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Though he can't fly, read minds, or stop time, few fans would argue that Mohinder Suresh isn't an integral part of Heroes. For one thing, it's Suresh's quest to continue his father's research into the mysteries of "advanced evolution" that drives the show (it's no coincidence that Suresh is the one who narrates every episode). And for Sendhil Ramamurthy, the Texas-bred actor who plays him, the character of Suresh has done something even more important than saving the cheerleader: It saved him from years of dealing with Hollywood's continuing inability to cast Indian actors in roles that aren't variations on the stereotypical terrorists or convenience store clerks. The son of two physicians (his sister is also a doctor) and a classically trained performer who studied with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Ramamurthy came very close to abandoning acting altogether until Heroes came along, and with it the opportunity to create one of television's most fully realized Indian characters—not to mention being in one of the most popular shows on the planet. Just prior to the premiere of Heroes' second season, The A.V. Club spoke with Ramamurthy about breaking those race barriers, why he doesn't have "superpower penis envy," and what viewers can expect from Suresh's surprising turn this season.
The A.V. Club: How did your parents feel about you being an actor as opposed to following in the family footsteps?
Sendhil Ramamurthy: They were less than thrilled at first. [Laughs.] I was pre-med, so I was going to go into the family business more or less. But I came to my senses, luckily, and backed out, and decided to go to drama school. Now they're happy that I'm playing a doctor on TV at least. And once they kind of got their head around the whole thing, they were really supportive. They paid for drama school, and when I was with the Royal Shakespeare Company they flew out to England to see all of my plays. Of course, now that I'm on TV, they don't understand what the hell Heroes is all about. Every Tuesday after the show airs I have to have the Tuesday morning conversation and explain to them what happened the night before.
AVC: One thing they should be happy about is you've helped break stereotypes for Indian actors on TV. Do you think there's still an ingrained racism in the way Hollywood writes and casts for Indian actors?
SR: I think so. There isn't any question about that. I've managed to luck out that they've given me a fully rounded character on the show, but in general, yeah. And you know, now more than ever I get everything "Indian" that's ever written. It all comes across my desk. Since Heroes started I've probably had about 15 or 16 film scripts sent to me with Indian characters, and out of those maybe one was good. And the depressing thing is, they're all being written by Indians! Like, how many more scripts can there be about an arranged marriage or an abusive husband? It's the same thing over and over again. I think that Indian writers think this is the kind of thing that people want to see, and it's kind of sad. I literally fling those scripts across the room as soon as I start reading them. [Laughs.]
AVC: You've said that you refuse to even audition for those kinds of roles. If Heroes hadn't come along, where do you think you'd be right now?
SR: Literally, I had bought my GMAT book, and I was going to take the GMAT and go to business school. I was ready to chuck it all in. I couldn't do those parts. I would just rather do something else. And then this thing fell into my lap. It was bizarre. I was unemployed, and I had just had a baby, and I needed to do something. I thought, "Well, I've given it more or less a good crack, and at least I had the chance to do some really great theater." Film and TV-wise, it just wasn't happening. I did some guest spots, and I did a series in England and stuff like that, but nothing that I was overwhelmingly proud of, or that had given me a lot of notoriety, or that even stretched me as an actor. Heroes came along and everything changed after that. Now I'm getting a lot of scripts that have nothing to do with being Indian, and I think that's amazing. I'm really happy about that.
AVC: Is there anything you've signed to?
SR: Nothing I can talk about. There's something in the works that I hope can work out, but it's tough with the shooting schedule because we shoot for nine months of the year. So I have to find something that I love—and if it's "Indian" it has to be something I can do morally, something I will allow myself to do—and the scheduling has to work out to those three months. This thing I'm hoping will work out now, it's not an Indian movie. The character's name is "Miles." I really, really, really want to do it, but so far the dates don't work. We'll see.
AVC: You just completed a Heroes world tour.
SR: It's really been a whirlwind, these past three weeks. They've been insane. But fun, so much fun. You spend most of your time as an actor unemployed, so you're not going to hear me complaining that I haven't had a day off in three weeks.
AVC: What are Heroes fans like overseas?
SR: Much more vocal. [Laughs.] Me and three other castmates did Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Tokyo was okay, because it hasn't come out yet in Japan, so we were really under the radar. The only people who stopped us were American and Australian tourists. In Hong Kong it's come out, but it's on a cable channel right now. We still had some paparazzi and people following us around. In Singapore the whole season has aired on normal television, and we went to a fan event where they told us it would be like 500 to 800 people and we got there and there were just under 8000. That was freaky. It was scary but cool. These people screaming for you, you're kind of hoping they don't kill you too. The group that went to Europe all had the same response. It's great to see that the show hasn't become just this genre, sci-fi show. It really has become this global thing.
AVC: It definitely has its genre following, though. Are you already sick of answering fanboy questions about whose power could defeat whose and so on?
SR: [Laughs.] Yeah, that segment of our fanbase really does take it all pretty seriously. You just have to laugh at it. You also have to respect it, because without them we wouldn't have a show. They're our hardcore fanbase that we can always depend on. It's hard for me because they ask me these questions, and it's literally things I've never thought of before. They ask me comic book questions—I've never read a comic book in my life. I read Archie when I was a kid. I never read X-Men, or Superman, or Spider-Man, or any of the other "mans," so I never have the answers to these questions. I'm not a Trekkie. I've never seen the first three Star Wars movies. It's just not really my genre. I just politely defer to the two castmates on the show who are sci-fi people and let them take the question.
AVC: And who are they?
SR: Masi [Oka] and—actually, it's just Masi. He knows everything about comic books. He knows everything about manga, I think it's called? The first time somebody asked me about manga, I thought he said "mango." I honestly had never even heard that term before. I was like, "Why are you asking me about fruit?" That didn't work out so well for me.
AVC: Being both a critical and commercial hit in your debut season puts a huge amount of expectation on the follow-up. How is the show dealing with that?
SR: It starts out very much like the first season with a big, sprawling story—and it's a new story—but then starts to change very quickly afterwards. We're more unified. There were so many separate stories going on last season, and now we come into contact much quicker in the second season. A lot of our stories intersect, and I'm working with a lot more of the regulars than I did last season, which is great. We'll be doing scenes where there will be five or six of us in the one scene acting with each other, and that never happened until the last two or three episodes of the first season.
AVC: All of the heroes working together? Sounds like the Justice League.
SR: Nooo. There will be no Justice League. [Laughs.] Far from it, actually. There's some antagonism going on. It's a lot more exciting, I think. I like the way that the second season is going a lot more than the first season.
AVC: One of the big—and only—complaints from last season was that the finale was really anticlimactic. Did you agree with that?
SR: I understand the criticism, because there was such a build-up to the fight between Sylar and Peter. And I think people were probably expecting a lot more from that, special effects-wise. They were expecting more bang for the buck, and I can totally understand that. But from the story's point of view, because we start with a whole new story in the second season, last season's story had to be wrapped up, to tie up everyone's storyline in a way that didn't leave dangling ends. This season we're not going to have one overarching storyline. The first 23 episodes of last season were "Volume One," and this season the first episode through the eleventh episode are "Volume Two" and that's going to wrap up at the end of the eleventh episode. Then a new story starts "Volume Three," and "Volume Four" ends the season. We're telling more compact stories to avoid having a 23-episode build-up that's inevitably going to be a letdown for some people.
AVC: How much are you sworn to secrecy on scripts? How much of the story do you know at any given time?
SR: We get one episode at a time, and the first page of every episode that we get says, [Reads from script.] "In accordance with the production, there is zero tolerance for revealing script pages or ideas contained herein to any person outside the production Remember: We are a family, and a family is only as strong as the secrets we keep." That's the first page of every single script.
AVC: Fair enough. So what can you tell us about the upcoming season?
SR: The overall story is that all of the main characters are spread out and getting on with their lives—or trying to, anyway. If the first season was about ordinary people becoming extraordinary, this season is about everybody trying to be ordinary. Everyone wants to be as normal and under-the-radar as possible. My character is the most changed. They really flipped Suresh and did a 180—which I'm really happy about. He's a man of action this season. I think it's really going to shock the audience. It's one of those things where they'll probably be yelling at the TV when they see some of the stuff that Suresh does. He's still the same person that he was at the core, but there's a different thing driving him, and he's working with and coming into contact with old and new characters who nobody ever thought that Suresh would be associating with. It's kind of a bold thing for the writers to do, to flip the character like that. Hopefully it works. I think he's a much smarter character than he was last season. There's a lot less of Suresh being completely in the dark and every other character and the audience knowing what's going on except him.
AVC: Yes, a lot of last season, Mohinder—for a scientist, especially, someone who's supposed to be naturally skeptical—seemed especially trusting. Some would even say gullible.
SR: [Laughs.] Yeah, I think he's learning his lesson, but that's always going to be his Achilles' heel. At heart, Mohinder is the good in the world, and he will always see the good in people. That could end up being his undoing, or it could end up being something great. He has a questioning nature, but he also wants to believe that the best is true in everybody. Sometimes that really doesn't work out so well for him. I do think he's learning, not only about other people but he's learning so much about himself. There's a lot of introspective moments, actually, in the first nine episodes that we've shot so far where he sees who he is. He may not like some of the stuff that he's seeing. He certainly doesn't like some of the stuff he's doing. Not only will the audience be shocked, but I think Mohinder is really shocked at what he's able to do. I don't know if he even knew some of the stuff that he was capable of doing this season. It's kind of nuts. I have to say, when I read what they had in store for him, I wasn't sure. It's really different. But I think it's going to connect with the audience because it is so different, and because there's a damn good reason for everything.
AVC: Does the major change in his motivations have something to do with caring for Molly?
SR: Yeah, I've been doing a lot of scenes with Adair Tishler. She's great. Basically, Greg Gunberg and I are like—what is it?—Two Men And A Baby. My character is actually traveling a lot—I've been in four or five different countries within the context of the story, and we're only in the ninth episode—so I'm away a lot from Molly, but she is absolutely at the core of all of the changes that are occurring with Mohinder.
AVC: Last season it was revealed that Mohinder's blood is the cure for "Shanti's virus." Does that become a major plot point?
SR: I would say that's the major thing in "Volume Two." It's all about Shanti's virus, and obviously Mohinder's blood is very important to that.
AVC: Would you consider that to be Mohinder's superpower, that he has blood that can cure people?
SR: I don't look at it as a superpower. When I first started the show, it was pitched as a show about superpowers, and I was like, "This sucks. I'm the only guy on the fucking show who doesn't have a superpower. This totally blows." But now I'm actually really glad that Mohinder isn't flying and running through walls and stuff, because I think it makes him more relatable to the audience. I wouldn't call it a superpower, but I don't know what I would call it. A genetic anomaly? I've thought about it a lot. He was more or less born to cure his sister's virus, and that's why his parents decided to have him. He's been produced to do something. I like that about him. While I wouldn't say it's a superpower, it's certainly something that drives him.
AVC: Considering you're one of the only cast members who doesn't have a superpower—besides Jack Coleman—do ever find it emasculating?
SR: There's some penis envy going on. [Laughs.] No, we're all very aware of the nature of the show and the mythology, and it's something that [creator] Tim Kring talks about all the time. We all—and certainly Jack and I—see our place within the mythology. I see myself as searching for good in this world—as well as being the narrator on top of it. I'm kind of everybody's eyes. I don't really try and change it. I don't hang out in the writers' room and campaign for a power.
AVC: The fact that you're the narrator does seem to hint that Mohinder has some sort of omniscience.
SR: It does, and I've purposely never asked where the voice-over is coming from. I don't know if it's coming from a book that he's written, or if it's a book that his father wrote, like a diary. I have a lot of theories in my head what the real answer is, but I think only Tim Kring knows and I've never, ever asked him. I think there will come a point where I'll want to know. Whether he'll tell me or not is a different story. Right now I'm okay with not knowing.
AVC: Does it give you a feeling of job security? Like, your character's probably not going to die anytime soon since he's the narrator.
SR: Um, I wouldn't say that. [Laughs.] There are a lot of people who can talk. They can change narrator midstream. I'd certainly like to think that, but the reality is I don't really see it as job security. I do see it as another way my character is important to the story. I think it makes this character more and more valuable to the show, and that can never be a bad thing. But can they write an episode where Suresh gets two bullets to the head? Yeah. Of course they can.