Jatinder Chera, National Film and Television School Graduate and now National Theatre Casting Assistant, shares his experiences of getting started in his career, typecasting and diversity.
By Jatinder Chera
Deciding to become an actor is like choosing orange juice with juicy bits. Most people will push you toward smooth. Smooth is easier. Smooth is more stable. Smooth gives you a pension, and does your taxes for you.
‘Juicy bits’ is a life of uncertainty. Keeping every receipt, and having a bank balance which goes up and down more often than the lift at the Shard.
I chose ‘juicy bits’.
My careers advisor at secondary school, Carol (I can’t actually remember her name, but she felt like a ‘Carol’) said, ‘Jatinder, there is no money in acting, what else would you like to do?’ She obviously hadn’t seen my seminal performance as ‘Dad’, in Ernie’s Incredible Illucinations. This is where the trouble begins. At school, as a drama kid, you can be whoever you want to be. Roles are cast purely based on talent. Whether you’re Joseph, Mary, or Frankincense, it comes down to confidence and stage presence. Naturally, I always formed part of the key cast. I didn’t play ‘Dad’ because I was in my 40s, or white. I played him because I served major ‘Dad’ energy in my audition. In reality, I was 13, Indian, and my son was played by Matthew Jenkins, also 13 with mixed race heritage. And there lies the beauty of casting.
Okay Carol, so I’m gonna be poor – who needs money anyway?! Give me applause, laughter, and a Boots meal deal any day. After receiving shockingly poor A-Level results, I gained a full scholarship to train in Musical Theatre at Millennium Performing Arts.
Three years later, I was trained, physically fit, confident, and ready to chase my dream. The auditions started to filter in. This is a good moment to note that my white friends auditioned most regularly, followed by my black friends, and, bringing up the rear, me.
Here it is: the cold, hard truth. Educators allow you the freedom to believe you can achieve anything you want with hard work and commitment. The terms and conditions in my contract were low salary, which Carol had prepared me for. But I hadn’t prepared to solely audition for South Asian roles. In fact, to that date, I had never even played a South Asian character. So why was I now exclusively auditioning for brown roles? What happened to hard work, commitment and artistic flair? Gone, gone and gone. My parents are South Asian, therefore I am South Asian by proxy, but actors are blank canvases, ready for oil. Why was my palette ochre and ochre alone?
Eventually, I succumbed because, ultimately, I wanted to act. If that meant accents, head isolations, and corner shops, so be it. I thought after a few bindis and bhajis, eventually I’d break the shackles. I didn’t. The shackles were unbreakable.
After fifteen years of playing Khans and Kapoors, I realised change wasn’t coming fast enough, so maybe it was time for me to address that. How do I address that? You can’t bite the hand that feeds you.
In late 2019, a chance encounter led me to a tweet by Jina Jay, the renowned Casting Director, advertising a brand-new casting course at the National Film and Television School. Was this it, my sign? Not many people could have seen this tweet, so if I applied, surely I was a shoo-in? I’d be the only applicant. So I applied and waited to be told I had got my place. Jina proceeded to tweet the details weekly. Now is a good time to mention that Jina has over 18K followers. Oh, and Shaheen Baig was also tweeting it. Basically everyone knew, even people with no wi-fi in the foothills of the Himalayas.
After Zooms and applications, I was one of the lucky 14 on this brand new course. A new generation of casting assistants, the next generation of casting directors. Jina Jay, Shaheen Baig and Jane Arnell selected a variety of people that were not judged on class, race, or age, and didn’t exclusively come from within the M25.
So why casting? I want to get back to the root of acting. To act is to play. We shouldn’t put parameters on actors based on physicality because, ultimately, it’s a role, and it’s a performance. Sandra Bullock isn’t Miss Congeniality when she gets home.
To address and increase diversity within the industry, it’s important that there is a non-white voice in every department, not simply to fill a quota, but to make a change. I want future-Jatinders to walk into a casting and see themselves represented on the casting panel. Inclusivity and diversity is not offering brown actors brown roles. Inclusivity is inviting them for the lead, because why the hell not? A leading actor is not a specific race, gender, or pronoun. A leading actor is who you choose.
What’s next for me? Right now, I’m working as a casting assistant at the National Theatre, alongside Alastair Coomer, Bryony Jarvis-Taylor, Naomi Downham, and Chloe Blake. Ultimately, my goal is to rewind back to the creativity of our youth – when school assemblies absolutely slapped. When we ALL sang Hosanna, sang Hosanna, sang Hosanna, to the king of kings. Who was Hosanna, was she white, middle class, from an acting dynasty, was she even a ‘she’? Possibly, but is that how I’m going to cast ‘Ho’? Probably not.
Jina, Shaheen and Jane have not only equipped us with the tools and knowledge needed to enter the industry, they’ve championed us, supported us, and nurtured us. Now we’re dispersing like the graduates of Rydell High, and we’re coming to an office near you. Jina, Shaheen and Jane will forever be our cool ‘aunts’, bringing us a tube of fruit-pastilles every time they’re ‘round, but it’s time for us to take their wisdom and fly.
I could not have accepted my place on the casting course without the generous support of Spotlight. So to that famous building, with its many (many) steps, I say ‘thank you’.
Jatinder was part of the inaugural class of the brand new casting course at the National Film and Television School, graduating in May 2021. He can now be found on the 4th Floor East Side of the National Theatre building – or the Upper East Side as only he calls it.
Jatinder’s headshot by Phil Sharp