Rutgers, NJ: Between taking center stage in Jesse Eisenberg’s off-Broadway production The Spoils last spring and getting cast alongside Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti this winter in Showtime’s Billions, it’s safe to say Annapurna Sriram’s star is on the rise.
But three years ago, the 2011 Mason Gross BFA’s career was in slumpsville. “I hadn’t had work. I’d had a bad break up and bad representation,” she said of the rough patch that lasted about six months. “When you’re as ambitious and impatient as I am, it felt like ‘I’m wasting precious time!’ ” Acting is the only vocation the Nashville native had ever envisioned for herself. “I decided I wanted to be an actor because I was so bad at school growing up,” said Sriram.
She chased her dream with gusto: hustling for gigs before she entered a performing arts high school, graduating from Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts with an agent and landing her first community theater gig – with Red Bank’s Two River Theatre – when the ink on her diploma was barely dry.
Yet there she was, paying rent on her Gowanus, Brooklyn, apartment with babysitting money. That’s when a friend with a small local record label asked her to do a web comedy series. Sriram was so hungry for the opportunity to get back to her craft that she not only worked for free she also footed the bill.
“I maxed out a credit card feeding everyone and buying all the props, and I edited it on a pirated version of Final Cut Pro,” the 26-year-old said of the project. She built a set in her apartment and clearly had fun creating an eccentric cast of musical characters for the “Gowanus Music Lab Presents” webisodes.
And then, the project was scrapped. “I thought the whole thing was for nothing,” said Sriram. But the experience – which showed off the half-Indian, half-white actress’s newfound comedic chops and her ability to inhabit a variety of racially diverse characters – was her ticket.
“Those tapes booked me my first TV job on South of Hell, ” she said of the 2015 supernatural horror WEtv series starring Mena Suvari. “People kept telling me, ‘You have a way different range than we had assumed.’ ” The irony that her ethnically mixed background is an advantage in her field, while still a disadvantage in the real world for so many who look like her is not lost on Sriram.
“It’s a fad. We’re in a day and age where being ethnically ambiguous – which is what I am – is a commodity,” she said. “My goal and my purpose in the industry is to reclaim what the face of America really looks like and show that being other is just as American as being white.”
Last year Eisenberg tapped Sriram to play the girlfriend of The Big Bang Theory’s Kunal Nayyar in his dark comedy The Spoils about an obnoxious trust fund millennial and his snarky circle of friends.
“He is so funny, so smart,” said Sriram of Eisenburg. “And Scott Elliot is one of the most amazing directors. He’s similar to (Mason Gross associate head of acting) Kevin Kittle in his style. He really wants simple, authentic work.”
For Sriram, The Spoils was a turning point: It was the moment when her Mason Gross training came full circle. “A lot of the stuff we learned at Rutgers was marinating. It was in me, but I didn’t know how to use it fully,” she said. “The Spoils was the first time that the pieces were starting to come together for me.”
Then it was back to the small screen for a meaty three-episode role on “Billions,” which airs 10 p.m. Sundays on Showtime. Sriram plays Tara Mohr, the hard-partying, blackmailed employee of Giamatti’s U.S. attorney character. “TV is definitely something I’m still figuring out. It requires this super high level of relaxation and trust in yourself,” she said. “Paul made the room safe. He’s incredibly funny and light and really a joy to work with.”
Though Sriram has developed relationships with other advocates and mentors in the industry, such as Giamatti, she said she is indebted to her first cheerleaders: Kittle and Barbara Marchant, head of acting at Mason Gross.
“Kevin and Barbara are so incredible in the way that they teach. They just pour their lives into it,” she said. “They come and see my work still. The relationship was beyond just having a professor because their job is basically to carry us into a career. They were kind of like shepherds in that way.”
These days, Sriram is happy to report that she is fully supporting herself through her acting career. (“I also have a roommate and one bedroom, which helps,” she said.). She is grateful for the success she’s experienced. “I’m aware of how lucky I’ve been. But there’s still a long way I want to go.”