Q&A with Reshma Gajjar: Inspirational Dancer and Actress
Firstly, I will ask about the now iconic opening scene of La La Land in which the New York Times referred to you as ‘the ingénue in the yellow dress’. Was it a lengthy casting process?
Getting cast as that “Ingenue in the Yellow Dress” may have been a lengthy experience for the filmmakers, but for me it was unexpected! Mandy Moore, the choreographer hired me to be part of her ‘skeleton crew’ to help shape the choreography for the film.
She placed me as “Traffic Girl #1” in rehearsals. The director, Damien Chazelle, saw me playing the part many times when he came to work out camera blocking. Meanwhile, they were auditioning many actresses to cast the girl who would open the film in Another Day of Sun. Although I never expected that role to be mine, I was doing my best as an actor to bring the role to life. In the end, Damien decided to cast me as the part! It really validated the importance of professionalism and always performing at our highest potential, because we are always leaving an impression!
Did the director/writer Damien Chazelle and choreographer Mandy Moore have a clear concept for that opening sequence?
Damien and Mandy both had a very clear concept for Another Day of Sun. They wanted us to ride the balance between existing in total fantasy while remaining grounded in the real world. For me, this meant executing a performance that was simultaneously pedestrian and extraordinary. I felt my character represented the quintessential dreamer in all of us.
What was the rehearsal process like? How was the actual experience of filming it with all those immaculately timed sequences? Where did you shoot and what was the best part of that?
The process was as epic as the final product. Outside of the many hours it took Mandy to conceptualize, plan, and create the choreography, it took about a week to rehearse and two days to shoot Another Day of Sun. In rehearsal we lined up our own cars (and a few reinforced prop cars), in a parking lot, for Damien to get an idea of what it could look like on the freeway.
We shot the scene on the 105 freeway overpass in Los Angeles, during a heat wave of 104° Fahrenheit (40° Celsius) where the cars were hot to the touch. The overpass was raked at an angle, all of which added to the challenge of dancing atop a car on concrete high above the ground.
It was rigorous, intense and satisfying. In order to capture each of the long shots, we did at least 20 plus takes. There was so much to coordinate, between the cars, cameras, 33 dancers, 4 band members, hula hooper, skateboarder, BMX biker, free runner, stunt girl and 40 extras.
Timing was essential and there was no room for error; if one person messed up we had to start over. The monitors and production were hidden from view far away from me, which made the moment feel more real, like I was really alone, stuck in traffic, with my dreams.
Please tell us about your family background and where you are from? Did your family encourage your performance abilities?
My parents immigrated to the United States in the 70s from Gujarat, India and settled down in northern California, where I grew up. Like most first-generation Indian Americans, I was trying to balance two very different cultures, identifying strongly as both Indian and American.
I appreciate how hard it was for my parents to hold onto and in still their values in me even though they completely clashed with the American way. On the other side of the struggle, I can see I got the best of both worlds. My mom had put me in dance class because as a kid I was bouncing off the walls and she wanted to give me an outlet for all my energy.
My parents encouraged my performance abilities in their own way. They used dance as leverage to ensure I got good grades, even when money was tight they never took me out of class, and they never ever missed a performance. That being said, it was only supposed to be a hobby and no one including myself ever expected it to become my career path.
As an Indian-American how was it for you starting out? Where did you train?
As an Indian American artist, a major obstacle I remember facing was the decision to pursue dance as a profession. When I was 19, I had been accepted to a scholarship program at the Edge Performing Arts Center in LA, which is where I eventually ended up getting my training. The arts, dance, and entertainment industry, were understandably foreign, scary and unstable career concepts for my immigrant parents.
Also being a girl did not help, and they did not approve of my choice to follow this career path. I was ready and willing to pursue it without their support, but I really wanted their blessing, so we made a compromise: I could pursue dance as long as I continued to earn a college degree (in a more stable field).
This was very challenging, but I did it, I graduated with a degree in Business Law and most importantly gave my parents peace of mind. Beyond my family, I faced challenges in America simply for being a woman of colour.
When I first started auditioning for dance jobs, for years I was good enough to get to the end of auditions, but I wouldn’t get the job because I was too “exotic looking.” My ethnicity was not yet the mainstream. I was different, a little too different.
Has diversity improved in your experience?
Being brown has been both a blessing and a curse. There were jobs I didn’t get because I was brown and others simply because I was. When I first started out, Hollywood wasn’t ready for someone who looked like me, but slowly I started to feel a shift. This is why I never expected a minority race to be cast as the face to open an American Musical like La La Land. Hispanic maybe, but Indian?!
I was beyond thrilled to get the role and to be part of any change toward diversity. I’ve received a lot of positive feedback from people, expressing how excited they were to see a brown girl open a Hollywood film such as this. I believe it makes the world feel more inclusive. That’s why it’s important for people like me- people of colour- to continue and participate in the entertainment industry in some way, to create and tell our stories, so eventually Hollywood will be forced to change.
You have worked with many outstanding artists and been on tour with Madonna and Ricky Martin, amongst others. How is touring different to film work? Which do you prefer?
Working on tours or film are both great for very different reasons. When I first started working as a dancer, all I wanted was to go on tour. I was craving adventure: live performance and fancy parties! I wanted to work hard developing a show, live in hotels and meet people from all walks of life. I had so much to see and learn from the world.
I was happily living out of my suitcase for months, exploring international cites, and performing in front of audiences of up to 80,000 people! There was such a high from performing to a live audience full of fans, and a rush from the whole lifestyle.
However, after 6 years of touring, I was ready for something new. I decided to move to LA and focus on TV and Film. I wanted to be part of a community, create art and build relationships- this is very challenging on the road. With TV/ Film, I get to work on a variety of projects, collaborate with many artists, and tell stories in multiple ways.
Some days I’m an actor, others I am a dancer or a choreographer. No day, week, month is the same! I feel very lucky to have been able to experience both tour life and TV/Film work; both have given and taught me so much.
Please share your advice for young dancers trying to get their foot in the door?
Somebody once told me something that really helped me. In the entertainment industry, whether you’re a dancer, an actor, an artist, it’s a “last man standing” game.
It’s not about how talented you are—yes, you must be talented, but talented people don’t always make it. It’s not about how beautiful you are—yes, beauty helps but a lot of beautiful people don’t make it. It’s not about how many connections you have—even if you have the connections, it doesn’t mean you’ll make it. To make it, you have to be the last man standing.
You are rejected on a regular basis and it’s not a lucrative profession, so dance because you love it, otherwise what’s the point?! Love whatever it is you choose to do! It won’t matter if you “make it” or not, because you are spending your life doing what you love.
What defines success is up to you, so decide what that is for you before you fall into society’s dangerous definition of it.
Don’t take rejection personally, ever. You just aren’t right for the project. Focus and redirect that energy on working on your craft, that’s where we are truly free.
Dancers are such resilient, special people, we have one of the few and lucky abilities where our grace and discipline serves us not just on the dance floor, but in every part of life.
Where are you planning to go from here? More acting? Choreographing?
More acting. Although at the moment, I’m enjoying doing it all. I am dancing and choreographing, but mostly focusing on acting. I love collaboration when it’s for a film, or a fashion shoot.
And last, but not least Reshma, any life lessons learned?
When I look back on my life, it is clear that it’s all about timing. Sometimes the world isn’t ready for you; sometimes you aren’t ready for the world. Where you do have control, is putting in the work.
Insta / Twitter: @reshmagajjar