On Saturday night, Janel Parrish’s co-stars in the movie “Tiger” surprised her with balloons for her 30th birthday on the red carpet for the film’s screening at Austin Film Festival. The movie, which also features Mickey O’Rourke, Prem Singh and Michael Pugliese, dramatizes the real-life struggle of Canadian boxer Pardeep Singh Nagra. A practicing Sikh, Nagra was banned from the ring because he refused to shave his beard. In the movie, Parrish plays the civil rights attorney who champions his cause.
We caught up with Parrish on Sunday to talk about “Tiger,” her other movies and Hollywood’s new movement toward colorblind casting. (Mild spoilers about "Tiger" included.)
Deborah Sengupta Stith: We’re here to talk about “Tiger,” but “To all the Boys I’ve Loved Before” was such a wonderful, charming movie. I’d love to hear a little more about how that came about.
Janel Parrish: They sent me the script and honestly, I was drawn to two things. I loved that it was so family-oriented. I am very close to my family and Margo very much felt like my big sister to my Laura Jean. So I really just kind of loved that dynamic. And also, I loved the fact that it’s got an Asian American family, but it’s not about the fact that they’re Asian American. It’s just normal. It’s just about a family and a girl kind of growing into her own and they just happen to be Asian American.
That’s what I loved so much, that diversity was being so accepted and the fact that not only Asian-Americans liked the film but everybody liked the film so much made me so happy. We’re going in the right direction.
As a mixed race Asian-American, it was really amazing to me to see a mixed race Asian-American family in a movie.
And that it was so normal. And that we have a voice to tell stories just like anyone else. It wasn’t shining a light on the fact that we were Asian-Americans.
Can you talk about your own background? You grew up in Hawaii, right?
I grew up in Hawaii with a Chinese mom, and my dad is Caucasian. I have a sister as well. It’s such a diverse place to grow up that just felt really normal to look around and see people of all different colors and ethnicities and religions and everything.
And then I moved to L.A. to become an actress and I found that it was so different there. I think it’s a lot better now, that diversity is way more accepted now, but as a kid growing up it was really hard to book jobs as a mixed race child.
They were like, “She doesn’t really fit a family, we don’t know where to put her.” I was like, “Well, why not? My family is mixed and I don’t understand why that’s not normal.”
So, many many years later to do a film where they are looking for exactly that in “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” I’m like there we go. That’s right. And for little girls everywhere to grow up seeing that like, “Oh they look like me. I relate to that character,” instead of being like, “Why are there no characters that look like me?”
You’re kind of ethnically ambiguous. What was that like for you going into casting situations?
It was really hard because they didn’t know what to do with me. It was like, “She’s not quite Asian enough for the Asian roles and she’s not Caucasian enough for the Caucasian roles. She kind of looks like she could be Greek, but she’s not, I don’t know, she great but we don’t know what to do with her.”
But I never had that problem growing up back home in Hawaii. We were all so colorblind. I played Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird” when I was 10 because that was the play they were putting on and I was the best person for that role. It wasn’t like, “But she doesn’t look like a girl from the South.” It was just such an interesting concept to me. So the fact that we are now moving toward everybody being colorblind, that makes me really happy.
When I look at the success of “To All the Boys” and the success of “Crazy Rich Asians” — I think it’s demonstrating that there’s really a market for it.
Yeah, and even this movie, “Tiger,” you know, a South Asian lead. And it is about, absolutely, his religion, but it’s more about the fact of this man’s fight and his journey and I think that’s amazing. So when these boys brought me this script I said, “That is so topical right now. I would love to be part of this story and tell this story and shine a light on it and start a discussion about it.”
The Internet says your parents were body builders, is that true?
It was before I was born. My mom got into body building to help her lose baby weight from my older sister. My dad joined the gym to help her out, so that could be a fun activity they could do together and they both got so into it and they both won so many competitions back in Hawaii.
Did you grow up athletic yourself?
I grew up with my parents promoting being healthy and being fit. I loved dance. I was not a sporty girl at all. My sister was a sporty girl. I wanted to dance. For acting and all that, I asked my dad to help me find ways to stay fit, so he got me into the gym lifting weights when I was about 14 and it was our fun father/daughter thing to do. So I definitely do thank them for that, because it definitely started a love of working out for me as far as I find that so therapeutic. It’s like self help for me.
You were actually on “Dancing with the Stars,” right?
I was. About four years ago. It was amazing. It was the hardest thing ever but it was so much fun. You surprise yourself when you do something like that. You don’t know if you’re going to be able to find the energy or the strength but it’s lights, camera, action. It’s a live show and you just do it. I pushed myself every week and I loved it.
Did that background of being in the gym a lot help with this character, whose father is a boxer?
I think so. What I liked about her character is she kind of goes through a transformation. You find out through the film that she kind of comes from a broken home. She doesn’t have the same last name as her father. They have a relationship, but you can tell they’re just now starting to mend it. He talks about how he had a wife and he doesn’t anymore. So you kind of get the idea that she had a rocky childhood with him, so she’s kind of a tough girl. She has to be, with him being her father.
She’s a smarty pants lawyer and she meets Pradeep and I think she’s a little bit skeptical of him and his story and she’s just like, “Alright, this is my job.” And through learning more about Pradeep and how passionate he is about his fight and his religion, she really kind of falls in love with his story. His fight kind of becomes her fight and through all that she kind of softens up and learns a little more about empathy. And I think it brings her closer with her father as well.
And again, this is another movie where presumably the wife that we never meet was of some other ethnicity, but it’s just not an issue in the movie at all.
Funny story, if you watch the movie again, (there’s a scene where) Pradeep is in Frank’s office and he’s looking at all these pictures and there’s a picture of Mickey and he’s very young and he’s boxing. If you look to the left, you’ll see a picture of an Asian woman and a little mixed race girl and that actually is a picture of me with my mom. It’s like an Easter egg, you’d have to know what to look for.
But exactly. It doesn’t shine a light on it. It doesn’t go, wait, that’s your daughter, but she’s ethnic, I don’t understand. It’s never a thing. It’s just yeah, that’s my father. I love that.