Rubi Balasingam is an Australian-Tamil actress and writer. She chats with TC about her journey to date and where she's headed next!
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Tell us about your upbringing and how that sparked your love of film.
Honestly, I thank my parents for my love for film. They introduced me to Tamil language films and music at an early age and encouraged my love for Tamil films as a connection to the language and the culture. It’s why I can speak the language fluently! My parents also unknowingly enrolled me at a primary school known for emphasising the arts and that meant they had to come and see my school musicals each year, even though they had no idea what was going on.
What was the process like finding an agent to signal that leap from acting as a passion to more of a viable career opportunity?
It was such a long process! I started off knowing agents existed when I was doing study abroad in London and my drama teacher let me know that I should find an agent. A lot of research later, I went back home to Australia, got some headshots done, did a terrible short film, and used these materials to email just about every agent I could google in Australia.
After many rejections and many would-be scammers trying to make e pay for their services (never pay for your agent!), I ended up at a low-end modelling agency that had an acting division. With this agent, I got like an audition every three months, which was okay for me as I was still in uni. After six months, I sent out some more emails and worked my way up to another agent, a little bit higher up. Then, after another six months I got an even better agent, it was with these agents I managed to book my first paid short film, and got auditions for my first guest roles in TV. After a year with these agents, and with new headshots, a better demo-reel and more credits to my name, I got my current agent, who is at the level of getting me even higher-level productions, and we work great as a team. The difference from the first agency to the current agency? The first agents knew this was a side hustle for me, my current agent is trying to make it a career. This means establishing relationships with casting directors, keeping up best practice and turning down roles that don’t pay well or are done by questionable people.
Acting is a tough business where everyone is a 10-year “overnight success” because you have to typically really spend time in it to give yourself a chance to get opportunities. Are you able to focus on acting full-time? If so, how do you fill in the “income” gaps to make it work?
I wish more big name actors would speak openly about their journeys and why they were easy. When you discover how many Hollywood and Bollywood actors are where they are because of nepotism or economic status, it’s no wonder they got big in two years! This is not how it goes for the daughter of immigrants, you either need a role that just so happens to fit you perfectly, or you have to work hard!
In my case, pre-covid I was heading to a place where acting and screenwriting were almost able to be my full-time job. But now, with COVID kicking the industry’s butt, there’s no way that is viable. Nowadays I lean on my degree (thanks mum and dad for making me go to uni!) and work part time from home as a content writer. It sucks to not be able to do what you love full-time, but I acknowledge I’m in a pretty good place, all things considered!
Living in Australia, do you find it tougher to pursue your acting/writing dreams? Any consideration to potentially move to a city that is considered a major hub for film/acting (ie. New York, LA, London, etc.)?
Many people have said this before me, but the Australian industry is very limiting. We’re about a decade behind Hollywood and so, there are not many roles for South Asians going around. However, the financial leap (in COVID no less) to move overseas can be crippling to actors. You only hear the success stories out there. Thankfully, my agent let me know before I hopped that plane to LA, that I was likely to fail due to simply not knowing anyone.
In the meantime, despite COVID, there are heaps of opportunities right here in Australia, with international projects coming to film locally. We’ve seen Thor 4 and La Brea to name a few. Meanwhile, there’s always the hope of getting a US based manager and other ways to break into the international market such as Australians in Film’s Heath Ledger Scholarship and other similar competitions out there. Although it’ll definitely take more time to cross over, I don’t think it’s worth the risk for me personally. I haven’t really explored the UK market, but that’s a lot less risky for Aussie actors and so much easier to get a visa for!
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Which are you more passionate about - acting or writing, and why?
I would say I am more passionate about writing these days. Maybe it’s COVID and lockdowns forcing me to pursue writing, but I’ve discovered that an actor’s fate hangs in the hands of writers. Whether or not I get an audition is based on a decision a writer makes to include South Asians, and I quite frankly have gotten a bit tired of waiting for someone to write the roles for me. I’d rather just do it myself. Along the way, if I can help other creatives make some money, that’s a definite bonus!
I see that you are trained in things like Ballet and Kung Fu. Did you train in these specific activities to improve your acting “resume” or because you also have a passion for these things as well?
In terms of ballet, it definitely begun as an agent reminding me that theatre is kinder to actors of colour than film and letting me know that a dance background will help me get work. Seeing as I always wanted to learn it anyway, I joined a local Adult Ballet School and started learning from scratch. Who said there was a timeframe on learning new skills?
Then again, there’s Kung Fu. I was 15 and a die-hard Avatar the Last Airbender fan, and mum asked what sport I wanted to try, I decided to convince her to let me do a martial arts. We went to the first club I could find, did a trial class, and now it’s been over a decade, and I have no idea how I stuck to it.
The only downside to these things is that to this day, no matter how many people know I do these sports (arguably both are also art forms) I have never gotten a single audition drawing on these skills. Maybe it’s the fact that people still lean into stereotypes. But I hope I can be a reminder to the industry people out there, that brown people can be just as good at ballet as the Russians and just as good at martial arts as the east Asians! We don’t fit into boxes anymore, we’re much more dimensional than that.
I know historically, the creative arts were often looked down on, in the Tamil community in terms of as a viable career option. Did you experience this or do you see this changing?
I think inherently, the Tamil community values the arts. After all, we were all forced to play a musical instrument, go to Bharatanatyam classes or something of that vein (I learnt violin). However, our parents didn’t come all the way over to a foreign country to see us be broke, so I can totally understand why it doesn’t seem viable to them. My parents are still constantly confused as to why people won’t hire me after over a hundred auditions to date, and no matter how much I explain, they feel helpless in a way. They can’t help me, they can’t stop me, they can only watch. So they tell me to get an office job, so I can do things other people do without missing out. I don’t hold that against them.
Hopefully, the more of us that get into the industry, the more we can change it from the inside out. This will lead to more visibility, and this will lead to less cultural confusion. I love when my parents call me to see a South Asian they spotted on TV, ‘do you know her?’ ‘Did you audition for this?’ It’s adorable, and it shows that we can all support each other easily.
How have your family and friends supported you through your journey? Did you have any doubters?
I am very lucky in this regard. Maybe it’s my family mellowing out as they get older, or me just being myself the whole time, but I have never heard anyone tell me to stop. Granted, not everyone encouraged me, but they mostly just looked at me and said ‘yeah, that checks out’ and let it go. Eventually, it would get to the point where my Appa took to telling people at the temple to go home and see me on TV, and then we all gathered together to watch the show, and I got to see them enjoy my work.
From the day where they first saw my work on actual TV, there was a definite shift. I still have to explain to them why I didn’t get a role, and why I won’t get an office job one day (why do they think we can only make money in offices?) and why a broadcaster rejected my tv show idea, but that’s okay, because I know they want what’s best for me, and they would love me to make some more money, and they know they can’t stop me regardless.
As for doubters, I think I am my own worst enemy. After long periods of constant rejection, this industry really does start getting to you. Thankfully, I have a great support network of non-actor friends willing to read parts with me for auditions and fellow creatives who signal boost my work when it does come around.
If there’s something I’ve learnt, it’s that you need non-actors in your life to remind you that the world won’t end if you don’t get that big role and to make memes out of any roles you do get. It keeps your feet on the ground!
What do you do outside of work for fun?
Honestly, I used to read and paint. I don’t know if I exhausted all my relaxing during Melbourne’s marathon eight-month lockdown, but now I need to figure this out again. I suppose these days I go on little adventures, whether that be with my dog, my friends or alone. These days thanks to lockdown freedom, I usually try to go out, but the other day I made lamb cutlets for the first time, and it was edible (the process was an adventure in and of itself).
In terms of your personal legacy, in a few sentences, describe how you want to be remembered by your family and friends?
To quote Emily Dickinson, ‘If I can ease one life the aching, or cool one pain, or help one fainting robin unto his nest again, I shall not live in vain’.
Who is one person from the global Tamil community and one person that isn’t Tamil that you admire and why?
I know this is going to sound odd, but I don’t really admire people I don’t know. I can certainly respect their work, but admiration I reserve for the people I know. I think this is mostly because you never know what someone is like through a screen.
In terms of respect, I respect Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, she’s so young and is braving the industry like a badass. I also respect Michaela Coel, she’s a great example of someone writing their own work and making it all about quality and integrity.
With this being said I admire my mother, an absolute workaholic for taking the plunge and retiring. I also admire a friend of mine for buying a whole house, with a whole mortgage.
What do you think you would tell 16-year Rubi looking back?
I would tell her to stop worrying about her future and enjoy her teenage years. She was stressed for no good reason. Just fail the damn maths test, no one is going to disown you, trust me.
What is your favourite book(s) you've read recently or a podcast(s) that you've listened to recently that's had an impact on you?
I’ve recently discovered that radio shows are a thing! It’s like the in between of an audiobook and a tv show with a bit of podcast thrown in. Cabin Pressure by John Finnemore has been around for a while, but it’s so good, I recommend it to everyone!
What is a new belief, behaviour or habit that has most improved your life?
Healthy and happy above all. I know it sounds obvious, but that diet isn’t worth it. Staying up all night to perfect an audition isn’t worth it. Breaking your brain with ‘what if’s’ isn’t worth it. Just let it go, and carry on living for the little things in the meantime.
If you were given $1 billion, how would you allocate the money to change the world?
I would send every child to school. Maybe it’s my dad still regretting never being educated properly despite being over seventy or maybe it was going to India and seeing the cycle of poverty for myself. I think many of the world’s issues would be improved with education, and it would give children the freedom to choose their path in life, a choice I am eternally grateful for.
How would you describe the impact that the Australian Tamil community has had on you personally and on your career?
I think in terms of my life it has been an anchoring point. It was the factor that tied me to my family and culture despite being born and raised in Australia. I don’t remember being ashamed of it very often, and if I was, my family soon snapped me out of it with their antics.
In terms of my career, the Tamil community has been the reason for some of my first and most critically acclaimed works. Lions & Tigers by Sanjay De Silva was my first ever Tamil-language short film and my first ever paid acting gig. More recently, I am Kannagi, a short film paralleling the lives of asylum seekers with the story of Goddess Kannagi, just won the Blake Prize. It makes me proud to be Tamil, and I can’t wait to see what all the people I worked with come up with in the future!
What is your favourite Tamil food (meal or dessert)?
That’s a tough choice! My favourite meal (in true Jaffna style) is my mums crab curry, and my favourite dessert is kesari. I can eat both all day.
What is your favourite Tamil movie?
Another tough choice!
My favourite recent film is Mandela. I loved the writing, comedic timing and social issues it tackled. It made me a lifetime Yogi Babu fan too!
My favourite childhood film is Jeans, I used to dress up and dance to all of those impeccable songs on repeat. I also had a huge crush on both Aishwariya and Prashanth.
My favourite classic film is Thillana Mohanambal, you can’t get over the music, pairing of Sivaji Ganesan and Padmini and the arts-based story. I used to watch it with my parents and it reminds me of them and the era they grew up in.
What does Tamil culture mean to you?
It is my ancestry. Sure, I don’t love all aspects of it, but I think as we grow and evolve as a community, we can take this already rich culture and bring it to the modern day in style. Until that happens, I’ll try my best to not apologise for any of it, and just accept it as who I am all while trying to champion more Tamil voices in Aussie TV and film!
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