Improvising life with Veena Sood
In all great superhero origin stories, there’s a single catalyst moment where something life-altering goes down – Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider; Bruce Wayne’s parents are murdered in Crime Alley – and our hero is compelled forward on their new, true path.
For Veena Sood, this catalyst moment didn’t involve a souped-up arachnid or a film noir murder. It involved Liza Minnelli, the Academy Awards, and a girl with a penchant for dressing up like a cowboy (and if that sounds like the set-up for an improv sketch, that’s wildly appropriate).
It’s March 27, 1973. Calgary. Sood is up past her bedtime watching the Academy Awards on television. She’s a tomboy who loves to dress up like a cowboy (“I was a tomboy, and although I didn’t know I wanted to be an actress, if you look at a lot of my pictures from when I was a kid, I was in costume, and the costume you’ll see the most was cowboy”).
Then Minnelli won the Oscar for her performance in Cabaret and made her way to the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, accompanied by rapturous applause, and Sood experienced “a catalyst moment that helped me understand what I wanted to do,” she says over tea in Kitsilano.
“It wasn’t even Liza,” she adds. “It was something linked to wanting to be validated. Perhaps it came from being a girl in a culture [where girls] typically don’t have a big voice. There are a lot of reasons why I think, for whatever reason, at that age, I really needed to be loved in a different way than what my parents were giving me. I really realized on a profoundly deep level that I wanted to be an actress.”
(You can view Minnelli's 1973 acceptance speech here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DFstpIKW7A4)
In the decades since that As-Seen-On-TV catalyst moment, Sood has remained laser-focused on performing, AKA her now not-so-new true path. She’s carved out a career as a master improviser (first with Loose Moose Theatre Company in Calgary, and later with the Vancouver TheatreSports League), and as an in-demand dramatic and comedic actress in all manner of screen projects, including feature films (like The Accused, Anne Wheeler’s Loyalties, and the upcoming Robert Zemeckis picture, The Women of Marwen), television shows (Ghost Wars, The Indian Detective, Corner Gas Animated), and web series (Yoga Town).
In recent years, Sood has been recognized for her craft by her community: UBCP/ACTRA’s Sam Payne Award in 2014, the Lorena Gale Woman of Distinction Award in 2017 (see her stirring acceptance speech here), and a 2018 Leo Award nomination for Best Performance in a Music, Comedy, or Variety Program or Series for playing the principal of a school that’s hired a robot to teach a kindergarten class in Android Employed. That last award will be handed out this weekend.
Back when Sood was that little cowboy growing up in Calgary, her parents – immigrants from India by way of Kenya and England – had very different career expectations their daughter. “We’re from a creative family, but my parents, who are immigrants, didn’t have the opportunity to make those kinds of choices,” she says. Her father was a doctor and her mother, a nurse. “They wanted me to be a lawyer because I was very outspoken and feisty as a kid and I would always talk back to the adults. They said, ‘Lawyer!’ I didn’t connect to that. With acting, it was like tunnel vision.”
After cutting her teeth in the improv scene in Calgary, Sood made her way to Los Angeles – a period in her life she referenced on #OldHeadShotDay by tweeting out an image captioned “A smiley…and pouty…Indian valley girl.”
Although that “Indian valley girl” was very driven during her three years in LA, she was “actually bereft and lonely and heart-starved for artistic expression,” she recalls. “I found LA to be very empty. I did tiny little bit things, but I had been on stage five nights a week in Calgary, and I was learning and we were exploring new things and we were putting on plays and writing and improvising and we were performing to sold-out audiences. LA was great for taking some classes. I learned about acting. I learned about film and TV. It was an important and necessary time. I had to get it out of my system.”
In 1986, Sood heard about an improvisation company in Vancouver that was making a splash with its rollicking evenings of comedy: Vancouver TheatreSports League. Says Sood: “I came here and looked around at what a beautiful city it was, and there was a lot of room for me to perform with TheatreSports, and I was like, ‘You mean I can have this and act, too? I’m here.’”
Sood has seen some gains with regards to how people of Indian ancestry are portrayed on North American screens (“Now, there’s an Indian in every show,” she marvels), although not as many as she’d like. “The next step is not having to justify the casting, even mixed marriages and stuff,” she says. “We still have a long way to go. I have dual citizenship to England, so I work over there a lot. The casting is 10 years ahead. What we’re doing now, they were doing 10 years ago, so now it’s a non-issue.”
“It’s still very stereotypical to cast the Indian actress as nurses and doctors or professionals,” she adds. “I think there’s still a lot of that. I get asked every week to play a doctor. I decline a lot of it because I’ve done it a million times. When you play those types of roles, they’re very non-emotional.”
Sood is far from non-emotional when she reflects on what she wanted from life in the years after she watched Minnelli accept her Oscar on live TV.
“I think I aspired to almost where I’m at now,” she says. “I wanted to be in control, to be able to choose projects that I wanted to work on, and I really, really wanted a partner in my life, and I couldn’t have fathomed at that age being able to come out to my mom and dad. That’s one thing, and then it’s another thing to meet someone, and we’re married! We got married and we had my mom at the ceremony. That’s way out there on some other planet to me. It’s one thing to want to be an actress; it’s another to be openly gay and all of that.”
The 2018 Leo Awards – which recognize on-camera and behind-the-scenes excellence in the homegrown screen scene – take place June 2 and 3 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. The awards aren’t broadcast, but YVR Screen Scene will be in the room where it happens, so watch @YVRScreenScene for live-tweets and check back here for next-day results.