Exclusive Interview with The Girlfriend Experience’s Sugith Varughese

Photo Credit: Ted Simonett
Photo Credit: Ted Simonett

Recently, I had the chance to chat with Sugith Varughese of the new hit Starz series “The Girlfriend Experience.” Varughese, an Indian-born Canadian writer, director and actor portrays Tariq Barr, one of the head lawyers at the firm where main character Christine is interning by day. Varughese has over 80 credits to his name in the film and TV industry, including “Fraggle Rock”, “Degrassi: The Next Generation” and “Little Mosque on the Prairie.”

The Girlfriend Experience certainly seems darker than some of your other projects, especially early on ones like Fraggle Rock, so what made you want to pursue a series that was a little darker? Because, y’know, the whole premise is sort of that Christine leads a double life as a call girl and a lawyer, and some would say acting is a double life–you play a character and then come home and be yourself. Is that premise sort of what drew you into it?

Well, I wish I could say it was something that complicated. (laughs).  I’m a journeyman actor, and so I actually auditioned for the show and in fact, I auditioned for a part that I didn’t get. They brought me in to do a three-line part of a guy on the phone, who is an east Indian businessman talking to his wife in Bombay, and so being an actor, I had an Indian accent and the whole bit, but I didn’t get that part. They turned around and offered me this part of Tariq–which was originally written as a white character, and they changed the name when they cast me for this character who is completely different from what I went in an auditioned for. So I wasn’t really drawn to the show so much as it was thrust upon me (laughs), and I was thrilled to get upgraded from a three-line part to a recurring character in the series.

I imagine! What’s it like to play a lawyer? Is that fun, is it a little darker…?

The interesting thing about this show is that I guess they had been trying to find somebody to play the part that was originally written for a long time and hadn’t really found the right person, and when they cast me, it was shortly before, I think–it was very soon that we started filming. I didn’t even go in and meet them for this part at all, I met Amy the director and had my wardrobe fitting two days before I was supposed to start filming. So I really didn’t have a lot of preparation.

The scripts, I only really knew the first episode script and there’s not much of Tarriq Barr in that other than when he first encounters Christine at this sort of job fair in her law school. So I had really no idea what was going to unfold in terms of my character, in terms of the story overall, because I found out as we shot, the scripts would come out, so it was kind of as much a mystery unfolding for me being in the show as I hope it is for people watching the show.

And so, what that does is, it makes you really think about what you can bring to the character, because you’re not working with a lot of the material. I mean obviously it was in the heads of the directors and the producers, they knew what was going on, but as an actor, I didn’t have that kind of information. So that’s both a challenge and very exciting, because it means that I was able to, I think, put my own spin on the part as I grew to know what it was.

For example, I thought about him, I said here’s a guy who’s the managing partner of one of the biggest patent law firms in Chicago, and he’s an Indian American. He didn’t get that job because his dad owned the firm. He’s the son of immigrants, and he had to be twice as good to do anything in his life in order to get and be able to achieve that position. His status meant he was somebody who people had to contend with. Filling in those blanks for myself, because of my own background and what I was doing while playing the part, came into things like what I was going to wear. Obviously, we’re wearing suits because we’re lawyers, but I had to spend a lot of time with Caroline Eselin who’s the genius costume designer on the show and s really, she and I both talked about how to make that particular spin on this character, so he’s not dressing like every other lawyer, he’s got a bit of style, he’s got a bit of panache about how he dresses that distinguishes him because he had to claw his way to that position.

It’s really fun when you get a chance to expand on what you don’t know, because it’s not on the page and the interesting thing about the show (for all the actors in it) was that there’s so much in the story that isn’t said–characters don’t wear their hearts on their sleeve, they don’t tell you how they feel, they have so many secrets, they have so many–as you said–double lives. It’s not all laid out for you when you’re trying to do the character. You have to actually fill in that information for yourself, because it isn’t all explained. I think that’s what makes the show interesting and different, and not like a regular TV series.

Absolutely. In preparing for the show did you–it’s based on a 2009 film of the same name, also by Steven Soderbergh, right? So, did you get a chance to watch that, or did you sit down with the writers?

Other than the title and the theme, there’s no connection to the Soderbergh film. And obviously Steven Soderbergh was the Executive Producer on the show, but really, The Girlfriend Experience the TV series is its own story with its own characters. I mean I would say it’s a different volume in the library of The Girlfriend Experience stories, right, from the original movie? The other thing is Soderbergh is such an innovator, the original movie was a micro-budget movie, before micro-budget movies were common. On a technical side and on a thematic side–I know the film, but I didn’t study it in any way in preparing for this part.

For this part, I really felt that it was important to get under the skin of what I could bring to the character and get under the skin of the people I was working with, so it became more of a collaborative process working with Caroline, the costume designer as I mentioned for example. Or working with Paul Sparks, who plays David, and I did a lot of my scenes with him and Mary Lynn Rajskub. Being able to just be present with them, both off camera and on, I think enhances the ability to be truthful to the character that you’re playing on camera, and so there was a lot of that. I had a fantastic experience getting to know Paul as a person, and I think it just meant that when we were on camera, it made our relationship feel genuine, which on some level it was.

That sounds like a really ideal sort of set situation, which was also one of my questions I was going to ask. It sounds like it was a very collaborative cast and crew situation, so can you tell us a little bit about what it was like on set during the entirety of filming?

For one thing, it was done like a really good independent film, it wasn’t like everybody had their own fancy trailer or anything. And in a way, that was fine, because we took over–for example, the law office is one entire floor of an office building that was basically empty, you know to the bare walls, and everything that you see in the show was constructed and designed and built for the show. It became this real office that we were going to work at everyday and there happened to be a camera there. So that was interesting. (laughs). 

Another interesting part of working on the show was no matter what location we were at, and I was on the show for three months in different locations, primarily in the law office but other ones, I didn’t see Steven–who was the cinematographer–ever turn on a light. The whole series is filmed using natural light, even when you’re inside, and so, as a result, it has a really organic and cinematic feel to it, because it’s being lit by the sun. We were indoors still waiting for the sun to come out from behind the clouds so the light would cast the right glow on the right person. It was really interesting working in that way, because again, it allowed you to be in the scene more when you’re not having to worry about tripping over a light stand or a gaffer running in the middle of the shot, y’know? It was almost like making a documentary sometimes, because there was just the camera there and other than that, it was just the actors in the scene.

The two directors couldn’t be more different, and that was interesting. Amy and Lodge co-wrote all the scripts for the show, but they each directed separate episodes and Amy, who’s an actress herself–in fact she’s in Australia now filming the new Alien movie, so she couldn’t come to the red carpet premiere in New York a couple of weeks ago–her style of directing us was completely different. She was very hands on, touchy feely, very actor friendly in terms of how she communicated with us because she’s an actor herself. But not really a camera zonk, where as Lodge is like–he’s got a vision of every scene that’s so precise and so meticulous that he would run across from 30 feet away to adjust your chin because it wasn’t quite perfect in the frame.

It was a really interesting experience having two directors with completely different styles working on the same show at different times and the thing is that you can’t tell. It doesn’t look like you had two different directors, cause it looks like they were there both at the same time and they were a two-headed director (laughs). It was one of the most interesting working experiences I’ve ever had for all those reasons.

What would you say was your favorite scene to film?

This is going to sound funny, I guess. I don’t get to swear much as an actor, and there was a scene where–and pardon my language–but the line was, “Did you fuck her?” And, y’know, just being able to do that was kind of a thrill as an actor, cause I haven’t really–because of my type, I tend to play fairly positive characters (laughs). Like doctors, I’ve done 31 doctors, I think. I haven’t had that much opportunity to swear on camera, so to be honest, that was fun. hat was really fun was when we had to go in and do what’s called ADR, where you replace the dialogue after

What was really fun was when we had to go in and do what’s called ADR, where you replace the dialogue after it’s filmed, and the reason I had to do it for that scene was we had to do alternate versions of the line for the airplane version, or for other countries where the profanity wouldn’t fly. (laughs). So I had to come up with three different versions of saying, “Did you fuck her?” without saying the word. You know: “Did you do her?!”, and clearly my mouth is not saying the word “do.” So anyways, that was the scene that I remember. 

How long did it take to film the series, altogether?

Overall about three months. For filming, but of course there’s prep before that that I wasn’t really apart of. I think we filmed a year ago. I think my first day was early March, and my last day was the beginning of June, so March, April, May kind of thing, so just over three months.

It’s like filming a movie.

It sounds like it. Do you notice any difference in fan reaction or engagement when all the episodes are released at once, compared to one at a time on a weekly basis?

This is a first for me, I’ve never been on a show that’s done that. All the other shows I’ve done have sort of “regular TV” where you see the episodes on a weekly basis. What was funny was I actually haven’t seen it past the first two episodes, which have come out on normal TV, I haven’t had a chance to see the others. There was somebody who tweeted me and they were quoting a line I say in like, episode 5. And I went, “How does he know that?!” And then I realized, well, cause he’s seen them all. (laughs). 

Would you suggest that fans try to binge it all at once, or do you think they should pace themselves, especially with such a dark tone to the series?

I think it’s really a compelling viewing. When I saw the premiere in New York, they showed the first two episodes, and the whole audience just wanted to find out what happens next. I think if you can pace yourself, good for you, but the opportunity to binge watch them is going to be taken. It’s a nice option to have because the story–it is one continuous story, right, and so you just get sucked into it. It’s almost frustrating if you can’t watch the next one right away.

That has often how I feel about shows, so I can understand that completely. So over the years, you’ve tried your hand at a lot, I mean you’ve written, you’ve acted, you’ve directed…it seems like you started with writing, though. Is that actually what you wanted to do, or did you always know that you just wanted to try it all?

To be honest, I always wanted to be in television in some capacity. I didn’t really know how to break in other than by writing something, because I didn’t have a movie camera and I didn’t have an uncle that was a director, but I had the means to write something, even though I’d never really written much before. I ended up writing a script that kind of got me an opportunity to write television drama in Canada, and that’s how I broke in. That’s how I started, and shortly after I think my next second or third script was a TV movie that I ended up starring in, which is how I really started acting, I hadn’t really thought about pursuing an acting career prior, I was happy just being a writer. But in retrospect, I think it was a good thing, because it’s a tough business. Sometimes the writing is down and the acting is there for me to do, and sometimes the acting is down and I can get a writing gig. My ability to be diversified in terms of my skill set has allowed me to survive in a very tough business, and it’s also made me better at those things. I really think that being a writer has made me a better actor, and being an actor has made me a better writer, and both of those things have made me a better director. And I speak from experience, now, about all of those things. When you’re collaborating, you’re not faking it, and that’s a real asset in how we do what we do. It’s kind of how my career unfolded, and also it’s because I couldn’t afford not to, to be honest.

I’ve read that you are someone of many interests. You have several black belts, from what I hear, and you also like to cook, and golf, and obviously write. Do you think it’s important to balance work life and your interests equally? Where do you find time for everything?

You can find the time for whatever you want to do, you just have to decide. And being in film and television, or the arts in general, is essentially a freelance endeavor. So if you want to go to the golf course one day, it means you’re not going to be making any money that day, but that’s what you have to decide, what’s important. I think that the people who thrive in this business are people who are not one trick ponies.

I think they’re the people who have a variety of interests and are passionate about lots of things, not just careers–in fact, careers is probably the thing they’re least passionate about. It’s their passion for life, their passion for whatever interests them that enhances their ability to do the job, I think. I make an effort to do stuff, not because it’s good for me in terms of my career, but that’s who I am. And I think that is going to keep me sane, more than being kind of driven–I mean, I meet a lot of young actors particularly who I don’t know what’s going to happen to them if they are like they are now in ten years, they’ll be crazy, because they’re so tunnel vision and single minded. They don’t really have any interests other than their career.

I just don’t think that you’ll be able to be as good at your job if that’s all you are interested in. The job is about storytelling, and to be a storyteller you have to sort of have a life, and have interests and opinions and know stuff about stuff. That’s what you bring to the party, and what enhances your ability to do the job, whether it’s acting or writing or whatever, over somebody else.

I like to think that the reason I got cast in The Girlfriend Experience, even though I didn’t audition for the part they ended up putting me in is because I was doing something that was fundamentally and totally different then what even existed in the show. They saw something in me. That me-ness is what we traffic in as people who do this, and I think it’s the me-ness that people, that the audience really caters to.

It’s not a question of finding the time, it’s really making sure to make the time.

Since the name of our website is Talk Nerdy With Us, what is something that you are nerdy about, or that you nerd-out over?

I’m an inveterate lover of vinyl records. I’m old enough to have bought records when I was a kid, and I still have them. I kept them in mint condition when I was little, and I still can play them. So I guess that’s the nerdiest thing I can think of off the top of my head, but I am a lover of vinyl records.

Can I ask what your favorite record is–if there is just one?

I bought the original Elton John records when he first started being famous. “Mad Man Across The Water” was one of my very first records I think I ever bought, and I still think it’s a masterpiece.

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