Congratulations on ‘Never Back Down’. How does it feel to be a part of this franchise?
I am just overwhelmed with all the responses I am getting with this film. I knew one day this was going to happen, so I am very happy with the response. It has got a five-star rating on Amazon. It is all good because I played one of the lead characters in the film. My producer was so happy and excited and he told me, ‘Nobody in the world could have played Jaya’s role better than you’. While I was shooting, I got three standing ovations, and each time it hit differently. I was like, ‘Wow! Are you serious?’
Would you say this is the best Hollywood debut you could hope for?
Yes. I think nothing could be better than this. I am a black belt in taekwondo and have represented India 3 times. My life has always been about martial arts and sports. I was 3 or 4 when my mother enrolled me for taekwondo. So my life has always been about action. More than physical strength, the sport helped me build upon mental strength, which pushed me to get this movie. I watched all the action movie franchises from ‘Never Back Down’ to ‘The Matrix’ to ‘XXX’. So I think in a way, I manifested this role. I don’t think there could have been a better launch for me than an action movie in Hollywood.
Will you keep up with these female action star roles or will you diversify?
When you see this film, you will tell me, ‘Nitu, keep doing more action films. People have come back to me and said that they want to see more of me. The character of Jaya was written around me after the producer David and writer Audry met me. David looked at me for 5 minutes and asked me if I could meet him at Sony Studios in three days. After I met the team, David told Audry, ‘Write a character as the main lead, around Nitu and her skills.’ That is how Jaya was born.
Has your road to Hollywood really been a cakewalk?
It was most definitely not a cakewalk. I had my struggles, the same as when I started my career in Bollywood. I started from scratch. I had to send out my portfolio pictures, meet casting directors, managers, agents… There was a time when I didn’t have a place to live here. I was struggling because it was like starting all over again. It reminded me of moving from Bihar to Bombay. The thing I have learnt from this tough journey is to be consistent.
People often told me it is very tough to get a Hollywood break and that people would not support me here. It’s true. I supported myself and there were times when I had no money or work, but I didn’t take anything that would malign my quality as an actor. I didn’t do anything that would put me down as an actor.
A lot of those double-meaning cheap comedies came my way which could pay a lot of money, but I didn’t take it. If you saw me in a special song sequence or an ‘item number’, you should understand that I needed the money. Even then, I only danced for top item songs. I did a song with Suriya for ‘Singam 3’, in the remake of ‘3 Idiots’, or Aamir Sultan’s movie. I think I did it all for survival. I used those skills of mine as a trained dancer to survive.
When I talk to people now, they say you have an accent. Yes, I do. I paid an accent teacher to help me get an accent in order to work here. I have been here for three years, so I have had to put on a thick British or even American accent. I have had tough times, but I like to say I am tougher than my toughest times.
Did you have to face any personal struggle to get to Hollywood?
I was denied my VISA when I got this film. I was sitting here in India and I was shocked that I got a Hollywood film and the UK embassy in Mumbai is shut (this was in 2020). The power of social media is so great that I tweeted to the UK embassy and told them that the embassy in India was shut and that I didn’t know what to do. Then I got a reply that the office in Delhi was open. I left my home with one bag in my hand, caught an auto to the airport and left for Delhi. This was during the lockdown. On Twitter, I told them that I needed the VISA and I told them that I wouldn’t leave till I got the VISA. I told them that I had to catch a flight to London in 48 hours. The next day, they gave me my VISA by 2 pm, I flew back to Mumbai that night and caught a 2 am flight to London. I want the world to know that if you set your mind on something, you will get it if you put in your heart and soul. Nothing has come easy to me, and even if something good and easy comes along, I feel like it will disappear in moments.
Who inspires you to keep going?
My mom. She used to call me superstar even when I didn’t know how to spell it. She always coaxed me to keep doing my work and be consistent. In this field so many superstars’ kids get launched easily but they are not able to be consistent because things come easy to them. Why? For us too, when you don’t come from any background, if you are not consistent, then you are gone.
You play a feisty character Jaya; what has playing her made you realise about yourself?
That I can do this. Jaya was the champion of the dungeon. In life, we also face the same situations to live and survive. I realised that individually, it is difficult, but with the help of people, it becomes much easier.
Did you channel any martial arts and MMA greats like Floyd Mayweather, McGregor or on-screen female characters to play the part?
This was a very raw film and so were the fight sequences. I got beaten up for two months, every day. Tinman was my fight master, Michael Bisping, the UFC champ beat me up and I beat him up.
Was it actual kicks and punches that you took for the film?
It was. I sustained a cut on my face. I bled there on the sets. People would say, ‘Nitu has given her blood for this film.’
How would you describe your journey from Bihar to Hollywood?
My journey from Bihar to Hollywood has been one of an underdog. I’ve been told ‘No’ so many times that I laugh it off. If you say no to me, I’ll say, ‘Okay, next! Koi toh haan kahega.’
Do you think this move to become a global actor has opened many more doors for you?
I think it has. I have been getting calls from all over the world. You can’t blame anyone for this (failures) because this is a business of movie-making. No one is responsible for you getting anything. Why are they responsible (for you)? I realised later that this is all a business. Only I am responsible for myself. Because of my performance in ‘Never Back Down’, I signed two more Hollywood films. I am also working on two Hindi films as well.
I had fallen so badly in my career that after that fall, the only option was getting back up. I had to kick doors very hard for them to open up for me, and in the end, they did open. I am very happy about that. I have signed with a top Hollywood agency which will be announced soon. I think everything from my martial arts to theatre stint to being rejected have got me to doing work here. I will not only pursue work here (in Hollywood). Wherever good scripts take me, I’ll go with them.
Which projects have you been manifesting?
I’ll be sued. But I have been manifesting a lot of action stuff. I have been training in Japanese sword fighting and kickboxing. Since I have done theatre, I am also looking for drama roles. Movies shouldn’t just be about action, it should also have a story. Today I think it would be between horror and action, which I love.
Any film/Hollywood horror series you would like to be a part of?
I think ‘A Quiet Place’ is awesome. There are one-two others as well, but I won’t say anything as I might become a part of it.
Were there any recent Bollywood films that impressed you and what movies would you like to star in?
I really loved ‘Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui’. The thought and concept of it all are so empowering. For so many years women have been used as props in movies and for the last 8 years, with Taapsee Pannu, Kangana Ranaut pushing for such empowering content. Even Salman Khan sir and Anushka Sharma did ‘Sultan’, or Aamir Khan‘s ‘Dangal’, where the positioning of women is so beautiful. I would love to work on films like these. No matter what actor I am working with, I would like to star in such films.
I am proud of the fact that there is such amazing content coming out of India. They are touching upon new subjects and there is this new wave of filmmakers who are making films on women empowerment and LGBTQ+, trans girls. I am so proud of it and happy to represent India here. I keep telling my directors and producers to watch these Indian films. I tell them that when they see real movies from India, their perspective of our country will change.
Tell us about your upcoming projects.
I have two Hindi films that are ready for their release. I don’t know when they will be released, but I hope it gets screened everywhere because I was not seen for about 5-6 years. With all this Covid situation, there is a lot of uncertainty. I am reading a couple of scripts. My idea is to work with great content. I have a house in Mumbai and in Hollywood. I plan on getting one in London as well so that wherever I get work, I’ll go there and stay.