UT senior is breaking boundaries as host of popular Netflix kids' science show
As the host of Netflix’s new show “Brainchild,” Sahana Srinivasan has tackled everything from how to take the perfect selfie to how many germs are transferred in a handshake.
Affable, approachable and at times downright funny, she’s been credited with much of the show’s success, so much so that some have dubbed her a “hipper, more accessible Bill Nye.”
But what viewers of the show might not know is that Srinivasan is also a 22-year-old University of Texas film student who has been acting for the past decade. With “Brainchild” as her first major television break, Srinivasan is realizing a dream while also reinforcing a personal mission to make science accessible for everyone.
Srinivasan was born in Houston but raised in the Dallas suburb of Allen. Almost from the time she could walk, her parents noticed they had a ham on their hands.
“She would always hog the camera,” said her younger sister, Malavi Srinivasan, 16. “We would have chairs in our kitchen and we would get under the chairs and pretend we were selling ice cream, and we would both sing and dance around and pretend to be different characters.”
By middle school, Srinivasan knew that acting was more than just a hobby and started taking acting classes in nearby Lewisville at Cathryn Sullivan’s Acting for Film Studio, where stars such as Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato and Debby Ryan had studied.
“I thought it was so crazy that a place that’s so close to home had so many resources,” Srinivasan said. “That’s what I encourage people to look for — opportunities within their own area. You never know what you can get out of your own hometown.”
Sullivan remembers the first time she met Srinivasan.
“She was real feisty and fun. I like feisty, fun girls, and we need more of them,” Sullivan said. “She’s always been good at comedy, and she’s always had a knack for it, but she’s really driven and determined. She gets her sights set on something and she totally goes for it.”
By the time she was 15, Srinivasan had two agents — one that was local and one in Los Angeles. In 2013, she was cast in the Dermot Mulroney film “Space Warriors” and, that same year, performed in her first stand-up comedy show with her acting studio.
“There were 400 people,” Sullivan said. “I had 35 people performing with five minutes each. Sahana was really nervous — she was like, ‘Oh, my god, my parents are here,’ but she was the hit of the show.”
Srinivasan continued to pursue her love of comedy, putting on shows at holiday parties within her local Indian community.
“People would sing and dance and I would do stand-up,” she said.
Malavi Srinivasan, who is a dancer and recently collaborated with Sahana for a Bollywood-style YouTube video, recalls spending countless hours reading scripts with her sister. She said their parents have offered unwavering support of their love for the arts.
“My dad all the time would say that his dreams would be seen through us,” Malavi Srinivasan said. “He loves movies and comedy, which Sahana has pursued, and he loves to dance and loves music, and that’s the side that I pursued. Both of our parents have let us explore different things. Whether we use it in the future or not, they’ve been really lenient in what we want to pursue as our passion.”
After her freshman year at UT-Arlington, Srinivasan transferred to UT-Austin, in part because of the school’s highly regarded film program and in part because of Austin’s vibrant stand-up comedy scene.
Soon, she was hosting open mics and doing stand-up shows several times a week while also auditioning occasionally. She shot her audition tape for “Brainchild” — a Netflix kids’ science show produced by Pharrell Williams — in fall 2017 at her campus-area apartment. (Srinivasan didn't meet Williams in person, but she did FaceTime with him.)
“I got my friend’s camera, which is a small camera but actually pretty capable, and I set it up in my room at my desk. I just talked to the camera,” said Srinivasan, who has always enjoyed science, particularly sociology and psychology. “I was speaking genuinely about how I felt about science.”
As part of the audition, Srinivasan also had to offer her honest, spontaneous reaction to a viral cat video.
“I guess mine was sort of funny and entertaining, which was what they were looking for,” she said.
Adam Davis, co-creator and executive producer of “Brainchild,” said the entire production team was immediately impressed with Srinivasan.
“We wanted to get somebody who not only is a shift in the paradigm of what you see in science shows, but who can also help reflect what the world really is and make science accessible to everyone,” Davis said. “We all just agreed she was the one.”
They flew her to New York so they could meet and were further impressed when, during her brief downtime, she participated in a local open mic night.
“She doesn’t know anybody, she’s away from her family, she hasn’t ever been to New York before, and she is going out doing open mics,” Davis said. “We were like, ‘Man, she is brave.’”
Srinivasan said she was thrilled to visit New York for the first time.
“I rode the subway, which to me felt like I was in some magical place," she said. "Now I’m like, OK, the subway’s gross, but then, for me, like a naive Texan girl, it was an adventure.”
Not long after her New York adventure, Srinivasan got the call — she would be the host of “Brainchild.”
“I was proud of myself because I hadn’t booked a major project in a while,” she said. “I’d done a sketch comedy pilot that didn’t go through for Nickelodeon a while ago and some indie projects here or there, but this was my (large-scale) debut for sure. I feel like I deserved it. I’ve been working so hard for this, and it’s so cool to finally get news like this. This really felt like this was the right time. I had no doubts.”
There were complications, though. Shooting was scheduled to start in December 2017 in New York and continue for three months, meaning Srinivasan would have to miss part of her spring 2018 semester at UT.
“It was actually my parents who were like, ‘You should take it, this is what you want to do when you graduate anyway. You can always catch up,’” Srinivasan said. “I took my spring semester off and ended up making up for it by taking classes over the summer.”
During her three months of filming in New York, Srinivasan — clad in her signature black-rimmed glasses, which, yes, are fake, although she does wear glasses and contacts in real life too — frequently worked 10- to 12-hour days in which she would display her cool-big-sister science-authority vibe.
"She showed up ready to work every day," said Davis, who made a point to introduce her to his friend, comedian Judah Friedlander, during her time in New York. "She brought such a great energy and vibe. She was brave and threw herself into it. I can't be more effusive."
The key to the success of the show, according to both Srinivasan and the show’s production team, was that Srinivasan never panders or talks down to the show’s young audience.
“Scientists are so diverse, and they don’t always look like this professor-doctor guy,” she said. “For a young girl to see a young woman presenting a science show makes it accessible. … You’re erasing that dialogue that only men can do the rigorous science and calculations. It reminds us that women are just as important. It’s also good for young boys to see a woman hosting a science show, because at that age they’re learning what’s right and wrong, and I feel like now more than ever we need to teach young boys that women are capable.”
The fact that she is Indian-American added another visual message.
“In general, there’s a representation issue that’s slowly gaining attention," she said. "We're making people realize that we need to give people of color a spotlight."
When the show was released on Netflix in November, Srinivasan quickly saw its impact. Her face was on the New York Times website. People were recognizing her. And parents were finding her on social media to tell her she had changed the way their children viewed science, and themselves. One mom wrote to say that her Indian-American daughter had requested Srinivasan for Christmas and was now carrying around a framed picture of her.
“For (the little girl), it was just so cool to see someone like herself,” she said. “From a kid’s perspective, I have no flaws and I’m just a good role model. To have someone who has maybe a blank slate of the world and to get to help build that slate and add colors to it, that’s so cool.”
Her sister, Malavi, said her own high school friends have taken notice too.
“A lot of my friends ask me, ‘Is your sister on Netflix?’” Malavi Srinivasan said. “It’s so weird to see the person you’ve lived with your entire life on a television show that thousands of people watch. It’s such a big opportunity for her.”
Despite her recent fame, Srinivasan is still enrolled at UT, finishing up her final semester while continuing to do stand-up in Austin.
“There are times doing stand-up when I’m like, ‘This is the worst, why am I doing this?’” she said. “The more I do it, the less I have absolute bombs, like nothing is working. If a joke doesn’t work now, I’m able to acknowledge it more and not get upset about it onstage, because that’s the worst thing. But I’ve got so long to go. I’ve heard famous comedians bombed for 11 years before getting good. That’s, like, almost half my life.”
Over Christmas break, Srinivasan returned to her acting studio and taught a comedy class. Her coach, Sullivan, said she's optimistic about the future.
“I’ve made a lot of stars, and she’ll be one,” Sullivan said. “It’s hands down. With her ability and her drive, and she’s got a great agent that will move heaven and earth for her, and her support system in place, whatever she wants to do, she’ll do it.”
After graduation, Srinivasan is planning a move to New York or Los Angeles or possibly even Denver or Portland. She also knows what her dream project would be: a superhero movie that blends traditional epic Indian tales with modern-day America.
“I would be the superhero. I’d be really strong and cool,” she said. “And it would be funny. Like, actually funny. I know there are action movies that rely so much on visuals that they lack a good plot or funny dialogue, so I want to make sure we hit it all.”
If Netflix decides to do a second season of “Brainchild,” she’s on board for that, too, of course, as is co-creator Davis, adding that whatever Srinivasan chooses to do will be a success.
“She’s brave, talented and driven. She has everything it takes to make it,” Davis said. “There’s so many avenues open to her. The future is very bright.”