Tina Desai Travels the World for her Role in the Netflix Series ‘Sense8’

Story by Caroline Wong 

Tina Desai is talking travel. “I feel most at home there,” she says of London, her current favorite locale. “It’s the place I’m the calmest. Everything about the architecture, the food, the people, the shopping, the history.” She adds, laughing, “And the accent!”

Fortunately for her, Desai has had the opportunity to visit London frequently, due in no small part to her latest film, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in which she reprised the role of Sunaina, the fiancée to Dev Patel’s Sonny. She’s also become a travel expert of late, having wrapped shooting on the new sci-fi drama Sense8, Andy and Lana Wachowski’s forthcoming Netflix series premiering on June 5.

“We traveled to several locations around the world,” she says – nine sites in all, spanning four continents, from Nairobi to Reykjavik, Seoul to Mumbai – “and going to each city actually adds a different flavor to the story. The cast is multinational so the mix that you feel on the show – that’s really what we experienced in our lives, too.”

The Wachowskis’ first foray into television explores those overarching themes of place, culture and identity with breathtaking magnitude. Boasting an international cast from six different countries – including Korean actress Doona Bae and Indian British actor Naveen Andrews – and a narrative that weaves eight main characters into the fabric of a science fiction world, the series reimagines the possibilities of television with true cinematic flair.

These eight strangers, including Desai’s Kala, a scientist from Mumbai, “experience this intense incident, and after that, they realize that they’re mentally and emotionally linked, that they can see and feel and hear each other,” says Desai. “They haven’t met each other before this incident so [the series] brings to the floor the cultural [clashes] that can happen.”

Whatever conflicts may happen onscreen, there was one co-star with whom Desai bonded. “I’m very fond of Doona Bae,” she says of the Korean actress. “[As Asians], we are similar in many ways. She has an amazing heart and is very gentle. She’s also alarmingly different on screen. A true talent.”

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Tina Desai and Max Riemelt in Netflix’s Sense8. Photo courtesy of Murray Close/ Netflix.
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Photo courtesy of Murray Close/ Netflix.

A relative newcomer to acting, Desai made sure she had a backup plan. “I liked finance, investments, taxation, things like that,” says the actress, who received a college degree in business management. “I will still do my M.B.A. at some point because I’m very unhappy that all my friends have done their M.B.A. and I haven’t,” she adds. “I feel very undereducated when I talk to them!”

Acting was, in fact, a pursuit that Desai had originally kept hidden from her peers. “I was too shy to tell any of my friends, too afraid of their reactions,” she says. “So I [didn’t] share it until I actually moved to Mumbai to start work.” Her family, on the other hand, thoroughly supported her. It was her mother who approached Desai about trying her hand at modeling after she graduated college. “I never had to have that discussion about wanting to make the entry into acting. [My mother] always thought I should do it anyway.”

After appearing in a couple Indian films, Desai landed the role of Sunaina in director John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Most of her screen time was with Indian British actor Dev Patel, who Desai says is “the most fun person I know. There’s never a dull moment with him around. He also has terrific comic timing. He is a spontaneous actor who gives you so much to play off of in a scene.” As for her other co-stars – including acting legends Judi Dench, Bill Nighy and Maggie Smith – the then-budding actress claims the veteran cast gave her space to develop her own skills. “The Marigold actors truly never interfered in your process,” she says. “They really just left it all to John, and he has a lot of faith in you, and you have a lot of faith in yourself because of how much faith he has in you.”

With the Wachowskis, Desai experienced a similar give-and-take. “Lana actually said, ‘Let’s all discuss this and whatever you feel like doing, whatever the best idea is, [that’s] what we’ll actually end up doing,'” recalls Desai. “We didn’t have to follow the rules of nature, so we could actually use our imagination to do what we wanted. I didn’t know how much fun that could be until I did this show.

“The sort of work [the Wachowskis] do is really incredible,” she continues. “It’s very hard to be able to imagine or see things the way they do because they just have brains that are a lot more genius than ours. Even when you’re reading the script, you’re in wonder about how they think up concepts that are so out of the norm.”

Such imaginative concepts include the characters’ abilities to telepathically delve into seven other lives, and the process of inhabiting her character’s experience influenced Desai’s own understanding of self. “It actually made me realize that I should not limit myself to what I have been taught or what I have been exposed to, because there are so many things that we as a culture believe in so strongly and yet other cultures haven’t even heard of it,” she says. “That’s why I like traveling so much, because of how much you learn. You realize there are no rules – and then there are so many different sets of rules.”


Feature image courtesy of Atul Kasbekar. 
This story was originally published in our Summer 2015 issue. Get your copy he