There’s a good chance that you’ve seen something that dancer/comedian/actress Sunita Mani has been filmed in—Lil Jon’s Turn Down For What music video, a little Netflix series called GLOW, or maybe you’ve seen her dance group, Cocoon Central? Even if you haven’t yet, it won’t be long before you do. Sunita Mani is a quietly rising powerhouse, playing a wide range of creative roles and characters in her career trajectory. Between deeply complex and sweet Arthie in GLOW, a dancing bing-bong, and logical-yet-bumbling Su, it's hard to decide which of her characters you love the most. With her movies Save Yourselves! and Evil Eye both released this year (two new things we highly recommend viewing as a distraction from 2020), Sunita Mani has been keeping busy. Ahead, she talks about how quarantine has been, her most recent projects, all the roles she’s played, and where she might be going in the future.
How has quarantine been treating you?
I’m alright. I mean, I’m really fortunate. I feel like I’m as good as…can be? It’s been a weird year for everyone, for sure. I’m in a weird phase, again, of absorbing all the tension of everything going on, and taking in a lot of news, and phone time. And I’m having to speak with a lot of, like, new people! Which is just...yeah. It’s kind of bizarre to me. I’m getting used to it, but nothing is normal, so it’s just one more thing as a part of the picture.
I get that. The quarantine has been intense in the search for our new normal. I mean, I started baking to try to just keep my hands busy, and my boyfriend is getting worried about how much butter we’re eating.
Oh, yeah. I’ve 180’ed on butter. I used to hate it. I was, like, fed a lot of butter as a kid because I was so little and skinny. So my grandmother was trying to fatten me up! I can’t stop cleaning. I usually travel so much for work, and I have not been in this apartment this year until July. I was here a little bit in January, and then I was in L.A. for most of the shutdown because I was shooting GLOW.
I loved GLOW. You had such a funny character, and it was so related to see an Indian-American character who was being pushed to do something practical, when your character wanted to do something more creative. It feels like an extended metaphor for a lot of creative Asian-American going through.
I loved GLOW, too. It’s really sad to see it go. And totally! I was so happy I could bring so much of myself to Arthie and that there was, like, this Venn diagram of Arthie and Sunita. And then the overlapping part in the middle was so personal. I was excited that there some of that could filter into her, even if they were just little, understandable moments that I could understand in her. But yeah, that conflict of pleasing parents and tradition, and going your own way and following your own voice!
Since you’ve been traveling so much, are there any books or shows that you’ve discovered to pass the time?
I feel like I have to read to stop the voices in my head. I really look to books to take me out of the manic moods that I can get into. I’m trying, to like, get back into the Audre Lorde essays that I felt so close to in college. And I’m trying to get educated because of this kind of revolutionary time we’re in. I’m currently reading this book that’s complicated. It’s a bit too complicated for me! It’s called AZADI: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction, and it’s the new book of essays by Arundhati Roy. There’s so little I know about India. She started it in 2018. She wrote this beautiful thing where she said that the pandemic is sort of like a portal, and now, we can’t go back through it. We can only push through it and imagine something better for us. And I’m so slow. I’m such a slow reader. But yeah, it nourishes me and quells my anxiety, but also puts me to sleep! I also like to read aloud, I do a lot with my partner. I feel like I understand it more, too.
I feel like I have to read to stop the voices in my head.
Looking back on things, you’ve played so many different roles and been in so many different genres, like GLOW, Evil Eye, and Save Yourselves! Are there any particular roles that you might be interested in pursuing in the future?
Man, I feel like I just got here. Like, I can do the things I want to do. I’m getting roles that I’ve wanted. But I’m pretty open. There aren’t roles that I feel like I need to pursue because I feel like I’m unfulfilled or anything. If anything, I want to be more of a writer-creator, and be the roles that I get to write/create. But, yeah! One thing just keeps leading to another! It’s been an amazing path, and I just say yes to anything that comes my way. I love being open to what’s out there, and in that, I’m realizing that I need to make something as well and put myself out there in a different creative role.
What’s been the role you’re the fondest of?
Oh, man, there are so many! For TV? GLOW is such an amazing blend of theater, and film, and TV. And I love that role—we all get to do so much with our characters even when we have little moments. Wrestling is something that I never thought I would ever do in my career, and it’s just this total larger than life extreme fun that seeped into my daily life, in a cool way. It kind of felt like I was a secret superhero, and it felt like, “Wow, I can be more confident, I can speak up for myself”. And Save Yourselves! is truly a fantastic role. I’m honored to play it. I’m honored my friends were thinking of me when they wrote it, and they were able to give me that opportunity. It’s a really grounded role, it’s a fun role, it’s a fun premise. I love John Reynolds, my co-star. It was a dream to work on it. It was a very full opportunity. I was super excited to get to play that role.
I’ve always been so curious about what headspace you occupy when you’re on set for a horror film like Evil Eye.
Yeah, it’s pretty dark. And it’s a little paranoid, too. It’s just all the anxiety of the moment, and the typical anxieties of an actor of doing the role justice and really creating the moment—that can create terror and paranoia in of itself. I was okay with living in that space, because I really wanted to bring that script into justice. I mean, it could have gone either way, honestly. I was skeptical if I was the right person or if we could pull it off. And the tone of it is a blend of drama and horror. And the directors were super essential in helping me see the movie we were gonna make. And I just wanted to be there for my directors and co-stars. And it helped that most nights before the next scene, we would all get together in the hotel lobby and just talk through what we were doing and going through. It sort of created a constant engagement with the story and characters, and that was very helpful.
What made the role in Evil Eye so alluring to you?
I was kind of drawn into the fear of playing Pallavi, someone so close to me and my experience. That’s something I've never done before, and that opportunity had never been presented to me as a lead role. I was intrigued by exploring that part of my identity. I also thought the mother-daughter relationship was so cool, because that’s the center love story. The mother-daughter intuition and connection and literal long-distance aspect was so beautiful, and I thought it was interesting how the mother, Usha, has a story of abuse and trauma comes out and fits really well within the supernatural horror genre. Ultimately, talking to the directors and learning Sarita Choudhury was cast as the mother? Once I learned that, I was like, “I’m ready!”.
It sounded like something that was new and exciting, and you just really leaned into it.
Yeah, it was. I just wanted to follow my intuition, which is something that I don’t do! But everything lined up just right, so I was just like “go for it!”.
That’s really great, not everyone does that.
Yeah! And, it was a risk! It felt like a risk and experiment! Like, okay, let’s get into this! First time directors? Amazing. Emerging playwright’s screenplay? Amazing. Amazing cast? Like, it felt like such a risk even with all these cool elements, and it’s scary to take risks in this business. Like, you feel like you should theoretically be able to take risks and learn and grow, but it kinda doesn’t feel that way. You’re usually scared about fucking an opportunity up, and then not getting another opportunity.
So, since you’ve been on so many sets and done so many roles, have you learned any tricks for makeup for deeper skin tones?
Not...really? I have such deep set eyes and really dark under-eye circles, and we’ve learned just illuminating versus concealing works really nice. So instead of taking out the depth of my face and the darkness, and to keep things youthful and glowy, we would use dewier makeup, instead of matte, or just straight up concealing. I always appreciate that, because instead of trying to take the dimension out of my face, it worked with my dimension. I’m also super dry-skinned, so makeup really sticks to me, which means we didn’t have to retouch much.
How do you take care of your dry skin?
I’m quite simple. So my quarantine purchase has been really nice natural skincare. The Ilia Skin Tint is both a skin tint and sunscreen. I loved that in L.A. I felt especially glowy and gorgeous. I’m a big proponent of using oils, like coconut-based oils. I’m such a hippie, I just really love using coconut oil or a really nice rose oil. There’s this brand called Badger? Just. Badger? Have you heard of it? I think it’s a Whole Foods.
No, I don’t think so.
They have nice sunflower oils and rose oils.
The brand is called Badger? Like, the animal badger? Like, Hufflepuff badger?
Yeah, it’s definitely what you quirky aunt would use. It’s such a granola brand. I'm a big face oil person, I just love smearing it on and then just taking a hot rag and letting the washcloth seep in. And I love rose and cucumber spray from Mario Badescu, I love that stuff. But I keep it...oily.
I’ve been thinking about how many of us have to work together to protect ourselves and to protect others. There’s a life before COVID and after COVID. You’ve worked on so many sets, and I kind of think filming a production is one big team effort. COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into a lot of people’s lives, but I wonder if it has also been kind of unifying? Do you feel the same way?
I do? I think at the heart of it, I do. I just struggle with that because I feel like our country is also very divided at the same time. And when you’re working on a set, everyone there believes in the same objective and no matter who disagrees, you all have this unifying vision. And I just feel like the unifying vision of this country is being torn apart unnecessarily. And it’s so sad because basic human rights shouldn’t be polarizing, and people so convinced that others have to earn those rights! I don’t know, I’m around really organized people and social justice warriors who feel like the work is being done to, like, knock on doors, and make calls, and to make person-to-person contact, to say that we’re in it together and to make sure that your voice is heard and to show up. In some twisted way, maybe after the starvation of contact and after it’s safe, we’ll want to see the best in people and want to trust people—because we’ve been so starved for contact. In some way, I hope that we can hold onto those basic principles.
What’s happening for you next?
I’m trying to work on a project. I’m trying to write. Trying to flesh out a TV idea. I’m lucky that I have really strong collaborations in my life, so there’s always a bit of back and forth between filmmakers and actor friends, to share ideas. And that’s been really helpful, so I’m working on a couple of TV show ideas. One of my own, that I’m interested in fleshing out. Another one is for a comedic dance group called Cocoon Central Dance Team, and it’s with two of my best friends, Tallie Medel and Eleanore Pienta. And we’ve been best friends, been making stuff forever. We’re trying to pitch a TV show to, coincidentally, one of the directors of Save Yourselves! and one of his writing partners. Alex and Rachel, they are dear friends as well, and they made another movie with us called Snowy Bing Bongs Across The North Star Combat Zone. Which is a mouthful! Love, love, love that this movie is out there. It’s, like, an absurdist-dance-comedy-sci-fi. It’s 40 minutes, it’s perfect. And we’re trying to turn that into a TV show.
Sounds like it’s both fun and infuriating.
It is absolutely fun and infuriating! I want to go back to just, like, scrubbing the tiles in the tub. And you know, I’m kind of still getting used to this apartment. This year has been so crazy and I’ve been out in LA and traveling, so I just want to pamper this little Brooklyn apartment and just make a home. Can’t complain about all the projects, but it’s a lot to be all over the place. I’m just enjoying taking care of my house.