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Karen Johal on being a British Asian actress in New York and finding work in the performing arts

Being an actress and training in New York was the big dream Frank’s Plan star Karen Johal held onto without knowing how she’d arrive at the destination.

When we met as A-Level graduates working shifts at Dorothy Perkins in Birmingham city centre, I had no idea she aspired to be an actress, let alone train at one of the best acting schools in New York.

“It’s been a long time since then! I’m glad to say I don’t miss standing at the fitting rooms,” the 29-year-old wrote back via direct messages on Twitter.

In comedy short Frank’s Plan which has been snapped up by Amazon Prime

“Initially people were surprised I wanted to be an actress, but those were people I hadn’t disclosed that to.

“Moving abroad is a big change and scary so a lot of people who don’t dream big for themselves get bowled over when someone else does.

“The day I was accepted to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, I remember getting an email from the finance department before the acceptance letter so I didn’t believe it at first. I thought it was possibly a spam email so I called the school to confirm.

“It was the best feeling telling my mum I’d got accepted. She said it was like fate that of all the schools I’d auditioned for, that was the one I was accepted to.

“One, it was abroad, and I’d been auditioning for years so it was like New York was calling.”

The ex-Birmingham Metropolitan College student, then 18, endured four years of auditioning for schools across the UK, doing several each year, before securing her spot at AADA in Manhattan.

To keep going was “emotionally draining,” especially when up against an elitist audition process.

Dealing with rejection became easier though, but it has to when it’s such a regular occurrence.

Acting in Journey to America at Carnegie Hall

“I’ve had to get around the fact I’m not going to play every role I audition for, but there’s always work so if you’re always trying, you’re giving yourself more chances of booking jobs.

“I think I’ve built up the confidence to go into a room, knowing I’m good at what I do and just having fun, doing it and leaving. That’s all you can do.”

The 18-year-old desperately trying to get into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art – or RADA as it’s better known – hadn’t yet been taught to approach auditions with such sensibility, but a thick skin is essential for anyone in the arts.

“To audition for four years must suck the enthusiasm out of you eventually,” I commented.

CATCH-UP WITH KAREN’S INTERVIEW ON THE MIDLANDS MASALA RADIO SHOW

She replied: “Auditioning for that long was crap, but there’s a formula in place with UK schools. They take 20 students – most of them are degree-educated before they audition and most are Caucasian with one or two people of colour selected – so I was fighting a losing battle.

“When I eventually got into a school, the fact it was in another country spoke volumes. It’s really hard to get into somewhere like RADA, for example, but probably even more difficult if you don’t fit the bill.”

As a young British Indian actress with no role models on screen who resembled her and then being the older Brit at an acting school with 18-year-olds – to some extent, Karen has never quite fit the bill.

An online CV refers to her as “ethnically ambiguous”. It’s a phrase she both loathes and can laugh about, but what makes her different is what Karen uses to her advantage.

Research, knowing how to market herself and building a strong sense of self has been key to Karen’s success as a professional actress since 2017.

A head shot of Karen by photographer Coco Jourdana
Source: Coco Jourdana Photography ©

“It started in drama school for me. I was the only British Asian girl in a graduating class of 130 people so I knew not everyone was going for the same roles as me. Despite being the only one, the school year itself was quite diverse and being in America meant I wasn’t going to have classmates from where I’m from.

“In general, there are very few Asian people pursuing acting as a viable career because it’s not encouraged as a safe option.”

Now, Karen sees more diversity in the industry. Successful women on screen like Priyanka Chopra (rumoured to be joining the Matrix 4 cast) and the Good Place’s Jameela Jamil has made Karen feel that there’s more room for her now.

Still, she is firm about being on her own journey.

“It’s important to note where your strengths are and back yourself. I do a very good American accent so that opens my casting options. I can play the British Asian girl or the south Asian American girl.

“Luckily, not fitting into the mould is the new thing people are looking for.

“What you know and what you research is important too. I know which TV shows film in New York, what TV production companies I can work for because there are some that only work with US citizens or Green Card holders. I know the theatre companies producing new plays and so on.

“About 60 per cent of the work I’ve gotten has come from someone asking me to audition because I’d been recommended or the casting directors saw me in something.

“Essentially it’s a network, so you move through that network and establish your career.”

Karen’s acting credits cover a range of jobs across theatre and film.

A scene from theatre production, As you like it, where she played Phebe

Comedy short Frank’s Plan about a nosey neighbour who’s rumbled by a brazen teenage neighbour, has been picked up by Amazon Prime – a big win for the cast.

She played the lead role in Journey to America – a play about the migration of European immigrants to America via Ellis Island – at Carnegie Hall – as well as in Moira Buffini’s Welcome to Thebes, playing Eurydice.

“I’ve been really fortunate,” Karen said, after reeling off some of the jobs she’s been proud of.

Her absolute favourite was playing lead character Asma in Good Fit, a play about a British Muslim girl travelling through London on the day of the 7/7 bombings.

“A lot of surreal things happen to her in her home city, where she’s treated like the enemy. The play focuses on racial and national identity and I wanted to do it justice.

“We didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse and our production was movement heavy. Plus I had a cold the day of the dress rehearsal, but the story was brilliant so I really wanted to do a good job.

“I think it would do really well in the UK.”

INTERVIEW – LONDON WRITER HELPS WOMEN SEE POWER IN FLAWS

Karen using binoculars to look over New York
Sightseeing in New York – the city of dreams

After five years in New York, Karen is back in her home city of Birmingham visiting family and waiting out the Coronavirus pandemic before returning.

Since being back, one of the questions she’s asked most is how she pursued acting and the difficultly of securing work in the creative industries.

In a nutshell, she worked her arse off and never let go of her ambition, but after getting a place at AADA, there were several steps before being able to relocate to the US.

These included applying for AADA scholarships to help with tuition fees, waiting for her student visa to be approved and applying to live at the school’s apartment building next door.

To make ends meet she had what actors call “survival jobs” which she juggled between auditions.

Karen sitting on top of one of the bridges in New York at night with all the buildings behind her

“The dream is eventually not needing those survival jobs because your acting jobs are well paid enough.

“I worked for the school in the library and as a front of house usher for their third-year company shows.

“After graduating, I got a job working for a promotional team on Broadway, promoting shows in Times Square.”

“That job is so much cooler on Broadway than Broad Street,” I wrote back with a laughing emoji. Karen returned a thumbs up.

Referring back to the difficulties of pursuing a creative career, the main barriers in Karen’s opinion, are self-made.

“Giving yourself that motivation to keep going and creating your own work, if work isn’t available to you,” she began.

“Often people make their own barriers with their attitude towards the hustle.

“I’ve had to overcome so much to even get my foot in the door so I have this built-in system centred on the belief I can overcome the barriers ahead because the ones I conquered are behind me.

“If I hadn’t moved to New York, I would have moved to London to pursue acting. Once you decide or you know what you’re meant to do with your life, it’s just about taking the right path so I never sought out another career. There are no alternatives for me.”

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