‘Get off the hamster wheel of obsession and have a life’
Rashmi Pilapitiya has been working as an actor in television and theatre for 23 years. Since becoming the first Sri Lankan woman to graduate from Toi Whakaari in the late 90s, she has played a diverse range of roles, from a transgender man working at a gas station to a misguided sister on Shortland Street. Currently, she is appearing as washed-up actress Ranikumari in Silo Theatre’s 70s Bollywood extravaganza, My Heart Goes Thadak Thadak.
We asked Rashmi to share a few words of wisdom with her 22-year-old self. Here’s her four poignant pointers she learned along the way.
1. Explore your boundaries.
I have sometimes found it hard to maintain the connection with my true self as I publicly cope with all the trappings of being the child of migrants of colour. I remember, so desperately trying to fit in. A key piece of advice I learned was to not forget, that I was a human being after all, with a myriad of emotions: anxiety, desire, fear, isolation, jealousy, alienation, ambition and despair. It would seem that I was being viewed as a cultural ambassador of all things Sri Lankan. For a lot of people I was going to be the only ‘one’ they know.
I was a human being after all, with a myriad of emotions: anxiety, desire, fear, isolation, jealousy, alienation, ambition and despair.
I may have been worried about having to adapt and fit in to ‘their’ gaze. I might feel like I would be losing a sense of self and boundary accordingly. But the boundaries between your public self and private self – the juxtaposition between the private world at home which is Eastern in mentality and the public world which is largely Western in ideology — are getting more distinct.
It wasn’t to be that way forever, and eventually who I am would open the door to the most rewarding and fulfilling work of my career. It’s almost funny to reflect on these feelings, as right now I am part of a production that is both Desi and Western, where ‘Orientalism sells’. I feel blessed to have been gifted a role from Ahi Karunaharan to interpret a very personal discourse.
2. Go to school.
I was wandering aimlessly down Ponsonby Road, stung with shame and embarrassment after being let go from a corporate job, gingerly trying to walk past Western Park without anyone seeing my inner devastation. I felt like a major door had closed and despair was about to kick in.
Right when I needed it, I bumped into Salesi Le’ota and his parents, beaming the warmest and kindest smiles as they listened to my story. In years to come, I will still remember Salesi celestially saying: “Rash, don’t worry, forget it. Come to Drama School in Wellington, you won’t regret it.”
I’ll never forget the questions that sprang rapid-fire, in my brain. What madness was he talking about? What will happen to you? What will your family say? What will become of you?
At this point in my life, I had recently completed a BA and just pulled out of my Honours course. I was feeling restless and unmotivated to write a dissertation about why South Asian migrants could not get into paid employment in New Zealand because their qualifications were not recognised. Back in 1999, you know this was one of the painful issues faced by many migrants. I hate to say it but currents of it still linger today.
In retrospect, it was sure wise advice. I took the plunge and followed Salesi’s guidance. Drama school was to be unbearably hard at times, but I made lifelong friends, who became colleagues and confidants.
Production still for My Heart Goes Thadak Thadak. Photo: Andi Crown Photography
3. You have to be human first.
Not too long after I graduated from school, I took part in a casting workshop with McSweeney Newman, and it was to be an experience that shaped me as a creative. I entered the workshop with the hope of a possible casting, driven with determination. Spoiler alert: I didn’t get the outcome I was hunting for.
Instead, I received the most penetrating piece of life advice from two casting pros: in this industry: the actor won’t look after the human, the human has to look after the human. The truth of this statement pierced me like a crossbow to my solar plexus. In the privacy of my bedroom, I looked in the mirror and saw her: an obsessed, driven, aggressive actor. I broke down. I know we’ve all sobbed and howled with the wailings of a gothic asylum but this was different. It was guttural and raw, and it hurt – the discovery that I was going to be my own worst enemy.
It was guttural and raw, and it hurt – the discovery that I was going to be my own worst enemy.
What I learned is that I had to get off the hamster wheel of obsession and have a go at having a life. Something that will stick with me in years to come is how McSweeney Newman talked about actors that they’d known for decades - seeing them burn out because they never got a role, that they got too old to have children, that they hadn’t built a life which would give them other experiences to self-nurture, grow, have dignity, make new friends. Allow the human to look after you (and don’t rely on the actor self).
4. Not all the world’s a stage.
There’s more to learn than lines and craft.
Eventually a time came where I needed to make a decision: was I going to stay hustling trying to get work as an actor, or take a break and experience something else? What I needed to do, for both my human and actor selves, was to take 3 years for myself and go and work in the Middle East. Travel and work experience are both rewarding and confronting, but I needed to leave my comfort zone to really get some great learning done. I had to experience the world, which would give me a chance to tone and simmer all the actor learnings I had gained with real life experiences. There’s more to learn than lines and craft.
Rashmi Pilapitiya performs in Silo Theatre’s My Heart Goes Thadak Thadak, playing at Q Theatre, Rangatira until December 14.