Before I moved to New York in 2014 to take my place at drama school, there were a lot of lengthy discussions with my South Asian family about the logistics of the decision I was making. One aunt told me “You’ll end up on tv only playing doctors”.
Some years later and so far during my career I am yet to play a doctor. I have however been on stage at Carnegie Hall, Shakespeare in the park and in films like Cartwright, Frank’s plan for Amazon Prime and the award winning short Man on the phone. In 2016 I worked opposite Alan Cumming and in 2018 I played the lead role in the New York premiere of Good Fit by Nkenna Akunna.
Over the years from living in New York and being a south Asian artist in the creative industry I’ve grown used to being “the only one”. At drama school I was the only person of south Asian descent who graduated with a class of over 100 students. I’ve even become desensitised to the reactions I receive from people who ask what I do for a living, including from the nurse who administered my smear tear just this year.
It's a niche career with maybe a handful of south Asian actors in it. I remarked to a colleague once that it was “Just me, Priyanka and Jameela'', referring of course to Priyanka Chopra and Jameela Jamil. It was a tongue in cheek comment but something that I would later come back to when asked by a casting director if I knew any other south Asian actresses for a film she was shooting. “We basically want a Karen Johal type”, I was unable to take the role and I did not know any other south Asian actresses. I was left both flattered and deflated.
When auditioning for Good Fit I was recommended to the director by two different people I had gone to school with, the role was for a British south Asian woman. I had a number of people email me about the open casting call for Mindy Kahling’s Never have I ever on Netflix because again I was the only one they knew who matched the breakdown. Up until this point I had coveted being the only one. If I was the only one, then I’d get all the work right?
For years I thought this was a good thing, until I realised it wasn’t. It was quite lonely, I couldn’t play all the roles or be a part of stories that truly resonated with my specific experience because there wasn’t anyone writing them. The way the industry has been built, anyone of colour is led to believe that we have to fight each other for a place in it. I didn't clap for other brown girls when I was supposed to because I thought that they were occupying space that could have been mine. This way of thinking wasn’t sustainable and luckily I was able to change gears and reevaluate before I went all Showgirls and pushed someone down the stairs.
It was early enough in my career that I hadn't developed the cut-throat-business-bitch mentality so many of my peers already had. I wasn't physically elbowing anyone to get into rooms or sabotaging my peers. I read somewhere that another south Asian actress gave Jameela Jamil the wrong directions to her audition for The Good Place in hopes of thwarting her chances, that was never going to be me. Ever.
I caught myself and held myself accountable before I lost all s
ense of morality. I thought about how hard it was to make the choice to even pursue this career in the first place. How part of why I was coveting being the only one was because I had worked hard to be there. I thought about the girl fro
m college who scoffed when I told her I was auditioning for drama school or when family members asked (and still ask) when I’m going to get a real job. I feel proud and privileged to be able to pursue this career and I want to use the power of visibility to expand what is possible for south Asian representation.
Imagine what I could do in the trajectory of my career to represent and make space for girls who look like me. I didn't have that growing up, no one to clap for and aspire to but that has changed. There are more of us in the industry now, that represent the varied narrative of south Asian lives. It fills me with pride and joy now to clap for other brown girls I see in the industry. It turns out it isn’t just me, Priyanka and Jameela after all.
Karen Johal is a British South Asian Actress, born and raised in Birmingham, England.In 2014 Karen moved to New York City where she trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After graduating she was accepted into the prestigious Academy Theater
Company where she was cast in a number
of productions, including the musical Me and the girls opposite Scottish Actor Alan Cumming and as the lead role in Moira Buffini &Welcome to Thebes. Karen has worked extensively in film, television and Theater most notably for Shakespeare in the park and Journey to America at the world renowned Carnegie Hall. Karen can be seen in the 2018 Amazon Prime short film Frank’s Plan and in Red Bear films award winning production of Man on the phone. In 2022 she is set to star as the lead role in the thriller film Victimhood directed by Cody Clarke. Karen is represented in the UK by Shack Artists.