He explains Bollywood to his British family as an exciting vibrant film industry with innovative ideas, great international scripts and filming locations. It was while working on his third Indian film in London when actor Sammy Jonas Heaney realised that he had to be in Bollywood.
At one point he was thinking of a career in theatre and didn’t know a lot about Bollywood. Yet now he is working in the second largest film industry, with some of the biggest actors in the world. “…And lovely set designers who build the vast colourful sets. Imagine doing a massive item song - on a big boat - in the middle of London,” he says.
Till date he has appeared in prominent roles in movies as Paagalpanti, Shrimati Umbrella, Pinga, TV serials as Chhoti Sardarni, Tu Aashiqui and five global Netflix movies including High End Yariyaan and Girl on The Train.
In his candid confessions to Wall Street International Magazine, Sammy Jonas Heaney reveals his love for India, highs and lows of Bollywood, #metoo, casting couch and the reasons why in spite of all the struggles he won’t run after a comfortable life in a plush British city.
I started in the Bollywood industry as a background dancer and junior artist. I saw an advert and applied (for a film named Naanaku Prematho). Had a brief meeting with Sahil who is a casting director and my manager in London. He said that he liked my look and he sees strong potential in me. But sadly, the scene was cut. But later on, he gave me some other small projects without dialogues. Again, after two years he gave me a few dialogues in Welcome to New York along with some big stars, and then many more projects with proper dialogues followed. Right now, to get one meaty project I have to do around four auditions and a meeting with the director or creative team but for adverts and smaller roles, only one or two auditions work.
I love how last minute and unknown it is. Right now, I can get a phone call saying I am needed in Chennai for a film shoot tomorrow. So straight away I have to go to the airport and fly. It’s really exciting. There’s something really exciting and fascinating when a film company from another country, comes into my country and selects me to be in a movie. It’s so rare and inspiring.
Bollywood foreigner Reality. You are replicable any time, any day
One thing that is very important about being a foreigner, is that you are always replaceable. If they are auditioning for a role, they might only find five other actors in Mumbai who are willing to audition. But if your audition is not good enough and you don’t get selected, then a big casting agency can always fly in an actor from UK or Russia. So many times, I have thought to myself “I will get this role easily, I’m the best actor for this role in Mumbai” but no they can fly in an actor very easily because some movies are massive and have a lot of budgets.
I actually enjoy playing the “goonga (dumb) white foreigner” or “paagal (crazy) white foreigner” because I’m making people laugh. Also, maybe I do look stupid so I get cast in these typical roles sometimes. But it’s all acting so I don’t mind. Otherwise, the roles for a male foreigner are army officers, comedy roles, cricket players, businessmen or detectives. Right now, I’m 23 and if asked for a role most likely it will be one scene but if I’m in my 30’s or 40’s you can play much bigger roles.
The #metoo movement is great both in Hollywood and Bollywood. Perfection doesn’t exist but we should still strive for improvements. I think I’m not quite an insider yet but there are certainly many talented actors and filmmakers who are not involved in these controversies and are hundred percent focused on good quality acting. It’s always important to destress and have fun sometimes though just within your limits.
Being a male foreigner, casting couch is quite rare in my situation. I am probably not the best person to ask. However, from my experiences, it’s not a myth at all. It’s important to remember that good acting goes far in the long term. Often casting couch can create a shortcut to becoming an actor but no, it is not ethical. It’s always good for our own happiness to look back at your career and know your success came purely from hard work and talent.
First, work on a no kissing contract and don’t do bold scene. I get called about doing Ullu (name of a soft porn OTT platform) series. I say no everything. Secondly, don’t piss off important actors, directors, production because they can cancel you in a heartbeat!
As you can imagine - just before I was about to start getting some proper roles of maybe 30 lines, the pandemic crept in at a very bad time. Only recently things started picking up. In between, I started working at the Guildford train station as a mask monitor handing out masks to passengers. After two months I got sacked because I was singing Bollywood item songs and speaking in Hindi. True story, ha-ha. The tough period went on for a few more months until thankfully few Marathi and Bhojpuri films came up that were shot in the UK.
Surviving bad days
I should be happy already with the big stars and directors I’ve worked with knowing that there’s still room for more. But when the universe gives me that chance, often, it’s when I least expect it. I also do yoga, relax and learn a Hindi song. I like a Punjabi song also called Waalian by Hanoor. Or I watch Devdas because it relaxes me. I think focusing on inner peace with your surroundings helps a lot at a given time.
Still, never say never to Bollywood
I love acting and Bollywood gives me so many opportunities. I’d love to film a movie in every city in India which I think would take a lifetime so I don’t see myself having a normal job. The money for a foreigner is not amazing but still pays better than theatre and TV acting. Being a foreigner in Bollywood is perfect if you love acting, and travelling. These things also are what keep me motivated to not give up. People ask me why I don’t give up Bollywood and try Hollywood but I think I prefer my lifestyle in India. Hollywood is very tough. However, what’s great is that the top 10 percent of Bollywood stars are often seen in Hollywood like Deepika Padukone, Anil Kapoor and many others.
Real life vs reel life
Some days it’s very tough to come on set and appear ‘perfect’ on the camera but I try to focus on my acting as much as possible. I remind myself that so many people on the sets work so hard to create a movie not just the actors. For example, lighting teams, special effects, costume designers and many others. It’s teamwork between everyone so if I as an actor am having a bad day, I should be equally as professional as everyone else, and really try and focus on the character.
Actors come in all shapes and sizes. So many great Indian shows on Netflix and Amazon Prime have very interesting scripts with fat, short, different and unique actors. I know a ‘star’ is seen as a macho man combined with great item songs, but it’s not all about these mainstream Indian films. It’s alright to stand out and to play different roles like geeky, weird, comedy characters. All actors should embrace their differences and should use them to their advantage. Again, everyone is different, and our diversity makes us stand out as actors.
Filming in the UK vs filming in India
Similarities are that I never cook. On set we get fed with amazing four-course Indian food, and on my days off, I order from Zomato. I really should grow up and cook but truth is I’m so used to getting everything given to me ha-ha so this is tough. The differences are that I dress badly. On my days off, I walk around India in cheap vests and shorts from the Goa markets because the weather is so hot. If I could I’d wear pyjamas because some days I start on the sets at Madh Island at 6 a.m. While filming in UK I wear tracksuit.
Christmas, Diwali and Ganesh Festival
On Diwali, I was on a plane to Chennai and I saw the beautiful fireworks from the air. A very beautiful sight indeed. I have never celebrated Christmas in India, however, I’m excited to do it this year. I did however celebrate Ganesh Festival which was amazing. My Marathi friends invited me to a lovely street party in Mumbai, it was so nice of them! I was dancing and singing in the street and eating many modaks (a sweet dish). So lovely to be welcomed to such a beautiful religious celebration.
Never give up and keep on going. Learn new skills like singing, dancing, fighting, stunts, musical instruments and doing theatre before screen. Live audience develops you more.
If you can change one thing about Bollywood…
Ha-ha that’s easy, accents. I get asked to play an Australian or Russian which is fascinating because I have absolutely no connection to these countries and I cannot do their accent. In fact, these accents are extremely hard to do. I’m already learning Hindi. so having to play an American man some days when I have only a few days’ notices before we shoot, is a very tough task. To learn an accent properly takes weeks to study the vowel sounds and the science of where the voice comes from. I guess for the Indian audience it’s not so important at all however when I listen to myself, I think I sound so funny.