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Conversations with Shrey Bhargava

Today we’d like to introduce you to Shrey Bhargava.

Hi Shrey, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
Born to a Computer Engineer Dad, and a Mum who has a Master’s in Organic Chemistry, Acting was the furthest from anything anyone in my family had ever ventured into. And yet, I was that three years old kid who couldn’t help reenacting an entire Barney episode after I watched it. I had such a vivid imagination that I simply couldn’t shake off. I am originally from Singapore and began acting there at the age of five. My parents emigrated from India when I was one and raised me there. Just recently, I graduated from USC with double degrees in Theatre (Acting) and Cinema & Media Studies. I grew up with a profound sense of being a global citizen. Singapore is extraordinarily small – only 280 square miles in size (about 17 times smaller than LA County!). Growing up, I was, therefore, always reminded of how big the world outside Singapore is. As my interest in being an actor grew, I constantly looked forward to coming to LA to pursue my dreams of being a global artistic force to reckon with. At the age of 15, I began venturing outside of my school drama clubs into the local theatre, TV and film acting scene. I trained at the Buds Youth Theatre program, the Singapore Repertory Theatre’s Young Company, as well as at Singapore’s only professional acting training school that specializes in Lee Strasberg’s Method, The Haque Centre of Acting & Creativity. 

As a Singaporean, I also had to serve in the Singapore Armed Forces for two years after I completed High School. Even though this was a rite of passage for every Singaporean man, the experience was still daunting. How could I possibly forgo performing for two whole years and continue to believe in my dream? I kept my head high and bravely entered military training, which was challenging to say the least. Yet, I always knew that the Universe has its way of making things work out, and I continued to simply have faith. A couple of months into my training, I found out that the Singapore Armed Forces had a special unit called the Music & Drama Company. They organized and executed a slew of live and digital events both for our troops, the public and even international audiences. I auditioned for them and was blessed enough to get selected. There, I served my remaining military service as an Actor and Host. I performed in numerous events. Some of these included hosting live for the President of Singapore at his National Day Reception, rousing a crowd of 26,000 at Singapore’s 50 years independence celebration concert, reporting live on TV for the 28th Southeast Asian Games, and traveling to Australia to present a musical titled ‘Colors of Singapore’ thanking the public in Rockhampton for hosting our soldiers. It was quite the experience that taught me that military-style rigor and discipline and creative freedom of expression did not have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, art and creativity can be sharpened within the confines of strict limitations and deadlines. Towards the end of my military service, a national acting and hosting competition, ‘The 5 Search’ was being launched on Singapore’s primetime television channel. I auditioned for that and was selected to compete out of more than 700 hopefuls. 

Still being in the military, however, I knew that I was contractually not allowed to win (the winner was to receive an Artiste Management contract, and as a soldier I was not allowed to sign one while my service was in progress). Yet, I continued through the competition and finished in 2nd place. This was a remarkable achievement for me, being the youngest contestant to reach the finals in the competition. Following that, I snagged a series regular for the first season of a local TV show, ‘Fine Tune’. The series went on to be nominated at the 2017 Asian TV Awards for Best Comedy Programme. I also starred in Cannes-acclaimed director K. Rajagopal’s film, ‘Lizard on the Wall’, that was commissioned for the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2017. In 2016, however, I went through one of the darkest periods of my life, being diagnosed with clinical depression and OCD. That was when I had to apply to colleges in the states and fly over to New York to audition. I had pure-obsessional OCD, which had no visible outward compulsions. Instead, I couldn’t stop ruminating on various doubts in my life until it was absolutely crippling. I doubted anything and everything, to the point of it really being irrational. Long story short, I learnt that mental health and illnesses were as legitimate and real as any other health concerns, and I deserved the patience, compassion and time to heal. I consider this period of my life as a spiritual reckoning. I went to Churches, Mosques, and Temples for answers. And at every place, I found that there was some shared truth, yet I continued to doubt and be perplexed at how there just wasn’t one answer. I was blessed to have a deeply spiritual experience one afternoon after visiting a Hindu temple. I was climbing up a hill (7 months into my diagnosis and treatment) when I looked up at the sky and just screamed for some proof that God or the Universe was listening to me and that I will find the light at the end of the tunnel. 

At that very instant, a small grey feather flew into the palm of my hand. People call it a coincidence, but that was my answer right there. And I kid you not – since then, during my road to recovery, every time I had a major doubt I had to face, I would notice a feather in the vicinity. It was as if the Universe was gently guiding me back to strength. I have the original feather to this day. With a newfound sense of faith, I gathered courage to come to LA to pursue my college degrees. Los Angeles was an eye opener. It was the city of dreams and heartbreaks, of riches and stark poverty, of both boundless ego and selfless passion. Here I was, a global citizen within the heart of the global hub of entertainment. Through my four years at USC, I not only honed my craft but also learnt how valuable my perspective as a Singaporean is. America, being the land of the free, can easily feel like ‘the world’ to many. Yet, there is so much more out there. My international perspective provided me with a unique ability to understand the complex nuances of being human that otherwise may be hard to grasp from an insular point of view. Training as an actor in America from 2016-2020 was unique. 

On one hand, I was constantly told that it was the best time for minority actors, with ‘diversity’ being almost a trend. Yet, at the same time, attitudes were charged against minorities and immigrants in this new, volatile Trump presidency. I grew to learn that being of Indian ethnicity, with a Singaporean identity, having consumed a variety of both Western and Asian entertainment and the arts (yay Hollywood and Bollywood!), I have all that it takes to serve as an artistic bridge of compassion. I found myself in these years – I want to be an artist, who through his craft, urges viewers to cultivate their faculties of empathy, despite barriers of race, class, gender, nationality and more. I want to make authentic self-examination an attitude of both viewership and artistic participation, to create a culture where art, entertainment and expression isn’t just fun, but a principle of livelihood to make oneself and one’s society truly better. As the pandemic raged on, I had to return to Singapore to complete the rest of my degree online. I graduated in May and have since been pursuing an acting career in Singapore, with hopes to return to America in the future.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
The biggest challenge was of course my struggle with Depression and OCD, as I’ve outlined in my previous response. It was more than seven months of torture. My mind was not my own, and the smallest of things became the biggest of challenges. It was only after my spiritual experience that I felt I had something to hold onto, and I truly believe that God guided me out to lead my life now with a stronger sense of purpose. One other major challenge I faced occurred during one of my summer breaks back in Singapore. A major film franchise in Singapore was having auditions for its 4th film installment. Because Singapore’s ethnic majority is Chinese, there was only one minority role up for grabs. I auditioned for this but had had a jarring experience. In the audition, after having performed the scene once, I was told to ‘be more Indian’. I did not understand what that meant, more so when it was asked by a Chinese casting director. After the audition, I posted about my experience on Facebook, and the post went viral in Singapore. It split the country in half, with many supporting me for speaking out against microaggressions, stereotypes and ‘casual racism’ and many others chiding me for shaking the status quo by speaking out and ‘stirring racial tension’.

These were a stressful few weeks, especially given that I was still under treatment for depression. I was under a national spotlight, with newspaper articles being published about the debate and more. Someone even reported me to the police for provoking racial tension. The police concluded that I had not committed any offense, but the experience was still scary nonetheless. The experience made me realize that activism simply doesn’t work the same way all over the world. While speaking out openly and freely in America is a right, in Singapore, it is a privilege that can have consequences. A lot of good came out of the experience too. For one, a national dialogue around race relations began to take place, with many people reflecting and pushing for more openness and vulnerability. I fondly remember how a friend of mine working for the Ministry of Education forwarded me a photo of a new textbook that used my example to teach kids to be respectful of each other and how casual remarks and microaggressions can be hurtful to minorities. I was also invited to schools to speak of my experience and was interviewed by the New York Times and the Washington Post about my views on Crazy Rich Asians when the film came out. All in all, though it was intimidating being the trigger for a nationwide conversation, I am proud that I stood for what I believed in.

As you know, we’re big fans of you and your work. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about what you do?
I am primarily an actor, though I also host and make films. As an actor, I am a sucker for meaty, dramatic roles. I love to dive deep into the psyches of characters, exploring and empathizing with their desires, insecurities, fears and ambitions. I do comedic roles too. In fact, great comedies are tragic personal stories. The funniest moments in a film or play are often produced only by the characters’ unrelenting attachments to unfounded personal truths that we, as the audience, can find the irony in from a distance. Doing justice to a role and provoking an emotional response within the audience drives me to create compelling and distinct characters. What sets me apart is my unrelenting work ethic coupled with my creative and complex instincts. With my global perspective of the world, its traditions, values and beliefs, I approach every character from a deeply personal yet simply universal standpoint. No matter how different the characters I pursue, what connects them all is a profound sense of sincere imperfection. I strive to find that. That one unflinching personal belief, desire or expectation that drives that character from start to finish through conflict in a story. And then I become them. I command presence on stage and the screen. I listen. I breathe. I consider acting meditation. On stage or in front of the camera, I simply channel a divine inspiration. I call onto my characters’ souls, I throw my preparation away into the imaginative abyss and let the genius of the writers, directors, and my collaborative world builders speak through me. There is a quote from David Ackert that I love about artists. It is long so I won’t quote it all, but my segment from it is this: “Actors are beings who have tasted life’s nectar in that crystal moment when they poured out their creative spirit and touched another’s heart. In that instant, they were as close to magic, God, and perfection as anyone could ever be. And in their own hearts, they know that to dedicate oneself to that moment is worth a thousand lifetimes.” There is always that singularity in every performance: when you know your audience or the camera is with you – thinking, feeling, living. That moment is powerful. It has the capacity to change beliefs, ideas and biases. It has the power to inspire true change. To that, I dedicate my artistic life. The works that I am proud of the most are the ones where I have been versatile enough to embody such profound complexities of humanity in different mediums. USC School of Dramatic Arts staged ‘Cider House Rules Parts 1&2″ in November last year. Anyone who knows the novel or film knows it is an epic. The stage adaptation is an almost 6 hour long 2-part production. I was cast as Doctor Wilbur Larch, one of the main characters in the story.

As an international student, doing justice to such a massive role in a story that was situated between 1880-1950 in rural Maine and dealt with themes of drug addiction, sexually transmitted diseases, adoptions, abortions, parenthood, love and death was quite the undertaking. I had to portray a man who goes from 60 to 90, relives his traumatic young adult memories while high on ether, and who conducts numerous abortions onstage while struggling to be a father-figure to an orphan (Homer) during his most formative years. It required me to examine the heart, mind and soul of a character in a time and place so foreign to me and to portray these layered complexities through a technically proficient instrument through an authentic accent, physical signs of aging in posture, gait and voice and an unimaginable amount of focus, given that I was onstage most of the time. And I had to pull this off in less than five weeks. Through the process, I realized what Stanislavski really meant when he said that an actor must ultimately throw all preparation away. Before every show, after I got into my costume and make up, I would only meditate on a mantra, calling on the Universe to show me Dr. Larch’s memories that were relevant for today. I would see flashes of his childhood or memories with toddler Homer – unwritten in the script or novel – that would somehow only make sense in some poignant moments later on stage. I learnt to relinquish control and flow, and boy was that quite something. Reviews of the show noted that they couldn’t comprehend that Dr. Larch was also a student performer. Viewers thought that an external performer or professor had played that role. Often, after the performance, I wouldn’t be recognized. I would walk out of the theatre through the crowds of people and overhear their comments about my performance and how in awe they were at the maturity and sincerity that they saw. It was sublime to do so without any recognition or validation whatsoever. I was not seen as an actor. I was seen as Dr. Larch. And that meant the world. Back in 2017, I did another role that was artistically significant. I played Narain, a closeted young Singaporean-Punjabi man in K Rajagopal’s film, ‘Lizard on the Wall’. The film was an imagined sequel to Balli Kaur Jaswal’s novel ‘Inheritance’. In it, Narain’s Australian boyfriend shows up uninvited to Narain’s sister’s wedding. Narain has to do what he can to keep his homosexuality a secret, but all hell breaks loose. In one of the scenes, Narain secretly makes love with him but gets caught by one of his brothers. This scene was especially critical, given that Singapore still has a law that prohibits sex between two men. As a straight ally, I wanted the scene to be about the pure and authentic love between them rather than the sex. Rajagopal also did not plan a script for the scene. He wanted us to improvise it in the moment – to keep it raw and real. It was a big responsibility because this film was to be shown at the closing ceremony of the Singapore International Festival of Arts.

In performing the scene, I forgot the set, the lights, the crew and only focused on my scene partner. It did not matter that I was not gay myself. Love is love. I channeled only the sincere love that I have felt in my life and let it flow. The film was shown to a packed theatre while I was back in Los Angeles after having shot it. I never watched the film myself, but woke up the next morning to a little message from Rajagopal: “You were the best thing in the film”. The scene was compelling, and I was proud that I had played a part in showcasing the honest love that people from our oppressed LGBTQ community in Singapore here experience. Recently, I also worked on a mini web series titled ‘Long Story Short’, by Not Safe For TV (NSFTV), an independent film channel that produces unorthodox and experimental content that wouldn’t normally make it to Singapore’s mainstream television. The finale of the series was a one-take scene of my character giving his wedding speech at his arranged marriage. In that, I had to display a spectrum of emotions – his nerves, fears, insecurities, conflicting desires, the brave front he puts up, and finally an unleashing of his suppressed feelings of craving freedom. To do so in a tempered and realistic manner in one-take was a challenge I am tremendously proud to have aced. It showcases not just my range and versatility as an actor but also the subtle depth I wish to access in all characters that I play. You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uCMW5XIWbzs

As a filmmaker, I have been making short films (as a writer and director) since 2014, under my own banner ‘Nightingale Films’. My films tend to deal with themes of identity, family and belonging. My debut directorial short film, ‘My Home, Singapore?’, dives into the paradox that many born and raised permanent residents (PRs) in Singapore face – to serve in the military or not. While they feel Singaporean and so obliged to take on the rite of passage, by legality they are not, and so have the option to renounce their PR and avoid two years of military service. The film captured this dilemma and received over ten short film official selections. It was presented at the acclaimed Asian World Film Festival in LA and also was named a semi-finalist at the Best of India Short Film Festival, where it bagged a three years broadcast deal with ShortsTV for the South Asian region. Beyond this film, however, my favorite film to have directed was ‘Meri Nani’ (which translates to My Grandmother’), in which I started my real grandparents and cousin and shot it in their 50 years family home in India. It captured my grandmother’s self-sacrificial love and I couldn’t have been prouder. Ultimately, the work I make, whether as an actor or filmmaker, has one guiding principle – and that is authentic sincerity. I want to tell the painfully beautiful stories we all go through and experience, and hopefully, make the world a little kinder through it all.

What was your favorite childhood memory?
This one’s both funny and slightly perturbing but definitely betrays my innocent budding actor spirit. Back in school, I was at one time holding leadership positions for both the drama and the cricket club. It was the school’s open house, where prospective students and parents would come to check out all the different clubs that were available. As you can imagine, I was shuttling myself between both booths, doing my best to be present and useful at both because, quite simply, I truly loved them both. About halfway through the day, one of the teachers in charge of the cricket club caught me running back and forth (it was quite the commute, with both booths being in different buildings in the school). He stopped me in my tracks and told me bluntly to choose what I was committed to and that if the drama club was where my heart was that I should “just leave cricket” because they “didn’t need me anyway”.

As a child who was wholeheartedly committed to both (but perhaps executing my commitments in a rather frantic way), I burst into tears. I could not imagine that I was perceived as someone who wasn’t truly committed! And what did I do next? I didn’t rush to the cricket booth to make amends or anything. Instead, I rushed to the bathroom, stopped at the mirror and watched myself. “Oh…that’s how I look like when I cry. My lower lips quiver towards the left and my breathing is irregular and choppy…” I thought to myself. I studied how I was crying! Oh, till that point I had always struggled with that as a young actor. “How can I cry convincingly on command?” And I didn’t use to cry much as a growing boy (toxic masculinity much? Perhaps). And this was the perfect chance!! So I studied all the intricacies of a real, personal cry. And oh boy, in that moment I knew: I needed to return to the drama club booth!

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Image Credits:

Jasbir John Singh USC School of Dramatic Arts Hum Entertainment Dag Kaszlikowski

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