The break out star of last year's 'Blockers' shows no signs of slowing down.
Geraldine Viswanathan is booked and busy. The 23-year-old Australian-born actor of Swiss and Indian descent made a major splash in last year's raunchy comedy Blockersthanks to a mix of brash teenage girl horniess and a truly sweet connection with her on-screen dad, played by John Cena. Since her American debut -- the actor had done a few Australian projects like Janet King and Emo The Musical before her transcontinental leap -- she's shot two other comedies, a drama that became a 2019 Sundance darling and nabbed a leading role in a limited series opposite Daniel Radcliffe and Steve Buscemi. By any young actor's standards, Viswanathan's Hollywood career is already a whirlwind of her own making.
"Imposter syndrome is pretty constant, it's just like a roller coaster ride," Viswanathan said to TV Guide during a carefully eked out half hour in the midst of the Miracle Workers press tour. She's learning to work with that uncertainty and use it in her favor; to Viswanathan, coming to an audition as if she deserves the part is counterproductive to building a character worth playing. Any expression of imagination is, at its core, about creation. How can Viswanathan create something worth watching if she's walking into a part feeling like she knows everything there is to know about the character?
I was like oh sh--, like I haven't seen this before -- that's a brown girl talking about dicks looking like plungers.
It's this willingness to learn, to collaborate, to challenge herself within an industry geared to overlook her, that's given her such an auspicious and memorable start. "Kayla [from Blockers] represented me in the way that I dreamed of being represented. I didn't really realize that until I saw it on screen. And I was like oh sh--, like I haven't seen this before -- that's a brown girl talking about dicks looking like plungers," said Viswanathan. Despite growing up as and with that exact girl, neither of us could think of another on-screen example of a teenage desi girl's vulgarity landing as the punchline instead of the parable. Blockers "set the marker for not doing pigeon-holed roles," she said. "Kayla was just an Indian-American girl who happened to be mixed race, and like self-possessed, self-assured and free to explore her sexuality."
Since Blockers, Viswanathan's been honing her instincts in picking distinct parts. "What connects? What feels interesting and exciting?" she asked. "Are they a fully realized character, who isn't lazily written, who serves the story, who isn't just a sounding board for other characters -- particularly male characters -- isn't just like the best friend?" Being one of the handful of Indian diaspora actresses who Western audiences recognize isn't enough for her, she wants a career full of roles in which the audience and the industry can "see you as a complete person, or character."
Viswanathan acknowledged she has this freedom and privilege thanks to the numerous actors, directors and writers who came before her and did their part to push stereotypical representation closer to unwieldy truths. "When creative people of color -- I think Mindy Kaling is a good example of that -- made sh-- of their own, that's when people realize, 'Oh, it can be commercially successful,'" said Viswanathan. "All the excuses that people in power used to make for not telling diverse stories, or including diverse people, they've proven to be false. Now it's just like embarrassing, if you are so behind that you don't realize that it's beneficial for everyone."
To most people, the urge to push forward desi representation on-screen while steadily nabbing roles that avoid stereotypes will seem at odds. But to Viswanathan, these goals dovetail with how most of us experience real life. There might be common experiences ("When I was growing up in Newcastle, there was one other Indian girl and we got confused for each other constantly"), but the defining characteristic is contrast. We're different than our cousins in the motherland who grew up proper Indian; we're different than our chosen families in our adoptive countries; we're even different in the way we navigate our otherness. Immigrants are always cognizant of their multitudes and, in Viswanathan's case, this comes out in the way she looks for characters who normalize attitudes and experiences to the audience that are foundational in her real life. In Blockers, that meant talking aggressively about what good dick can and should mean to teenage girls. In Miracle Workers, Viswanathan as Eliza asks us to think about what being a good friend and good leader really means.
Created by Simon Rich, Miracle Workers is a limited series that asks us to imagine heaven as a corporation run by God (Steve Buscemi). Two low-level and fairly incompetent employees, Craig (Radcliffe) and Eliza, try to save the Earth when God gets sick of the place and decides to scrap the entire planet and start over. Much like The Good Place, Miracle Workers' version of heaven is richly diverse, and its characters are divorced from the human identities they subscribed to by at least one metaphysical plane and several centuries. That's, in fact, the cosmic joke -- they went from being men to working for The Man. And as anyone who has ever worked for a major corporation can attest, bureaucracy makes it extremely difficult to care about what's right versus wrong, particularly if it involves more paperwork for you. Viswanathan's Eliza is frequently the catalyst for pulling everyone else's head out of the sand -- she's not good at getting the paperwork done herself, but she knows why it's worth doing, why Earth is worth saving. In the 23-minute pilot alone, Eliza gets to do a number of things desi girls normally are excluded from on-screen: master soft-butch energy, bully Harry Potter for the greater good and agree to eat a worm if she loses a bet with God. In the midst of those superfluous delights, is a more tangible thread of someone struggling to keep up because they feel unqualified for their job -- a feeling Viswanathan is no stranger to experiencing herself.
"It was one of those auditions where I was like, it's cute that I'm going for this, but obviously I'm not going to get it," said Viswanathan. "In my heart of hearts I wanted it so badly, because I'm obsessed with Simon Rich...then when it came together it was a mixture of extreme excitement, and also extreme nervousness. Because it kind of felt like maybe it was a mistake or something, classic you know, actor insecurities where you're like, I think I'm gonna get fired."
Imposter syndrome is pretty constant, it's just like a roller coaster ride.
That uncertainty shapes Eliza into a three-dimensional character, and Viswanathan's connection to the material is what makes Miracle Workers' representation of Indian-Americans foundational but not monolithic. There's no mistaking Eliza as white, as flashbacks to Heaven Inc. workers' human lives prove. And yet here is a character who is not only a professional screw up, but is allowed to learn from her mistakes over time. It's something so rarely afforded to women of color in real life that it surprises and delights viewers without overwhelming Eliza's goals.
Like Eliza (and Kayla), Viswanathan's strength lies in this low key subtlety. It's not revolutionary that every time she shoots another project, another character of Indian descent shows up on screen. But it is revolutionary that Viswanathan herself gets to define the nuances that make that representation worth noting. That fact that she's continually eager to learn -- about the diaspora community, about the process of acting, about Hollywood as business and how to manipulate it to say something new -- is a sign that Viswanathan will stay unpredictable as she continues to challenge herself.
Her next big post-Miracle Workers project, Hala, is already garnering Sundance buzz for that exact reason. Hala, written and directed by Minhal Baig, is the first credit on her short IMDb page that centers race, religion, and cultural identity in a major way. Viswanathan as the eponymous Hala, is Pakistani-American teen who deals not just with the normal horrors of high school but also the quiet unraveling of her family life as she figures out what tenants of her culture she actually believes in. The role is a big swing for Viswanathan not just because it's her first dramatic part, but also because Hala, who skateboards and masturbates and recites Anne Carson poems in class, is a (not The) portrait of a modern Muslim teenager, a community to which Viswanathan is not necessarily connected.
Born of mixed race descent and raised in country not native to either of her parents, Viswanathan was second generation in a city where she was "pretty much the only brown kid in my school until like later on in my high school." To put it even more simply, "The Indian food in Newcastle is bad." When local Indian restaurants are catering to the spice levels of the locals instead of diaspora, that's a true sign the area's population is skewed extremely white. At a younger age, her only major connection to desi culture was through her grandparents (where all the good food is), a fact that changed when she went off to college in Sydney and eventually dropped out to pursue her love of comedy and acting. With her parents' blessing ("I think my dad's rebellion is that he's super accepting -- I mean he like, encouraged me to drop out of university. And to do acting."), she began chasing opportunities like Kayla in Blockers that recontextualized how she saw herself. And with more recognition and bigger platforms to work with, she began making her own connections to the diaspora community.
Imagine her surprise when one of those social media connections turned into an audition for Hala. "I follow Minhal on Twitter," said Viswanathan. "I think social media just lets you expand that community. I mean I'm constantly finding people or people find me, and it's just like this mutual excitement of like, 'Oh y'all are like, you're a person of color just doing what they wanna do, like Hi!'" Viswanathan mentioned to her agent that Baig seemed "interesting, I'd love to meet with her" and the rest is history.
"I really felt like Hala would be a challenge in the best way," said Viswanathan. To others, a role focused on navigating cultural identity after setting a miraculous precedent of avoiding what can be stereotypical fare might seem like a step backward. But to Viswanathan, increasing the stakes on that side of the equation only meant that she worked even harder to make sure the complexities of the character came through. It's because Hala is a fully formed character that Viswanathan took a shine to her in the first place. "Hala had such a strong point of view, and such a strong voice.... I was just really excited to do something with such a strong identity, and also something that was so different from what I had been doing."
I just wanted to expand that community.
Viswanathan's not exactly sure what's next for her. Bad Education, a comedy costarring Hugh Jackman, comes out at the end of the year, and Hala was just bought by Apple, which will mean another round of press soon. But beyond that, she's checking in on her family's group text ("It's mostly just pictures and videos of our pets, especially our bunnies back home. My family has a little kind of bunny breeding business going. So there are just constant baby bunnies."), reveling in her newfound success ("Every time I fly first class I'm like, 'Damn dude, this is sick!'") and thinking mostly about the next big way she can challenge herself. Considering she's a writer and has a background in improv comedy, it wouldn't be surprising if she went off and created some radically low key desi characters of her own design.
"I just wanted to expand that community," Viswanathan said. With her incredible precision at picking roles that have something to say beyond Brown Women Exist! she's doing just that.
Miracle Workers airs Tuesdays on TBS at 10:30/9:30c.