Edward Sonnenblick in RRR.
Photo: Sarigama Cinemas
Even for Americans unfamiliar with Telugu-language cinema, the recent Tollywood film RRR provides a handful of familiar faces. The black-hearted colonial governor is played by HBO’s Ray Stevenson Rome. His bloodthirsty wife, former Bond girl Alison Doody. But their black-suited henchman may be new…unless you have intimate knowledge of Indian pop culture. He is played by Edward Sonnenblick, an American actor who, during his 15 years in India, managed to build a career around portraying English villains in film and television. As he explains, “I always dreamed of being an evil British colonial bastard.”
The Sonnenblick story begins with a fateful vision of Lagaan, the historical epic that became an Oscar-nominated crossover hit in 2001. He had worked as a health food chef in northern California, but was exhausted and looking for a new path. “I was in meditation, thinking of eventually becoming a monk,” he tells Vulture from Mumbai, where he now lives. “I didn’t really see myself succeeding in social life.” Other Goras may have seen in Lagaana musical about 19th century Indian villagers who challenge the British authorities to a game in hopes of lowering their taxes, a new crush on Aamir Khan or an opportunity to finally learn the rules of cricket. Sonnenblick glimpsed a whole new world. The singing, the dancing, the sense of community – he had never seen anything like this before. He therefore immersed himself in Indian culture, putting forward more than 150 Bollywood films, even learning Hindi. He had always had an obsessive personality – one day he was looking for culinary mushrooms, the next the board game Go – but the Indian thing didn’t go away. “I just felt there was something there that I needed,” he says.
He first visited in 2005. Like generations of Westerners before him, he entered India as a backpacker in search of spiritual enlightenment. He visited temples and meditation centers, worked on his sadhana, and fell even more deeply in love with the energy of the subcontinent. “I love entertainment camp as much as I love spiritual legacy,” he says. “It’s the sacred and the profane at the same time.” He stayed for eight months. When he returned to California, he no longer felt at home. He knew he had to go back.
When he did, two years later, it was with the intention of staying in India for good: he would support himself by playing. Back home, acting was a kind of hidden ambition. “I never really had the guts to go fight in Hollywood,” he says. But he was also doing a commercial calculation. The horrible legacy of British colonialism had made redcoats a villain of Indian cinema. In the same way that a German actor in Hollywood should get used to attaching a Stahlhelm, Bollywood offers many roles for a Caucasian in a pith helmet. He thought back to Lagaan. The British villains in this movie had Hindi dialogue; the actors had been flown in from the UK and needed months of language lessons to prepare. A white actor who was already in India, and who already spoke the language? Well, they could expect to be reserved and busy.
Sonnenblick in Bose: dead/alive.
“I could see there was a niche for someone like me,” Sonnenblick says. However, the first years were difficult. To get your foot in the door in Bollywood, you have to go through intermediaries called coordinators, who take significant cuts from your salary. “They tend to rip you off pretty badly, and there’s not much you can do about it,” he explains. (Other actors have shared horror stories about their experiences with coordinators, including sexual coercion, harassment, and scams.) For Sonnenblick, it wasn’t all bad: On the first job he booked, a photo shoot for a bank ad, he started flirting with the director. She is now his wife.
Less than two years later, he got his first big break, playing an evil captain in Jhansi Ki Rani, a television series about a queen who resisted the British during the 1857 rebellion. It aired five nights a week and was a top 10 ratings program. His character was eventually killed off, but the producers loved him so much they brought him back as a twin – who was also evil, of course.
“They realized they didn’t have anyone as good as me to bring in,” Sonnenblick said. “Not only does he have to be someone who can act, but he has to be someone who can manage the work culture, the weather and the food and be able to understand Hindi enough to get by.” In total he was in about 200 episodes and he died twice. “You know you’ve had good character when death is suitably macabre,” he says. In the twin’s case, heroine Lakshmibai knocked him down with an elephant: “After that, I felt like I was blessed by the industry.”
Sonnenblick in firangi.
Photo: AA Films
Since then, almost half of his screen roles have been as British villains. His particular brand of villain tends to be cruel, smug, and tense (as opposed to sneering pretty boys, burly sadists, or officers who come to have a grudging respect for the hero). He tormented a heroic Sikh officer in Kesari; ousted nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose in the series Bose: dead/alive; and faced Lakshmibai a third time in the movie Manikarnica. RRR, a buddy action film loosely inspired by the lives of two Indian revolutionaries, is his third film in the Telugu language industry. Known as Tollywood, the Telugu industry is based in Hyderabad, 450 miles southeast of Mumbai. “Things go a little easier in the south,” says Sonnenblick. “There are fewer shouting and insults on set.” This is at odds with what is usually on screen: Tollywood films are “notoriously exaggerated” and RRR in particular, is packed with stunning scenery, many of which feature hordes of CGI animals. Director SS Rajamouli is an auteur who has a vision for every inch of every frame. As an actor, says Sonnenblick, “your job is just to let yourself go completely.”
There are other roles for a white man in Indian cinema besides being the face of British imperialism: the wide-eyed tourist or the lonely American businessman. Around 2017, Sonnenblick’s career began to pick up. He was a blackmailed cricketer on the Amazon series Inner edge and an American husband in comedy Veere di Marriage; had a short stint on comedian Kapil Sharma’s variety show; and organized a Bourdain-style travel program called Indepedia. “It’s like the stock market: you stay invested and you do well in the long run.” During fallow periods, he supported himself through commercial and voice-over work, playing everything from Sherlock Holmes (in an online bookstore commercial) to an Italian chef (Tanddoori mayonnaise). In cell phone commercials, he uses his American accent; car commercials tend to want him to do one in English.
By the way, his British accent is pretty good. “There aren’t many Americans who can do a good British accent while speaking Hindi. It’s handy,” he says. Over the years, he’s become close to a handful of other Western actors. working in Indian cinema. Oddly enough, there aren’t many real Brits; most of them are American. “We’re competing for a small number of roles, but that’s not too divisive,” “There’s a lot of camaraderie. Their biggest concern is losing parts to backpackers on tourist visas who are willing to work very cheaply. Fortunately, he says, “more and more production companies are realizing that they can’t just take any white guy off the street.”
There is an irony here. British colonialism provided the villain roles that gave him a career; he also created the value system by which “white” and “Western” came to mean class and luxury. “I enjoy a lot of white-male-foreign privilege by being here,” Sonnenblick says. “I really appreciate that I was able to find the place that just wants what I have and what I naturally am.”
He now has the mundane life he once thought was out of reach – marriage, a child, a thriving career. And a new self-awareness: Sonnenblick was recently diagnosed with adult ADHD, the missing piece to understanding why he was the way he was. “I just thought I was some kind of jerk,” he says. (He scheduled a TEDx talk in Ahmedabad on the subject.) For someone who struggled with organization and multitasking but could become obsessed with details, the Indian film industry proved to be the place. ideal work environment, “an environment that suited my strengths, and where I didn’t have to worry so much about my weaknesses.
Sonnenblick still returns to California every few years to visit family. “Even before COVID it was deserted and quiet,” he says. “Nothing is happening in the street. When I come back to India after being away for a while, I feel the warmth, the energy and the vibrancy. I just feel like he’s hugging me.