Geraldine Viswanathan has outgrown her dreams of being Hannah Montana, and is now focused on inspiring the next generation of female actors of colour. By Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen.

Actor Geraldine Viswanathan

Geraldine Viswanathan.
Geraldine Viswanathan.
Credit: Sipa USA / Alamy

The first time I saw Geraldine Viswanathan on screen was in 2018. The film was called Blockers and followed a trio of teenage girls and, though I was about to turn 30, what I saw still surprised, delighted and moved me.

After years of watching teen comedies about boys trying to lose their virginity, boys being allowed to be brash, funny and horny, while girls were mere catalysts, Blockers flipped the script. These girls were on a mission to get laid on prom night. What’s more, one of them – Kayla, played by Viswanathan – was brown.

In one scene, Kayla decides she’s not ready to go “all the way”. Instead, she asks her male partner to go down on her. I was shocked: she was saying the words girls like us had denied ourselves for so long. She was demanding her own pleasure, and in doing so, she was allowing ours.

“I was really excited to be a part of that conversation at the time,” the Brooklyn-based actor says. She’s back on my screen, but this time in a tiny Zoom window; I’m surprised but pleased to see her there, having been told the call would be audio only. “I was like, ‘This is the first time that we’re seeing this and that’s wild to me – I know so many girls like this, and I am like this, and it’s about damn time.’ ”

We both agree that these conversations – what a revelation it was to finally see, or in Viswanathan’s case, be what we had yearned for our entire lives – have become so commonplace as to become a cliché. But, she says, it’s a cliché because it’s true.

“When you do really take a step back and think about it, to be like, ‘I’m the first person of colour in this situation’ … that’s crazy that this is a spot that’s only been allowed for white people thus far,” she says. “I did feel that opportunities were limited and I was restricted by my ethnicity, and it’s a pretty recent development that I no longer feel that as much. It’s pretty amazing.”

You’d be forgiven for not guessing it from her American accent on screen, but Viswanathan was born and raised in Newcastle, New South Wales. Her Australian lilt is intact on the call. It feels in many ways like talking to anyone else who grew up close to where I did – we bond over our love for the Newcastle Ocean Baths and spend a good five minutes trying to figure out if we have a mutual friend.

The coastal city is more culturally diverse these days, but in the early 2000s when the now 28-year-old was growing up, the eldest of two daughters to an Indian father and Swiss mother, it was very homogeneous. “I was the only non-white person at my school for a while, and I think that was a confusing thing because I was surrounded by white people and my mum’s white, and so in my mind I was like, ‘I’m just like everybody else,’ ” she remembers. “But then someone would be like, ‘Are you adopted?’ There was definitely some problematic stuff going down in Newcastle at the time.”

Performing gave Viswanathan an escape. Her mother had studied musical theatre in London and was performing in local productions. She sent Viswanathan to study at Newcastle’s Hunter School of the Performing Arts from the age of six, and the young girl quickly became comfortable on stage.

“I have a pretty vivid memory of doing my first play – I never got the leads or anything, but I remember being on stage and telling a joke and getting a laugh, and being pretty addicted to that feeling,” she says. “As a little kid, I wasn’t good at school – we were moving countries a lot. I was language-confused and I was falling behind, but when I took to drama and it loved me back a little bit, that was a good feeling. It felt like a space where I could be creative and myself … It was a way to feel seen.”

Like many young girls at the time, Viswanathan was an avid watcher of children’s television shows such as Hannah Montana and dreamed of one day being a Disney Channel or Nickelodeon star herself. “When people talk about when they got into acting and loving movies and stuff growing up, I’m like, ‘I was watching Disney Channel – you guys were watching Scorsese?’ ” she quips. “Those were my influences at the time.”

With the support of her parents, she decided to chase that dream. At 15, Viswanathan flew to Los Angeles with her family and participated in an acting workshop while there. “That’s where I really fell in love with acting in America,” she says. “I felt very embraced and encouraged, and that was pretty intoxicating.”

On finishing high school, Viswanathan looked ahead and saw a number of possible paths. Did she want to go to university like her peers – international studies and media being her degree of choice – or did she want to go all-in on the acting thing? Having had a taste of the United States a few years earlier, she decided on the latter, returning stateside at 18 to begin submitting audition self-tapes.

While she never did end up achieving her dream of being a “Disney girl” – “I wasn’t good at the Disney style of acting … [and] now that I know better, I don’t think I would want that for myself,” she reflects – that initial spark drove her determination to make her mark in Hollywood, which presented a whole new world of opportunity.

“There’s so much more and it leads the way in terms of what gets made and what’s out there,” she says about working in the US. “There’s maybe just more appetite for risk … [but] I feel like Australia is changing in a way that is exciting.”

One of Viswanathan’s first jobs in the film business was as a reader in the Australian casting room for the 2018 blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians. She read opposite actors such as Ronny Chieng and Chris Pang, and studied their audition techniques to hone her own. “The biggest takeaway for me was it’s very much an energy thing – it’s not necessarily how well you did the scene,” she says. “It took a lot of the pressure off of auditioning – it really changed my perspective.”

Before landing her breakout role in Blockers, Viswanathan appeared in Australian productions such as Emo the Musical and the ABC’s Janet King. She was also making rounds on the live comedy circuit in a sketch comedy troupe, Freudian Nip, alongside Jenna Owen and Vic Zerbst. The group was preparing to perform at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2017 when Viswanathan got the callback for Blockers and was whisked to Los Angeles.

Inhabiting multiple roles and absurd situations in sketch turned out to be the perfect way to prepare for a future role: since 2019, Viswanathan has been part of the ensemble cast on the anthology series Miracle Workers, with Steve Buscemi and Daniel Radcliffe.

It’s a rare opportunity on a television show: to play a different character every season alongside the same castmates. Viswanathan has played a low-level angel working for God, a bookish girl who can’t wait to escape her small mediaeval town, the repressed wife of the town’s richest man leading a group out on the Oregon Trail
and, in the series’ latest and final season, a war lord facing the greatest challenge yet: home ownership.

“It does feel like the most sketchy, comedic, heightened stuff that I get to do, and I love it,” she says. “It’s a treat to just be surprised every time and play around with different relationships with each other and mix it up … It feels like we’re just doing little movies in this specific Miracle Workers tone.”

Viswanathan’s comedic roots are clear in many of her roles, a highlight being the “dream come true” that was being a romantic comedy lead in 2020’s The Broken Hearts Gallery, opposite fellow Australian Dacre Montgomery. But she has also starred in more serious films, such as Minhal Baig’s 2019 drama, Hala, about a Muslim teenager struggling to reconcile her own desires with cultural expectations. Like many actors of colour, Viswanathan often plays teenagers, even as she approaches 30 – “I have a young spirit and a round face,” she jokes – but she doesn’t seem to mind.

Her latest role, in the new Apple TV film The Beanie Bubble, balances light and dark. Based on a 2015 nonfiction book by Zac Bissonnette, it’s a fictionalised account of the rise and fall of Beanie Babies in the 1980s and 1990s, under the charismatic and conniving eye of founder Ty Warner (Zach Galifianakis, whom Viswanathan describes as “one of my comedy heroes”).

Viswanathan plays Maya Kumar, a teenager who begins working at Ty Inc just before Beanie Babies become popular in the ’90s. As the craze gains speed and then explodes, she becomes Warner’s right-hand person, helping him navigate the new world of the internet – but remains underpaid and unacknowledged, while his empire and wealth grow astronomically. The other women in Warner’s life at various times, played by Elizabeth Banks and Succession’s Sarah Snook, also experience his manipulation both professionally and romantically.

“It was bizarre to try and trick my brain into believing that there was a time where I had to convince someone that the internet was maybe going to be a thing,” says Viswanathan. “That’s something that I never experienced – when I was growing up, I was surfing the internet pretty freely. I think that’s one of the best parts of being an actor: you get to explore these territories that you never would, and you get to travel and pretend that that’s your reality.”

The actor was drawn to the script because of its directors, Kristin Gore and Damian Kulash – the latter is the frontman of the American rock band OK Go. “That treadmill music video was such a moment and was so inventive and cool,” the actor says, referencing the band’s clip for 2006 single “Here It Goes Again” – one of the internet’s first truly viral videos.

She also jumped at the chance to escape into a “bright, bubbly, nostalgic world that felt familiar and fun” in a time that feels anything but – the film is equally whimsical and twisty. “The ’90s feel like a real fantasy time: pre-9/11, pre-internet and our phones taking over our lives – the economy was booming and it felt like a very idyllic time,” she says. “I think we’re living in hard times, and who doesn’t want to remember the good old days and
time-travel back there?”

Viswanathan hopes to move more into directing and writing. She’s got something in the works with Freudian Nip and while she can’t share the details just yet, she teases that she’s “really, really excited about what we’ve got cooking up”. “I’m excited to just keep expanding and throwing myself in the deep end and learning new skills, and can’t wait
to get writing and producing and directing,” she says.

Looking back now, Viswanathan remembers the actor she looked up to when she was starting out. This person was proof it was possible to succeed in a world where people of colour were often sidekicks or comic relief, but rarely the heroes of their own stories.

“I was very inspired by Mindy Kaling,” she says. “I admired the way that she created her own work, and she was funny … She made her own way into the industry. She was the only person I could point to. At that time, there weren’t many other brown actresses in Hollywood.”

I suggest that for young brown girls today, Viswanathan might be one such figure. Does that knowledge come with any pressure? “It’s not lost on me at all,” she says. “I wouldn’t say I feel pressure – I just feel honoured to possibly open up a possibility for someone else, or even just for them to conceive a new idea … That’s a huge privilege.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 22, 2023 as "Flipping the script".

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