Following a midlife crisis as a kid, Karan Brar found his way into acting - following some encouragement from his father. At only 19-years old this boy has already made important strides in his career, lastly with major blockbuster ‘Pacific Rim: Uprising’. He jokingly refers to himself as a “small Indian guy,” which couldn’t be further from the truth, because Karan has a way of commanding the room with what could only be described as genuine warmth. On the corners of L.A.’s Chinatown, photographer Ashley Frangie captures this hard-working creative, allowing him to become the focal point amongst undisturbed scenery.
What becomes most evident in the conversation with Karan is his multicultural upbringing and how that has helped shape a uniquely mature way of approaching life and its tribulations. His parents grew up in India, an Eastern society, while Karan grew up in the suburbs of Seattle, United States, a Western society. An upbringing with influences from two very different cultures has resulted in a captivating blend. His parents brought him to a pick and mix candy counter and he picked out what he found to be most essential from both familiar cultures.
Stylist Veronica Graye gears the maturing boy with clothes that emphasise the leaps he has made throughout his filling but still, short life. He is on the tiptoes of manhood, teasing the overlap found between boyhood and manhood. For years, Karan has delighted in making people laugh on sitcoms, but he is moving in on the next phase, being awarded roles that accompany his evolving nature and maturity. Today, Karan reminded us of an important Indian value: selflessness. A value which he holds sacred; a care that serves as a reflection of his burgeoning manhood.
How was your shoot with the photographer Ashley?
It was great. It’s kind of ironic since I work in front of the camera, but I hate photo shoots with a passion. I find it so strange to look directly down the barrel. I hate when my friends take photos of me - I don’t like to have my photo taken at all, it’s such a weird complex. But I felt so comfortable with everyone at the shoot and we had such a great time. It was like a hundred degrees. We were travelling through parts of Chinatown and people were looking at us really confused, wondering what all these adults were doing with a small Indian guy in a full green jumpsuit running around. It was by far one of my favourite shoots. Ashley was great - her and I bonded over Bollywood films, or well, more so that she loves Bollywood films and me not being the biggest fan haha.
I’m happy to hear we managed to create a good environment for you to get past your complex about photo shoots! Since your job is to portray other people, I’m curious about whom the real Karan Brar is?
I think I am an ambitious, hard-working, and caring person. That’s probably the best way to describe me. I’m very dedicated to what I do, but to a fault sometimes. I’m such a workaholic, which I get from my parents. As well as climbing the ladder in this industry, I also want to make sure that I’m servicing the people around me. I’m a firm believer that when you get to the top of the hill, you don’t want to be alone when you get there, you want to send a rope down to help other people. You’re doing it with your colleagues, your friends, and your family. A lot of my life centres on my work, my family, and my friends. I guess, that is the best way to encompass me.
I think you’ve managed to accomplish a lot in 19 years, I must say. Kudos to you - the hard work seems to be paying off.
I was just having lunch with a good friend of mine, and I was like; “I’m 19!” Sometimes my parents tell me I need to chill out; “You’re fine, you’ve already accomplished at lot. Don’t stress out”. But I’m always one of those people thinking; “one fourth of my life is already gone, I need to get on this, I need to accomplish more”. I’m always trying to stay hungry, but I really appreciate the compliment. When you’re in the middle of the race, it’s easy to forget how far you’ve travelled and how far you’ve come.
Do you put a lot of pressure on yourself?
Yes, I definitely do because it comes from a place of care. I really care about my work. I want to make sure I’m always lifting my weight, so whether that is me having every single line in the script or three lines, I want to make sure that those lines are the best that they can be. Obviously, too much of anything is really bad, so sometimes putting too much pressure on myself can be really bad. I’m learning to get out of that and to be more relaxed and a little less anxious when I’m working.
Do you have a way of grounding yourself when you’re experiencing stress or pressure?
I have an amazing support system, which is my family and friends. If I’m ever on set and I’m anxious, sometimes I’ll call a friend and we’ll talk it out and figure out how to calm me down. My mum and I are extremely close, so she is also a great encourager of; “Relax, you’ve got this”. Slowly, I’ve been able to learn that for myself. There are so many factors around you on set, not just this one image, there are so many other people doing things, so you want to make sure you’re holding your weight in it. I have to remind myself; “as long as you do all your prep and you work really hard and you focus, that’s all that matters”. I need to trust that the director is going to tell you when something is wrong and trust that the director will guide me if something is not working with a fellow actor and let me know if they need something from me in a scene. It’s about learning to trust myself and to trust others.
Definitely, wise words. What makes you happy?
That’s such an existential question in this day and age. As cheesy as this sounds, my work! My work makes me really happy because I like the feeling that it gives to others. I love working on sitcoms because they make other people laugh and smile, and that’s such a warm feeling - to give somebody else an experience or to be able to tell someone’s story and let the world see other people’s perspectives. If there is one thing in this world that makes me happy, it is my work. It’s made me into a crazy workaholic. I’ll have like three days off and I’ll go; “oh, I should probably tell my manager that I need an audition”. But then I tell myself; “wow, you’ve had three days off - you need to chill out more”. I’m lucky to be doing what I love and what brings me joy.
Where are you most serene?
Once again, a very cliché answer, but nature. I live in Los Angeles and my ideal is to be living in New York, so nowhere in the middle of that is much greenery. Anytime where I’m in solitude in nature, I feel it has an amazing way of centring you. I don’t implement it enough, but I need to start implementing it more in my life. Even when I go on a hike - it’s relaxing. My phone’s off, I’m in the middle of nature - and even if I’m with friends, it centres you because you have nothing else going on. All the notifications are off.
I completely agree. Nature is the best way to decompress.
When you head out in nature, even if it’s not that far, just hiking, you realize; “oh, I’m fine. The world is not going to collapse if I go on a three-hour hike. It’s not going to collapse if I go camping for a weekend”. You get time to reflect on yourself.
When we’re talking about nature and taking a break from everything, my mind wandered to the topic of social media. Considering you have 3.3 million followers on Instagram (which is quite a lot…), what is your relationship with social media?
That’s tricky. It’s shifted quite a bit from when I first started. When I first started with social media it was very exciting, but I felt it was a job. I felt I needed to cater to it. I never fully indulged in it, but I felt the pressure to put out an image. As I got older I started to realise that I like social media and that I like the idea of sharing things and that I like to see what my friends are up to. I like seeing what’s going on in the world. It’s a good feeling to be connected, but I only want to post about things that feel right to me. I don’t want to have to cater to something. It comes off as false and it puts way too much pressure on anyone. Even though I have three million followers, people might say that’s a lot of pressure you’re dealing with, but I think teenage girls deal with that on a daily basis. Every teenager deals with that. Every adult feels like that. When they feel they should cater to things. Now my relationship with social media is a bit healthier, I’m not as consistent with it, which I probably should be, but I prefer when it’s authentically me. It’s strange how society suddenly decided that this is an extra chore on our to-do list.
I know, it’s strange this feeling of having to post. I came across this wonderful video of you on YouTube talking about your Indian heritage. Do you think diversity and representation in the entertainment industry is improving?
I think it’s moving toward the better. I think that people who are white or in a privileged position in this industry are turning into allies and they are trying to use their resources to create more space for others. It was funny that you brought that up, right before you called, my publicist and I were talking about the film ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and how we think that is going to be a pretty significant change and show that Asian Americans can play leading roles. It’s really exciting to see how people are slowly but surely making these changes and creating room for more people. I have friends who are white who are creating content and space for their Asian American or African American or Hispanic counterparts, because they know they have that access to privilege. I think it’s getting there, but it gets frustrating at times because it feels slow. But we have to remember that as long as we keep going forward we’re making pretty decent strides. It’s just going to get easier and easier as we get along. The fight seems tough right now but I do think the position is better than it was even ten years ago.
Yes, and hopefully this change is going to continue to unfold. What was it like growing up in an Indian family in Redmond, Washington?
It was as normal as it could be. My parents are very liberal and they’re fairly westernised. I was speaking to my friends about this. My parents grew up in an Eastern society and I grew up in a Western society, so to grow up in the suburbs of Seattle, Washington, it’s really interesting because how I experienced life is completely different from how my parents experienced life. You see parents nowadays reading parenting books about how to be the perfect parent, even though they went through the same things they’re still just as nervous. I can just imagine what my parents must have gone through; “I want to make sure I raise this kid perfectly, but also, I have no idea how this society runs. I don’t know what it’s like to be a kid or a teenager in this world”. It was really interesting growing up because I felt really lucky to be connected to my roots and heritages - I think that is a real blessing to have such a deep understanding of where you’re from. I have to say that my childhood was very interesting because we were trying to explore that middle ground of how to blend both societies.
I think that’s a very interesting reality, but I can imagine it gives you much more of a profound place to take with you into life.
You have so much more to pick from. There is so much from Indian culture and values that I will carry with me for the rest of my life, and there are certain things from Western society that I will bring with me as well. It’s interesting to blend them together and see what feels right to me. I always tell this to my friends: the selflessness that is ingrained in Indian culture is genuinely amazing. My grandfather sold his house so my father could get a one-way ticket to America because my dad really wanted to come to America. And then my mum left being a teacher to move here with my dad, and then they both hustled their way as much as they could to make sure that when their kids were born, they could provide them with a steady household - kids that they didn’t even know they were having, that they hadn’t even met yet. My mum and dad work so hard today, even though my sister is going off to college and I have a career, they’re still like; “We want to make sure we can provide you with everything that you need, so that you have all the resources that you can possibly have”. It is that selflessness that I always want to carry in my life. Western society is slightly more selfish: it’s more about my personal pursuit of happiness. It’s not as selfless. Indian culture is selfless to a massive extent.
Yes, I can imagine that is a bit of a clash with American culture. I read somewhere that your father was the one who encouraged you to take acting classes, what was your childhood dream before you got bitten by the acting bug?
As a kid I was way to over anxious. I had like a midlife crisis; “what am I going to do with the rest of my life?” When I was younger I really wanted to be an athlete, just wanting to fit in and be one of the jocks. I felt sports were such a communal thing, because everyone could participate in it. I was not coordinated at all - I tried so many sports. For the life of me, I couldn’t do anything right. And then my dad went; “Hey, if you’re up for trying different hobbies, you want to try acting?” “Sure, why not?” I did one acting class and then it sort of spiralled from there. I fell in love with it, and it was something I did every weekend, sometimes after school – it was just something I really enjoyed. It was my own side hustle outside of things. It was my hobby; my own sport.
I love how you had a midlife crisis as a kid.
I bet you, I’m going to have several more. Wait until I hit 21 - every seventh year there’s going to be a new round.
Well, it’s good to take a moment and have a proper look at one’s life.
It’s funny though, as people we don’t fully trust ourselves; “are we doing this right?”
98 episodes on the same show is a long time to be playing the same character, and then with the spin off show ‘Bunk’d’ - that adds an additional 59 episodes, what was it that first attracted you to the role of Ravi Ross? He must be second nature to you.
Once again, I kind of just fell into it. Cameron (Boyce), my best friend, him and I auditioned for the same role on ‘Jessie’ - and they brought us into the same exact room together and they had us read together for the same exact role, which is even stranger. And then they went;” Hire them both! We like them both!” They ended up changing a lot of the characters. The character we both auditioned for turned into Luke and for me they created the character Ravi. I was really excited to see representation on the channel, because I never saw anyone Indian on Disney Channel or Nickelodeon growing up. I was so excited to be a part of something that was different. When you watch this show you see so many different ethnicities; such a blended family. I loved the people I worked with, so when ‘Bunk’d’ came on the table, it wasn’t even a second thought; “yeah, of course”. It didn’t feel like it was over yet, so we kept it going. Our characters became second nature to us, because we had done them for so long.
And how do you keep sort of renewing your relationship with the character, considering you’ve played Ravi for so long?
We strive to get to these hills. Everyone wants to be on television right now. Playing a character for so long - you do get antsy. You want to play different characters. You want to conquer so much in this industry. One thing that always keeps it fresh and exciting: every week there is a new hurdle that you need to pass and even though it’s a sitcom, you should allow your character an emotional growth - some type of arc throughout the 30 minute episode. One thing that I always really enjoyed, which kept me on my toes and kept things fresh, is to always try different things with my jokes. I’m really competitive with myself and I get so mad at myself if I don’t get a joke right. I need to hear the laugh. I need to make sure it lands. What people don’t realize with Disney shows is that there is a lot to tackle: you have stunts, you have special effects, and you have giant scenes with lots of people. It’s a lot to shoot at once, and sometimes quite stressful, but very exciting because every week you’re trying to conquer a new beast.
I saw that you actually directed an episode of ‘Bunk’d’: ‘No Bones About It’ - how did you find the experience of working as a director? Is this something you consider pursuing in the future?
Oh definitely, I always had an eye for directing! When we stepped on the set of ‘Bunk’d’ for the first time, I knew that when I turned 18, I really wanted to direct an episode. The whole Disney family was really supportive of it and they were nice enough to give me that opportunity. It was the most exhaustive experience of my life, but it’s still one of my favourites. If you think actors work hard, directors work so much harder. Your head is in four different places at once, but I loved every minute of it. It’s sort of like putting a puzzle together and making sure it all sort of fits. Then handing it over to the editor hoping you’ve got it all. It really confirmed my feeling for directing, and hopefully also I can take a step into producing.
They obviously had a lot of faith in you, knowing you could do it. ‘The F**k it list’ is an upcoming project of yours, what are you able to reveal regarding the plot and your character?
I don’t know how much I can tell you. I can say that it centres on Brett Blackmore who is this young teenager who is destined to go to seven out of eight Ivy League schools, which is this gigantic accomplishment. He ends up participating in the senior prank, which then goes horribly wrong. He ends up getting pinned for it, so he takes all the blame and all the seven out of eight Ivy League schools pull their acceptance letter. It basically follows this teenager as he is trying to rediscover his life. My character, Nico, who is one of Brett’s best friends, is this young, ambitious activist who tries to help him along his journey as tries to figure out what he wants to do with his life. Obviously, when you watch the film, some of the circumstances are slightly different from the average teenager trying to figure themselves out, but I’m really excited for people to see it because I think we can all relate to feeling lost.
That sounds exciting. I think both teenagers and adults can relate to feeling lost. Everybody’s lost really, all the time haha!
Definitely. Some of us are just better at hiding it than others. It’s easy to get lost, but constantly reminding ourselves that we’re not alone really helps ease the burden of society.
The action adventure film 'Pacific Rim: Uprising' premiered this year where you played Cadet Suresh, tell me about the experience of working on such a major studio film?
Yes, I was really excited about that one! It’s nuts, it’s so crazy! I was both nervous and excited for it, because I was jumping from Disney Channel and there is a negative stigma attached to being a Disney actor. When I booked this project, I was extremely grateful, but I was also really nervous throughout the process because I wanted to make sure I would do a good job. I was shooting ‘Bunk’d’ and ‘Pacific Rim: Uprising’ a little bit at the same time, so just as I was ending ‘Bunk’d’ I would fly to Australia to work on ‘Pacific Rim’ for two weeks, then fly back to finish ‘Bunk’d’ and then fly back to Australia for a few months to do ‘Pacific Rim’. It was so cool to go back into film. It’s always what I imagined as a kid: travel the world, shoot a gigantic film, try to put together this giant monster of a puzzle, and meet these amazing people from all around the world. We had people flying in from everywhere.
How do you define masculinity for yourself? And do you think society’s perception of masculinity is changing?Masculinity is a spectrum: it comes in many shapes and forms. I think masculinity comes with having confidence in you. Whether you are bit more “feminine” or “masculine”, if you feel confident in that and you feel comfortable in that, that’s what that means to me. To feel comfortable in your choices, your behavior, and in whom you want to be. Masculinity shouldn’t be some kind of image that we all need to fit into. I just define it as confidence in oneself and in one’s being. I think slowly but surely it is changing. I think it’s slowly getting to a place where masculinity is becoming a bit more fluid. But I do still think that people experience pressure to fit into the traditional standards.
Good answer, very true. Do you consider yourself an emotional person?
Yes, I think so. I’m not always as expressive about it, but I do believe I’m an emotional person. For a while personally, I couldn’t cry. I would shut down. I thought; “well, you have to be a man”. I was thinking that men don’t cry and that you’re supposed to stay strong. Even when I was by myself, I refused to let my walls down. It’s important to let yourself go through the emotions, so that you can process it. Crying doesn’t mean you’re weak or you’re strong, it just means you’re allowing yourself to go through that or grow past that. It’s becoming more acceptable as a man to be vulnerable, which is really exciting because no one should have to live in fear of emotions.
What was it that sort of changed within you?
It took time, but I think it was about my friends and family always offering me support. Them letting me know that there is always someone to talk to, there will always be someone to speak to, and that you’re never alone in this experience. After a while, I got more comfortable in being more honest with myself and with other people about what I’m feeling or experiencing. That takes time. Acceptance is just one step, and then applying it is a whole other process. For some people, they can make that change within weeks, but for some people that takes years. It took time for me to feel more comfortable with my emotions and acknowledge them within myself and other people.
It’s important to have that type of support system. Who do you look up to?
My mum! I’m so cliché, so cheesy… My mum is such a fighter. She is a warrior. If she doesn’t understand something, she is going to work her ass off until she gets it. She fights for what she believes in. She stands her ground. She is everything I want to live up to be. I get my work ethic from her and my dad, but I always tell her; “I always feel good when I leave the house before you do, and I come home when you go to bed. I like the feeling of outworking you because I know it’s nearly impossible”. Literally, all my mum does: she wakes up, takes care of the family, she works all day, comes home, helps my dad with the small businesses on the side, and so on. I have to be the parent sometimes when I will literally shut her laptop and say; “go to bed now!” My mum is my biggest inspiration. I want to be as ambitious and as hungry as she is.
She sounds amazing. What’s the ultimate dream?
If I can, I want to be one of the first Indian Americans to win an Oscar. I might not be the greatest actor right now, but I want to work my ass off to get as close as I can to reach that point. Even if I don’t get there - trying to get there will get me pretty far. That’s a goal I always keep at the back of my mind.