Rushi Kota on Being Part of The Change

American-Indian actor Rushi Kota shares with DAMAN about his involvement in Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever,” tackling challenges in life and more.

Sweater by Cos; shirt and shoes by Tommy Hilfiger; pants by Vince

With the rise of Asian representation in America’s film industry, Rushi Kota is proud to be part of the push for this long-overdue change. To be exact, he is involved in Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever,” the series created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher that has been described as a watershed moment for South Asian representation in Hollywood.

Of course, Kota is not new to the industry. In fact, he has a decade of experience under his belt. He and his mother moved to New York when he was eight years old and when he first started, he was aggressively hustling and trying to book as many jobs as he could. While luck was on his side, Kota realized that he had no idea how to actually act. So, he got himself a coach, applied to grad school for a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts in Acting, then got into Harvard. Through the showcase he had in both N.Y. and L.A., Kota landed a manager and an agent, which set him on the path he is on right now.

T-shirt and jacket by Tommy Hilfiger; jeans by Topman; shoes by Champion

DAMAN: Hi, Rushi, glad to have you with us. How are you doing these days?
Rushi Kota: What up! Thank you for having me. You know I would like to say everything is great, but honestly, the truth is, I have been having waves of anxiety every day for the past year—and it has been driving me insane. Career, finances, family life, personal life, worldly issues, all of it has been weighing heavily on me, and I have been trying to navigate through a tornado of the unknown while trying to stay in the present.

DAMAN: Can you give us a glimpse into your roots? Where did you grow up and how would you say did it shape your path?
Rushi Kota: I grew up in Queens, New York, with lots of other immigrant families that had strong family values of working toward the American dream. But at the same time, they were just as confused as I was about how to achieve that dream while trying to be true to their culture in a new world they didn’t understand.

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DAMAN: By the way, congratulations on the success of “Never Have I Ever.” How do you feel about being on the show?
Rushi Kota: Thank you! I mean, I could cry! I just keep thinking where was a show like this when I was growing up and feeling so uncomfortable in my skin? Where was this show when I hated everything about my culture because it didn’t t in with American norms? It’s a lot of mixed emotions to say the least. But as an actor, oh my God, I am beyond the moon! I— along with the other South Asian actors on the show—get to be the defining moment in rewriting the stereotype of how Indian men and women are portrayed on American television. As romantic, intelligent, attractive, complex leading individuals! And that’s insanely huge! I am very grateful that I get to be part of carrying that torch.

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DAMAN: How was the casting process for the role? And how did you prepare to get into the shoes of your character, Prashant?
Rushi Kota: It was a traditional casting process. My manager got me the audition, then I went into the room, did my thing and left. A couple of days later I got the call. I am very lucky that I get the number of auditions I do, so I have to trained myself to let go after each one. When something clicks, it’s a good feeling and when it doesn’t, it’s time to move on. As for my preparation, I tapped into my Indianness that I had buried so very deep inside of me. I did a lot of creation around the character of how he walks and talks, how he carries himself, what he wears, what his personality is like, what family values he adheres too, along with his relationship to not only the people in the scenes with me but the people not in the scenes with me, like my parents, my co-workers, how much time he has spent in the States and how that has shaped who he is now versus who he was before. Also, relationships with objects. Especially in season one, there was the house, the grandfather clock and the crystal beaver. They all have to carry weight before I walk into the room.

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DAMAN: They say that with every role, you learn something as an actor and maybe something about yourself. What was it that you took with you from your experience on “Never Have I Ever”?
Rushi Kota: I am very different from my character. I don’t follow the same family principles as the other Indian families just because I grew up in a very different household. I was the “make it or break it child,” and my parents didn’t make it. [Laughs]

My mother divorced my abusive father in India and brought my brother and I to New York when I was eight years old. She tried to do everything in her power to make sure we t in, and because of that I tried to move away from being seen as “Indian” in the eyes of … everyone. This show and this character have taught me to accept myself, to accept who am I and where I am from. It has been a long journey of acceptance, but after thirty something years, I am finally willing to try.

Beach towel by John Robshaw

DAMAN: Acting is a profession that presents a lot of challenges and hurdles. How have you overcome these in the past and how do you prepare for them in the future?
Rushi Kota: I think the biggest challenge is finances. Until I am a lead in a big show or a movie, I am bleeding money, paying taxes, paying my reps, marketing material, union dues and all the other ten thousand different fees out there, which are extremely necessary. It’s not at all glamorous living the life of an actor on the rise. I have a few survival gigs that I am not a fan of, but it keeps me fed, keeps my bills paid and enough coin in my pocket to invest in my career. But the absolute most important thing I have never ever done was let my survival gig get in the way of acting. IDGAF! If it ever feels like I am sacrificing my career for a stupid job that is not willing to accommodate my schedule, then I cut it loose! Just like an actor is replaceable, so is a job. There are a million ways to make money. I will find a way.

I was always very good with managing my finances and preparing for the future. I have opened a 401k, savings account and investment accounts, so I have money that’s saved that I can’t touch until I am 65. And I have money that is growing. It’s also important to live within my means and not aunt what I don’t have like all those influencers.

Swim trunks by Rupert & Buckley

DAMAN: All in all, what would you say is your most favorite part about being on a film set?
Rushi Kota: The adrenaline. When everything is exactly where it needs to be—lighting, sound, camera—and the director yells “Action,” that’s when living truthfully in the given circumstances comes to life for me. Being able to dance in that surge of adrenaline.

DAMAN: What kind of roles would you like to try out in the future? Your dream projects, if you will…
Rushi Kota: An action comedy. Something that has phenomenal fight choreography but also really hysterical like “Deadpool,” “Kick- Ass,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” “Guns Akimbo,” “22 Jump Street.” I want to get physical with a role. I want to move away from so much cerebral analysis to much more instinctual playing and physical comedy. I want the opportunity to work with Anthony and Joseph Russo. Even just being an assistant to their assistant’s assistant would instantly give me more street cred. But honestly, any Marvel project. You have one brown guy as a superhero for a movie that hasn’t even come out yet, representing all colors of South Asians for the entire Marvel universe. I mean, come on!

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DAMAN: What’s the best piece of acting or career advice that you’ve ever heard from someone in the business? Something that you really took to heart…
Rushi Kota: To give it your all in every single take. Sarah Drew from “Grey’s Anatomy” told a story of when an actor she worked with taught her the importance of giving it her all in every single take. I think this happens with actors higher up on the totem pole, when the camera is not on them, they “phone it in” to save their mojo for when it counts, which is bullshit. And to never have an ego when it comes to acting.

DAMAN: Looking ahead, in what ways do you see the world of acting and filmmaking change even further?
Rushi Kota: Diversity in front of and behind the scenes to an equal playing eld of what America looks like now. There are many studies going on that say without proper representation these big budget movies bomb! So, all these Hollywood execs who are only concerned about money have no choice but to change their ways. The old white man ideology of “I can’t bank a movie on a person of color because it will never make money” is obsolete.

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DAMAN: Will we see you appear in any other movies or TV shows in the months to come?
Rushi Kota: Well, it’s been a busy past year. I had four projects come out, two movies and two shows that I have been promoting: “Useless Humans” on Showtime, “Phobias” on Apple TV, “iCarly” on Paramount+ and “Never Have I Ever” on Netflix. Now that those are out for the world to see, I can focus on what the next challenges are. I am free to fly with where the wind blows.

T-shirt by AG Jeans; pants by Guess; shoes by Champion

DAMAN: What are some causes you would like to give awareness to?
Rushi Kota: I donate as much of the little money I have to the BLM Movement, to animal charities, to the Indian COVID crisis. There’s a lot of grief in the world, and those who can’t speak up are the animals. They are the ones who suffer the most. As the apex species, it is our duty to take care of those without a voice.

DAMAN: Day-to-day, how do you keep yourself prepared when you aren’t on an acting gig?
Rushi Kota: I meditate every day. I write morning pages to check in with myself. I exercise. Eat as healthy as I can possibly muster. I am in an acting gym to keep my muscles flexed every week. I stay limber to be mobile at the drop of a dime.