Reshma Shetty (Photo courtesy Smallz Raskind/USA Network)
She just gives off the doctor vibe.
“I’ve embraced it,” says actor Rashma Shetty, followed by a marvelous laugh.
Arts and theater gave Shetty a place to become who she is. Arriving in the Richmond environs with her family at 15 and a half, from an all-girl grammar school north of London, she started at Mills E. Godwin High School. “It was a very distinct difference,” she recently recalled in a phone interview. India-born and with a British accent, she didn’t look or sound like her classmates. The school operated on a different system. Shetty came from a class of 90 to a Godwin graduating group of around 500. “I was trying to find my bearings,” she says, “and figure out what to do, and where to go. It was a little disorienting.”
She went from playing violin in the Godwin orchestra and the chorus of its “Pirates of Penzance” to the nationally touring Andrew Lloyd Webber-produced show “Bombay Dreams”; eight seasons on the USA Network’s doctor-for-The-Hamptons medical comedy show, “Royal Pains”; and now, the CBS medical technology drama, “Pure Genius.” So you’ve likely seen her, without knowing how part of her origin story is set here. And on Jan. 28, she’ll be honored at The Jefferson Hotel with the Virginia Excellence In Theater Award as part of Virginia Rep’s black-tie “Anything Goes Gala."
Shetty began singing at age 7. Her father, a physician, was also a musician. Her parents enrolled her in music classes. “I have a good ear,” she says. “I started out learning piano, and then guitar and in Godwin, violin. That’s where it really started for me. Coming to a new place, especially when you’re very different, this is where music and art saved me. I stood out, but through theater, I became part of a group dynamic.” But her talent also set her apart. She recalls a picture in the Richmond newspaper of her posed next to a music stand, announcing her highest score in the state in the honors choir.
Sherri Matthews, Godwin’s then-chorus teacher, supported Shetty. “She was probably only 27 at the time, but every time I see her I call her ‘Miss Matthews.’ The choir was a huge part of her life, and she had a loyal following. If you were in that group, it was family; you belonged.”
Shetty became president of the Godwin forensics club. The term isn’t medical but rhetorical and involves speaking and recitation. She excelled. “This helped me to make friends as an outsider and also someone who needed to apply to college. Everything about college was based on my junior year of high school.”
She went to James Madison University for premed studies, and her parents assumed Shetty’s course would lead her to white jackets and X-rays. Not only her father but several uncles were doctors. She grew up around hospitals. One summer, she volunteered at the Medical College of Virginia’s OB-GYN clinic. She took premed courses and performed incisions on cadavers.
Shetty didn’t have the knack, she says, for math and chemistry, yet she impressed a professor enough to place into an honors chemistry lab. “And everybody was so excited about getting to do these experiments,” she says. “I loved watching my father and having the power to save someone’s life. These are incredible gifts. It just wasn’t my natural calling.”
Where she felt urged to go was music and theater. “I was a typical dorky, not-sure-of herself girl. And they saw past my skin, my accent, and into something I couldn’t see in myself.” Shetty found a teacher and advocate in voice instructor, and like Shetty, a soprano, Brenda Witmer. As a freshman, Shetty took top honors at the National Association of Teachers of Singing competition and went on to the ensembles of “Brigadoon” and “The Magic Flute.” By then, she had switched her major to opera performance. The decision wasn’t an easy one for her parents to accept. “I’m older now, and see how they wanted what was best for me,” Shetty says. “I came to them, kind of wide-eyed, and said I wanted to go into performance, not medicine, that this is what I was born to do. And at the time it was something of a shock.”
Shetty found support, too, from JMU voice professor and tenor John Little. “He sat my mother down and said to her, ‘I think she should become a music major.’ These people were essential to pushing me a little in the proper direction. They allowed me to see that, yeah, I have something to offer. That was a large part of my Virginia experience.”
From JMU, she continued to collect degrees, a master’s in musical performance from the University of Kentucky and another from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. From there, to New York City, commercial work and joining the touring cast of “Bombay Dreams.” The show traveled widely, and for a young person of Shetty’s talents and dreams, the situation meshed with her ideas of perfection. Plus, the man portraying her betrothed, Deep Katadre, became her actual husband.
In Ayub Khan-Din's Off Broadway play "Rafta Rafta" she performed alongside Sarita Choudhury, who played the mother of Shetty’s character. “She’s not really old enough to have been my mother, but I remembered her from “Mississppi Masala" that she was in with Denzel [Washington], and she was one of the few faces that looked like mine in a Hollywood movie.”
And today, Shetty is one of the most rare of a rare breed: a working actor.
She doesn’t take the situation lightly. Each step increases the improbability: from auditions and then, once through that, screen tests for both the producing studio and the network. “The process is kind of tremendous,” she explains. “If you get into a series pilot, then the pilot airs and the chances of it getting picked up and then for the series to actually air and to become popular and sustain interest — the odds for any one of these things gets smaller and smaller. And for 'Royal Pains' to go on for eight years — I can’t even tell you how lucky I am. I got to be in serial television in the city where I lived, and with a great cast. [The] thing about TV is, they can easily get rid of you. I got an extremely rare opportunity to take a character and have her change and her relationships with other characters mature.”
She even supplied the last name for her “Royal Pains” character, physician’s assistant Divya Katdare, which she took from her eventual fiancée. She didn’t know that then, but felt his was better than one devised for her — giving it a slight difference in pronunciation.
When you’re on a set with cameras and lights pointed at you, and then you go home, the show airs, and you don’t know who is watching. Though for “Royal Pains,” with such a long run, millions did. Shetty received letters from young women who were inspired to pursue a physician's assistant role because of Divya. “And there’ve been various sincere and the occasional odd letters — like from people in prison. Little boys and girls write to me about their dreams of growing up.” There’ve been times when, walking down the street, someone shouts, ‘Divya!,’ “And they pronounce it right!” she exclaims. Such recognition is humbling. “I haven’t cracked the DNA codes, or saved someone’s life, I’ve not completed Einstein’s equations, but I’m extraordinarily lucky to go to a job where I’m channeling emotions and telling stories that people find interesting. And it has an influence beyond what you know. So you’ve got to respect that and use it correctly. I try to.”
These are not aspects taught in drama school, in part because most people don’t get to this level. But for Shetty it’s not too far from her mind. “I was that little girl who didn’t think she’d ever fit in anywhere,” she says.
Part of the good fortune of being at the start of a character’s progress is the ability to mold the character. In “Pure Genius” Shetty plays Dr. Talaikha Channarayapatra. The show is quite different from the sunny “Royal Pains” and fills a niche once occupied by “House,” without as much sarcasm and minus the limp, “Bones” without the strange deaths and “CSI” without the crime. There is a great deal of arm waving to manipulate just-into-the future technology. “Yes, there is acting with nothing,” Shetty says, “but it’s one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever had, playing Dr. C.”
Now her character is in a position of authority, “and I like playing strong, smart women," Shetty says. "I care about the character and what she stands for.”
She’s learned the most about her craft from doing it, and trying new approaches, and sometimes it’s not worked to her satisfaction. “Situations where, say, there’s two hours of light left, you have to cry, and move in the moment and remember not to go too big too early — and then there’s the crashes. You fall. You fail. Those moments are so scary and so nasty that they mold you — I’ve not had too many of those. I’ve sometimes thought that I should’ve been more open to some things that would’ve forced me to be more scared, but the thing is, it’s the journey and believing the work has some value.”
She doesn’t know what the series will bring, or what happens after that, whether she might even return to the stage, which is less lucrative, and employs a different set of muscles — but there’s nothing quite like live theater. “I’ve learned at this point that any opportunity must be considered,” she says.
And maybe she’ll get to play comedy. She gives an exaggerated sigh. “Nobody wants funny from me. They don’t write me funny. Somebody, give me a sitcom.”
Today, she’s a mother, with a 15-month-old. The new phase of life and experience is one that’s given her insight to a world of working mothers and the need for support. “So much of your life changes,” she says. “You’re no longer the center. Without my mother and mother-in-law, husband, and sister (her younger sibling), I couldn’t do what I’m doing.”
Returning to Richmond this week for the Virginia Rep award allows her to visit with friends and family. “This is a great honor and very undeserved. But,” she says, “I’m gonna take it and hope to use this time to spread the message that being a mentor and teacher can change a person’s course in life and, in the right circumstances, a young person can believe that anything is possible, provided you work hard toward that goal.”