A few months ago, when speaking about our industry, a fellow actor and dear friend of mine said to me, “if your truth isn’t accepted somewhere, why would you want to live in that space?”
I wrote that down and stared at it for days.
Have I been trying to get accepted in a space that doesn’t welcome me? Have I been ignoring the obvious roadblocks that Hollywood has put in my way in favor of naive optimism? Or has that just been a necessary survival skill I learned years ago? Am I playing the game to change the game?
I don’t think any of these questions will ever have a perfect answer. But that moment was the impetus for asking myself, truly, what it meant to be me in the context of Hollywood (spoiler alert: I’m still very much figuring it out).
I have distinct memories of being a young, bigger, Persian girl and finding it difficult to identify with a character in any given show or movie. Whenever my friends and I would try to label ourselves after a particular friend group we saw on TV, I never saw “myself.” Often, I would internally identify with the lead girl, because, I was a self-obsessed Leo and always thought I was the star of the show, BUT, I never got to claim that hypothetical role because that character was always played by a skinny, white girl. It was a complicated dichotomy for my ten-year-old brain to handle. My journey with “otherness” is long, complicated, and as beautiful as it is painful. It has taken shape and taught me deep lessons in every aspect of my life, but especially in my career as an actress.
When I first moved to Los Angeles at 18 to pursue acting, I genuinely thought my “type” was “funny ethnic friend” because that was the only place I ever saw myself on TV. FUNNY ETHNIC FRIEND IS NOT A TYPE! I laugh at it now, because I was so confused. And truly, I don’t know if being funny was a personality trait I was born with, or a skill I developed at a young age because of the toxic, deeply-rooted subconscious idea that was planted in my head from the media: if you’re fat, you have to be funny. These were the messages I received from the media and had internalized more than I realized. It’s a whole ass mess, you feel?
Subconsciously, I was trying really hard to fit in when I first began auditioning. I ignored the idea that it would be more difficult for me to “make it” and just did what I could to fit in the places that seemed to already exist for me. I didn’t want to talk about the fact that there were fewer roles for me, because that would make it real. There were small things I would do, like learning to come off as “whiter” by straightening my hair and raising the pitch of my voice for certain roles.
Of course, I do have to recognize the immense privilege I had in those situations. I’m a lighter-skinned Middle Eastern, so the fact that I’m able to lean into looking whiter, or looking more ethnic, is a huge privilege that so many other people are not afforded in this industry, and not something I take lightly. With that being said, I was also practicing erasure of my own identity. I didn’t realize how dangerous my thinking was.
I can’t describe it as anything other than luck when I found my artistic home. I found a hole-in-the-wall acting studio called Studio 24/7 with Mark McPherson, and it was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Everyone at the studio was genuinely positive and supportive of each other. If one person had success, it was everyone’s success. I felt safe, and seen, and finally, able to explore who I was as an artist, other than “funny, ethnic, fat, side character.” With the support of this artistic family, I began to discover my strengths as an artist. I learned that I was vulnerable, I learned I was sexy, I learned I was dynamic. I learned that I was a leading lady. That’s something I never thought I could be, not only in Hollywood but even in life. I was permitted to say, “fuck the barriers, I don’t adhere to any of those.”
I feel unbelievably lucky to have had that experience because I know so many people don’t. I honestly don’t know what would’ve happened if I fell into the wrong acting class, or if I found “friends” that perpetuated the idea that I didn’t belong (which, unfortunately also happens).
This was the beginning of my journey with self-love, confidence, and self-assurance, but it continues to this day. There is a particular moment I remember from when I was auditioning for ‘American Pie: Girls’ Rules’. I was sitting in the waiting room with one other girl who was very skinny, white, and blonde. As another girl, who looked very similar to her, walked out of the room, she turned to me and said “I wonder who she was auditioning for. Probably Annie, she looks like an Annie.”
I know this girl didn’t mean any harm by that comment, and probably didn’t even realize how her comment was rooted in problematic social standards that we’re trying to break. But to assume that girl was auditioning for the lead role because she was a size 0, blonde, and white, is subconscious anti-fatness and white supremacy. Again, I don’t blame that girl, but it’s important for me, and her, and others like her, to recognize these problems. Otherwise, the door for diversity, or just genuine and real representation, will remain as tightly wound as it has been in the past.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t shut out the negativity and push on, often. It’s an important strength to have. But what I’m learning now is that it’s equally as important to recognize the problems, so you can be a part of the change. I do think I’m part of progression, as a leading character in a major American franchise (‘American Pie: Girls’ Rules’). I think that, in and of itself, is a protest. But part of me didn’t even notice until everyone started commenting on it. “What’s it like to be a plus size, non-white female who is ‘making it’?” I don’t even know what that means.
At times, it feels like such a personal journey just to keep figuring out who you are, rooting in that, and rising with vigor and assurance, I forget that the world is watching. I think my mental health would deteriorate if I was considering that every moment of my career. There has to be a balance between seeing the problems, addressing them when you can, and also believing in yourself enough to know those standards won’t ever be the end of you or your career, and you don’t have to give them any weight.
I’m also learning that there is so much power in sharing the stories because the majority of people experience this “otherness” to one degree or another. I find strength and confidence in the support I receive, so I want to give it to other people. Especially to any young girls who don’t see themselves represented on their TV. I hope they can look at me and think, “I look like her, I can do what she’s doing.” And that, to me, is why it’s so important to recognize the disparity in opportunities for anyone who feels like they’re “not the standard” in Hollywood. Because in the same way that Mindy Kaling, Ramy Youssef, and Barbie Ferreira paved the way for me, I want to be able to continue that progression.
“If your Truth isn’t accepted there, why would you want to live in that space?”
I may have just heard that at the right time, but it landed. What is my Truth? My truth is that I, and no one else, should ever have to change themselves to be a storyteller. The beauty of our art is in the carried nuances and differences that connect us. Our generation has the opportunity to bring a new amount of earnestness to our screens; where people of all genders, sizes, races, and belief systems can live. My truth is that I am a leading lady, and also a supporting friend, and everything in between.
Natasha Behnam is a bilingual actress, comedian, and writer. Originally from Orange County, she always knew she wanted to pursue a career in the arts. Natasha received a degree in Film & Television Production from the prestigious Loyola Marymount University, while also training in acting at Studio 24/7, EMAS, UCB, and The Groundlings. In 2020, she stars in Universal Pictures reboot of “American Pie Presents: Girls Rules.” Her TV credits include Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (CW), Animal Kingdom (TNT), and Arranged (CBS/Pop TV). Follow Natasha on Instagram and Twitter: @Natashabehnam.