Trans Actress Aneesh Sheth Makes Her Bollywood/Hollywood Dreams Come True on NBC's "Outsourced"

"I think we have a very long way to go in terms of acceptance of transgender people as well as many other minorities in this country."
May 03, 2011

(Aneesh Sheth)

Television comedies are known for being formulaic—wacky landlords, overbearing bosses, nagging wives. So NBC's Outsourced, part of the network's legendary Thursday-night lineup, is kind of outside the box—it's about an American who must relocate oversees when his company moves its call center to Mumbai. Outsourced is diferent in other ways too: With a predominantly Indian cast, it's generally more culturally nuanced than your average sitcom. And actor Parvesh Cheena, who plays chatty Gupta on the show, is openly gay, though his character isn't. Now the show is stepping up its game—and it's LGBT profile—with the addition of trans actress Aneesh Sheth, who pops up in the final two episodes this season (airing May 5 and May 12 at 10:30pm). We chatted with Sheth about her character, the show and making television history.

How did you get the part in Outsourced?
I was very blessed.  A few colleagues of mine from the musical Bombay Dreams  are cast members on the series.  They recommended me to the casting team and producers. About a week later they called me with an offer.
What can you tell us about your role—Is she a recurring character? Is she a trans woman as well?
I don't want to give too much away about my character, but right now she is seen in the last two episodes of the season.  I'll just say she shows up and immediately creates havoc for one of the main characters.  Fans of the show might have caught a glimpse of me in the previews that ran at the end of Episode 20, "Mama Sutra". And actually, yes, my character is transgender.  When I was being considered for the role, I told the casting team how important I thought it was to consider a trans actress— even if they decided not to use me.  Having worked in social services I recognized what a great opportunity this would be for trans visibility.  A few actor friends told me that that it was pretty ballsy to say something potentially controversial when I’m just trying to get an acting job. But in the end standing on my soap box worked, right?  I'm very honored to be one of very few transgender actors ever on network television.
Have there been any LGBT jokes or storylines on the show that you think maybe crossed the line?
I think this explanation will make a lot more sense once my character is introduced, but I did receive a lot of criticism from an online trans community about the role. They were concerned that my character would reflect the stigmas and stereotypes of transgender women. While my character could be considered a racy role, it is not explicitly a transgender stereotype.

On the flip side, does the show does a good job of respecting diversity while still being funny?
I have read criticism about the show and how people find it offensive.  I can understand how certain things can offend people depending on your level of tolerance towards certain types of jokes.  However, this is NBC, part of the Thursday-night comedy lineup.  It's television, and it's comedy—poking fun at different kinds of people has been a way of comic relief for a very long time. Whether it's respectful or offensive is in the eye of viewer, I suppose.

Parvesh Cheena, who plays Gupta, is openly gay. Have you guys had a chance to hang out?
Parvesh is a total sweetheart—a doll.  He was one of the most welcoming and friendly people on set.  We did get the opportunity to have lunch and hang out the days I was on set.

In the past few years there’s been more visibility of trans people both in the the media and in the general culture. Is that translating into acceptance or is there still a long way to go?
I think we have a very long way to go in terms of acceptance of transgender people as well as many other minorities in this country.  I do believe that television has been a positive force and on the leading edge in providing visibility for many minorities; raising the discussion and helping people to become more comfortable with minorities. Despite sometimes relying on stereotypes and cheap jokes, it has helped bring visibility to many minorities and in the end move us forward.  I think we all like to believe certain groups are no longer marginalized but the honest truth is it is still a long ways to go for equal rights and the end of discrimination.
When you decided to transition were you concerned about how it would affect your career as a performer?
Yes, very much so.  When I announced to my family and friends that I would be transitioning, I also announced that I'd be returning to school to pursue a new career in social work.  I never thought I could work as a transgender actress.  I had been working in the social service field until I had gotten the call for Outsourced. After my experience with the show, I realized acting was my first love. Shortly after I shot my episodes, I was very lucky to get an excellent agent based out of Los Angeles and an outstanding press agent based out of New York.  I feel honored that these two amazing women take such good care of me.
How was it working on the musical Bombay Dreams? Were you in the Broadway run or a different production?
It was an amazing experience—I had a five-year history with the production and creative teams.  When the show was being conceived in 2001, the casting team in London found me through a New York agency and flew me out to London to workshop the character of a transgender girl in love with the male lead.  When they came to New York to cast for Broadway, they had me workshop the role again, but ended up casting a friend of mine.  Then time came for the national tour in 2006 and they offered me the role.

You’ve been in the US for a long time. Is your family here? And are they supportive of you as a trans women—and as an actress/performer?
Most of my family is here in the United States, and a few are in India.  I am very lucky to have a few people in my extended family who have supported me through my transitioning, and of my dream to be an actor.  I also am very blessed to have a close group of friends who [have been] family to me when I didn't have one.
Outsourced is a great show and it's got a killer time slot. What's next?
Nothing—hire me! I'm hoping once the episodes air, giving me more exposure, the phone lines in my agent's office will be ringing off the hook. I would love to leave my mark in Hollywood, crossing boundaries and making history.  I'd like to be a woman people can look to and say I can be who I am and achieve my dreams.

Outsourced airs at 10:30pm on Thursdays on NBC.