screen. However, as important as that momentum is, it isn’t perfect. Some argue that actors should be able to portray a range of characters, including trans characters, while others argue trans characters should be solely played by trans actors. While I agree that it is an actor’s job to be able to portray different types of people, it is equally important for trans actors to get the opportunities to be cast.
We have a long way to go in terms of the depiction of trans people on the screen and I think more fleshed out, fully realized transgender characters would be better served by casting trans actors. I do hope we get to a point in time where any actor can portray a trans person, in an honest, fully realized way. Until then, filmmakers need to be a little more daring and not afraid to stray from the stereotypical portrayals we have seen in films thus far.

Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you could follow?
Aneesh: Unfortunately not. Growing up in NYC my only experience with trans women were sex workers and drug dealers along 8th and 9th Avenues. While in training for my counselor position at the Trevor Project, a young trans-woman came to speak to the class on trans issues.
After hearing her story, I began the process of realizing who I really was and shortly after that meeting, I began to transition. Although I didn’t have anyone other than my doctor and a shrink helping me through my transition, I found others online, through social media, to whom I could relate. That’s the beauty of the internet; you can find anything you need!
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Aneesh: The hardest thing about coming out was telling my family. Of course when I look back I think to myself “Why did you worry so much?” At the time I felt my whole life was going to change in a way I wasn’t mentally prepared for, as much as I wanted it. I was terrified of the emotional and physical changes that were to come.
In the long run though, it wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it would be. I can thank an amazing support group of friends and family for that.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in the American society?
Aneesh: I think we’re just beginning to lift the veil on the lives of transgender people in the United States and around the globe. Just recently I saw the photographs of artist Àlvaro Laiz, who captured transgender individuals across the world. People are beginning to see trans people everywhere, from social media to film and television to the news. We have miles to go before the stigma and stereotypes of being trans are behind us but at least the conversation has been started.

Copyright 2011 Kurt Jones.

Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Aneesh: I think LGBT rights, not just transgender rights, is the new frontier. Sometimes I just can’t believe it is 2014 and some nations, including the United States, still haven’t come to fully accept LGBT people.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Aneesh: I am not active in politics, although I am a political news junkie. I have often considered moving into politics, however that would require a big shift in my lifestyle and living.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Aneesh: Love is a big thing in my life. I think I, like many others transgender or not, have always feared that I will never be loved in the way I need to be loved. Love and acceptance from peers and family is a constant concern.
Being transgender adds another level to that: Can I even find the kind of love I’m looking for? Luckily for me, I met the man of my dreams a few years ago and have been married for almost a year now.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Aneesh: I love fashion! When I was in high school I attended a pre-college program at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York thinking I might have wanted to be a fashion designer. I grew up sewing and making costumes for local theatre troupes. Although designing and sewing has always been a passion of mine, it is not something I’m nearly talented enough to pull off as a career. Still, I love fashion and my style tends to range from classy and sophisticated to edgy and often times just plain weird. To each their own I guess!
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Aneesh: Growing up I would never miss the Miss Universe Pageant. Mainly it was because I wanted to see Miss India, but probably deep down inside I longed to be as beautiful as these women, although I didn’t realize it at the time.
Now that I’ve become a fully realized woman I tend to find the ideas of any beauty pageant a little off putting. There is a huge emphasis on sexuality and a certain standard of beauty for women that I disagree with. I know many women just as beautiful or even more beautiful than your ‘pageant’ girls who just don’t fit the “ideal” beauty type. And that’s OK! I much prefer being around people are beautiful on the inside, as cliché as that sounds.

Copyright 2011 Kurt Jones.

Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Aneesh: I have thought about it! In fact for about 5 years now I’ve complied index cards with memories written on them and I continue to do so. I used to keep a diary but life gets so busy I find writing memories on cards to refer back to is easier for me. My hope is to one day write an entire book from these cards!
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls, struggling with gender dysphoria?
Aneesh: Be true to yourself. If you’re scared, concerned or have questions, reach out. Talk to people; make connections. Don’t isolate yourself. And most importantly, dream big. Don’t let anyone ever tell you you can’t be someone or something because of who you are. When I transitioned I didn’t think I could ever be an actress again. I am still surprised to find that my career is thriving more now than prior to my transition.
Monika: Aneesh, thank you for the interview!

Main photo credits: Kurt Jones

Link to Aneesh's page:
All the photos: courtesy of Aneesh Sheth.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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