Interview With VINNY CHHIBBER | Storytelling Can Change The World
What is the story about your life that you tell? We often underestimate the power of how we talk about ourselves and our life experience. By continuing to tell the same story that in turn, we would like to be different, we are continually creating a momentum that influences our belief system, ending up convincing ourselves about it. The good news is that we can reverse the process and create a perception that will make us feel better, and just for the sake of feeling good, it’s totally worth it. Be kind and easy to yourself, love yourself since that is what you will give back to the world.
Actor Vinny Chhibber, who can be seen as Liam Bhatt on the recently premiered CBS TV series, The Red Line, says: “(…) I think storytelling is like a superpower, it can change the world. (…)” Vinny, as he calls himself is a creative activist, who through his artistic expression of storytelling aims to empower others.
In this thought-provoking interview, you will discover Vinny’s beginnings as an actor and his professional aspirations, as well as his contribution to uplift those who want to be seen and heard.
- Please introduce yourself briefly. Who, in your own words, is Vinny Chhibber?
Actor, storyteller, creative activist.
- Was there a pivotal moment when you realized acting was your calling?
I was in an acting class called Speeches & Monologues, and our first assignment was a monologue. I remember learning the lines and practicing this two-minute piece everywhere. The gym, the parking lot, my job at a café, when I woke up before I went to sleep – everywhere… and I still felt like something was off, like, I couldn’t “get it.” I had worked on this two minutes for two months… it was our 8th weekend and I was just so frustrated. My teacher (who I’d conned into meeting me once a week on Saturday mornings) said, “One more time,” my response was, well, let’s just say I shouldn’t repeat it here. “Just one more time damn it!” So I did… and man, it was like… I could feel the pores in my skin take a breath… It’s like no other feeling on earth – you just feel so alive, and at that moment, you believe that anything is possible <- that was it, that was the moment I knew, in a tiny black box theatre in a small college class on a Saturday morning in April, and I feel fortunate that I carry that feeling with me to this day.
- Within the last few years, there has been amazing progress and change in the entertainment industry seeking more diversity and equality in stories and characters portrayed. Can you reflect on your experience in this evolving landscape?
Whereas, yes, there has been progress and change – I think we should celebrate that for what it is, a great first step. The numbers still show that we have a way to go when it comes to making sure that people of color, women, women of color and other marginalized communities are given equitable opportunities to succeed within our industry. I’m not talking about just casting, but writing, producing, show-running, directing, and everything else.
It doesn’t stop there either, it’s also about how people are represented in stories. As opposed to archetypes that perpetuate stereotypes that a lot of people do not identify with, and in many cases, cause them no small amount of distress or pain, we are dying to see characters that are informed by not defined by their cultural background, gender, or gender identity – characters that more accurately represent the intersectional nature of the spaces that many of us navigate in our lives. For example, I’m Indian. I’m also American. I’m as proud of one as I am the other – neither one of those things alone encapsulate who I am as a person – but both of those things do inform the person I am. Or, I like Pani Puri and I like BBQ ribs. Neither of those preferences are mutually exclusive, they are both just parts of who I am. Go figure. It’s narratives that explore that type of intersectionality that excite me as an artist – and we’re not there, but we’re on our way.
That said, I wouldn’t be speaking with you and I wouldn’t be working on the show that I am working on, if there weren’t people that were fighting the good fight. From casting directors like Russell Scott and Gohar Gazazyan at Bialy Thomas, to producers like Ava Duverney, Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schecter, to showrunners like Caitlin Parrish and Erica Weiss, to studios like Warner and CBS – all of those people (plus numerous others), had to make a commitment to diversity and inclusion in all aspects of storytelling in order for us to make the show we made.
- The intention behind two of the projects you founded, Chhibber Mann Production and the Ammunition Theatre Company, is to use art to facilitate change in the communities around us. How did you get inspired by this idea and what is your expectation of the impact – through the artistic expression of these projects?
Both companies, Chhibber Mann and Ammunition Theatre company were founded on the principles of creative activism. That is, using art (in our case, storytelling) to facilitate change in the communities around us. Whether you are watching, reading or telling – for many of us as artists, storytelling is a means of empowerment and of empathy – and we wanted to pass that along to people that needed it the most; marginalized communities – in the hopes that they felt seen, and heard. Whether it was through theatre workshops with homeless youth at My Friends Place (a local Los Angeles philanthropy) or producing Lost In America (a documentary examining the Homeless Youth crisis in the United States), we feel that we’re taking steps towards those goals.
- Liam Bhatt, a gay Muslim teacher, is the role you play on the recently premiered CBS TV series, The Red Line. How does it feel to you to represent both, the LGTB and Muslim community?
I think I’d like to start this with: the gay Muslim experience that Liam is having is singular. It is not representative of either the Muslim American experience or the gay experience in totality. As an actor, I’m thankful to have been chosen to bring this character to the screen. This is an important and relevant story to tell and I hope viewers will feel I did Liam justice.
- During the process of becoming Liam, have you learned something new about yourself?
I had the privilege to explore what it meant to be an Indian American Muslim Gay Teacher in an inner city school in Chicago. Those are a lot of potential landmines in a backstory that could affect the way one sees the world (and it did). However, what I like most about Liam, is that, his activism in the face of tragedy and struggle manifests in joy, courage and compassion. As if, through his life experience and through his faith, he’s accepted that every moment in his life is an opportunity to practice joy, compassion, gratitude and love. I think every time you get the chance to engage in any creative process you discover something valuable about yourself. In this case, playing Liam absolutely changed the way I looked at the world; he made me think about what my unconscious responses to challenging times were in my own life. He made me think of gratitude.
- When you read the script for the first time, how did the story behind The Red Line resonated with you?
What really resonated, outside of how well it was written, was that Caitlin and Erica had been able to build a world and characters that are reflective of the world around us, and inclusive of the world around us, without judgment. Regardless of who they are, these characters are just doing their best to heal after a terrible tragedy.
- How would you describe the connection and dynamic between Liam, Daniel and his daughter Jira?
To answer your question (without giving to much away), I think Liam sees a lot of himself in Jira, and maybe that’s why she is his favorite student. Mostly because, in the face of adversity she is curious about how to make the world around her a better place. As for his relationship with Daniel… on one hand, Liam sees someone in pain and wants to help, on the other, he has always had a soft spot for Daniel. He would never act inappropriately, but it’s… complicated.
- Does in any way being part of The Red Line TV series have expanded your personal perception? If so, how?
I was thinking about this the other day and I believe, after going through all the scripts and days on set, reading the story alone, with other people at the table reads and then on set – I think the take away for me is that we all need to do a better job of caring for each other, whether we know one another or not. That our problems, whatever they are, seem so much bigger when we are alone – and we don’t have to be. We are better together.
- Recently, you worked with Noah Baumbach for Netflix’s Untitled Feature Film alongside Scarlett Johansson. How was the experience of working with such a renowned director and exceptional cast?
I had a blast on that set. Made new friends and got to work with one of/actually a few of the greats. I was right in the middle of testing for The Red Line while I was shooting and it was a dream. Noah had this rule about no cell phones, period – at first it was a little challenging, as we’re all so addicted to checking our phones every few minutes – it’s almost a physical tick – after a few days though, you settled in with the cast, just taking everyone and everything in because you didn’t have your phone there to distract you… I’m positive that it impacted everyone’s performances in the best way – I can’t wait to see it!
- Rahul Kadeli is the character you portray on TNT’s TV series Animal Kingdom, premiering its fourth season this Spring. Who is Rahul and how much fun was becoming him?
Oh, Rahul… so much fun. Well, I can’t give too much away but: Rahul is an arrogant billionaire used to getting what he wants; be it luxury items or women. When he’s told he can’t have something, he’ll spend any amount of money to have it. Oh, and he’s British. This was another opportunity for me to work with someone that I’d looked up to for so long in John Wells. I’ve watched almost every project he’s ever produced, from the ER, to the West Wing, to Shameless and now Animal Kingdom… I was thrilled. As for the experience itself, it was great. All the actors on the show are so talented and easy to work with, from Ben to Jake to Dichen – everyone welcomes you into the family with open arms. I haven’t done action sequences in a while, so this is another one I’m looking forward to seeing!
- How fulfilling is your life when you teach a class at Ghetto Film School, helping young talents from local communities to pursue creative careers?
I wish I could do more with that organization! They are so committed to empowering young people through storytelling and giving them the tools to do just that! I love teaching, especially when it comes to storytelling, because I think (and I’ve said this before), storytelling is like a superpower, it can change the world. It can change the way people see themselves and see each other. It can give people hope (whether they are the one’s watching, listening to, reading OR telling the story).
- Are you involved in any other charity organization or humanitarian cause you would like to mention?
Absolutely – I’ve worked with numerous organizations that are all about helping people in need, but the two that come to mind are My Friends Place and The Boot Campaign. I’ve worked with both in some capacity and I can say without a doubt, that they are some of the best people I’ve had the honor of knowing. They are dedicated to helping the most vulnerable people in our society, and they do it with care and dignity that we could all learn from.
- The spirit of The Hedonist Magazine is The Essence of a Joyful Living. How does Joy during the creative process affect your own experience and in consequence the final manifestation of your actions?
My work during the creative process is simply to be as present as I can during the given circumstance… and that can be a pretty tedious, scary process depending on what the project is. So I guess, for me, the point is to find joy in that process… to look at every moment as an opportunity to appreciate the opportunity I’ve been given to discover and express my artistic voice. I think the final manifestation of those actions is a reminder to engage in gratitude as often as possible, and to be present in the moment as often as possible, because, for me, that’s where joy is discovered more often than not.
- When you hear: “You can be, do and have anything you want,” words from the Abraham-Hicks teachings, what is your take on such a statement?
Actually, reminds me of another quote, “You can’t be, what you can’t see,” by Marie Wilson. Which is why representation in story matters – it allows us to see ourselves differently, to believe we are capable of being, doing, or having anything we want. So in my mind, the more people feel seen and heard, the more likely they are to believe and accept Abraham-Hicks saying.