A recent episode of “And Just Like That…” featured a tableau instantly familiar to fans of “Sex and the City”: Carrie, Miranda and Charlotte sitting around a cafe table trading pithy one-liners about their personal lives over brunch.
One thing, however, was Earth-shatteringly different: The women were joined, for the first time, by Seema Patel, the glamorous real estate agent played by Sarita Choudhury in the HBO Max revival series.
The enormity of the moment was not lost on Choudhury: “I saw it in the script and I was like, ‘What? I’m at the table?!’” the actor said via Zoom from her home in downtown Manhattan.
One of four new characters of color introduced in the reboot, which attempts to tell a more inclusive story than the original series, Seema is fabulous and successful with a saucy wit — a suitable successor to Samantha, who is absent from the series, save for a few text messages.
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She quickly bonds with a grieving Carrie over their shared love of furtive cigarettes, but she is also insecure about being single, even concocting a nonexistent boyfriend to stave off questions from her overbearing parents. “Any Indian girl can relate to that,” says Choudhury. “I love that I lie to my parents. It seems so ridiculous, but it rings true to anyone I know.”
Playing Seema, who is perpetually in heels, presented a physical challenge for Choudhury, who rarely sat down because her costumes were made from form-fitting, easily wrinkled silk. “We joked about getting a leaning board,” says the actor, clad in jeans and a knotted neckscarf, her wavy mane piled atop her head.
The 55-year-old speaks in a faint, untraceable accent that hints at her peripatetic upbringing. Raised by an Indian father and an English mother, Choudhury, 55, grew up in Jamaica and Italy, eventually landing in Canada for college, where she studied film theory. (She had followed a guy she was dating to his film class and fallen in love with the subject.) She’s spent most of her adult life in New York — “it’s the only place you can have that combination of cultures and be accepted,” she says — but is hesitant to designate any one place home.
Her resume is similarly eclectic. Since her breakthrough role in “Mississippi Masala,” Mira Nair’s 1991 indie romance about a young woman of Ugandan-Indian descent who falls in love with a Black man in small-town Mississippi, Choudhury has worked steadily, amassing credits that span network procedurals, art house films and blockbuster franchises. Many TV viewers got to know her as Mandy Patinkin’s frustrated wife on “Homeland” — what she describes as “my first grown-up job where I felt like I didn’t have to worry anymore.”
“When you’re an actor, what happens is you get a film and you’re paid well, but you blow the money because you haven’t had it for so long,” she says, laughing. “Before ‘Homeland,’ I’d never done something where literally everyone in New York saw it.”
Perhaps not everyone in New York has seen “And Just Like That,” but the series has sparked lively conversations about subjects both lofty (race, gender identity, aging, grief) and trivial (the supposed dangers of Peloton).
Choudhury, for one, welcomes the debate: “Bring it on!”
“And Just Like That” is a revival of a series people have very strong feelings about. Were you at all trepidatious about joining it?
Trepidatious — that is a great word. When I first got the call [to audition], my first thought was like, “Why would they want me?” I couldn’t see me, Sarita, in the show. Then I read the script and immediately I was taken with Seema. I’ve never played a character who’s so unapologetic. And I thought, “I’m gonna work hard on this audition.” And sometimes in an audition if you’re actually having fun, you fall in love with the role. I brought a lot of props. I had a smoothie, glasses, a cup of coffee, a cigarette. They were like, “Whoa, this is a full performance.” I didn’t know how to do her without all these things. I had so much fun in the audition, which is so rare. I remember calling my agent saying, “I want to do this.”
Were you particularly attached to the original series?
I came to it late. When it came out, I didn’t have a TV and I definitely didn’t have HBO. I could never afford HBO. I ended up watching it when I was in Italy. I was having a rough summer. And I was on late at night and I watched one episode. And I remember thinking, “Oh, that kind of helped me. It distracted me. It made me feel less alone.” And so I found a way to watch all of it.
Why do you think Carrie and Seema have such an instant connection?
I think Carrie needs a new voice, because I think when you go through loss, you’re sad and you want to be comforted, but sometimes you also want to misbehave, and maybe you can’t say that to your friends, because you have erratic thoughts. There is something about being with Seema where Carrie can rebel in a way that she can’t with the others, because they might ask questions.
The show has gotten some pretty tough criticism, much of it centered on the four new characters who are people of color. What’s your reaction to that?
I’m so excited by it all. I know that sounds weird. I feel there’s something very alive going on in the conversation. I’m shocked by some of the criticism only because it’s really hard to add four new characters and do a good job. You’re naturally going to fail somewhere. And I was impressed by how the show gave us all full lives. When you’re added to a show, it’s usually just to help progress the protagonist, but in this show, I don’t feel like I’m ever doing that.
You grew up in Jamaica and Italy with parents from England and India. Did growing immersed in so many different cultures prepare you to be an actor?
Definitely, in that being an actor is going to a new school on every new set. I don’t know what makes a good actor. But I would say travel is one thing [that helps] with empathy. Especially if you’re an Indian girl moving to Rome at the age of 12, where you’re not the right color and you didn’t come from money. You deal with a lot of rejection as an actor, so it helps you with that, for sure. I’ve always been excited by auditioning, never scared, because I had [faced] so much rejection.
How did you discover acting?
I always danced. It was ballet, then my body changed and I moved into modern dance. And then I went to film school and got heavily into critical theory. I started to realize that I had to get out of my head, and I joined an acting class. And it was the only place I’ve ever felt like, ironically, I wasn’t aware of myself. No matter what you think, you can’t just say it, because you have lines. And I enjoyed having to force any intelligence I have in a nonlinear direction. It was so releasing for me and I never looked back.
Your first acting job was “Mississippi Masala,” an interracial love story in which you starred opposite an Oscar-winner. That’s a lot for any actor, much less a newbie. How did you manage all of that?
Luckily [director] Mira [Nair] is very charismatic and super smart. She felt like family. She was Indian. She was a woman. And she had done these documentaries that I had seen already, like “Salaam Bombay!” So if I was going to enter the business, I entered it with family. She brought all her friends and all these wonderful Indian artists [to work on the film]. I was surrounded by Indians. I think it was harder for Denzel entering a whole world that was Indian. Working with Denzel was hard, because I definitely looked up to him. The world had a crush on Denzel. That was a lot of pressure, for sure. But literally everywhere I looked was an Indian face, so I was with my tribe. I was very lucky.
Did having such a special experience on your first job set you up for disappointment? There’s only one Mira Nair.
The movie was playing at the Angelika [Film Center] and I was waitressing at Novecento Cafe on West Broadway [in Soho]. I didn’t have money. I was still auditioning. And because I had done “Mississippi Masala” I wanted to do work I really wanted to do. I was 24 and I was like, I’ll waitress, I don’t care. I love that age because you really hold to your truth. Customers would sit down and ask for a cappuccino and one had just been to the movie. It was so crazy, living that moment. But again, at 24, it’s just a funny story to tell your friends later. I love that abandon at that age. It made sense that I was going to have to wait for a good thing.
How did you figure out what to do next?
When I finished “Mississippi Masala,” I really wanted to study more, but I was in a position to start getting other [offers]. It was very confusing. No one really knew what to do with me at that time, and I knew I needed something else. There was a theater company called Cheek by Jowl I was obsessed with, and they were coming to America. And I practically begged [artistic director] Declan Donnellan to hire me. I knew I needed more training. So I did “Much Ado About Nothing” for a year and a half traveling the world. That was hard, but that gave me everything.
Do you have any preference when it comes to working in film, theater or TV?
Whenever I do theater, I can’t imagine not always doing theater. And then after the run, I hate theater. Because you literally are doing it every day and you’re going out of your mind. But it’s like pregnancy: You forget, and you’re like, “Oh, I miss the theater.” To be with other adults in a room every day, goofing around and being silly — the fact that anyone gives us permission to do that is amazing.