Sonal Shah, Multi-Talented Actress, on Comedy, role as Dr. Sonja "Sunny" Dey on Scrubs, Co-Creating the Creative Artist Lab, Life-long Learning, & Pursuing her Passion for Acting.
November 9, 2015
Hi Readers! My name is Sonal Shah and I'm just a gal twerkin' it in the entertainment industry. Aargh, I hate talking about myself. It’s so weird!!
Okay, I should start by saying that I want to be of service to you...so please take whatever I write here in that light. I drank a lot of coffee and I'm writing a lot so this is all meant to be read superfast, okay?
You guys- I'm surviving in Hollywood!!! YAY! I mean, the land does not kill or eat little brown girls, but I will say the life is CRAZY. We are not saving lives people, the life is not crazy in THAT way…but it is up and down and up and up and down and down.
Being an actor sort of consumes my entire existence and I plain and simply LOVE. IT.
In terms of Tinseltown, I’ve seen it all yo- from the greatness to the badness. I'm from Wheaton, IL slash Chicago and I've been in Los Angeles for 10 months. Ahem. OK FINE, I've been here for 10 years.
I've ALWAYS been a performer. I played Sunny Dey on Scrubs and have continued to work in various projects over the years.
We mentored approximately 60 artists on creating their own content, which resulted in producing 30 short films.
Now, I work as an acting coach/teacher at John Rosenfeld Studios. where we focus on teaching students to “create the constitution of a happy working actor,” within themselves.
I love teaching because I love actors and I honestly want them to succeed.
I thrive when I'm in service to others...and since childhood, my dream has always been to inspire, connect, help and make people laugh.
I’m genuinely invested in taking the time to really see and understand every individual so that we can collaborate to break down barriers.
I quite passionately want to make them shine.
At the end of the day, I know my shit and I've been through IT so I feel like I really do have something to teach my students...and a lot of it is stuff that I wish someone had taught me years ago. BUT, I know all of my experiences, struggles, and wins have made me the human I am today. SO, how did I get to be said human?
When I was 5 years old, I was nicknamed "Ak-Tress" by friends, family, and my 27 brothers.
I was a professional improvisational Indian dancer.
Yes, that exists.
Growing up, I was always performing in various competitions and shows. My parents are in love with the Entertainment Industry plus all aspects of Hollywood and Bollywood.
We went to see great theatre all the time. My mom dances, sings, and does Indian stand-up at parties and even my brother is an amazing dancer.
I deejayed house/hip-hop music parties with my brothers and we were all obsessed with making sure everyone around us was having the time of their life. We still are. Um, yes, OF COURSE, we were breakdancers. And rappers.
I think I got the acting bug in 7th grade during a performance of the musical "Time and Time Again."
I had one line with three words and it literally brought the house down every night. So...I got heavily involved in school plays, all kinds of shows, musicals, speech team, and show choir.
Fast forward to after graduating from high school, I was crowned Miss DuPage County Fair Queen. No, this is not a joke.
I made it my mission to teach girls that beauty comes from the inside!
I went to Loyola University of Chicago to study pre-medicine because I really wanted to be a doctor. And I thought saying "I want to be an actor," was like saying "I want to be a quarterback." I AM pretty ripped by the way. Clearly, I'm extremely sarcastic - I figure I should mention that.
Amidst my science homework, I did every show I possibly could and then was awarded 'best actress' by the theatre department. That moment really changed my life.
After taking the MCAT, I changed my major to theatre, and THEN I told my parents.
Ironically, it was no big deal, because soon after I jumped on a plane to study in Rome and backpack around Europe for 6 months. I ended up graduating with a major in theatre and minors in chemistry and psychology. And a concentration in pre-medicine.
I gave the student keynote address at my commencement. No, I was not valedictorian...I was Van Wilder.
First Job in Entertainment
I played Belinda Cratchet/Fan in A Christmas Carol at The Goodman Theatre. It's actually kind of an awesome story.
I had just graduated from university and I had heard that The Goodman was open to diverse casting. So, naturally, I sent them my headshot every week for several months. Then, I heard they were holding auditions and I had not received a call.
So, of course I drove to the theatre's box office and asked the staff to put my headshot into the director's mailbox backstage.
They said that they were unable to do that. I said "I live in Wheaton and drove hours to give this to you. Can you please find it in your heart to help a struggling talented actor out?"
I may or may not have been in tears.
They said that they would put it in the mailbox. A few weeks later, I got a call to come in for an audition.
I was 22 and that was my first paid acting job.
I know this all sounds like I'm a crazy person and I will admit that I do not have THIS sense of drive anymore...and who knows how I ACTUALLY got the audition, but I think this was a testament to really being in love with planting seeds to make something grow.
After college, I immersed myself in wonderful Chicago theatre. For a few years, I saw, directed, rehearsed, and acted in a zillion plays.
That's how I met my agent.
I was flown to New York for a 4th callback to play a lead in Broadway’s Bombay Dreams. It was down to me and two others...I didn’t get the role, but I got to sing for Andrew Lloyd Weber!
I spent some time in Boston studying Stanislavski at The Moscow Art Theatre School at Harvard University.
This program was taught entirely in Russian by top acting teachers from Moscow!! Of course, we had translators. Zdravstvuyte!!!
A few friends and I, including the gorgeous Jaya Subramanian, started 'Rasaka,' which was Chicago’s first South Asian Theatre Company...it is still thriving today!
With the glorious Megan Pitsios, I got heavily involved in an awesome theatre company called Collaboraction...where, among many incredible moments, I was a mermaid in a pool at a warehouse party.
Eventually, I fell into the sketch comedy scene where I worked with Second City Diversity, Stir Friday Night, and my buddy, Danny Pudi.
I got my SAG card doing an industrial for a healthcare company.
I LOVED my life in Chicago theatre and, honestly, never desired a move to LA. I started doing student films in Chicago and one of my directors, Sean Jourdan, said I should consider moving to LA...
He connected me to a girl, Jacquelyn Dean, and I met her once for coffee. She later called me and said, "I found an adorable house in Echo Park. It's two-bedrooms, but we can make it four...and live with two girls I know, Alyson and Tina. Are you in or out? Our lease would start in 30 days."
Mind you, I had only met this girl ONCE, but, I said "sure, why not?" I guess I've always lived in the moment with trust in the universe.
I got a car and drove across the nation by myself to pursue acting in LA. Word.
My agent in Chicago set me up with an agent in LA and I started auditioning for commercials and television.
Ironically, I almost booked the first audition I went on and got to improvise with Jason Alexander.
Soon after, I booked a series regular role on a sitcom called The PTA for ABC Family.
Then auditions became scarce, but when I did get them, I’d almost book…I started to feel like the queen of 2nd place. Meaning, I ALMOST got a role SO MANY TIMES.
I tested for 6 pilots, which is great, but heartbreaking when it's SO close and then ripped away.
But, one day I decided to move forward with a different interpretation of what was happening. Even when it was not always sunny in Sonal-delphia… I concluded that I was on the right track.
I had hope. I knew I was a good actor. I am still a good actor. That may sound cocky...but, hey, I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think I was good, right?!
I learned how to deal with rejection and applied a principle my brother taught me: It’s not only about bouncing back…it’s about bouncing back quickly and not giving too much airtime to something that doesn’t want us even if we want it.
Why give everyone else so much power when they ain’t seeing my specialness yo? I stopped worrying so much and beating myself up.
I’m a perfectionist, but I let go of trying to be perfect.
I started saying ‘yes and’ to everything. Within little time, I was doing and creating more!
Acting on Scrubs
After some auditions here and there, I finally auditioned for Scrubs.
The first round was a pre-read for the casting directors, the second round was for the amazing Bill Lawrence (creator of Scrubs), and the third was for Bill Lawrence plus the rest of the producers.
Short story long, on a random Thursday THREE MONTHS LATER I got a call from my agent telling me I was going to work on Scrubs the next week.
I was like "F*@! you...Really? No way. I don't believe you. Really? ...Really?" And then it started...and it was crazy, fun, nerve-wrecking, emotional, and amazing all at once.
I played new intern, Dr. Sunny Dey, who was endlessly positive and likely a closet alcoholic.
I ended up shooting 8 episodes in the final season and also a web series that was based on the new interns in Season 8.
I'll admit that I was very sad when it ended, BUT, I got an amazing souvenir- one of my best friends, the hot and talented Betsy Beutler.
As artists, we all have the power and ability to create at any time we want. We can collaborate and connect and DO IT. And that's that.
I have never been in this business because I desire fame or fortune.
Unfortunately, this may be my biggest setback. But the truth is that I just simply love to act.
At some point after Scrubs, I started being asked to be in a short films here and there and before I knew it...I became a shorts slut.
I played the lead in over 20 short films and they have given me an opportunity to gain experience, learn a thing or two, and work with a variety of really talented folks!
Last year, I finally even directed a short. I think that work breeds work and GENUINE relationships can lead to opportunities.
This past summer I played a lead in a feature film!!! It's a thriller. It was a dream come true BECAUSE every single person working on it was SO freakin nice, caring, talented, respectful, and wonderful!!
What I love most about film, tv, and theatre is that it is always about a beautiful community that comes together for a magical adventure of creativity.
I've never had a bad moment on set.
There was one time when my call was midnight and I was gonna be up for hours in the cold and possibly never even get to shoot...but, who cares!
Acting is my favorite job in the world! And trust me, I've had a lot of jobs. I once was a go-go dancer. At nightclubs. In Chicago.
Alcohol and coffee. JUST KIDDING. No, I’m not. My family and friends inspire me creatively...They fill my heart with joy, love, and support.
That fullness absolutely gives me the freedom to create.
I’m abnormally close to my family and I would be nowhere without my parents. Their support, love, hilariousness, strength, givingness, care, intelligence, fierceness, and wonderfulness has always kept me going…they are my best friends.
I always tell them that they came to America with nothing and built a whole life here…it's so NOT the same thing but sometimes I feel like that is what I’m doing in LA.
They’ve always encouraged me to stop overthinking and never give up. Plus, they laugh at all of my stupid jokes.
I must say, I'm not ALWAYS charged with inspiration. If I really waited for that surge, I'd probably spend a lot of time waiting and less time doing.
So...I should say to you, the readers, you should create even if you are not feeling inspired. If you want to be creative, live a creative life.
Make it a habit.
Well, for one...It makes me feel alive. It forces me to be present, open, confident, available, and connected. Acting bears mah soul. It keeps me curious and empathic.
Inspiring others through this artform is one of my ways of contributing to society.
The industry as a whole inspires me to always work on myself and grow to be the best I am capable of being- as an artist and as a person. Acting's fun. And spiritual. And awesome.
I know how to act more than I know how to do anything else. Except being a friend...I'm an incredibly loyal and genuine friend.
Of course, I consider a career change every other day, but you know what, FU$K THAT. My hope is that acting can be a vehicle for me to shine light on more than just the screen.
I want to help people... on a global level. I don't know how I want to do that just yet, so for now, I just do it with people that I encounter.
I try to always make sure everyone around me is happy!!
I wanna be Kristin Wiig. Well, the little brown version of her. Or an Indian Zooey Deschanel. Or Amy Schumer!! I mean, I’m a trainwreck too. Clearly.
It's hard to explain without being with you in person, but for me, a scene is a story.
My goal is to move moment-to-moment in an honest story using a character's point-of-view with the given circumstances of the scene.
After I've done the work, I surrender and trust my instincts...and have fun!!
DON'T DO IT!!! Hahahaha...juuuust kidding. Kind of. Okay, so I believe we all have a little bit more power when we learn to be creative… creative with ideas and how to do things… so instead of thinking outside of the box, I encourage you to throw away the box completely.
And…no matter what your age is… reignite your sense of fearlessness. It is never too late.
Success can absolutely mean wealth, fame, fortune, stability… I have none of these things, but in all humility, I believe I’m successful. To me, success is a mindset, but not in a delusional sense.
Success is a lifestyle, never giving up, happiness, action, hard work, and focusing on the process.
You are success if you believe yourself to be success. I'm not talking in terms of visualizations/meditations/manifestations...even though those are cool. I strongly believe it’s a choice and it’s what you make of it.
In my eyes, everyone has the capability to be successful and there is enough of it to go around. :)
You just gotta show up and be ready to play!
Involvement with Comedy
I've always been pretty funny...at least I think that's why people have laughed at things I’ve said or done. Or maybe they were all just laughing AT me? Well, in any case, I think it's because I really don't take myself or anything too seriously.
I guess what I enjoy most about comedy is that it's barebones truth-telling...raw and naked.
I loved being a part of the sketch/improv world because I met a ton of amazing people and got to perform a lot.
Lately, I’ve gotten into doing stand up. It’s so scary, but it’s definitely another fun vehicle to ride in.
I also continue to study at John Rosenfeld Studios. Hands down, John is the best in the biz and has taught me a lot of what I am sharing here.
Comedy & Drama
I’ve done both. I do both. I enjoy the diversity and challenges that both drama and comedy present an actor.
The biggest obstacle I have faced is being far away from family.
It’s a sacrifice to be far away from them because they’re amazing and …well, they’re my family. I’m constantly missing important events...I’m Indian, we have a lot. And it sucks. I cry. A lot.
Because life is about relationships and moments...and I’m all the way out in LA by myself, and even though I have a magical and sparkly friend circle here, I miss my family.
I go home ALL THE TIME and I value those trips more than anything. All of this ‘missingness” is definitely a driving force to keep me going because, heck, if I’m gonna be this far away from the people I love the most, I HAVE TO DO SHIT!
The dream keeps me going. The dream includes goals as well as the journey.
The biggest thing I've come to realize is that the journey itself IS the destination. It’s all already happening. I used to think, when I book this, I’ll be happy…when I do this, I’ll be successful.
You guys- the biggest lesson I’ve learned over the past 10 years is to RELEASE EXPECTATIONS and RESULTS because it’s all about PROCESS!
Preparing for Roles
It really depends on the role and the medium. I have a very strong work ethic… I mean, I AM from the midwest, and sometimes I even find that I over prepare.
I think I do my best work, when I’m ready to improvise and it’s not super planned out... because then I can just vulnerably trust, be present in the moment, surrender, and have fun.
This, of course, comes after mining the script, figuring out the story, filling in what is happening between the lines, understanding the specific thoughts underlying the scene, and identifying the given circumstances and the point of view of the character.
Even though there are better ways to do a scene, there is never a perfectly right way. And perfection is imperfection anyway!
I love rehearsing and I love to figure shit out. A definite goal is to constantly find ways of being more specific. I love to just immerse myself into the work and the world of the character and learn everything I possibly can about it all.
I also write out all the dialogue multiple times and do the scene in various accents. But that’s just because I’m a weirdo.
Oh my GOD...it's all so overwhelming!!!! I can't keep up. I should do more. It's all just too much. I constantly struggle with this because I’m not someone that needs or wants validation, attention, or a public life.
Which, I know, is an ironic thing to say as I’m literally sharing my creative life story with you. And I’m also not saying that those who do post a lot do want these things.
I swear, this is a judgment free zone!! I guess, I just really do strive to be in the moment and enjoy life fully with an open heart.
Posting stuff takes me out of that and quite frankly, stresses me out. I’m a free spirit. Alas, I know the world is heading toward a social media takeover, and it fucking scares me.
I want to connect with people on a human level. I want to look into their eyes and feel their energy.
So, even though I should, I don’t really use social media to help my career. I really just use it to share some moments here and there with my communities.
I do find it to be a positive way of staying connected with people from all parts of my life and that is the BEST thing.
I appreciate knowing what people are up to. I post career-related things every once in awhile, but it’s more to share with friends back home as opposed to strangers or people that could give me a job. I just don’t really do that.
I do post a lot of pictures of weddings. Oh no, not of mine. I’m not married. But...I’ve been a bridesmaid 21 times.
Favorite Memories in Entertainment
That's tough because at the risk of sounding annoying, I love everything, everyone, and everyday. I really do. Hmm...
I’m an advocate for peace, art, and humans. I’m honored to support organizations that are doing a lot of GOOD.
I flew to Boston to give a lecture to the South Asian Student Association at Harvard University. I’ve also hosted NBC Universal’s Diwali Nightthree times with my funny and talented buddy, Parvesh Cheena (pictured below).
I did the NBC Diversity Showcase and my scene partner was the legendary Omi Vaidya. Halfway through the performance in front of several industry big wigs, my contact popped out of my eye and landed on my cheek. And I’m basically blind without it. Omi and I exchanged this weird “fuck it,” thought, and proceeded through the scene with hilarious spontaneity.
For anyone that has ever said I’m like a cartoon character, their dream came true. This past summer I voiced a role in The Powerpuff Girls on Cartoon Network. Yippie! Yep, just said “Yippie.” Out Loud.
Anokhi Magazine featured me in their “Most Sexy & Successful” List and a big Indian newspaper put me in their “Top 50 Coolest Desis in the World” List.
WHAT? I’m not gonna lie. That felt pretty warm and fuzzy.
I did a one-woman show called “To The Death of My Own Family” for The Lonestar Ensemble Theatre Company. I shared the true story of an Afghani prisoner recounting the death of each of her family members. Although this is definitely not a top moment of happiness, it was a top moment because it was an honor to share her story in a safe space.
I wore a black 50-feet long skirt and was harnessed to a 50-feet high ceiling in a warehouse and dropped to the ground while reciting spoken word. I represented the death of an old year as the clock struck midnight on NYE. Did I mention that I’m scared of heights. This helped to conquer my fear. Of anything.
I was a semi-finalist for the reality show “Dance Fever.”
I played the 6-year old girl in The Vagina Monologues in a basement in Rome, Italy. That was doooope.
I presented the “Best Comedy Magic” award at The World Magic Awards with Neil Flynn!!
Once, I improvised a one-woman parody of West Side Story- The Musical that inspired me to become an actor.
Thanks to the late great Jay Leggett, I choreographed a Bollywood dance number for the final musical singing sketch in our graduation show from Second City.
Nothing makes me happier than dancing to Indian music with a bunch of people who are not Indian! Bhale Bhale!!
I have a lot more, but I should stop. Should I? Yes, I should. Plus, me, me, me, me...this is all starting to feel a bit braggy brag.
What is something about your career that you would like people to know that they might not?
On a given day, a Scrubs fan will stop me to take a picture with him/her. A few days later, I'll be their waitress.
Okay, I don’t actually waitress anymore (I did for several years) because I have my own tutoring business. Oh, yeah, I’m a tutor. I have several students that I work with in all sorts of subjects, but my favorites are math, science, and Spanish.
Math turns me on.
This business is just plain weird. I think it is very important to stay grounded with a good sense of perspective.
Nobody ever said life was easy. Not that it is hard. I mean, compared to many of our brothers and sisters on this planet...we have it so easy. Not to say that we don't struggle- we do...just in a different way.
I'm not only talking about actors here. I'm talking about all humans on this earth and their search for the meaning of life.
What is everybody's mission and why are some people destined to do one thing and others destined to do another? I don’t fucking know, but if you figure it out, tell me!
It has always been important to me to make it on my own.
There was a time when I had negative $200 in my bank account. But I knew I chose this alternative path, so damnit, I was going to do everything in my power to make it work.
Life in LA has been super fun and at times glamorous, but it has ALSO been full of struggle.
I’ve had so many jobs to supplement my life as an actress from stocking products at a grocery store to working as a publicist to waitressing and scrubbing floors and…struggling. But you know what, the struggle has made me the person I am today.
The struggle has taught me how to survive.
Or at least that’s what I keep telling myself.
I had all the content and hired my former student/friend, Brit Manor, to make it awesome. No, I have no tech background at all. In fact, I still don’t know how to text. I WISH that was a joke.
I've LIVED. Seriously. Life is what has prepared me for this career.
Through my roller coaster of an existence, I've grown, learned, and have become stronger than I ever thought possible. Sure, technically speaking, I've had a lot of training... which I’ve already talked about, but LIFE- in terms of experience, travel, small moments, epic weekends, parties, alone time, relationships, observations, fascination with human behavior, losses, achievements, academia, school....that is the stuff that prepared me.
My all-time goal is to love and learn as much as possible. I never want to stop learning!
As you can guess, I’ve pretty much indulged my entire being into learning everything I could about acting and the business of being an actor.
I haven’t really stopped.
This includes writing, rehearsing, breaking down scripts, classes, reading scripts, watching performances, coaching other actors, marketing, networking, auditioning, workshops, working to support my acting, etc. I’m dedicated, persistent, and work really fucking hard.
I feel like I've learned something from so many people...people from all walks of life.
Gosh, if I have to pick just one, I can’t. I mean these incomparable, oh so talented, humble divinity slash masters of their craft have helped along the way:
Tim Taylor at Luber Roklin Entertainment (my manager), Nisha Ganatra (insanely brilliant/giving/talented/greatness), John Rosenfeld (the Jewish father figure I never had), Hannah Simone, NBC Diversity, Parvesh Cheena, Pooja Kobawala, Betsy Beutler, Vanessa Crase, Alyson Granaderos, Jacquelyn Dean, Tina Carano, Megan Lange, Kate Gonzaga, Kim Franch, Jaya Subramanian, Megan Pitsios, Jen Crilley, Venk Modur, Doug and Noreen Herzog, Haley Mancini, Ellis Talent Group, Mitchell K. Stubbs, Che Landon, Patrick Cavanaugh, Bethany Geaber, Margie Weiner, Reign Agency, Independant Artists Agency, Linara, Poras, Harshal, Umang, Melissa, Armand, Dave Michor, Kama Kaina, Amar and Tejal, Alejandro, Nikki, my wok girls, my friends, my parents (Bhadresh and Mrudula), my big bro (Rajan), my bhabhi (Sejal), my niece and nephew, my 27 brothers… my acquaintances, every cast and crew I’ve ever worked with, classmates, peers, lovers...I could go on and on.
Anything else you would like to share with our readers?
I'm super cheesy, as you know...so here is some advice for you based on a weird hiking analogy. :) I am by no means trying to be pretentious or saying I know more than you...I don’t know shit.
These are just some rules based on my experiences for hiking up your mountain.
First of all, always LOVE FULLY. Love yourself and love others. Please!
Okay, so before you even leave your house to get to the mountain- what do you want to do? Or what are you already doing? You are exactly where you need to be.
Be confident about moving forward with that. Leave your doubts and insecurities at home.
Harness yourself with perspective. Prepare, but leave room for spontaneity. Add a backpack of optimism. Just one. Not two. Because we don’t want to create super high expectations.
Bring 2 water bottles of good thoughts. If you are negative or judgemental of yourself or others, you might not be able to see the top.
Even and spread out your intellectual, physical, spiritual, and emotional balance.
Grab a team of people to climb with. Get help. Get a support system. When I started my LLC, I was calling my brother everyday- what does this form mean?
Help others. Collaborate. Connect.
Exercise kindness, graciousness, generosity and gratitude. Don’t become a legend in your own mind.
Climb. Climb hard and smart. Be willing to fall. Become solution oriented so that when you fall, you can figure out a way to get back up.
While you are going up…keep it real. Keep climbing.
Stay grounded, motivated, determined, and focused. Be persistent with a clear vision of what you want the view to be.
Who cares about the outcome. Concentrate on the process…on each stone!!
Journal. Meditate. Take care of your mind, body, and soul. Nourish your insides. Keep climbing in order to expand, empower, and embody.
Release preciousness- if you wait for everything to be perfect, your hike is gonna be too damn slow. Don’t give up.
For the love of God, have a sense of humor! Move forward everyday. Don’t compare yourself to others because we are all connected!! Unify this planet.
If we all do things that make us happy…we will make others happy and everyone will get together, hold hands, and dance!!
Uplevel yourself to the top of the mountain. Be confident because you can do it!! You are the CEO of your life!!
See, I told you I was cheesy. Gosh, cheese sounds yummy right now.