'I never imagined I would be in this place'

Gerard Raymond speaks to a Sri Lankan-born actor making it big on New York's stage
Sanjit De Silva
Sanjith de Silva
Sanjith De Silva

This month, Sanjit De Silva reaches a new milestone in a decade-long career as a working actor in New York City. He plays the CEO of a US company involved in a high stakes financial drama in 'DryPowder', anexciting new play by Sarah Burgess, presented at The Public Theater, one of the city’s leading cultural institutions. “Finally I’m in a place where I am doing the kind of work I want to do, and I’m being seen in the way that I want to be seen,” says the Sri Lankan-born actor. “I hope this trend continues,” he adds smiling.

De Silva has ample cause to celebrate. It’s no small coup to be cast in a role that would traditionally have gone to a white actor,he’salsointhecompany of a stellar cast that includes Golden Globe-winner Claire Danes of Homeland fame, The Office star John Krasinki and Hank Azaria, famous for his voice work on The Simpsons. And, the play is directed by Thomas Kail who is responsible for the current Broadway megahit Hamilton. 

“I never imagined I would be in this place,” De Silva continues. “I live in in New York, I have a family and I make money being an actor. Success is not about making millions of dollars, it’s about getting the opportunity to make your living and make your life as an artist. If you can do that, that’s an incredible gift, and I don’t take that for granted.” De Silva left Sri Lanka at the age of seven in the year following the eruption of the civil war. Finding life untenable in Colombo, his Sinhalese father and Tamil mother applied for work overseas. His mother got a job with the UN, workingfirstinUgandaand then in New York. When it came time for college De Silva chose a pre-med course at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. “I did some drama in high school, but I never thought about it,” he recalls. “As an immigrant you are told to you have to work twice as hard if you want to make it. My grandfather and uncle were doctors, so I thought, “well I guess I’ll be a doctor.”

But then he stumbled onto the drama department at the university. After taking a few classes, he got hooked on theater. To please his parents he continued with his pre-med requirements, but also took on a second major in performing arts. Six months before he was due to take his medical college admission tests, he got the opportunity to perform in the play Bent by Martin Sherman. And that changed everything. “I was so engrossed in the play and the character, I was transported,”hereports.“Forthe first time I thought maybe I can actually do this.
Maybe I’m good at this.”

But, because of the experience he had gained the next summer doing an internship at director Spike Lee’s movie company, he started as a film production assistant in New York. He soon realized, however, that he what he really wanted was to be in front of the camera. So he applied to the top five graduate acting programmes in the country and started taking acting classes. Accepted by four out of the five, he landed at his top choice, New York University, with a full scholarship. “Those were the three greatest years of my life,” he says.

Coming out of grad school in 2004 De Silva now faced the prospect of getting work as an actor -- daunting enough for anyoneinthebusiness,evenmoresofor an actor of South Asian origin. De Silva was lucky. He was able to get an agent quite easily. “I was labelled the “hot EA guy” – ethnically ambiguous – so I was able to get a lot of TV roles pretty fast. I got guest star and best friend roles, but I realized that it is a much harder game to actually get a lead.” 

He says he learned a valuable lesson in those early years: “If you are always waiting around for your next job, your value slowly start to diminish because, the fact is, your life as an actor is series of rejections. You have to make your life as important as your work.” 

Seeking artistic fulfilment De Silva joined the Rising Circle Theater Collective, a theater company for artists of colour. “We created our own work; we just couldn’t wait around for other people to give us jobs.” It was there that he met the company co-founder, Deepa Purohit, an Indian-American actress and playwright, who would later become his wife. They’ve now been married for ten years and have a son.

“We have found a way to balance each other,” says De Silva. “When I realised I had to support a child, I started to doubt whether I could really continue as an actor. But looking back now, I realise that is part of being an artist. You have to ask this of yourself because this is not an easy profession to be in.Attheendoftheday,Iwantmysontobe proud of me not because of how much money I make but because his father pursued the thing he loves and he has the permission to pursue what he loves as well. That’s the kind of role model I want to be.” 

His concerns notwithstanding, De Silva continued to get work, including a two-year career-making stint on Broadway in the acclaimed production of War Horse. After that he took break from the stage to write and produce a short film, TimeAfter, in which heal so co-starred opposite his wife. “It’s about a South Asian couple who are trying to decide whether to start a family or whether their careers are more important. I wrote it because you just don’t see film or TV where the leads are South Asian. I feel I am also the face of America, and in order to change the landscape you need directors, producers of colour.” 

De Silva is currently working several other projects including a TV pilot that features a Sri Lankan family in America with Sri Lankan-American kids as the leads. “My long term goal is to make a film about my parents,” he adds. “They are my role models -- a Sinhalese and a Tamil who fell in love and got married against their families’ wishes, who made a life for their two childreninanothercountry;theywereable to embrace their kids and their passions, so I give them a lot of credit.”

In the past three decades De Silva has also retained ties to Sri Lanka. “In America there are all these expats – 45 or 50 people – and we get together for a Sri Lankan- American Thanksgiving with curry and turkey! They are like my family -- they have all become our aunts and uncles. We are all getting to be global citizens, but Sri Lanka is really an important part of my heritage,” he says, adding that. three years ago, he introduced his son to the country. “We stayed for about a month and he had such an amazing time – he grew to love string hoppers and fish curry.”

If there is one place in Sri Lanka that is closest to his heart, De Silva says it is his aunt’s house on Reid Avenue in Colombo 7. “That’s we where we always went to stay with my cousins; my greatest memories are in that house. And the best thing is the food: we could walk to get a maalu paan or a mas paan and iced coffee, and, of course, for a midnight godamba roti feast at Raheema’s!” 

More to explore