It's been a starry three years for Anil Kumar since he graduated from Rutgers University's theater school. In 1998 he was in an Off-Broadway production of Macbeth with Alec Baldwin and Angela Bassett. The next year found him opposite Jean Stapleton and Art Malik in American Conservatory Theatre's U.S. premiere of Indian Ink by Tom Stoppard. This year Kumar has been riding a wave of success with The Tale of the Allergist's Wife. Charles Busch's hit comedy, which opened to raves last spring at Manhattan Theatre Club with Linda Lavin, Michele Lee, Tony Roberts, and Shirl Bernheim is now playing on Broadway with Kumar appearing as an Iraqi doorman with a secret or two. Playbill On-Line spoke with Kumar about his new-found success.
Playbill On-Line: Two of your last major stage roles have been opposite Edith Bunker and Alice. Which 1970s TV icon is next?
Anil Kumar: There's the wonderful Michele Lee of "Knots Landing" as well—so there's the early '80s. I would love to do something with any one of the original "Charlie's Angels." Farrah Fawcett was 'da bomb. I had the Farrah T-shirt and the Farrah poster.
PBOL: So we can assume you're at least old enough to remember those TV programs?
AK: Oh yeah, totally! I grew up watching those shows. I was in love with Alice, and Edith was my mom's favorite. I told them all, "Be ready when you meet my parents because they're wonderfully excitable people." My mom enjoys the glamorous aspect of my job.
PBOL: Most of your stage time in Allergist's Wife is opposite Linda Lavin. What's that like?
AK: Amazing and sometimes scary. She is quite possibly the most wickedly, incredibly talented woman I've ever met in my life. She is so alive and filled with fire and ice and pain. Watching her and Tony Roberts flesh things out and work through scenes—I learned as much watching them as I did in three years of grad school at Rutgers. She's a grande dame of the American theatre.
PBOL: How did you get your role?
AK: One of the first things I did at Manhattan Theatre Club was the reading of Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi. That sort of led up to Allergist's Wife. Although Shirl Bernheim, who plays Linda's mother, Frieda, gave me that extra thing I needed. She's why I think I got this part. PBOL: How so?
AK: The day I went in for my second callback I was late. I was freaking out, thinking, "What a great self-sabotaging moment this is. I just totally fucked myself." A casting assistant came up and said, "Don't worry, we're running behind. Just relax and we'll call you in a couple of minutes." So I was sitting there doing my little actor tricks, trying to calm down. I was shaking. And out of the audition room waddled this 80-year-old woman with this gleam in her eye. I stopped everything that I was doing and stared at her, thinking, "My God, here is an 80-year-old woman who is still doing it. She doesn't know if she'll get the part, she just comes in, does her thing, and now she's going back to Queens." She felt my gaze from across the room, looked up, beamed, and said, "Well, hello there!" I called out, "Frieda!" And she said, "Oh, just one of the many voices of Frieda that they've heard today. Who knows?" And at that moment I just let go of all the bullshit I was holding onto. I was like, "What does it really matter? It's just acting. It's not brain surgery." It put me into a total "fuck it" mode, like "That's right, I'm going to be 80 and they're going to be wheeling me into the audition."
PBOL: What have been your most extraordinary moments as an actor?
AK: Backseats and Bathroom Stalls, which I did downtown this summer, was singularly the most incredible theatrical experience of my life. Those guys are some of the most talented actors I've worked with. Two other shows have been meaningful in different ways: The first show I did in New York was Macbeth. When I graduated from Rutgers one of my five-year goals had been to work with George C. Wolfe at the Public Theater and here I was doing that in the first four months—smoking cigarettes with Alec Baldwin in the bathroom; holding Angela Bassett in my arms every night for six weeks. And doing Indian Ink in San Francisco was an amazing experience. I grew up in Ohio and didn't see another dark-skinned kid until junior high. At ACT, I was surrounded by Indian artists like Art Malik who was in "Jewel in the Crown" and "Passage to India." And Tom Stoppard came over to work with us. He said to me, "I never really understood that part until I saw you do it. The man we had doing it in London was just this stuffy old man. You bring such life to it."
PBOL: I have to say that you do very sharp impersonations of both Shirl Bernheim and Tom Stoppard.
Kumar: You know, the funny thing about Tom is, you will not meet a man who is more articulate with his pen. But when you speak with him, he's got this sort of lispy way that he talks out of the side of his mouth. I'm thinking, "My God, man, I can't understand a word you're saying!" He's got a little Snagglepuss thing going on. He's so sophisticated and elegant. Then he talks and he sounds like Sylvester the Cat.
PBOL: I've noticed that in your three most recent major plays, you've been cast as a South Asian Indian (Indian Ink), an Italian Gypsy mistaken for an Iranian (Bathroom Stalls), and now an Iraqi. That's quite a range.
Kumar: But it's all the same tribe, which is why I think I can get away with it. I mean the people that inhabit those regions—from the Middle East all the way to India—are basically the same Persian-Parsi tribe.
PBOL: If you go back thousands of years. But going by appearances—which is always dangerous—you don't look stereotypically Italian or Iraqi.
Kumar: That's the thing about theatre casting—it's as creative as you want it to be. I can pass for a lot of different things. I'm a kid from the Midwest. When people see and hear me, Indian is not the first thing that comes to mind. But they're not sure. I think that enables me to cross a lot of borders and play a lot of different roles. When I audition I go out for Latinos, Italians, Middle Easterns—even a Greek guy once. During the winter months I get a little pale, so that enables me to cross even more borders.
PBOL: Do your film roles tend to be Indian?
AK: Oh yeah. That's just a necessary evil of the movie business. People there are limited by their own imaginations. If they think a certain part has to be played by a tall, blond, white guy, that's their sensibility. But theatre stretches a little more.
PBOL: When did you first turn to acting?
AK: I was in my last semester at Kent State in Ohio as an undergraduate planning to be a clinical psychologist. I had taken all the classes I needed so I was doing all kinds of fun stuff including a Shakespeare class. I said to a friend, "If there was ever any kind of acting I'd want to do it would be Shakespeare." And she said, "Well, the school is having auditions for The Tempest." So I with my hippie pants, tie-dyed shirt, and hair down to my ass—like I said, this was Kent State—went over to the audition, knocked on the door, and said, "Do you mind if I come in and read? I have this King Lear monologue that I'd like to do." Of course, I'm making every mistake a young actor could make, casting myself as an 80-year-old man. But I'm doing the speech and the director is just sitting there politely, saying, "Hmm, yes, hmm." But she actually ended up casting me as one of Prospero's sprites. Then the next play I did, I got a lead. I had never considered acting as anything more than, "Wow, don't I love to go and see movies." But once I started I just did not stop.
PBOL: And eventually you decided that acting was your life?
AK: Yes. I was dating this girl for five or six years—we were engaged but thank God I didn't take that path. When she was going away to grad school she said, "So, what—you're going to do your acting thing now?" And that was the end of that. I thought, "No way, no way. You're out of my life!"