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How Geraldine Viswanathan went from a scene stealer in 'Blockers' to rom-com queen in 'The Broken Hearts Gallery'

Sep 9, 2020, 19:05 IST
Insider
Geraldine Viswanathan.Rodin Eckenroth/Getty
  • Insider spoke to actress Geraldine Viswanathan about her rise in Hollywood and her big star turn in the rom-com "The Broken Hearts Gallery."
  • Viswanathan opens up about the challenges to build a career in her home country of Australia.
  • She also explains the realization of how important it is being a woman of color in lead roles.

Director Natalie Krinsky was deep into her search for an actress to play the lead in her directorial debut, the rom-com "The Broken Hearts Gallery," when Geraldine Viswanathan came on her radar.

At first, she was like most of the other candidates. Krinsky received an email praising the young actress's talents, which led to the director glancing at some of her work, and finally Krinsky agreeing to chat over FaceTime with Viswanathan. And that's when the mundane casting search got interesting.

"She just has a quiet fearlessness in person and her face, she can do so much silently," Krinsky told Insider over the phone from Los Angeles, gushing about that virtual first meeting with Viswanathan. "I mean, those eyebrows! You could write an ode to those eyebrows. Just the rhythm of comedy, she has a sixth sense."

After talking a little about the movie, the conversation quickly led to their own lives and for the next hour, they talked like two old friends who hadn't spoken in ages.

The call ended and Krinsky thought to herself: That's it. That's her. Her lead was cast.

Gradually, more and more people are starting to recognize the same thing Krinsky did: that Geraldine Viswanathan is a star in the making.

Geraldine Viswanathan was a scene stealer in the 2018 teen comedy "Blockers."Universal

Geraldine Viswanathan had breakout roles in the movie 'Blockers' and HBO's 'Bad Education'

Her breakout role in the 2018 comedy "Blockers" put everyone on notice. In a movie in which she's positioned as the jock in a group of gal pals who vow to lose their virginity on prom night, Viswanathan turns the role into a scene-stealing performance thanks to her sarcastic wit.

She followed that with the 2019 indie movie "Hala." In the lead role, she shows off her dramatic skills in this coming-of-age story in which she plays a Muslim teen. Viswanathan has continued the impressive dramatic work this year in the HBO movie "Bad Education," in which she holds her own opposite Hugh Jackman as a dogged student newspaper reporter who uncovers a huge embezzlement scheme by its superintendent (Jackman).

She's also a regular on the TBS series "Miracle Workers" and played Tawnie on season 6 of Netflix's "BoJack Horseman."

Hugh Jackman and Geraldine Viswanathan in "Bad Education."HBO

In all these instances, and especially "The Broken Hearts Gallery" (in theaters Friday), Viswanathan's talents have grown in front of our eyes. Krinsky is right: The way Viswanathan expresses herself on-screen without uttering a single word is a true gift. "Hala" director Minhal Baig described what Viswanathan can do on screen with just a look as "one of the best things for a director" because you never have to cut around her performance.

Viswanathan is still trying to come to terms with her success. Partly, she believes her talents have shined because in some ways all the characters are her.

"I've always been fortunate I can do things that I've been genuinely enthusiastic about," she told Insider over the phone. "All the characters reflect me in some way."

Viswanathan said there weren't many roles for Indian actors growing up in Australia

Viswanathan is in Palm Springs while talking to me on the phone. She said it's her first time ever at the long-established getaway for Hollywood's biggest names. Though she says the heat on this day is unbearable, she's loving the experience. It's completely different from the woodsy upstate New York locale she's been at through most of the pandemic.

But it's finally time to go back to work. In the coming days, she'll start going hard on the promotion for "The Broken Hearts Gallery," including a special drive-in screening at the Sony lot in Los Angeles.

Though from the outside, the fame all seems to be coming together rather quickly for Viswanathan, that's not necessarily the case.

The 25-year-old Australian (you'd never know from her spot-on American accent but, yes, she's Australian) has been on the grind trying to make it in Hollywood since the age of 15. And before that, she was building her craft in her home country.

At around 5 years old, Viswanathan caught the performance bug in her hometown of Newcastle. Her Indian father and Swiss mother realized quickly she shined as a performer and were fully supportive to get her proper teaching. Then while on vacation in Los Angeles at the age of 15, she landed a manager and began the grind that most teens go through when they start out that age: trying to make it inside the two gold standards of American childhood entertainment.

"I was going after Disney and Nickelodeon roles," Viswanathan said looking back. "But I was never good at it."

Back home in Australia, she went to school and for a moment contemplated going to university to study international studies and media. But Viswanathan decided to pursue acting instead. She found success in the Sydney comedy scene. In her 20s she joined Freudian Nip, an all-female sketch comedy group.

But Viswanathan had a feeling if she would have a career as an actor, it would be in America. In her experience back home, there wasn't much work for Indian actors outside of the stereotypical work.

"I mean, my only movie I did in Australia my only line was, 'I'm Shrelankian,'" Viswanathan said with a laugh. "Here in America I didn't feel held back by my ethnicity, which was a really exciting feeling."

Even with "The Broken Hearts Gallery," Viswanathan said her race was never brought up.

"I think it was intentional by Natalie to not cast a tiny blonde model," Viswanathan said. "But I never felt like it was a pat on the back that a brown girl is the lead."

Viswanathan impressed her director with the ideas she brought to her role in 'The Broken Hearts Gallery'

In "The Broken Hearts Gallery" Viswanathan is without argument the movie's fuel. Playing Lucy — a 20-something Brooklynite with dreams of making it big in the art world by using the keepsakes of past lovers to make an art exhibit — Viswanathan delivers a performance that is comedic but goes against many of the rom-com tropes.

Lucy, as well as her friends Amanda (Molly Gordon) and Nadine (Phillipa Soo), are confident, know what they want, and don't need a man to get them there. In a key moment for Lucy in the movie, where she will receive funding for her exhibit, her former flame (played by Utkarsh Ambudkar) — who becomes interested in Lucy again because he realizes she's going to be the next big thing in the art world — assures Lucy that he will be there every step of the way.

Without hesitation, Lucy says, "That will not be necessary!" Topping it off it with a f--- off look that is priceless.

Geraldine Viswanathan in "The Broken Hearts Gallery."Sony/TriStar Pictures

Krinsky noted Viswanathan's spot-on delivery in scenes like this weren't her only contribution. The director and actress spent a lot of time collaborating together to tweak the script so it was the most authentic to a woman in today's world.

"She has the soul of a writer," Krinsky said of her star. "We were able to pour over the script, rehearse scenes, and really pick out the things that weren't working."

Viswanathan said what excited her was finally playing a role that was her age. After years of landing parts in which she played a high schooler, it was liberating to finally play someone in their twenties. And her ideas of how to play Lucy were constantly flowing into the script.

"I think she's me on my best days," Viswanathan said of the character. "I related to her a lot, but also was inspired by her outgoingness and how much she wears her heart on her sleeve. That's something I want."

(L-R) Geraldine Viswanathan and Natalie Krinsky in "The Broken Hearts Gallery."Sony/TriStar Pictures

And then when it came to just her performance, Krinsky was taken by how Viswanathan took it upon herself to elevate the material.

Krinsky recalled how for one of the most dramatic moments of the movie — where Lucy opens up to Nick (Darce Montgomery), the guy she's falling for — the dialogue wasn't powerful enough. After constant reworking and just before filming, Viswanathan took the script with her into the dressing room. After a few moments by herself, she came out and did the scene in one take.

"It's incredible and that take is what's in the movie," Krinsky said. "The delivery and timing and emotion of it was so profound we didn't do any coverage. We just had it."

The dream for Viswanathan is creative control of everything she does

Viswanathan said what she's striving for in her career is to be limitless.

In an industry that is socially conscious more than ever, she believes she's shown up at the perfect time. But Viswanathan believes it's her responsibility to keep it going.

"I'm uncovering more and more how significant it is to be a woman of color in leading roles," Viswanathan said. "I feel really strongly about doing work that interests me and I feel my younger self would want to see."

Geraldine Viswanathan in "Hala."Apple

So that means she's staying clear of roles that feel stereotypical or don't tell an authentic Indian story.

And when it comes to the actual work, she says she loves doing an American accent because she gets a kick out of people doing a double-take when she speaks in her real Australian accent.

"I do feel when I'm doing an American accent it sounds like I'm in a movie, if that makes sense," Viswanathan said. "It feels quite strange for me to try to act in an Australian accent. I always like to tell people when they hear me talk for real that I'm doing a fake Australian accent."

(L-R) Molly Gordon, Geraldine Viswanathan, and Phillipa Soo in "The Broken Hearts Gallery."Sony/TriStar Pictures

Along with that lighthearted vibe, what directors love about working with Viswanathan is the dedication she brings.

"Geraldine is naturally curious and is a sponge," "Hala" director Minhal Baig said. "She is questioning and always searching for answers for her character, but she is also able to absorb very very quickly."

Krinsky observed the same thing about Viswanathan, adding, "She has this quality where she's taking everything in and really listening. That's special."

Both believe that quality, matched with her talent, is only going to make her more in demand to work with going forward.

Geraldine Viswanathan.Mike Coppola/Getty

However, Viswanathan is thinking bigger. What she's striving for are projects where she's getting the chance to write, produce, and maybe even direct the stories she wants to tell.

"I'm definitely working towards all of that," she told Insider. "That's the dream. I'm getting to a place where I feel I have been on enough sets now and have an understanding of how this works."

"I want that creative control," she said.

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