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Sunita Mani | On New Film 'Spirited'

Read the full Q&A.

Written by

Shei Marcelline

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Photographed by Tommy Agriodimas

‘Genre-bending’ may be a term analogous to the music sphere, however, 35-year-old actor Sunita Mani re-envisions this term on-screen. Having taken on a plethora of roles ranging from horror (Evil Eye) to comedy (Glow) to drama (Mr. Robot), Mani is now appending her well-seasoned expertise to the Christmas season. Spirited, an Apple Original Film, draws inspiration from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to deliver the holiday spirit in a musical forum. The star-studded film, headlining Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds, sees Mani as the more hip and contemporary adaptation of the Ghost of Christmas Past.

The Brooklyn-based artist always possessed an inclination towards the stage. Having grown up in Tennessee as a first generation Indian American, Mani felt an evident push-pull grapple with pursuing what her parents deemed practical versus what she felt impassioned by. College became Mani’s gateway into the successful career we see today. Disguising her creative pursuits behind the mask of an academic writing career, Mani admits, “Little did [my parents] know, week one of getting [to college], I auditioned for the improv comedy troupe and that became my obsession.”

Mani’s performance in Spirited is a sure testament to the actor’s versatility —she enjoys trying on many different hats. Her ability to adopt a role and tailor it to fit her own persona is a superpower in itself, however, Mani’s future career endeavors aspire for a more self-constructed role. “I don't think people know what to do with me, and I want to dimensionalize this Indian American experience in a very real way, while bringing my absurdist self to the screen.” 

Flaunt chatted with Mani about her preparation for Spirited, her hilarious first introduction to Ryan Reynolds, and her future creative pursuits. Check out the full interview below.

How did you land your role in Spirited

I was going out for a couple roles, a couple different roles in the movie and was very surprised when I got a call back. They said, “Let's see her for the role of Ghost of Christmas Past.” And that was like, 'Wait, are you sure?’ I tried really hard to just have fun with this one and putting myself on tape for the Ghost of Christmas Past was an almost liberating thing of ‘be your weirdest, make the weirdest choices you want.’ It was a good lesson in having fun and the freedom of feeling that out versus feeling the pressure of trying to get the role.

Spirited is significantly different to your previous works, like Glow and Evil Eye. Now you’re taking on a holiday movie with literally the King of holiday movies, Will Ferrell—how was prepping for this role different? 

I was in shock for a lot of it. Like, “Oh my god, I'm in the movie.” It was a long audition process, but they let me try a lot of different things. We were going back and forth on improvising lines. It was very accepted that I could put my own interpretation into the role. Mainly, I was focused on trying to stay confident. I'm such a fan of all of these people and I really wanted to seize this opportunity. I didn't wanna look back on it and be like, “You didn't go hard enough,” or “You didn't prep long enough.” I always wanna go into a project with that mindset, but it was like, next level. How dare I show up to set and not know my lines when I'm in a scene with Will Ferrell? Like, no, that's not okay in my book. So I loved that challenge. I wanted that. I needed it. 

How did you get into acting? 

I was always a ham growing up, like a little stinker, class clown—I was definitely performing for classmates and friends. But coming from an Indian household, there's a lot of cultural expectations to be a good student. I happened to be a good student as well. I was an athlete, I was in all the clubs. I was this hyperactive, overcompensating immigrant kid with a lot of different social groups, so I think adapting to different social circles and playing the jester—it's just kind of innate to me. I didn't get on stage regularly until high school when I auditioned for the local dance team. It was jazz, tap, ballet, hip hop, and they all had amazing costumes. I loved the performative nature of it. I left my small town for the big city of Boston, Massachusetts to go to Emerson College and be a writing major. So I very lightly stepped into creative arts through writing, which built up to auditions for the for comedy troupes.

How did that convo go over with the South Asian parents? 

The degree of writing literature and publishing at Emerson College was vague enough for me to propose to them, “I will be a journalist and I will have a career in ethical writing for an established newspaper or magazine.” That career path was enough for them to hold onto. I remember visiting the school after I got accepted, and it's a very shiny school, it looks so legit, so I think my parents were like, “Boston: Harvard nearby and it has the mystique and reputation of white educated people.” I was fitting into rough sketches of academic and career success. Little did they know, week one of getting there, I auditioned for the improv comedy troupe and that became my obsession. I don't even remember class. I just remember doing stupid jokes, wearing wigs, roller skates, and a mustard costume. I was taking that seriously. It sort of fit into the closeted theater kid that I was growing up. I was always attracted to the light and like a moth to the flame, I couldn't help myself. 

What was your musical rehearsal process for Spirited?

I was rehearsing for probably three-ish weeks before we started shooting. I know a lot of the other cast members were there for much longer. It would be a whole day of shooting one musical number and it would often repeat like, “Let's do it again. Let's do it again. Let's do it again.” I found it very rewarding, but it was very exhausting. It also felt like a parallel to wrestling, like the wrestling in Glow. Doing the whole scene is a live performance.

Starring alongside Ryan Reynolds—What was it like meeting him for the first time?

I have a funny story about finally meeting Ryan Reynolds. I was both nervous and super excited. The anticipation of actually crossing paths with these stars was on my mind. We were getting close to shooting and there was a day where we had screen tests. We were doing different looks for our characters and there was a moment where I saw Ryan and we had this awkward interaction. He decided to come introduce himself formally and knocked on my trailer door. Very sweet of him, but I was just not anticipating that. I get a knock on my door and I thought it was costumes coming to help me change. It was Ryan Reynolds and I'm half put together. I have one shoe on, I hobbled with the door and he's like, “Hi, I just wanted to formally, I'm Ryan Reynolds.” And I'm like, “I'm not wearing pants.” After the intros, everyone was so sweet and we were having fun nicknaming everyone. It was like summer camp, but it was also Christmas in a hundred degree weather in July. It was hot. 

Do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about?

I'm working on writing a television show. Also there’s a horror movie coming out that I did last July called Wilder Than Her.’ It’s this interesting script about a trio of female friends and they're dealing with the loss of their fourth friend.

Do you see yourself doing more writing in the future?

You know, it's this show, it's this character that I'm writing. It's like, it's this moment to carve out space for myself and that's why I wanted to make this show. I don't think people know what to do with me, and I want to dimensionalize this Indian American experience in a very real way, while bringing my absurdist self to the screen. This project in particular allows me to be the writer and performer. I wonder where writing will take me, but I am super excited to be an actor right now. I feel like I'm just getting started in a lot of ways.

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