The leading Indian American child actor working in Hollywood is self-possessed, articulate and brimming with energy.
Meet Karan Brar, who at age 13 has already racked up a resume that would make grown actors jealous — including roles in the three “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” hit comedies, a starring role on the Disney series “Jessie,” a guest star spot on Disney XD’s “Pair of Kings” and work in some hotly anticipated new projects — including Disney’s new animated series “Sofia the First” and the animated “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” for DreamWorks, starring Robert Downey Jr.
Twentieth Century Fox’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days” opened Aug. 3 to earn $14,623,599 at the box office, and is expected to gain momentum during these last weeks of summer.
India-West first profiled Brar in 2010, just before the opening of the first “Wimpy Kid” film. Brar, a Seattle boy who had been acting since the age of 7, beat out over 9,000 kids over a lengthy, six-month audition process to win the role of Chirag Gupta in that film. He now lives in Los Angeles full time with his family.
Excerpts from a recent phone interview:
Q: My family and I liked “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days,” especially the scene at the campsite, when you got stuck in a booby-trap made out of string covered with honey.
A: That was funny, that part. The crew and the cast came up to me and got a honey bottle and started spraying me. At first I thought they were joking when they said, “We’re going to spray you with honey,” because they’re always messing around with me. But no, they were serious!
Q: You are involved in a lot of shows right now. Are you working every single day, and how do you fit school in?
A: I work five days a week on “Jessie.” Pretty much, Monday I’ll do a table read and a little bit of rehearsal; Tuesday-Wednesday do the rehearsal and show the producers and the network so they can make changes; and Thursday and Friday we’ll be shooting. Since I’m only a guest star on “Sofia the First,” sometimes I’ll go in and will record in the studio the animation part of that — that’s a lot of fun, and I’ll do that for an hour or two. With school, they fit it in regularly whenever I get a break for about three hours of school. Yeah, it’s not homeschool exactly — it’s a school with actual teachers and other kids in my situation. It’s an amazing program. Saturday and Sunday I have off, but sometimes we’ll have a hiatus week or promo shoots with the cast, which is a lot of fun. Sometimes we even get to go out and do publicity for the show.
Q: How has it been working on three films with the “Wimpy Kid” folks?
Working with the “Wimpy Kid” cast has been a lot of fun. We feel like family. When we were shooting around Vancouver and we’d get a day off, we’d swim or check out arcades and stuff. On and off set, we’d have a blast. I loved working with [cast members] Zach, Grace and Robert, Peyton and Lane — they’re all amazing.
Q: And consider the fact that you guys are all child artists but all growing up — your bodies and voices are changing too.
A: Zach [Zachary Gordon, who plays the lead role of Greg Heffley] on the second and first movie he didn’t exactly have a deep voice, but when I came back for this movie, I said “Hey, man, what’s up?” and he opened his mouth and he sounded like a complete stranger! The producers said, “No! He’s going through puberty!” Here’s the thing. When Jeff Kinney wrote the books, he was portraying an idea of a normal kid. It just adds to the reality; you can see a little bit of maturity in Greg Heffley.
Q: Tell me about the mechanics of memorizing scripts. Has that always been easy for you or do you have to work at it?
A: When I first went into “Wimpy Kid,” I had read scripts and I’d memorized them as fast as I could. But when I came on to “Jessie,” it was a completely different story. I’d walk through the door having read the scripts the night before. But then the next day it’s a completely different script! I would say [frantically], “Why is there a new script? Why is there a new script?” Well, they make changes every single day. So working with both “Jessie” and “Wimpy Kid” has helped me to memorize scripts faster. Instead of memorizing it and putting it into your head, you should just get familiar with it.
Q: “Jessie” is an ensemble cast. Tell me more about your character, Ravi, who is adopted from India. Where do you fit in and leave your own personal stamp on it?
A: We wanted to show different sides of every single character; we didn’t want a cast that was too similar. So the nanny has sort of a creepy past and hasn’t really fit in too well but loves these kids; and there are all these characters like a tough girl, and a fashionable one, and an upbeat one.
Well, Ravi is there trying to learn this whole new thing, which some kids can relate to. Thousands of kids come into America every single day, wondering, “What is this place? It’s so new and so different.” Through this show, you can see this kid learning how to behave, and what I talked about with my mom and dad and even my grandparents — what is so great about India, what makes it so amazing, is there is not exactly a “status quo” over there, so there’s no “cool” or there’s no “lame.” You are there, you’re with your friends and you’re having fun. In America, not to be disrespectful, there is definitely a status quo: Who is a loser? Who’s going to get bullied?
The cool thing about Ravi is that he doesn’t know this. He just thinks that the world is perfect the way it is and he wants to be out there with his brothers and sisters and his seven-foot-long monitor lizard named Mr. Kipling. He stands for: “This is who I am. I hope you guys like it, but if you don’t, then I’m totally fine with that.”
Q: We hear that the new animated Disney series “Sofia the First” will premiere in Spring 2013. What role do you play on that show?
A: “Sofia the First” is being made right now. It’s a whole new story about a new princess and there are these “normal” kids who are princes and princesses, just hanging out and having adventures. My character is a prince, who is a friend of Sofia’s. He has his own kingdom but he’s a laid-back kid.
Q: Is he Indian?
A: (Laughs) I think he’s Persian, but don’t quote me on that, I’m still very new to this character! There’s no accent. That is a little bit out of my comfort zone to not do an accent, because I do it so much.
Q: I still find it so funny that they cast an Indian American actor in an Indian role in “Wimpy Kid” and the other things you do, and have you put on an accent.
A: I work on it constantly with an accent coach. We have to make it clear enough so that people can understand it, but thick enough to make it hilarious so that people will just crack up when they hear the lines.
I can personally do a real authentic one, but what makes Ravi so funny is that he’s just comical even if it’s not completely authentic.
When I shot “Jessie,” the first couple of episodes, the producers kept saying, “Make the accent thicker, thicker, thicker, since this kid just came from India a month ago.”
Then for a month I went back to shoot “Wimpy Kid,” and they said, “The accent is too thick!” It was constantly “Cut! Cut! Cut!”
Q: What has been your best experience so far? Your worst experience?
The best thing is learning day by day. When I came to the “Jessie” set I thought I was familiar with all of this stuff, but Debby [“Jessie” star Debby Ryan] would ask the director, “Am I going to get a two-shot on this?” and we’d go, “Speak English, Debby!” Now I’m learning all of this stuff.
There have been times, though — during the casting of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” I was so new to acting that the producers and directors would tell me, “Do it again this way. Do it again that way.”
I didn’t know it was a good thing to hear that. The longer the people keep you in the casting room the better it is. So I came out and said [tearfully] “Mom! Dad! They don’t like me! They kept me forever, telling me to do it different ways!”
My dad said, “No, no! It means that they want to see different sides of you as an actor!”
I was shaky about it and I felt bad about myself. I really wanted that role and I felt I hadn’t given it my all. But after that, nothing really bad has happened!
My family doesn’t care if I’m an actor or not. They say, “We know you’re going to go to college and get a degree, and you’re gonna have a backup plan!”
With such a great family and such great friends, there’s not exactly a “worst moment” at all!