Agam Darshi on 'Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency' transformation
If you’ve ever read a mommy blog or flipped through a women’s lifestyle magazine, you’re probably familiar with the largely infuriating concept of the post-baby bounce-back (if you need a refresher, Google “5 Tips for Bouncing Back After Baby” or “Postpartum Secrets of Celebrity Moms.” We’ll wait.).
In Agam Darshi’s case, the 18 months after giving birth were less about “bouncing back” than they were about getting to know herself all over again – and turning out some damn fine work in the process.
Darshi gave birth to twin boys Forest and Taj in June 2016. “When I became a mother, my identity really started to shift,” says the Vancouver-based actress, writer and director over tea in Kitsilano in late December. “I started questioning everything: what happened to my sexuality? Am I still sexy? What happened to my body? Where do I fit? How do I see myself in this world?”
The wave of questions didn't slow Darshi down. If anything, they manifested in a bounty of television and theatre performances: a juicy guest stint on You Me Her; Burning Point, a one-woman theatrical show in which Darshi played a wealth of characters of her own creation; a highly comedic turn as a little boy named Cody in an episode of Convos with my 2-year-old; and an emotionally demanding role as an exotic dancer haunted by childhood trauma in Bombay Black, a searing stage play by Anosh Irani.
Darshi (who co-starred on Sanctuary and Played and won a Leo Award for her work in Crimes of Mike Recket) capped off her year of discovery with a character that rendered her virtually unrecognizable: that of Wakti Wapnasi, a prophetic forest witch in the second season of BBC America’s cult hit Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency that hit Netflix on January 5 (Darshi is “virtually unrecognizable” due to a staggering amount of prosthetics; more on that below).
“My dreams are just as big as they’ve ever been, but I think I want more balance, so it’s not about more is more, it’s about there’s enough to go around,” says Darshi. “When I got pregnant, I was like, ‘from now on, I really want the roles that I do to mean something,’ and since I’ve gone back to work after having the babies, every role has meant something and has given me something and has been something that I’m very proud of.”
Rewind 11 months. It’s February 2017. Darshi is performing Burning Point, her one-woman show, to multiple sold-out crowds at Railtown Actors Studio.
The play requires Darshi to portray several South Asian women, separated by era and geography, whose lives are connected by a searing pain in their right hand: a present-day career woman in Boston; a rebel in 1980s England; a hard-working girl in 1960s East Africa; and a sweet, dutiful young woman in 1940s India. “I knew it was going to be a motherfucker of a show, and I think I needed to prove to myself, ‘Okay, even though I have children, I can still do this, I can do something challenging,’-” says Darshi, noting that she wrote the bulk of Burning Point when she was pregnant.
Burning Point’s many South Asian characters represented a break from a decision that Darshi had made earlier in her career. “I went through a phase for probably a good 10 years where I went, ‘I don’t want to play South Asian roles, I want to be able to play Debbie or Linda just like anyone else,’ and there is a part of me that believes that,” says Darshi. “I don’t think that just because you’re a person of colour or you have an ethnic background that you have to be the representation of that in any story. I’ve been really lucky.”
“But I’m noticing that, as a writer, I write my best work when it comes from a place of experience or something really personal, and the fact is, I am South Asian, and there are a lot of stories there,’” she adds. “What I’m noticing is it may not be the same stories that we’ve already seen on screen. I’m really interested in telling the South Asian story but from a point of view that is really Canadian, and that’s something we don’t see. We seem to be bombarded by stories of, ‘Oh, yeah, she might live in Canada but she wants to get married and her parents aren’t letting her,’ and I’m sure that’s people’s experiences, but it’s not mine.”
One year later, Darshi is wowing audiences in a very different type of role: that of Wakti Wapnasi on BBC America’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, the second (and, given that BBC America announced on December 18 that the series had been cancelled, final) season of which hit Netflix on Friday.
Based on the series of books by Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency stars Samuel Barnett as the titular holistic detective who investigates cases involving the supernatural.
The locally shot series also stars Elijah Wood as Todd, Dirk’s reluctant assistant, and Fiona Dourif as a holistic assassin named Bartine Curlish. Season one introduced a long list of local actors in key roles, including Michael Eklund, Zak Santiago, Viv Leacock, and Osric Chau as a quartet of anarchist vampires known as the Rowdy 3, and Dustin Milligan as a dimwitted CIA operative; for season two, Darshi joined Aleks Paunovic, Lee Majdoub, Karin Konoval and Christopher Russell as residents of a previously unheard of mysterious realm called Wendimoor.
“When I went to the audition, the only note that I was given beforehand was, ‘You can’t go too far,’ and to me, that’s the best note anyone can give me,” says Darshi. “I have an issue now as I’ve gotten older that I get bored really easily, and it’s really hard for me to care about a role if I don’t feel challenged, and this was really easy to care about.” But Darshi found that she could care about Dirk Gently, and Wakti. “The writing was so good, and I could do anything. I could really let my freak flag fly, and I have a really big freak flag.”
(We’ll spare you any spoilers, but will include what Darshi had to say about Wakti: “She was echoing something that I was already reading about, that I’m curious about: that metaphysical thing that’s in the air about power, and really trying to get into your true self and the truth of who you are and knowing that that is enough and that can transcend any physical or mental pain that we have.” If you want more than that, get thee to your nearest Netflix).
What Darshi didn’t know until months after she’d been cast was precisely how the production team planned to transform her into Wakti. Her face would be completely obscured by silicone prosthetics that required three hours to apply and nearly two hours to remove. She'd be wearing contacts and a 20-pound hat, and because the character of Wakti had four hands, Darshi “had two people underneath this giant dress of mine who were trying to be my hands, so it was probably the hardest, most challenging experience I’ve ever had.” She takes a beat. “In some ways. It was almost like the universe reminding me, ‘Your body has all of the answers.’ I was able to do it. I was really proud of being able to do 15-hour, 16-hour days in this costume with a positive attitude and put on a performance. That’s what I needed to learn.”
Alas, Darshi scared some co-workers in the process. Says Darshi: “I would literally wear my hoodie when I wasn’t in costume but when I had my face on, because there were a couple of times I’d scare people in the crew accidentally. I’d say ‘excuse me’ and they’d see me and jump, and so I would wear my hoodie and walk around like this moody actor, but it was partly to protect myself because it takes a lot of energy when people are constantly staring at you, and I didn’t want to scare other people.”
Stream season one and season two of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency on Netflix.
MORE FROM AGAM DARSHI
On why the role she booked on You Me Her two months after giving birth meant so much: “I went through a bout of postpartum [depression], and acting was what got me through it because I ended up booking a role. I was not planning on auditioning at all, but I just felt I needed to, or I needed to do something. There was this audition that came up, and they requested me, and I put myself on tape and I loved the material so much. It was for You, Me, Her. It’s so well written. What I loved about it was that I was 30 pounds overweight. I was 30 pounds over the weight and they booked me for this role of a love interest, this ex-girlfriend of the main character, and it was kind of like the universe’s way of showing me, ‘You still got it, don’t worry, it’s fine.’ It was so fulfilling to be able to go to work, do what I wanted to do, and come home to my babies. I was so happy.”
On how she used empathy to connect with her character – Apsara, an exotic dancer who’d been sexually abused by her father for a decade – in Anosh Irani’s Bombay Black: “ It’s a really hard play because, for me, I didn’t have very similar experiences as Apsara. I’ve been very lucky. I have a kind and loving father. It was really interesting for me to go to such a dark place and try to figure out, ‘how do I access this in the most truthful way possible?’ I’m obsessed with process, I love process, and what was amazing about that experience was I discovered this other way to enter into my character and into her wounds through a place of empathy as opposed to the method of Method acting, which is, ‘This happened to me’ – or trying to find substitutions even. I didn’t do it that way. It happened from a place of empathy, and it was very powerful.”