Rehan Mudannayake: ’’I’m not interested in pandering to stereotypes”

Dec 24 2021. views 543


Sri Lankan actor and director, Rehan Alexander Mudannayake is going places. A year since our last conversation on his short film DIDI, Rehan has a lot more good news to share and we can barely keep up; Funny Boy making waves internationally, DIDI screening at several international film festivals, his next short film already in the works, co-writing a Sri Lankan TV series and most recently (and happily sharing the news with us first), signing with one of UK’s top acting agencies and gaining British representation.  As we said, it’s a lot to catch up on.
 
Q IT’S BEEN A WHILE SINCE WE CAUGHT UP! WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN UP TO RECENTLY? 
Yes, it has! Wow, where to start? The last few months of my life have been some of the most exhilarating. I just finished directing a new short film in London, which I wrote over lockdown, prepped from September to December and shot a few weekends back. I’m feeling a little exhausted, but relieved too.
 
Q CONGRATULATIONS ON GETTING BRITISH REPRESENTATION AND SIGNING WITH CREATIVE ARTISTS MANAGEMENT (CAM) - ONE OF THE TOP ACTING AGENCIES IN THE UK! ONLY A HANDFUL OF SRI LANKANS HAVE UK REPRESENTATION AND YOU JUST JOINED THE LIST - HOW DID THIS ALL COME ABOUT? 
Thank you!  Following the release of Funny Boy, I was encouraged by several around me to seek out British representation. I couldn’t have chosen a worse time – given the pandemic! – but was still fortunate enough to receive interest from some of London’s top-tier agencies. I ultimately went with CAM as I felt safest there. It feels surreal of course, CAM is home to actors like Martin Freeman, Ray Winstone, Charlotte Ritchie, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Hannah Waddingham and so many others I’ve grown up admiring. I’m very excited for 2022.
 
Q AN AGENCY OF THIS CALIBRE IS A HUGE STEP FORWARD IN YOUR CAREER IN CINEMA. WHAT KIND OF DOORS DO YOU HOPE THIS OPENS FOR YOU?
I hope to find myself in roles that challenge people’s perceptions of what it means to be South Asian. I’m not interested in pandering to stereotypes: terrorists, cab drivers, exaggerating my accent etc. I do believe the international film and television landscape is slowly changing for South Asians: we’ve never stood a better chance of being seen or heard. I’m hopeful for the future.
 
Q YOUR SHORT FILM ‘DIDI’ WHICH HAD ITS WORLD PREMIERE AT THE 2020 ACADEMY AWARD-QUALIFYING HOLLY SHORTS FILM FESTIVAL, ALSO FEATURED AT THE LOUISVILLE INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL AND WAS SELECTED FOR THE 2020 CANADIAN SCREEN AWARD-QUALIFYING MISAFF. CONGRATULATIONS! HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT DIDI RECEIVING SUCH A GREAT RESPONSE? 
I’m so grateful. It still feels surreal that my little DIDI – a microbudget student short made for GBP 550 – played at Hollyshorts ’20 with three of 2021’s Oscar-shortlisted short films. The real shocker was that the average short selected for the festival cost around $50k to make! Moral of the tale? Whatever your budget; story and performance are still king.
 
Q AS A FILM DIRECTOR AND ACTOR, CINEMA IS A BIG PART OF YOUR LIFE. WHICH CAME FIRST – ACTING OR DIRECTING? 
Directing. I had no acting experience prior to Funny Boy – no shorts, no plays, no features. This was my first gig. I did, however, take evening acting classes for a few months with my friend Biman Wimalaratne (Acting With Biman), many moons ago. His lessons gave me the skillset and confidence to attempt the Funny Boy auditions.
 
Q FUNNY BOY WAS YOUR FIRST FILM AS AN ACTOR - HOW DID IT ALL COME ABOUT AND WHAT WAS IT LIKE STEPPING OUT FROM THE SHOES OF A DIRECTOR TO THAT OF AN ACTOR? 
When I was 19, I worked on Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children as an assistant set decorator (a glorified term for labourer!). 10 years later, Deepa woke up in the middle of the night and remembered my face from set all those years back. I received an email from her assistant: ‘Hi Rehan, Deepa is casting her new film. She’d like to know whether you act.’ To which I said, ‘Sure, of course I act!” I immediately regretted lying when they sent me 5 scenes to self-tape by the following day. I thought, I’m definitely not going to get this. But I’m going to give it my best shot. I auditioned 3 times for Deepa. A month later, she called me up: ‘We loved your auditions and we’d like to cast you as Shehan. You got the role because you were able to take my directions; I think your experience directing shorts over the last 7 years played a part in this. Are you free in October?’ As luck had it, I finished my Master’s in September. The transition from director to actor was terrifying. But I think my directing background subconsciously allowed me to approach the role of Shehan with a second and third pair of eyes. Moreover, I was deeply fortunate to have Deepa by my side, guiding and supporting me.
 
Q FUNNY BOY WAS WIDELY SUCCESSFUL AND RECEIVED GREAT REVIEWS AND WAS SET TO BE THE CANADIAN NOMINATION FOR AN OSCAR FOR THE BEST INTERNATIONAL FEATURE FILM BUT WAS DISQUALIFIED ON A MERE TECHNICALITY IN THE ACADEMY’S REQUIREMENT FOR NOMINATIONS. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON HOW THE MOVIE HAS BEEN RECEIVED, THE REVIEWS AND THE SUCCESS OF THE FILM?
Given the pandemic, we couldn’t have been luckier with the release and reception. It is a shame we had to forego the festival route – few people know this but we were selected for the Toronto Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival – but to be bought by Ava DuVernay and screen on Netflix was a real dream come true. We’re now hoping to screen it in Sri Lankan cinemas. 2022, don’t let us down...
 
Q THE FILM CONTINUES TO MAKE WAVES. IN OCTOBER, YOU WERE AT THE 66TH VALLADOLID INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL IN SPAIN WITH DIRECTOR DEEPA MEHTA AND ACTOR BRANDON INGRAM TO PREMIER FUNNY BOY. AT THE PRESS CONFERENCE, YOU SPOKE ABOUT THE PROCESS OF TRANSFORMING INTO YOUR CHARACTER AND HOW YOU WERE INITIALLY TERRIFIED AT THE CHALLENGE AHEAD. YOUR CHARACTER SHEHAN IS VERY NUANCED BUT ALSO HAS A STRONG, HEAD-ON PERSONALITY. WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO STEP INTO THIS ROLE? 
Well, as I mentioned earlier, I had just blagged my way through three rounds of auditions, so when I turned up on set, I was pretty sure Deepa was going to see through it all and fire me! Thankfully, I managed to fool her through to the very end… Shyam and Deepa’s script illustrated Shehan so beautifully that much of my work was already done for me. However, the dialogue on the page was often treated as a blueprint: this meant that there was some improv in between and during takes, and I’d shuffle lines around, sometimes even creating new dialogue on the spot to keep scenes fresh. In preparation for the role, I wrote a short character biography and immersed myself in Shehan’s favourite literature and music; think Gore Vidal, David Bowie etc. A 3-day workshop based off the Natyashastra – an ancient Indian dramaturgical text written 500 years ago for artists and performers – whipped us all into shape. (Deepa often uses this as the base for her actors’ character development process.) This workshop forced me to confront Shehan’s tragic past. It taught me to be empathetic of his flaws and insecurities, rather than to judge: this was possibly the most challenging part of the process. 
 
Q ANY EXCITING NEW PROJECTS IN THE WORKS?
I just directed a short fiction film that explores the life of a diasporic Sri Lankan family based in London. To my knowledge, it’s the first-ever British-Sri Lankan short film to be made: and not a moment too soon! We wrapped a few weekends ago in Chessington. Editing begins this month, after which I’ll submit the film to international festivals. I’d like to preview it in London and Colombo next year.  In Sri Lanka, I’m co-writing a TV series that starts filming next week.
 
Q WHEN YOU ARE NOT ACTING OR DIRECTING OR IMMERSING YOURSELF IN FILM AND CINEMATOGRAPHY - WHAT ARE YOU UP TO? 
I started a law degree in 2020 which I’m still pursuing part-time. Before you ask, no, I do not plan on abandoning my filmmaking career for law! Every waking moment is still spent creating cinema. To me, filmmaking isn’t a hobby or a passion, it’s my life. As the famed director Mira Nair says, ‘Filmmaking is a disease, and I’m super sick!’


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