Rajiv Surendra is a Canadian actor, writer, painter, and chalk artist with Sri Lankan Tamil roots. After rising to fame for his role as Kevin G in the 2004 movie Mean Girls, he published The Elephants In My Backyard in 2016. The memoir explores successes and failures through a six year attempt at securing the titular role in Ang Lee’s film adaptation of Life of Pi.
Surendra first read Yan Martel’s original novel on the set of Mean Girls and noticed a set of similarities between himself and Pi. This quickly spiraled into an obsession; Surendra relocated to Pondicherry, overcame his fear of water, corresponded regularly with Martel, and befriended tigers and shipwreck survivors. Originally from the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, Surendra is currently based in Manhattan where he runs Letters In Ink, a calligraphy and chalk-art company. Kajal caught up with Surendra to talk about his book, his roots, and non-rapping creative pursuits.
Kajal: Firstly, I just want to say that as a fellow Scarborough-raised, TTC-bus-commuting, Toronto-Zoo-adjacent brown guy with two sisters and Tamil parents from Sri Lanka, your book resonated with me. That feeling you describe in The Elephants In My Backyard of reading Life of Pi and noting all these similarities between you and the central character, I also experienced while reading your book.
Rajiv Surendra: We probably went to that same NoFrills! Yeah, when I read your email I thought the same thing.
In your book you mention that when you were younger you weren’t very forthcoming about discussing your Tamil heritage. In order to pursue the Life of Pi role, you went to Pondicherry, where you spent time in families’ homes and worked on your Tamil. How have such creative pursuits changed your relationship with your roots?
The thing about growing up in Toronto to parents that were immigrants was that I felt completely Canadian, but I was constantly reminded that I was not completely Canadian. I was constantly asked growing up, “where are you from?” Saying “Toronto” was never enough of an answer. Always, “where are you really from?” And answering that question is something that I think the children of all immigrants deal with in North America. I knew that I was going to discover something when I went to Pondicherry that would probably move me very emotionally – it was very fulfilling to go there and to befriend these kids that grew up in a similar context to my parents. It wasn’t just movie research at that point, it was answering that question of “where are you from?”
Would you say you now identify as Tamil and/or Sri Lankan?
I wonder if can even say I’m Sri Lankan if I’ve only lived there for two weeks of my entire life. I think I still struggle with that question, and I do think that’s something I share with my generation of first-generation North Americans. I grew up very interested in Tamil culture at a time where there was this very palpable stigma associated with being Tamil in my – our – suburb. I was very interested in classical Carnatic music since my mom played the veena and studied singing. I took singing lessons and watched old Tamil films. I enjoyed going to my cousins’ Bharatanatyam recitals. I was very proud of that part of my heritage, but I always felt that I didn’t fit into any part of Tamil culture while growing up in Scarborough, except for the one that I had created at home. And then when Life of Pi came along, because it was nostalgic and set in the 70s, it was more of the Tamil culture that I appreciated. That was my initial motivation for pursuing the role.
I know that if I was an openly gay actor, there was no way I’d be considered for a movie that Fox was putting $100 million dollars into.
Elephants touches on various topics, such as domestic abuse and coming to terms with sexual identity. Traditionally, these topics can be considered taboo in South Asian contexts. Did you meet any pushback from your family or have any personal reservations about publishing such a vulnerable book?
My dad’s not part of the picture anymore. I asked my mom how she felt about me telling this story. I was a little surprised but relieved when she told me, “I have nothing to hide from anybody and I’m not ashamed of what happened.” I think through her struggle she realized the culture she was raised in acted as a shackle and prevented her from leaving my dad a long time ago. She realized that she didn’t have to put up with abuse, that she could make her own decisions, and it didn’t matter what others thought. I think all that gave her a sense of independence to the point that when I wanted to write my book, she was at peace with all that had happened. I was impressed by how she didn’t even resent my dad.
I know full well that if I was an openly gay actor, there was no way I’d be considered for the role of a sixteen-year-old religious Indian kid in a movie that Fox was putting $100 million dollars into. I never felt like it was unfair, I just accepted that that was the way the world worked. When I didn’t get the Life of Pi part, I felt dead inside. I realized that for me to get back to the sense of being alive again, I needed to take baby steps and do small things that would make me happy on a daily basis. Moving to Munich was the first step. The city was magical. The family I worked for was wonderful. Living there and going out with guys made me see how easy it was.
Regarding cultural taboos, I grew up in a household where no aspect of sexuality whatsoever was ever mentioned, but what was easy for me is that I moved to a completely foreign country. I had complete anonymity there, which I think helped me come to terms with doing what I wanted. I didn’t need to be worried about what everyone else thought.
In your book you touch on how the roles you were sent when you first started acting were mostly for I.T. guys or “Terrorist #2.” Have you seen this change since?
It has changed in that roles are more varied now for Indian actors. It’s refreshing to occasionally go out for a role and ethnicity isn’t specified. I just went out for a role in a series that Anna Kendrick is producing. The role was for one of the other lead characters, and it didn’t say in the script that he was Indian. I loved that it was just a person in New York City in their twenties, and they considered me for it. There are still so many frustrating stereotypes that are being played that are old and boring. Last year during pilot season, I went out for two different roles from two different networks for an Indian guy in medical school being set up by his parents with another Indian girl. I get that it’s a real thing, but we’ve seen those stories already over and over again. I think the reason the character of Kevin G did so well was because it was not that stereotypical character of the Indian math nerd, with the accent, bobbing his head around. Tina Fey wrote a very refreshing script which I think reflected the accurate version of a semi-multicultural high school experience in the States. I knew guys like Kevin G growing up.
Yeah to be honest, I think I sort of identified with Kevin G growing up…
There you go!
What is your relationship with the character of Kevin G now?
I was in one thing that did very well and brings people so much joy fifteen years later. It’s a great feeling. I know a lot of teenage actors will use an embarrassing job as a potential stepping stone. For me, if I never act again, I am so grateful that I was in at least one thing that people loved.
There was, however, a period of time where I wondered if this was all I would be known for – when people on the street would ask me to do the rap. Then one day I came across an old interview of the classical Indian dancer, Padmini. The interviewer asks what she has to say to her fans. I’m paraphrasing here, she responds: “What else is there to say but thank you. As an artist I would have no career if it wasn’t for all the people that watched my film. As an artist, to have millions of people want to watch you, is something that I will always be grateful for.” I realized she was right. Everyone that stops me in the street asking for the rap, those are the people that made the movie famous. They’re asking me not to do the rap not because they want to laugh at me but because they liked what I did, and I owe it to them to do the rap. And from that day forward, I do the rap for anyone that asks.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I got that part. I might be in an apartment in New York waiting for my next role, still be closeted, afraid that I wouldn’t get another role if I were openly gay.
You were able to turn your passion for drawing into a successful business, where you do calligraphy and create chalk drawings for restaurants, cafes, and venues all over Toronto and NYC. How do you balance artistic integrity with business viability?
A lot of people believe it’s wiser to do jobs that you hate to build a resume, and that might work for a lot of people. My Life of Pi experience taught me that I don’t want to do anything that I don’t enjoy. When I started my calligraphy business I knew I never wanted to reach the point where I hated this thing I previously loved. I told myself that if I was going to start this business, the way I was going to keep it alive in a healthy way was by turning down the jobs that I didn’t want to do. For me, that’s paid off and I’ve created a portfolio that is extremely consistent. All of my work is work that I stand behind 100 percent. And I feel because of that, if a client likes my portfolio, I can wholeheartedly assure them that if they hire me, they’ll receive something that they are also going to be happy with. When I get a proposition for a job that I feel I won’t be happy with, I turn it down because I don’t want to water down my brand with stuff I’m not thrilled by – no matter how much they’re willing to pay me.
You cite the character of Pi retelling his own story as an example of how structuring failure as a story can be a rewarding experience. Can you talk about your own experience with this?
I set out on this journey and it ended up going on and on and on, with no end in sight – very similar to Pi’s on the raft. Then I kind of lost everything, and I was left with these pieces to pick up and make some sense of. Like Pi, I had to look back at the experience and ask myself whether I could forget, never address it again, and just move on – or if I could try and find some way to use it as a constructive experience. I did the latter. I looked back and accepted that I learned so much from this journey, and I had met so many valuable people that taught me what it meant to fail and to lose something dear in life. That experience changed who I was as a person. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I got that part. I might be in an apartment in New York waiting for my next role, still be closeted, afraid that I wouldn’t get another role if I were openly gay. It’s a little scary to think that I might have achieved something that was tactile, but I don’t know how that would have affected my character and actual growth. That’s why I wrote the book. I felt like I had gained something very valuable from this loss, and if I could share that with people, and have them look at their own seemingly-depressing, sad, horrible experiences and see them as formative, then maybe my story would help.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.