Actress Shelly Bhalla of Jane the Virgin - 'It is still quite taboo to come out in the Indian community'

Shelly Bhalla plays Krishna on the CW’s Jane the Virgin.
Shelly Bhalla plays Krishna on the CW’s Jane the Virgin.

Jane the Virgin has a new season premiering on October 13th, so at the last minute I was like, “Hey! Let me interview Shelly Bhalla, who plays Krishna, because she's plays a gay Indian female character!”

Well, it didn't exactly happen that way. I actually interviewed Shelly before summer break but I was so busy with the hatchlings, I was unable to concentrate on writing. So last week, Shelly and I did an updated interview, which is even BETTER. (Proves the saying that good things come to those who wait.)

One of the things I love about Shelly is that she doesn't take anything for granted. She had a hardship in her teenage years (more below) and if you take a look at her Twitter page, you'll see she posts about emotional things. So if you're ever in that mood where you want to feel like you connect with a stranger who knows what you've been through, check out Shelly Bhalla.

You play Krishna on the CW's critically-acclaimed and Golden Globe-nominated comedy-drama series Jane the Virgin. Tell us about your audition process for the show.

I was a huge Jane the Virgin fan and was thrilled when the audition came my way at the start of Season 2. I jumped at the chance to work on such a critically acclaimed show that embraces diversity in casting and has complex, strong women at the helm. Krishna was described as a nervous go-getter who works for Petra. While I was preparing for the audition, I factored in the comedy as well as Petra’s domineering character and decided that most of my interactions would be fueled by high stakes and PTSD-type-nerves! I wore a pair of thick reading glasses that I wear in real life to the audition (they just felt right) and when I was cast they asked me to bring the glasses to set. The glasses and the crippling fear around Petra have become Krishna’s trademark!

You have a huge storyline this season on Jane the Virgin playing one of the first few gay Indian female characters on television. What type of research did you do to play a lesbian character?

For me, it’s a privilege to play one of the few gay Indian female characters on television. On-screen representation is so important and has the power to make people feel seen, open minds, start conversations and actually take steps towards progress and acceptance. My choices as an actor are always rooted in truth and circumstance but her sexuality adds a really interesting layer to the character. It is still quite taboo to come out in the Indian community and there is a lot to discover about her story. Has she come out to her family? Is she in a relationship? I have spoken to Indian friends in the LGBT community to have a better understanding of what it’s like for them to be part of this specific, oftentimes marginalized group. I’m excited to see where the story goes and grateful to work on a show where I have full faith the writers will create stories with heart and integrity.

You had a life-changing experience when you lost your father at a young age. How old were you? How did you and your family survive?

I was 16 when my dad was diagnosed with cancer and 18 when he passed away. We were extremely close and it was the biggest heartbreak of my life. Looking back, I realize that I handled it all wrong for years and am still learning from my mistakes. While my relationship with grief is ever evolving (and likely always will be) I now try to be present with the sadness when it pops up instead of running away from it. This may sound strange but I would say to love the grief and really sit with it. You will pass through it if you let it pass through you. It’s unfortunate but in America there is often implicit pressure to brush yourself off, avoid discussing “sad” topics, and to “be strong” immediately after a loss. For years, I kept feelings about my dad’s passing to myself because I didn’t want to be a burden to others. I had it all wrong – it is vital to talk about it. Most cultures (including my Indian culture) have rituals in place so the community continues to acknowledge the loss and those who are grieving are not isolated in their pain. I read as much as I can about grief and find solace in learning from others who are part of this tribe. Time does offer healing and perspective. While I would give anything for 5 minutes just to talk to him, I also feel so lucky now that I had a father who loved me unconditionally, tucked me in every night, and taught about what truly matters in life. Allowing myself to experience the dark night of the soul so to speak has also invited light into my life that is even brighter than I ever thought was possible. Healing isn’t linear – the pain of losing my dad will always be with me and that’s okay. It just ebbs and flows over time, and I accept that it’s just part of who I am now.

You have a recurring role on ABC's soap opera "General Hospital" as 'Charlotte Cassadine's' social worker, 'Ms. Watkins'. What's the difference between working on a quick-paced soap vs. a sitcom?

Everything in the daytime world moves oh so quickly! The scenes are shot with lightning fast speed. It’s a great exercise as an actor because there really is no room or time for error.

When people say they are 'spiritual', what exactly does that mean? How do you practice being spiritual?

To me, spirituality boils down to one word: seva. Seva is the Sanskrit word that means “selfless service”. My dad always taught me that being spiritual or close to God does not mean lying on a yoga mat all day or being cut off from the rest of the world. While it is wonderful to volunteer, I think spirituality can also be found in small, everyday acts like helping an elderly neighbor with grocery bags, smiling at a stranger, or helping someone with no expectation. It’s also doing the right thing when no one is looking and valuing your own integrity and character above all else. I was raised to believe that service for others without reward or expectation leads to true spiritual growth and that definition still works for me. To keep myself in touch with the teachings I grew up with, I practice Kundalini yoga and meditate regularly.

Shelly Bhalla goofing off.
Shelly Bhalla goofing off.

You've been in show business for a few years, having gone to Groundlings and Stella Adler for training. What was the most important lesson you learned at these facilities?

My years at the Stella Adler conservatory in NYC were transformative for me as an artist and human being. I spent my college years bouncing from major to major, trying to find my place in the world. I interned at Salomon Smith Barney and figured I would go in that direction because my peers were all choosing paths that were more financially rewarding. The arts aren’t exactly pushed on you growing up in an Indian family! I read a book by Stella Adler that led me to pursuing a summer program there after college. This is a true story but I showed up for my interview in a business suit! As I sat there, dressed inappropriately, I watched the actors walking through the studio. In one room, they were even rolling on the floor! I just knew that I wanted to be part of that world. In my years at the studio, I learned my craft, tore down a lot of walls that I had built within myself, and ultimately felt free to be myself.

When you were a child, what genre of books did you tend to read? What about as an adult?

I’ve been a bookworm my entire life. The only time I got in trouble as a kid was when my parents would find me reading late at night (yup, I was a total nerd). One of my favorite books as a kid was A Wrinkle in Time. As a teenager, I was obsessed with Margaret Atwood. My worn copies of Cat’s Eye and The Handmaid’s Tale still sit on my bookshelf. Now I find myself reading a bit of everything. Some writers I could read over and over again: Milan Kundera, Rainer Maria Rilke, Cheryl Strayed, Junot Diaz, Vladimir Nabokov, J.D. Salinger, and Ta-Nehisi Coates (just to name a few). One of my special skills is making a killer reading list (yup, still a total nerd).

Do you have an exercise and food routine to keep in shape?

I aim for moderation and often fail but I do my best! I have been on a pescatarian diet (no meat but occasionally eat fish) for about 8 years. My general rule of thumb is to eat clean at home and eat with reckless abandon anywhere else. For me, eating clean means lots of veggies and going dairy free if possible. I will never to say no to slice of cake or bowl of pasta but I try to balance it out with something healthy if I indulge. I think it’s important to savor food and I NEVER feel guilty about enjoying a wonderful meal. As for working out, I may be the least athletic person on the planet. Indian kids are not pushed into the arts OR athletics! That being said, there is no denying the link between exercise and endorphins so I force myself do a pilates or barre class about three times a week.

You're an outspoken activist for LGBT rights. What made you want to help the LGBT community? Are you a part of it?

When I was in 8th grade we had an assignment where we had to pick a social issue we felt passionately about and then debate it with someone who opposed it. At that point in my life, I had never met a gay person and knew very little about the LGBT community but I immediately knew my topic was going to be gay marriage. It just baffled me (and still does) that everyone couldn’t recognize that gay rights are human rights. I aced my debate and it sparked a lifelong desire to voice support and work towards greater acceptance and equal opportunities for the LGBT community around the world.

Anything else you'd like to say?

This past August, I volunteered with a truly remarkable organization called Experience Camps. It is a completely free camp for kids who have lost a parent, sibling or primary caregiver. The kids have the opportunity to navigate grief through friendship, fun camp activities and the common bond of loss. I believe Sheryl Sandberg endorsed them last year and after spending a week of full-time, around the clock volunteering and bunking with the girls I cannot praise Experience Camps enough. It was an honor to bear witness to the courage, stories, giggles, tears and compassion of the amazing kids I met and bonded with. I can’t wait to volunteer again next year. @experiencecamps

Be sure to check out Shelly’s socials!

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