Patti Cake$ was one of the most talked about movies at this year's Sundance Film Festival, earning not only its director, Geremy Jasper, critical acclaim but also its stars. The hip-hop comedy set in New Jersey follows Patricia, a bartender with rap ambitions (played by Australian actress Danielle MacDonald), and Hareesh, Patti's best friend who moonlights as Jheri the rapper when he's not working as a pharmacist.
Jasper hired Siddharth Dhananjay to take on this important supporting role, having come across the Indian actor's viral YouTube videos. Going by Dhananjay the First, Siddharth worked with his friends from Iowa’s Grinnell College to create parodies of popular R&B songs including Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” and Mario’s “Let Me Love You”, which got picked up by WorldStarHipHop.
Sid took time out to speak to Screen Rant about landing his first movie role, visa problems, what it's like for brown actors in Hollywood and why he has one reason, and one reason only, for wanting to star in a Marvel movie:
Patti Cake$ has earned some major buzz since Sundance, it must be amazing to earn that sort of acclaim for your first movie.
It’s been pretty ridiculous for it to be my first movie, but yeah it’s been pretty overwhelming. People have taken a like to it and all types of people, really young kids and old people, everybody seems to have found something they like about it and it’s really awesome.
How was your experience of it being your first film compared to your YouTube videos?
Yeah, I’ve always sort of been a huge cinephile and seeing the process of making movies, the whole process of this film, it was like being a kid in the candy store. Just being there and watching people work and figuring what it is to actually make a movie, you know, how many parts are actually involved in that, it was really awesome to be there. I had no idea that there could be a guy pulling focus from the main dude on camera, little things like that blew my mind. As a movie fan, it was amazing and as a new actor I learnt so much working with all these extremely talented people. It’s been kind of a whirlwind and I haven’t had the time to take a step back and fully take it all in yet.
So you’re a cinephile, what were the movies that inspired you to act?
Growing up I watched so many types of movies. I’m from India, I grew up there and Indonesia, so knowing the languages of other countries makes it so nice because you get to watch all of those movies too. So I’d watch a lot of Bollywood movies, South Indian, Collywood movies, English movies, a bit of everything. I guess the first real experience of watching a movie that I remember was Gladiator. I feel like that movie totally moved me in such a crazy way. It’s one of the best movies. Whenever it’s on TV, randomly, I’ll watch it and every single time when he’s walking through the wheatfields and shit, I cry. That was the one that I remember walking out of the theatre, thinking damn, I've never felt like this before.
My favourite filmmaker of all time is Wong Kar-wai, I love his movies. I don’t have a favourite but there’s something about his stuff that makes it feel so effortless, it feels so immersive. His stuff makes me want to make movies. I never thought of myself as an actor but this was a fateful turn. I knew I wanted to be something to do with movies but [Patti Cake$] made me realise I love acting too and it felt so natural and effortless.
Other ethnic minority actors like Riz Ahmed have said that becoming an actor never really felt like an option or a possibility for them. Is that how you felt?
I guess it is kind of different for me growing up in India and Indonesia as there were so many people who looked like me in movies because of Bollywood and Collywood. Actors in India are idolised in really crazy ways. They’re gods to the common man so in a way growing up watching these stars gave me the confidence to be able to do it. Thinking about it from a Hollywood perspective, it only happened when I moved here for college and I started getting into the culture and the media here, but I never really was planning on being an actor, but in the bottom of my heart I knew I had the confidence and freedom to do it, but I never really thought of it being a career choice. I was struggling with my visa situation here right before the movie happened. Being an Indian it’s like an everyday thing in your life. If you want to go anywhere as a family you have to figure out your visa so I knew these types of things would happen, but it was still complicated and frustrating for sure. The plan was to ride out my student visa and go home to India, and hopefully shadow a director and work on the scene in that sense, but then [the movie] happened and it’s been an even wilder, crazier opportunity so I had to go for it and give it my best.
So you went to Sundance, how was that experience for you? Were there any WTF moments like meeting Robert Redford?
I think the first "pinch me" moment was back in 2014 when the movie was at the Sundance Director’s Lab, this like Utopian workshop land where first time filmmakers come to work on their scripts and they invite actors they may want to work on the film. That’s when I first got involved, right when I was graduating and I met Danielle and Geremy and we were trying to work on the scene and I just wasn’t getting it, even though I had the crucial line, and it just wasn’t working. Then Ed Harris, who was one of the mentors of the programme, walked into watch and I was like “fuck, this is the worst,” because I just love Ed Harris. Two minutes of failing and Ed goes “everybody time out. Sid, come with me,” and he takes me to the side and speaks to me for like four minutes, but it felt like 20 hours, and then he said “ok, go do it now,” and I just felt so much better and it worked, and the scene it felt organic and natural. Then he just fistbumped and walked away. That was definitely a wild moment I’ll never forget. I also met Peter Dinklage who was on the jury panel.
Are you a Game of Thrones fans?
Yeah, obviously! Who isn’t? But he seemed so serious. I’m sure he’s like a really good guy, but he was on the jury and Bridget, who is in the movie, knows him so they were chatting for a while and we would just see him around, from place-to-place, and run into him. He wouldn’t say anything he’d just walk by and say “Patti Cake$!” [laughs] I met Paul Rudd and Molly Shannon too and that was just amazing. It was just like “look at me, I’m mingling with the stars!” We took that to the next level in Cannes, so that was really fun too.
You’re a rapper in the film and you did rapping in the viral videos. Are you worried you’re going to be stereotyped as a rapper from now on?
Yes! [laughs] The challenge for me in this movie is more than being the flamboyant rapper person. I can do that really easily and it feels natural, but the challenge for me was to find the inner human, the Jheri who loves his best friend and cares for her, it’s that. Finding the balance between this wild dude and being like a real person. I didn’t study acting, so the best way for me to learn at this point is to put myself in as many different roles as possible. I think coming off Patti Cake$ as my first movie is easy for people to say “hey, he’s the funny guy. Put him in the multi-cam as the Indian dude,” and I know that’s not what I want to do at all. As long as it’s far away from that. We’re in an interesting time right now where being brown on screen is like a buzzword. Like, they want a piece of it but they don’t really know what they’re buying into so it’s still a rather unexplored space. And I think people like Riz, Kumail [Nanjiani], Aziz [Ansari] and Dev [Patel] have made it easier for me to exist in this space, but coming off this movie I almost think that I have a responsibility now to try and make roles exist for me that aren’t just roles that need to have an Indian in it, but just happened to be Indian.
Right, like Priyanka Chopra’s character in Baywatch, Victoria Leeds, who has no racial indicators, but at the same time we want to be making movies that offer more diverse stories and show that Western cinema doesn't always equal white.
Definitely, there’s a way it can be done. It’s all so contextual. When you read something you can instantly tell where this is coming from. It might end up coming down to making the roles from scratch for you, making movies that have [ethnic characters] if they don't exist. If nobody wants it to happen, you have to push for it to happen yourself, I guess.
Have you had any roles or auditions that you’ve turned down because you don’t want to perpetuate racial stereotypes?
For sure, but right now my main project is working on my visa, I need that O1, and we need every type of press so we’re hoping they can’t say no to me. I don’t have the opportunity to turn anything down! Right after coming out of this movie, and moving to LA, I’ve done all the auditions I possibly can do and that included a ton of shit that I’d never want to do even if I got it. Like roles that are so stereotypical and corny and extremely uninteresting to me. I went in and read for a character called Sanjay, a side character, and I went into the audition and I was like one of three Indian dudes for that role. But in the same room there were black dudes, Latino dudes, Japanese-Korean looking dudes, and I was like what does that mean? If you don’t go for the Indian dude are you going to change his name? So basically it was just a placeholder for the other, for the non-white person.
It must be so frustrating to see this type of role that feel more like writers are filling diversity quotes rather than offering anything of substance.
Yeah, it is and I’m the lucky one who didn’t have to suffer for years being stereotyped and I can already feel how stressful it is. Imagine people who have given up their lives to become an actor and they’re not white, they’re struggling to get roles, and are forced to play roles that they despise but do because they want to make a name for themselves. I have the luxury to take my time and be smart to figure out what the next thing is rather than book that TV show. It’s nice, but can be depressing.
What are the ideal movies or shows you’d like to be in? Have you got any Marvel ambitions?
I’d love to do dramatic roles, I feel like I’d be good at those. I don’t know why, I’m just saying that, but who knows! I think that when people think of Indian dudes they still think of them as funny people or comedians. I want to change that somehow, play a role that has a love interest, to change the way that people perceive a brown person. If that means being in a Marvel movie, a huge big budget project and the main character was an Indian dude, that would be fucking sick, I would totally be down for that. So I guess I’m coming from it from a place where I’m trying to fuck with the status quo.
It’s showing people of colour, especially Arab or South Asian people, that they don’t always have to be the villain. That they can be the hero too.
Definitely, and on different level it’s different for me than Riz or Dev in that, you know, I’m not Indian-American, or British-Pakistani, I’m actually just Indian and that changes things a little bit too. The ideal plan would be to do things on a global level, so do the reverse of Priyanka and kill it here but then go home and kill it there as well.
So be the king of Hollywood and Bollywood?
Yeah! Wouldn’t that be fresh? That would be crazy because I feel like I’m two different people depending on where I am. I don’t speak like this at home, I dress differently depending on which side of the Earth I’m on, so that’s kind of a unique perspective that I might be able to give to people. I’m trying to find a way to facilitate both. But this is like ideal life in 20 years so, I don’t know if it will happen, I hope it does.
Patti Cake$ is now playing in theaters.