Crown The Brown: Sujata Day
Crown The Brown: The Life of Sujata Day and Her Love for The Arts. Sujata Day, is an American actress, model and screenwriter. Best known as CeeCee in the Issa Rae web series and The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. Her first feature film Definition Please, premiered at the 2020 Bentonville Film Festival. We wanted to know more about Sujata‘s upbringing and her love for the arts! This is what she shared with us!
Tell us more about yourself, your upbringing, how did you get into film?
I was born in a small town in Western Pennsylvania called Greensburg. To immigrant parents who are from Kolkata, India. My town was very much a white suburb. I grew up with a lot of white friends, but we were also lucky in that area because there are three temples in Pittsburgh. So there was a really large Indian community that we hung out with on the weekends. For example I was doing Bharatanatyam, at the temple on Sundays.
I was also going to Hindu summer camp, in the summertime. We were always going to Indian parties. It was really fun, like our own little family. Every thanksgiving my mom would host a thanksgiving for a lot of the Bengali Indians in the community. They would come over, still to this day the kids and the parents talk about our thanksgiving dinners that my mom hosted.
As I was growing up, I was dancing, singing and in middle school/high school I started to get into plays and musicals, and I loved it.
I was always really good at that! My first acting bug hit when I was in a musical called “showboat”. I had a very small role and I had one line.
I remember seeing packed auditorium seats then saying just one line. I was like “wow! this is an amazing feeling and I want to chase after this feeling for the rest of my life”. At that time I was naturally good at math and science. I was not pushed towards any certain career, but there was always talk about well,
you wanna do something where you are stable, you will be able to pay the rent and put food on the table.
I looked into medicine and went into a 6-week special governors school for medicine in Pennsylvania at the University of Pittsburgh. The summer after my sophomore year I was really glad that I went because that is where I decided that I do not want to be a doctor. Similarly, I really enjoyed crossing things off my list like, “oh okay not gonna do that, so that’s good!.” I actually did attend school for engineering and I got my engineering degree but I was also still focusing on art, writing, performing, singing, and dancing at the same time.
My parents were also very supportive of that side of me.
Even when was I was doing plays, musicals in middle school and high school, they were there, greeting me with flowers. When I finished my engineering degree in Cleveland, I sort of manipulated it so that I could land in Los Angeles.
I got a job at a consulting firm right away. They asked me where I wanted to go, of course, I said Los Angeles. Little did they know that I would barely be working. I would be taking acting classes, getting headshots, auditioning, and trying to find an agent.
I moved to LA, had a job with a pretty high salary for an entry-level position and the great thing about consulting is that you don’t really have to go to work unless you put on a project, I just avoided getting put on a project.
After working for a year, I got laid off, which was also actually really great.
I got severance and unemployment. I had already been auditioning here and there. Six to eight months after, I got commercials, that’s when I sort of revealed to my parents, “hey this is what I’m doing in LA”.
They were actually pretty supportive, once again I think it was because “can you pay the rent? Can you put food on the table? You not gonna be out on the streets.” Since then I have been acting, a couple of years after that I booked an awkward black girl and met Issa Rae and that part of the journey started through insecurity.
Tell us more about your new film, “Definition please” take us through the conceptualization, and a little about the film.
In fourth grade, I won my class spelling bee. You might think that it is a big deal, there were only 10 other people in my class so, it’s not that big of a deal. I went to regionals and got out in the first round because I spelled radish wrong. Spelled it with two d’s instead of one. I came back to school and all my friends were making fun of me because I got out on a really easy word. Honestly, I agreed with them. So I took the clowning and that’s fine.
Throughout the years I was never pushed to be a speller. I have always been an avid reader so I think that is where I probably learned how to spell really well.
I was never training and after I did the spelling bee, I got really into it. Similarly, I started watching the scribbs national spelling bee which was on ESPN, every spring. It felt like every year, a South Asian American kid was winning the spelling bee. The even last year 2019, when we were shooting the movie, there were 8 winners, 7 of the 8 were South Asian American.
Fast forward to 2015, When I was in a sketch writing class.
We had assignments to write sketches once a week, so I decided to go back to this spelling bee idea. It was a four-page sketch, entitled “where are they now – spelling bee winners”. If you google the spelling bee winners, they are actually doing really well, some are biophysicists or they are robotic engineers at NASA.
The question I asked in the sketch was, okay, so there are all these very successful spelling bee winners, but what if one of them turned out to be looser. That was obviously a very comedic take on that theme. In late 2016 I did the Sundance screenwriting lab.
In 2017 I decided to go to the Sundance Film Festival for the first time just as a spectator and I didn’t have any projects there. I went and my friend Justin Chon was premiering a film there called Gook. I went to see it and was blown away!
Afterward I was asking him all about it, I asked how he got it made and how he came up with the idea. He was like “girl, I just did it, I just got the money together, friends and family helped out”. I was like I’m gonna do that!
Mid 2017 I came back home and I kind of dusted off that four-page sketch idea and said oh so my theme of the sketch was spelling bee winners- where are they now?
I’m going to expand on that idea and have it concentrated on the loser spelling bee winner. Focusing on questions like, why did this spelling bee winner turn out to still be living at home with her mom? So I answered those questions while writing the feature film throughout 2017/2018 rewriting it and getting input from friends and colleagues.
I had a pretty good script ready to go out in 2018. I soft pitched a bunch of production companies that I already had relationships with. At the time, I could see that nobody really wants to make a family dramedy.
Everyone wants to make the next avengers.
In terms of studios and financially a lot of their questions were “how are we going to make our money back on a family drama about a South Asian American family” and that’s the bottom line.
I got some really good feedback on the script and in the end, it didn’t get picked up by production companies. In 2019 I went back to Sundance and this time Justin Chon’s 2nd film was premiering.
I was like “what have I been doing with my time !! I need to make my movie!!”
What happened during that time at Sundance is that I had just gotten a show sold with a huge pay-out so I was like this is a sign. I put that money towards my film, It was technically the first money into my film and started having lunches and coffee. Asking anyone if they will put money into my film or if they knew anyone.
Also, I needed to start putting the money together because I knew I wanted to start shooting in June 2019. I started texting my South Asian American actor friends. Offering them roles in the film. Most people just agreed to it right after reading the script. They loved it and were so excited.
We started prepping production and went out to Pennsylvania in May. We got the whole cast and crew together. Shot it in June and then came back to LA.
The film to an extent deals with issues of mental health, with the South Asian community these issues are considered taboo. Why do you think its important for South Asian creators to come forward with these narratives that address them on screen.
I think it is really important because, I grew up in a pretty awesome huge Indian community. I could tell there were other kids who were around me that had mental health issues and some of them would run away from home. Some of their parents would ask us “why did he run away?” He has everything, he gets straight A’s.
We would be like “he is depressed and you are pressuring him. He has a lot on his plate”. They didn’t want to hear that. It was really important to me, because I have seen this, even with extended family members, and friends in the community who find it difficult to talk to their parents or their siblings.
It is something that makes us different from the white community, where they are always constantly talking about their feelings and going to therapy.
Whereas for us we tend to think, our parents have sacrificed so much just by coming to America or wherever they are from in India.
We think that our problems are smaller compared to theirs when mental health should be dealt with in the same way as physical health. If you break your leg you go to the doctor, so if you feel depressed or suicidal you should be able to go to therapy. There should be no stigma attached to that.
With this film, I’m trying to start a conversation, and hopefully, with that conversation, family members and friends can say and admit to how they feel. I really want people to have that conversation and even empathize with family members and friends who have mental illnesses.
Do you think mainstream networks are still hesitant to bring on South Asians or people of color’s stories or do you think they are moving towards a more inclusive approach?
I think what is exciting now, due to streamers, studios have been forced to be more inclusive. If you see the films and tv programs on Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, you can see that they are so globalized and international.
Yet we are still watching it and if we have to watch it with subtitles, I feel that there is a tidal shift happening even though it is really slow. I do feel that studios and studio executives are more open to hearing our pitches. To also realizing that we have to be able to tell our stories. I do see a shift, but it is not happening that fast.
Have you experienced any discrimination, through film making or casting?
I have one specific moment that happened within the past year, where I went into an audition, a call back. For a very successful American sitcom that had been playing for a very long time. I was auditioning to play the romantic interest of one lead character.
I went into the call back, came out and felt so good about it. Then I got a call from my agent. She said they really loved you, they just want to know make sure you are 100% Indian. I kind of froze and I said yes… I’m 100% Indian my parents are from there.
As I hung up, I knew at that moment that I needed to make a change. I needed to create and put my work out. I did not want these white people in positions of power telling me if I am American or Indian enough for these roles.
Your film premiered at the 2020 Bentonville Film Festival; how did COVID-19 impact the premiere of the film?
It actually impacted our entire festival run. That’s been one of the disappointing aspects of realizing a film into the world during coronavirus. We were really excited to travel to all these exciting film festivals throughout the country and world.
Obviously when coronavirus happened, we realized that a lot of things are going to change. Especially in terms of getting the film out there. Most of the film festivals were rethinking their strategy, moving their dates or cancelling the festival.
I still felt it was important to get the film out there. We worked closely with every film festival to make that happen. Benton made the festival fun. Having the virtual festival for us, was still a positive for us.
We got to do Zoom’s with the other filmmakers. Get to know them, but obviously there is a bit of disappointment. We obviously acre about safety first. I also want people to experience the film any way that they can.
With regards to Coronavirus, how are you keeping sane, how are you keeping creative?
I have been doing really well. It might sound bad saying this, but I have been really productive. I wrote a pilot script, and my second feature. This is how I normally am. I enjoy sitting in my room, writing and watching Netflix, amazon and hulu. Also catching up on TV and Film.
I feel like I’m putting myself through film school during quarantine. I have been handling this in a very positive way. At the end of the day, we will come out of it probably in 2021. I’ll be ready with projects to go.
Cowboy and Indian was picked up for a TV show, tell us more?
Yeah, I’m actually working on that right now. That is at a studio. We just attached a really amazing Indian director to it. We are still putting together all the little pieces in terms of the show runner and producer.
I’m hoping to get into the writer’s room for that. Something that is also interesting during quarantine is that writers can prep in the writers room. They can get scripts done and head into production.
When can we expect to see Definition Please?
So we are playing the film festival circuit for the next couple of months. But we are speaking to some distributors and buyers. So we don’t have concrete news right now, but hopefully soon.
What words of advice do you have for young and upcoming filmmakers?
The only thing I can say is to create. We are at a time period, where there really is no excuse to not create anymore. We all have video phones. Even if the sound is bad or you think the quality is not the best. It is important to create.
Some of my favourite content right now are summed up in terms of videos. Tik Tok dances with grandma’s and grandpa’s and IG videos, Twitter and YouTube videos.
If David Lynch is making short films on YouTube, what is your excuse? Start small then it will get bigger. Keep creating even if it’s not good.
It’s clear that Sujata certainly has a world of talent and it is fueled by an immense amount of passion. Her love for film, writing and screenplay reflects in her amazing work ethic. We cannot wait to see more of her work! Follow her journey @sujataday .
-Written by Dushant Naidu