SPOILED ROTTEN … BUT STILL GROUNDED
Of course, I can’t complain about how the profession pays. I was spoiled to no end. How I would put it is that they would never let my feet touch the ground. I had a staff of six from my second film on. These six staff members accompanied me everywhere. Needless to say, when I eventually came back to Michigan, it was hard to adjust to life without my assistant carrying my umbrella over my head; having my own personal chef; getting my makeup and hair done at six in the morning; or getting regular massages. I was spoiled rotten when it came to that.
The other good thing was that I had a very close-knit relationship with my staff. I think they found it very refreshing to have an actor not treat them as inferiors; sometimes, you see actors and actresses have an elitist attitude and expect people to worship them like gods. My staff was my friends. They actually helped me learn new languages. They helped me see new places. They became like family to me. I’ve always put relationships first.
I was able to build my own brand identity over a very short amount of time. It’s been so humbling to receive so much love and admiration from complete strangers around the world and seeing them still support me even though I’m not acting anymore.
THE DRAWBACKS TO FAME? MEAN CRITICS AND SOCIAL MEDIA TROLLS
There is bad, too, in the acting profession. Mean critics are one. I think you have to take the bad part of fame part-and-parcel with the good. When it comes to critics, you’re going to be exceptional to one person and terrible to another. Film reviews are generally subjective. What I taught myself is that I shouldn’t take everything so personally. That experience is what really helped me become thick-skinned. In life, you will receive criticism wherever you go. You have to learn to take it in stride and as an opportunity to improve yourself. At the same time, you can’t be too hard on yourself or you will go crazy. You just have to realize that you can’t please everyone. You have to do the best that you can do. I never really let them bring me down too much. The critics’ view on performance was always very different than the commercial response from the audiences.
It was nice to get a Critics Choice Award, though. I received a Best Actress Award for Mayakkam Enna, where I played the role of fiercely independent but tattered housewife. It was a very de-glamorous role. I barely wore any makeup in it. I was actually asked to gain weight for the role. That’s the film where I got to work opposite a very critically acclaimed, highly successful A-list star named Dhanush. I was actually nominated for a national award for the film, which is incredibly humbling. For that film, I won six Best Actress awards and one Critic’s Choice Award.
In the digital world that we live in today, everyone is accessible through social media. Complete strangers think that they know you — sometimes better than you know yourself. I’ve had the good, the bad, and the ugly in terms of fan interaction. I’ve had fans who’ve traveled long distances just to deliver hand-painted portraits of me. I’ve had fans who’ve waited at the airport for me after international flights to give me a rose. I’ve even had fans name their children after the characters that I’ve played. Of course, I’ve also had my share of social media trolls who just provoke you, I think, to get reactions out of me. It really did work initially in my early days when I was just getting into the groove with my career. I learned early on that I was only feeding their trolling by responding to negativity. I know there are currently impersonator social media accounts out there claiming to be me and have even successfully shut down my own personal account, but it’s hard to keep track after a while so I’ve stopped worrying about them.
EVERYTHING GETS HARDER ONCE YOU MAKE IT TO THE TOP
I’ve also had these instances where I would visit these rural villages just to do a ribbon-cutting ceremony and fans would literally become violent with my bodyguards and shred their clothes off just to access me. There was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears just to do those inaugurations. I think it’s all part of the package. I didn’t know whether to be flattered or weirded out. I’ve learned to see humor in every situation, which has helped me really deal with the not-so-glamorous side of being famous. You have to learn to ignore the bad and not let anyone bring you down.
The schedules, as I mentioned before, were really, really demanding. Looking back, I honestly don’t know how I did it. When you’re riding high at the time, it’s really difficult to say no. Then, you just end up taking on a lot more than you can handle. As it happens, it starts to negatively impact your routine: your schedule, diet, exercise — everything! That was Leadership 101 for me: Don’t spread yourself too thin.
A lot of people think that once you’ve made it, become successful or established yourself, it’s easy sailing from there. I would actually disagree. When you’re already on top, it’s harder because you have to stay there and the competition was fierce once I established myself as an A-Lister. There were always other actresses who were equally, if not more, talented and beautiful competing for the same roles. Sometimes, they were willing to do whatever it took.
‘DOING FILM FOR THE EXPERIENCE AND THE ADVENTURE’
I have always taken a lot of pride in the fact that I never once had to compromise my values to get any roles. I’m sure you’ve heard about the casting couch. It’s something that seems to exist in whatever industry you go into. It’s something I personally never had to experience, just because I never let anyone come close to the idea of taking advantage of me. I think that was a distinct American trait that people found unique.
I always reminded people when I wasn’t desperate for roles and that I was just doing film for the experience and the adventure. To this day, people don’t believe me that money and fame were not my primary motivators. For me, the only expectations that I had of myself were to stay grounded and to not let anyone change who I am, keep good relationships with everyone, and just perform to the best of my ability.
Looking back at my acting career, what differentiated me from other actresses was that I never tried to change myself to fit into some stereotype, which is often what people expect out of you, especially in this public-figure kind of role. I am and always have been this suburban girl from Michigan who cherishes the simple things in life. I think that fame and fortune, generally, are byproducts of hard work. Never lose sight of your goals and just focus on working hard first and foremost. I think that worked out well for me.