an you hold on a minute?” asks the clear voice on the cell phone. “Sorry, I was at the grocery store, and I didn’t want to just start talking about myself in there,” laughs Navi Rawat. Doing her own groceries? Reluctant to promote herself? For a rising Hollywood starlet, this actress is surprisingly down to earth. To top it off, Rawat’s strong performances in a myriad of different television and movie roles have the entertainment industry taking notice. And the media is not far behind–the New York Daily News named 25-year-old Rawat a “Hot Face to Watch” in its January issue.
Born in Malibu, California, to a German mother and an Indian father, Rawat initially felt self-conscious about her ethnicity. “I definitely struggled with that when I was younger, trying to fit in. I went to a school where all the kids were Caucasian and made fun of me for my skin color.”
For a rising Hollywood starlet, this actress is surprisingly down to earth.
Rawat would have the last laugh, though, as she soon found a way to use her distinctive appearance to her advantage. Relying on a family friend’s connections, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting and quickly found a manager. “It was different when I was growing up, but it’s all fine now,” she admits. “Since I first started acting, I’ve found [my ethnicity] to be beneficial instead of something to overcome.”
Indeed, Rawat’s exotic good looks make her something of a chameleon, helping her play characters from widely differing backgrounds. Her breakthrough role on the hit Fox television series, 24, was not specifically written for an ethnic actress, and she portrayed a Hispanic girl on the wildly popular teen soap The O.C. On CBS’ new crime drama NUMB3RS, she plays an Indian graduate student studying mathematics.
“They specifically wanted someone who was ethnic in that part. They were initially interested in an Indian actresses [to play] someone whose family was traditionally Indian but who grew up in the States. But I just did a movie where I was not [ethnic] at all,” she says. “Yesterday, I was in an audition with all girls who were blonde. I’m not too worried about [typecasting] at this point.”
And though Rawat may have been worried about her ethnicity limiting her acting opportunities, she was fortunate in finding an experienced acting hand to whom she could turn. Sir Ben Kingsley, the half-Indian actor who so convincingly portrayed Mahatma Gandhi in the Oscar-winning role, was her co-star in the Academy Award nominated film The House of Sand and Fog.
“It was wonderful. I had a great time working on that part,” says Rawat. “It was great working with Shohreh Aghdashloo and Ben Kingsley. [Kingsley's] father is Indian, so we talked about that.” Even more so than bonding over a common background, Rawat relished the chance to tackle a dramatic role in the company of such distinguished actors. “I love Ben Kingsley, he’s an incredible actor, and that was one of the main reasons I wanted to do that movie. I was just giddy over that fact that I got to work with him.”
In the upcoming horror film Feast, Rawat plays the aptly named Heroine, a kick-ass girl who makes a plan to save the lives of a group of bar patrons who get attacked by cannibal-like monsters.
A thespian at heart
Drama seems to be Rawat’s forte, and she admits to having a preference for the genre: “I like roles that have complicated parts, and lots of things going on with the character, like Jennifer Connelly’s character in House of Sand and Fog, or Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby. In a perfect world I would do those kinds of roles–I don’t even care about the money.”
Lately, though, Rawat has been cast in a number of action movies, much to her amusement. “I just seem to get cast in parts like that. I’m a bit of a wuss; somehow people find me credible in parts that are tough. I’m actually kind of sensitive,” she says. However cautious she may be in real life, Rawat tackles the action-oriented roles with relish: “I like to do physical stuff–roles where I can fight and get things done.” She certainly accomplishes that in the upcoming Project Greenlight sponsored horror movie Feast. Rawat plays the aptly named “Heroine, a kick-ass girl who makes a plan to save the lives of a group of bar patrons who get attacked by cannibal-like monsters.”
Perhaps Rawat’s love of drama stems from her years at New York University, where she completed her undergraduate degree. “I actually double majored,” she says. “NYU is private school and expensive, I figured I should get the most out of it that I could.” With her studies in at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts as well as her second major in English and American literature, Rawat earned quite a comprehensive education. Her focus on literature stemmed from her initial literary aspirations. “Prior to being actor, I wanted to be a writer,” admits the actress. And although she swerved from her original career path, she doesn’t consider her literature studies an exercise in futility. “As an actor, it’s good to have a knowledge of different time periods. I’m so glad that I didn’t only study acting.”
While her studies focused on English and American literature, Rawat definitely favors writers from the subcontinent as well those from the standard western canon. “I actually do like a lot of Indian writers. Jhumpa Lahiri–I love her work. I like Michael Ondaatje. I like the way that they look at a foreigner in a foreign land, trying to exist and fit in America.” Rawat relates to the themes of such writers’ books and considers them a reflection of her own experiences.
But in contrast to the embarrassment of her youth, she now embraces her ethnicity. “I feel very fortunate, I’ve been exposed to a lot of different cultures. If I wasn’t from a multi-ethnic background, I wouldn’t have had these great experiences. And one of the things that makes me a good actor is life experience.” She continues, “I don’t see it as something that sets me apart in a negative way at all. It’s not something where I feel different from everybody else. I think it’s something positive: It makes me interesting, makes me separate. And we now have a very diverse society.”
Rawat credits her parents, now divorced, for instilling this heartfelt appreciation for her multi-ethnic roots. “I couldn’t imagine not having my background. My family brought me up that way, and I can’t imagine not having grown up that way.” She also firmly believes that she was equally influenced by both sides of her heritage. “We definitely celebrate some [Indian] holidays. And there definitely is a very kind of European influence in my life. When I was younger I could speak a little Hindi, and I know a little bit of French.”
Her parents, who met as tourists traveling in the United States, may also have imparted some of their wanderlust to their daughter. Rawat has lived in California, Connecticut, Miami, London and New York, and still loves to travel. “I’ve been traveling a lot recently–I was actually thinking about going to London this week,” she muses.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, Rawat’s busy work schedule keeps her travel plans to a minimum. “If I take any kind of extended vacation, it’s really hard for me to get back. And inevitably, something always comes up. I find it really difficult, but I’d rather work, to be honest.” Though she can’t jet-set around the globe, Rawat manages to stay occupied between jobs. “I go to the gym quite a bit, I work on my exercises and I study with a voice coach. I read books. I’m also looking for another film.”
Unsurprisingly, she stays true to her dramatic inclinations. “I’d rather do something dramatic than something that’s more an action-adventure type of thing.” Even the actors on her list of dream co-stars have a dramatic bent: “Meryl Streep, of course. Kate Winslet: I really, really like her. I love Anthony Hopkins and Gary Oldman. I like English actors; I don’t know if I have an affinity from living there, or studying English literature in college.”
Navi Rawat reveals a number of different faces, each with its own particular power and grace.
So what’s next for this multi-faceted actress? The possibilities are endless. If the drama NUMB3RS gets picked up for the fall season, she’ll have a much more visible presence with a regular part on the show. And what about The O.C., in which her character’s storyline was left without resolution: Will she be back to break up the show’s super couple? “I don’t know about that, we’ll just have to wait and see, I guess. Maybe if they want me to come back and see my availability,” hedges Rawat. And horror flick Feast is slated to be released sometime this spring.
With her impressive resume of film and television roles and a number of upcoming projects in the works, Navi Rawat certainly lives up to the “One To Watch” moniker. Whether as a literature scholar, dramatic actress, kick-ass heroine, sensitive girl, multi-ethnic woman or the down-to-earth girl next door, she reveals a number of different faces, each with its own particular power and grace. And that very versatility and talent ensures that hers will soon be a familiar face you won’t forget.