Actor, Screenwriter, Film Director
Bernard White

The boy from Sri Lanka who found fame acting in over 40 films in Hollywood

What made your family leave for the US?

My dad was concerned that his children would be disadvantaged in the New Ceylon after Independence. The children were English speaking and he thought they would face language barriers. Also, many relatives were emigrating to Australia, England and the US. My dad answered an advertisement in a Ceylonese poultry magazine for a day labourer at a chicken hatchery in Warsaw, Indiana.

He got the job and was sponsored by my uncle Anton. At the Colombo Port, the whole family boarded the SS Orion bound for Southampton in April 1960. We then transferred to the Queen Mary after a week and arrived in Manhattan, New York in May 1960. My uncle Anton picked all 9 of us up and he drove us in his Buick from the Island of Manhattan to seek out our new home in Warsaw, Indiana.

How old were you when you first started acting?

I rehearsed for the school talent shows from the ages of 7-12. However on the night of the shows, I would always pretend I was sick because I was deathly afraid to perform in front of people. When I was 12, I did my first school play. I really started acting semi-seriously when I was 20 years old at Michigan State University when I became a Theatre Major.

How did you get into acting?

My sister Ivy was an actress, first in New York City and then Los Angeles. She would write to me when I was a teenager telling me that I reminded her of another Indiana boy named James Dean. I then followed her to Los Angeles after I graduated from college. Ivy paved the way for me. She gave me a place to live, a car to drive and helped me find odd jobs. I never would have become an actor without her.

Who were the actors and actresses of your era that inspired you?

Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson. More recently, it is people like John Malkovich, Daniel Day Lewis, Ben Kingsley, Ifran Khan, Mark Rylance and Don Cheadle.

What was the first play or film you acted in?

The first professional films I acted in were called ‘American Drive-In’ followed closely by ‘The Education of Allison Tate’. My first big play in New York was called ‘The death of Garcia Lorca’ at the Public Theatre for Joseph Papp.

How difficult was it for a person of colour to break into acting?

This is a really hard question to answer. I think it’s difficult for anyone to break into acting. When I arrived in Hollywood in 1982, you could count the South Asian actors on one hand. I was mostly cast as a Latino for the first 15 years of my career. Not being white took me out of the running for a number of roles so in that way it was harder. There were fewer people who looked like me, so that made it easier. It wasn’t until 9/11 that people started seeing me as South Asian or Middle Eastern. I don’t really think of myself as an “actor of colour”. I am an actor.

I have been fortunate to walk in a lot of different people’s shoes from a lot of different and amazing cultures but I have yet to play Sri Lankan. My wife, Jackie Katzman, is a writer and she is developing several shows with a Sri Lankan character who fits my description.

Describe the early days of your career?

I worked every job under the sun from night security guard to waiter to house painter to fruit salesman to chauffeur for a big art dealer. I worked for no money, acting in the theatre in Los Angles with the chance that someone might take notice. It was fun and fresh and I had high hopes.

What have been your favourite roles that you acted in?

I am currently working on a show and a role that I like very much. It is a new Showtime series called ‘Kidding’ with Jim Carrey, Catherine Keener and Frank Langella, directed by the famous French director Michel Gondry. I am very fond of playing Rama Kandra in The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions. I enjoyed my character in ‘Silicon Valley’ as Denpok the spiritual guru.

Who are some of the big name stars that you have acted alongside and what films were they?

Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. Robert Redford, Scarlett Johansson and Samuel Jackson in Captain America: Winter Soldier. Jim Carrey in Kidding. Martin Sheen in The West Wing. Dennis Hopper in The E-Ring. I was in a theatre company with Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu, Ed Harris and Holly Hunter. George Clooney in ER. Angela Lansbury in Murder She Wrote. Meg Ryan and Nicholas Cage in City of Angels. Kate Hudson in Raising Helen. Hugh Grant, Willem Dafoe and Dennis Quaid in American Dreamz. Tim Roth, Téa Leoni, Jim Belushi and many more.

What words of advice do you have for aspiring actors and actresses?

Be humble and have courage. Know thyself. You are free to do what you want with your life. Think in terms of vocation as opposed to career. Think in terms of service as opposed to reward.

What has been the most unforgettable memory in your career to date?

Being asked to go to Hong Kong with 7 hours notice to do a top secret project. It was to stand in for Sir Anthony Hopkins in Thor; The Dark World. I played the final scene of the movie with Chris Hemsworth. I played the role of his father usually played by Sir Anthony. I got into the costume and they shot me from behind and cut it together with the real deal.

What do you find most challenging about your chosen career?

Growing close to people and constantly having to say good bye.

How do you deal with the rejection after attending an audition?

I have had a lot of practice. It boils down to faith. I have faith that I am going to get what I need.

Have you ever felt pigeonholed when it comes to casting?

Yes, I have, but I have been careful so this wouldn’t happen. I have turned down a lot of roles because I felt I had played that particular role enough. In the theatre, I have a wider range of what I play.

Do you feel that Hollywood is embracing actors of colour?

Somewhat. I did a TV Pilot for CBS this year called ‘Pandas in New York’. It was all about an Indian family. It was very good but it did not get picked up. It would have been the first network television show about an Indian Family. South Asians are still exotic to American audiences, but that is changing slowly.

You have acted in several plays as well. Which do you prefer, plays or films?

I prefer the theatre. I like the process. I like the audience.

In an ideal world what character would you like to play and why?

I’d like to play all the great roles in Shakespeare. From Prospero to King Lear. From Mercutio to Hamlet. From Iago to Othello.

Has fame changed you in anyway?

I am recognized on the street by a small percentage of people all over the world and this makes me feel good. People are kind and open and appreciative. I am very grateful that people are pleased by what I do. With the fame I have, the fame I’ve witnessed, I have been able to test and see what qualities apart from fame are genuinely valuable; humility, courage, love and faith.

Do you keep abreast of the arts and culture scene in Sri Lanka?

A little. Jayam Rutnam is a friend and his brother Chandran, I know is very involved with the film location business. I would like to be more involved. My tastes tend more toward the artistic than the popular.

Have you ever considered doing a movie that involves Sri Lanka?

I was last in Sri Lanka in 1997. Then one of the major newspapers in Sri Lanka did a full page article about me and my connection to my uncle Duncan White who was Sri Lanka’s first Olympic medal winner. I had written a script about his life and I still have hopes of making that one day. I am hoping to meet some Sri Lankan producers who might be interested in this project. I have called it ‘Kings of Kandy’.

What are the most abiding memories you have of the island of your birth?

How green it is as you break through the thick clouds on Sri Lankan airlines on an overcast day. The green is breathtaking. So lush and primordial. I also am moved by the relative chaos of the roads in Colombo. I love the smells and the train ride from Colombo to Kandy.

What do you miss most about Sri Lanka?

The nature and the humility of the people. The beautiful children. The food and so much more. I also find myself missing the chance to make my film and yearn to return to Sri Lanka soon.