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Meet Anjini Azhar

Today we’d like to introduce you to Anjini Azhar.

Anjini, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
As a child, everyone around me had their “thing.” There was the chess kid, the baseball kid, the kid who was insanely good at drawing. Despite the fact that I was good at none of the aforementioned, I felt lost, wandering aimlessly in an abyss of possibilities, not knowing what my “thing” was. It wasn’t going to occur to me till much later, but I had a limitless love for storytelling. From the age of seven, I would come home and open Microsoft Word 2007 on my parents’ giant clunky desktop and just write.

I wrote short stories, chapter books, even screenplays (or what I thought, at the time, we’re screenplays). Parallel to this, I would try out every hobby, art, and sport there was to explore. I was raised by immigrants parents, so I often found myself double-dutching between hobbies involving my culture and staple American hobbies. None of them stuck. But storytelling did, and it was universal, something I would learn over my near-ten-year career in film.

At eleven years old, I heard an ad on the radio to act in a TV show. Curious, I thought, “well that’s something I haven’t tried before.” Although unfortunately, it was a scam, one thing led to another and I got lucky, landing an agent who threw me into auditions right away with the unwavering and unconditional support of my parents. Although I was born in Seattle, I began splitting my time between Los Angeles and the Pacific Northwest since that time, which resulted in my permanent move to LA.

My career landed me recurring, co-starring, and lead roles in films such as Thunderbolt In Mine Eye (executive produced by Mark and Jay Duplass), NBC’s The New Normal (directed by Ryan Murphy), ABC’s Speechless, Netflix’s Everything Sucks!, HBO’s The Brink starring Jack Black with Tim Robbins, The Pact, JJ Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness, and many more.

2012, however (when I was twelve), was a special year. Although I fell in love the unique form of storytelling that came with acting, I felt something missing. That year I worked with director JJ Abrams on his feature film Star Trek Into Darkness. Watching Abrams direct such an iconic film was like watch a magician. I noticed something very special about watching a mere human being bring words on a paper to life: into something physical and immersive that made an audience completely forget about the reality they were currently living in.

Following my shoot for Star Trek, I fell prey to my curiosity; I wrote my first screenplay for a feature film. Today, I revisit it just to laugh at how awful it is, but at the time, everything clicked into place for me upon its completion. From the days of my writing countless stories on a dinosaur-aged desktop to my love of film and acting, it all made sense, I had finally found my “thing.” I wanted to write and direct cinema for as long as I would be standing on Earth.

This changed the way I digested my surroundings onset from that point forward. I noticed lighting, cinematography, sound, the way a director would block an actor’s physical actions- just everything. I kept writing feverishly, and finally, when I was fifteen, I decided to make a short film. A lot of people thought I was aiming too big for someone so young, but I figured “I’ve been working on professional sets with Emmy and Oscar award-winners for years, I’m a member of the screen actors guild, I’ve learned so much, might as well go big or go home.”

I turned my production into a formal union shoot (SAG shoot) and directed, wrote, and produced my first film over a long-winded period of time. I had zero expectations, but its journey was more than anything I could have asked for. It went to festivals around the United States, where I was the youngest director selected for the SOHO Int’l Film Festival in New York City. The film also won an award of merit for Best US Short at the IndieFest Film Awards and was featured in Women CineMakers, a popular cinema publication all the way in Europe.

Enthralled by this momentum, I completed my second short film a couple of years later and began working as an associate producer/director for a production company that did corporate, ads, and documentary work for many major companies around such as Microsoft, the NHL, BMW, and more. Currently, I continue acting, with my most recent film in which I starred in (Thunderbolt In Mine Eye) was featured at Slamdance Film Festival in Park City. I’ve written a multitude of award-winning screenplays and have been producing and directing independent projects such as short films, music videos, etc. Additionally, I am finally writing my first feature film which I will be directing. I feel, for a lack of better word, grateful, to be able to have had the resume and support to get so much done before I’m even old enough to drink at my own wrap parties. I’m optimistic that it’s only up from here.

Has it been a smooth road?
There have been so many challenges in this process. If there’s only one thing I’ve learned about working in film, it’s that support and encouragement should not be the fuel to your fire. Many people will tell you to slow down, back down, or think smaller. I’ve found more success having confidence in others doubting me than putting their faith in me. It may sound harsh but it is absolutely true that there is not a single soul in this life that owes you anything. If you have the confidence and fire in yourself and your passion, everything will come in time.

That being said, there is a pattern of challenges I meet quite often. First is being so young. Because I started early, I’ve learned a lot and I’ve learned how to conduct myself professionally. Both my parents are immigrants, so work ethic was the first lesson they taught me, and it’s been my best friend in allowing me to move up in my career. When working in corporate video, I even landed my first client just before turning 18.

In this world, people want to keep things structured, you’re either young and naive or old and wise; it’s just simpler to understand. Having someone believe in my experience and take me seriously has always been my biggest challenge. Although there is so much I have yet to learn, I’ve often found that I’ll have more experience than many adults even ten years older than me, which is not conventional. Even now, I always have to prove myself beyond my accomplishments on paper.

Another major challenge is being a woman and a woman of colour. Being a woman of colour, especially a woman of South Asian descent where there’s not really much representation in Hollywood, means the playing field isn’t really even. It can be confusing navigating my way through the industry because the path hasn’t been paved yet, there’s no pipeline and no right way to do it because not a lot of us have done it before. I’ve had to work extra hard to prove my credibility and my talent.

Nonetheless, I feel like all these challenges are just testing to see who can keep going because once you’ve reached where you wanna end up, you have the ability, power, and privilege to make changes for the better. The best way to start change is within yourself. As odd and cynical as this may sound, I wholeheartedly feel that you need to believe in people not believing in you. Make it on your terms, your way, and you’ll surprise everyone that had doubted you. That payoff is indescribable. Then pass it on and inspire others.

We’d love to hear more about your work.
I’m a director and writer first, a producer second, and an actor third. I’ve been acting in film and networking television for- going on- ten years. I’ve been directing, writing, and producing for five. I started very young because I found my passion and grabbed onto it as quickly as I could. The dream, everything I’m working for, is to become a director and a writer. I want my films to make people reel it in and think. Ever since I was young, a good film would follow me for days after I’d leave the cinema and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. That’s what I want my films to do for its audiences; I hope to tell stories that matter while keeping people engaged.

My acting journey began with a small role in a horror film called The Pact, which went to Sundance Film Festival, then Netflix. I had another small role in an independent film starring Aaron Paul, Octavia Spender, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead that carried over to Sundance as well. After these, I landed recurring roles throughout season one of NBC’s The New Normal, NBC’s The Brink, Netflix’s Everything Sucks, and other films like Star Trek Into Darkness and Papa. I got my first starring role in a film titled Thunderbolt In Mine Eye which was selected for Slamdance Film Festival, Portland Int’l Film Festival, and more this year (2020). We will be announcing its new journey for proper distribution very soon.

I made a little short film for a school project back when I was fifteen years old. I had no idea it would amount to what it did, in fact, it was just a test run for how I felt being on set as a director and if I was ready to lead a whole crew. The experience was affirming and transformative, and the film went way past my school hallways. It was an official selection for the short film category at the SOHO Int’l Film Festival in New York City, where I was the where I was the youngest director selected (17 at the time). It was an award of merit for best U.S. Short at the IndieFest Film Awards, was an official preselection for the Washington Film Festival in DC and was featured in Women CineMakers magazine in Europe. I continued to write shows and other films and powering through school.

During this time I began interning at a production company that did corporate video, documentary work, and other non-fiction videos for some of the world’s biggest companies. I was later hired and worked as an associate producer and creative director. I knew my weaknesses as a young director: an understanding of big money, film finances, and dealing with a complicated web of personal. I exercised that part of my brain and learned many of the things people could argue I don’t know at such a young age. It actually helped me with my second short film I wrote, directed, and co-produced circa graduation.

Once school was one and done I began working on one solid pilot television show and one feature film that would be my debut for both a formal pilot and full-length feature, which is where I’m at now. I figure, since I’ve had so much experience directing, writing, and producing all kinds of different film/media, it’s time. I currently also direct and produce music videos to keep the creative mind flowing and to add to my growing portfolio.

When describing where I want to end up or why exactly I want to be a director/writer, I think of my first time on set for both acting and directing. I remember taking a moment to think about where I was and what exactly I was doing. When I did, I remember my heart skipping a beat vividly, the way it does when you’re at the very top of a rollercoaster looking below you just before plummeting downwards. That’s how I knew this was something I had to pursue for the rest of my life, and it was something I could do good by. I don’t really have a plan B, because I don’t believe in the option of plan A not working out. Directing is plans A, B, C and everything that follows.

Is our city a good place to do what you do?
I wasn’t born in Los Angeles. I was born in Seattle and began splitting my time between both cities in 2011 before formally moving here. Other than the obvious that the whole film industry stems from here, I took to LA immediately. There is a hustle, a grit and commitment to the grind, I haven’t quite found anywhere else. As someone born out of LA who has been able to reap LA of its benefits and feel like I have a home here more than where I was actually born, I feel like it’s important to vouch for this city as much as possible.

LA is a city where there’s something for everyone and if you work enough, it’ll happen for you. It’s a wonderful place for grass to grow from pavement. If you come here from somewhere else, respect the city, learn from the city, and show some love to the city.

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Image Credit:
Personal photo (the first image requested) taken by Ericka Clevenger

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