Sarayu Blue always knew she had the chops to play a lead, but for more than 15 years, she was stuck in supporting roles.
“My biggest frustration in the industry and all the years I put into it, was that I felt like I could do this, but it didn’t feel like the opportunity existed,” says Blue, who, until now, was probably best known for playing a doctor multiple times and appearing on Big Bang Theory as Raj’s date in Season 1. “It felt like, ‘OK, well you’re a woman of colour so you go in the sidekick role and only if you look a certain way you get to be the lead.'”
Blue isn’t the only actor speaking out about being sidelined because of her background. Sandra Oh recently made headlines after she became the first woman of Asian descent to earn an Emmy nomination for a lead role on television (unfortunately, she didn’t win). However, that nomination wasn’t only groundbreaking for the Emmys, it was groundbreaking for Oh. In an interview with Vulture, the Korean Canadian actor admitted she had internalized the idea that people of colour were meant for side roles, not the star—in fact, when she first received the script for BBC’s Killing Eve, she didn’t even realize she was being considered for the lead. Sadly, there’s a reason actors like Oh—and Blue—felt restricted by their race. According to a UCLA study of television shows that aired from 2015 to 2016, only 5% of scripted roles on broadcast TV shows went to actors of Asian descent.
Now, Blue is set to make her debut as the star of NBC’s new family sitcom I Feel Bad, one of several TV shows in the fall lineup that features South Asian actors. In her new show, which is executive produced by Amy Poehler, Blue plays Emet, a woman doing her absolute best to balance family, parenting and a career in the male-dominated world of gaming. And despite I Feel Bad‘s title, Blue feels pretty great not only landing a lead part, but also how this role redefines the types of characters South Asian actors can play.
“This role wasn’t originally written Indian. It was just written and we just auditioned and it just so happened that it became an Indian lead,” says Blue, adding that after she was cast, the show brought on actors of Indian descent (Madhur Jaffrey and Brian George) to play her parents.
That experience directly contrasts some of the parts Blue has seen in the past. Throughout her acting career, Blue says that when it came to stereotypical roles or characters that weren’t exactly progressive, she would consider her values on a case-by-case basis, balancing her convictions with her need for work. That said, there were times when she drew the line.
“There have been roles that I feel like really reinforce certain stereotypes about Indians that were hard for me to take like they leaned into this sort of fish out of water storyline, they leaned into sort of like, ‘I don’t know what is Christmas?'” she says in an exaggerated Indian accent. “It was just buffoonery, you know, and hard because I grew up with two professor parents who are pretty savvy and politically progressive, so it was really challenging for me to want to do that. So, I think what I’ve tried to lean towards is, ‘Is it a human being? Can I make this character a person?’ And the times that I could, I did.”
That said, Blue didn’t have that challenge with her character in I Feel Bad, because Emet actually felt like her.
“What made [the script] really stand out for me was the voice of the female character, I mean she’s just so human and relatable and to be honest it felt like me on a page,” she says.
And though the family sitcom stars a mixed race couple—Blue’s on-screen husband is played by Paul Adelstein—it is (refreshingly) not scripted as a culture clash. Blue’s South Asian heritage has been incorporated into the story, but it’s not used as its central conflict. “There’s certainly some references. I think overall, it’ll probably get woven in more and more, but at the same time it’s not going to be about [her being Indian],” says Blue.
It may have taken a long time for these opportunities to come along, but Blue says she’s noticed a distinct change in the roles and characters that are now open to her.
“There’s no doubt the opportunities are shifting,” says Blue, crediting activist April Reign and the #OscarsSoWhite campaign for fuelling this change. “Suddenly we started realizing that it’s time, that we don’t have to keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them.”
I Feel Bad premieres Sept. 19 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Global. New episodes will air Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. ET/PT beginning October 4.
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