Shabana Azmi talks about colour-blind casting, diversity and playing Admiral Margaret Parangosky in Halo
She’s part of an ensemble cast, which includes the likes of Pablo Schreiber, Natascha McElhone, Bokeem Woodbine
Shabana Azmi is a name to reckon with in Indian cinema. Her talent and perseverance have helped her bag some unforgettable roles. Whether in Indian movies or Hollywood films, the 71-year-old actress who is popularly known as the Meryl Streep of India continues to be in demand. It’s her international projects that have established her as a reputed crossover artiste. Most recently, the five-time National Award winner and the Padma Shri won the award for Best Actress for her role in LGBTQIA+ themed film Sheer Qorma at the India Film Festival of Boston. Her Hollywood flicks like Madame Sousatzka (1988), City of Joy (1992), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012) and Midnight’s Children (2012) are counted as significant milestones in her career. Now, Azmi returns to screens with a new American web series — Halo.
Streaming on Voot Select, the show, based on the iconic game series of the same name, is a highly anticipated one. Set in the 26th century, it follows a conflict between humans and an alien threat known as the Covenant. Azmi plays the role of Admiral Margaret Parangosky, the powerful, ruthless and ice-cold Director of ONI (Office Of Naval Intelligence), which is quite a contrast from her real-life persona. She’s part of an ensemble cast, which includes the likes of Pablo Schreiber (who plays the Master Chief or Spartan-117), Natascha McElhone (who stars as Dr Halsey, the brilliant creator of the Spartan super-soldiers) and Bokeem Woodbine (who dons the role of the formidable Soren-066).
When it came out in the second week of March, the trailer of the series created quite a buzz thanks to the game’s cult following. Produced by the likes of Steven Spielberg, Justin Falvey, Kiki Wolfkill and Darryl Frank, the series premiered on Thursday. We spoke with the actress about her role and her life off camera. Excerpts:
What were your first thoughts when you bagged the role?
The fact that I had bagged the role was a closely guarded secret by my agent. He had been in contact with the producers and he hadn’t even mentioned it to me. I wasn’t asked to audition or do any reading. They watched a couple of my Hindi films, and the casting directors decided on me. Only after they had signed me on, I got to know of this. I had a long Facetime call with the showrunner. He spoke to me at length and I put all my acting talent out there because I tried to make him believe that I was understanding every word he was saying but honestly, I wasn’t. So, all my acting powers got exhausted there!
What was the most exciting thing about working on Halo?
To me, the most interesting aspect is that the casting is completely colourblind. So, although there are actors from all over the world, they haven’t been cast because of their ethnicity or nationality. Despite the fact that I play Admiral Margaret Parangosky, they didn’t ask me to put on an accent or give me blonde hair. On the show, I look the way I do otherwise. The actors, whether they are African American, or from Korea and Canada, all speak the way they do in real life. This is very heartening for me particularly because I have been working in the West for the last 30 years and it’s been a struggle for Asian actors asking for colour-blind casting. If Laurence Olivier can play Othello then why not an Indian or a Chinese person? Finally, I am seeing some progress in this respect so I am very happy!
It’s quite unlike any of the roles you have played. How were you introduced to the world of Halo? Did you play the game?
I tried. I thought I would do a soft entry. When I met the team from the studio, they gave me some books about Halo. I tried reading but I realised it was very tough because I had no idea what they were talking about, so I thought let me try to play the game. That was even tougher! So, I decided to surrender myself totally to whatever the filmmaker wanted and that was the easiest choice.
What was the most challenging aspect of your performance?
Obviously it’s very challenging to get into a genre that you don’t know at all. It also requires within yourself a willing suspension of disbelief. Even as a child or teenager, video games were never my scene. I suddenly realised that an entire parallel universe of Halo lovers descended on me, and I thought ‘oh my God! This is something so, so huge.’ People have grown up on it and have a fierce loyalty to it and it became exciting. We did a boot camp in Budapest and then we went straight into shooting. To develop the character, there were several tests. When you start wearing the costume, you already acquire a certain posture that’s dictated by the costume. She’s an authority who gives commands but is manipulated by the scientist who convinces to break the rules for the good of humanity. When Natascha (McElhone) and I were doing the readings, we discussed that we needed to work on this conflict. I also remember I had a near-fatal accident in January and within 27 days I was in Budapest and on the sets. Initially, it was challenging because I hadn’t regained my balance yet but after the first few days, I felt the adrenaline rush helped me get through the entire shoot.