I am one who appreciates diversity in film and TV–I really do. I know I’m as white as they come (I have regularly apologized over the years for the color of my skin as more often than not, many things are assumed about me because of the way I look), and when I noticed Aliza Vellani in a recent Hallmark film, I knew I wanted to interview her. Thankfully, she agreed, and she was quite happy to tell me how she got started in the business, her notable and current works, and even a bit about her unique perception of the industry as a whole.
RH: What inspired you to become an actress? What kind of training have you received?
AV: I have always wanted to be an actress since I was a little girl. For me, acting is like getting to play dress-up for a living, and it never gets old.
I recently received my BFA in Theatre training from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, but I have had multiple acting teachers in different studios before and after my degree such as Tarlington Training, Actor’s Foundry and McIlroy & Associates. I still feel like I am in training and that I will never stop being in training. It’s very much like any other profession. You always want to make sure you are the most up-to-date in your field of work.
Please tell us about your first job and how it impacted your career.
Believe it or not, Little Mosque on the Prairie was the first thing I ever booked as an actress, and it went much further than I expected. Six seasons on such an incredible show has definitely made the most notable impact on my career. I would say a huge part of what I have learned in the industry still comes from working on that series. However, as I have gotten older, I have had some amazing experiences such as being turned into a zombie and working with incredible actors such as Gillian Anderson.
How did you get involved with Little Mosque on the Prairie? Please tell us about your experience with that show.
Little Mosque was the first show I had ever auditioned for via a taped submission. It wasn’t until a week or so later that the director came into town and auditioned in person. That was actually the first time I met Manoj Sood, who was eventually cast to play Layla’s dad, Baber, throughout the series. I always say that I really grew up on that series and I learned so much just by having such loving and experienced people around me in the industry giving me advice. I honestly wouldn’t be where I am today without them.
You also got to work on iZombie and The X-Files. How did you get involved with those shows? Any memories or stories from filming?
I actually auditioned for both shows at North Shore Studios with the same casting directors! iZombie was definitely a show that had a lot of firsts for me. In episode three of the first season, I had to be turned into a zombie, and it took around four hours to be completely transformed into one. I had face, arm and leg prosthetics, a wig, fake teeth and nails, contacts, the works! It was an eighteen-hour day, but it was definitely worth every minute!
Your first Hallmark work was with the Signed, Sealed Delivered movies. How did you get the role on those films? What was it like working with that cast and crew?
Working on Signed, Sealed, Delivered was a fun experience. The audition was actually quite simple; I had to scream as a woman in labour. I have never had children before, but apparently I was quite convincing. This was the first non-speaking role I ever had in a film, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t full of excitement. I remember filming in a gravel pit in Victoria, since we were meant to be located in the Middle East, and it was burning hot! And because I was wrapped in a pregnancy suit, that only made things stickier.
You also got to be in a recent Aurora Teagarden film. What was it like filming with that cast and crew? Any special connections or stories with the other cast members? What do you like about working for Hallmark?
Working on one of the Aurora Teagarden films was lovely. The cast and crew were wonderful to work with. It was great how some of the actors had worked together before since this was the third Aurora Teagarden film, so everything was running smoothly. And as a new actor coming into the movie series, I felt so welcome. Working with Hallmark is always a joyful experience. The scripts are always fun and full of love and that definitely translates on screen. I hope to work on more Hallmark films in the future.
Any other upcoming works you can mention?
I am currently working on season two of a new series on Disney XD, called Mech-X4, and I’m playing Lieutenant Verma. It’s a show about four boys who stumble upon a 150-foot robot that they control to fight monsters in the Bay City area. It’s been an amazing series to work on and everyone on the show is incredible! Season one is currently airing on Disney XD and season two isn’t far behind!
Any plans to write/direct/produce eventually?
I currently have a few pieces I have written, so directing is a certainly in the cards at some point in my career. I have always loved writing stories and scripts so it would be incredible to direct or produce one of them someday. Never say never, right?
As a woman of East Indian descent, have you experienced any gender/ethnic bias within the business? How have you dealt with that? Do you see the attitudes positively changing within the business?
I would say in the beginning of my career, in my teens, I used to audition for a lot of stereotyped Indian characters, but as I have gotten older, the stereotypes have become less and less. Diversity is becoming a huge topic in film and TV, and we are seeing more diverse characters on screen than ever before. People have asked me if I am bothered by the idea that I constantly play medical roles in the industry, and to be quite honest, I think it’s actually a great thing that I do! Being an actor isn’t exactly in the top three professions for East Indian Women my age. As great as that would be, that isn’t the reality. The truth is, when I get cast as a doctor in a show, I feel like I am truly representing the many intelligent East Indian women in the world that deserve to be shown. I would say the best thing I have seen right now for auditions would be in the breakdown of a character I audition for. At the top of the page it always says “We are open to all ethnicities,” and that always makes me smile. It assures me that the attitudes are positively changing in the industry and it will continue to do so in the future.
How do you define success within the business? What do you see as the essential qualities to be successful in this business?
I find success is very subjective in this industry. Fame certainly shouldn’t be the goal; I can’t emphasize that enough! For me, I find I am successful in my acting career because I am happiest when I am on set, and I have been lucky enough to work in something that I am passionate about. I also consider myself successful when I am auditioning in the room. Even if I don’t book the part, the fact a casting director has asked to see my work is a win in itself. I would say the essential qualities to be successful in this business are to believe in your craft, always be humble, and continue to find new ways to explore and perform in the industry. Those have worked for me in the past and I continue to follow them today.
Finally, what is one thing you can share that most people wouldn’t know about you
I hate eggplant. It’s the texture that always gets me. There are a few different foods that I didn’t like before that I have been able to learn to like, but eggplant is just one of those things that I think I’m going to avoid for life!
I greatly respect what Aliza had to say about all of her roles, but I am even more appreciative that she was so willing to share about what she has experienced as an East Indian woman in the business. Her outlook is one of hopefulness that does not attempt to blatantly buck the system. She has witnessed the gradual shift towards diversity being more the rule as opposed to the exception, and she even sees her “typecasting” as a beneficial thing that exhibits her ethnicity and gender in an extremely positive light. I am grateful that she has persevered and become successful in her own right in spite of any obstacles she has encountered and overcome along the way. The fact that she has remained humble and teachable are two qualities that certainly raise her to a much higher plane in my eyes. I do hope that one day she will be able to share her unique perspective through directing, producing, writing, or whatever she may choose, but more than anything, I think that all of us viewers have benefited from the immense skill in acting she has chosen to share with us. I am ecstatic that she didn’t permit society, her culture, or anyone else to detail the way her life should be run. She has chosen to follow her heart and to persist unceasingly. I invite everyone to check out all of her links below as Aliza is one who champions the rights of women and minorities in her own simple way by doing what she does best–acting on the screen to the best of her ability within whatever confines she is given. You might consider checking out her current project on Disney XD (I think I need to–I’ve heard of the show but have not had the opportunity to watch as of yet), and even consider investigating her previous projects throughout the years. Aliza is one whom I greatly respect, and I, for one, am grateful for her grace, kindness, giftedness, and frankness.