Playing Patti Cake$ with Film Stardom
by Jay S. Jacobs
Siddharth Dhananjay has had one of the weirdest rides to the big time in recent memory. The young Indian/American actor has recently done his first acting job ever, co-starring as best friend Jheri in the critically acclaimed new film Patti Cake$.
Not bad for a guy who hadn’t even imagined being an actor just a few years ago.
As often happens in this crazy new entertainment world, it all traces back to YouTube. As just a normal college student, for a giggle he made a clip portraying a mock Indian “rapper” he called Dhananjay the First. The rest, as they say, was history.
“Me and two of my friends were making these spoof rap videos,” Dhananjay recalled to me recently, a couple of days before the Patti Cake$ premiere. “We were just doing them for fun and loved it. Everybody around us loved it. We didn’t really think about it too much. We just put them online, and the response was so funny and great that we thought we should keep doing them.”
However, this was not some sort of big epiphany for the young man. He was just having a good time.
“We did not expect anything out of it,” Dhananjay recalled, “especially someone reaching out to me to try to be in a movie project of theirs. It was definitely a crazy thing!”
The call truly came out of left field. Even though he was enjoying making his clips, the idea of music or acting as a career choice didn’t even occur to him. It was just something he was doing for fun.
“I was going to school for philosophy and economics,” Dhananjay said. “I didn’t really know what it was that I wanted to do in life. I was still trying to figure it out, but in a way, it came at a very convenient time for me.”
He chuckled, remembering his surprise at being contacted by Patti Cake$ producer Michael Gottwald, most famous for making another out-of-nowhere critical smash, Beasts of the Southern Wild.
“He sent me an e-mail saying he was working on a project: ‘would you like to get on a call so we can talk about it?’ That’s where it started. That was back in 2014. I thought it was fake, but I was like ‘Yeah, let’s see what happens. Let’s see where this leads,’” Dhananjay laughed.
Where it led was a starring role in his first movie. It was no joke. Siddharth Dhananjay was headed towards a real live movie set.
“It was such a crazy opportunity that I knew I had to give it a try; that doesn’t happen every day,” Dhananjay said. “While working on the movie, I realized that I’ve never felt like this doing anything else in my life, so it was a fateful turn for me. It really showed me what it is that I want to do, or be involved in.”
Still, even though YouTube made a huge difference in getting him noticed, Dhananjay admitted that it cannot be relied upon to be his generation’s version of summer stock; a good way for an actor to learn his craft and get noticed and a springboard to stardom.
“I wouldn’t go as far as saying that,” Dhananjay laughed. “Even in today’s world with the internet, it’s still extremely hard for actors to get noticed, randomly for that fact. I guess it was just a lucky thing. I was ready when they came knocking. It was quite bizarre, almost.”
In certain ways, the character of Jheri seems like his YouTube character of Dhananjay the First, so the actor did have a partial fix on the role. However, as a non-actor, it was still a challenge to connect on some parts of the character.
“The flamboyant, crazy rapper aspect of Jheri was the easy bit for me,” Dhananjay said. “I’ve done that in the videos, so I knew how to pull that off. The challenge for me was trying to find the human beneath it all. Trying to find the guy who really loves his best friend and coming up with a balance between those two. That was the real fun bit; trying to work that out.”
The character of Jheri is also interesting in the fact that no matter how bad life gets, he is a really optimistic guy. In fact, in the movie, in his one major fight with Patti he tells her she really had to get over her negativity.
“I don’t know if I have his DJ Khaled level overconfidence,” Dhananjay admitted, “but I definitely think I’m more on the positive side, for sure. People tell me all the time that I’m always looking at things from a good angle. I can totally relate to him in that sense. Also in the sense of his fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude, because that’s what I was doing while doing this project as well. I had never acted before. You should really trust yourself, trust your judgement. Go with it, and see where it leads you.”
Dhananjay is not the only person learning his craft in the trenches. Co-stars Danielle Macdonald and Mamoudou Athie have had a little bit more TV and film background than Dhananjay had, but neither of them had played a lead role either.
“It was really, really fun working with them,” Dhananjay said. “They knew a little bit about how things work on set because they’ve done it a couple of times before. It was nice to have them around me. Maybe wouldn’t have felt so comfortable doing it for the first time.”
He feels very gratified that the producers were willing to trust their passion project on actors who had so little experience. They believed these three could carry the picture. In fact, the whole cast and crew had a team spirit.
“What’s so special about the movie is that everyone is so out of their comfort zone in some way,” Dhananjay observed. “Danielle has never rapped before in her life, and is extremely unmusical. Mamoudou is so far from his character as possible.”
It was not just the kids, though. Writer/director Geremy Jasper had never made a film. Even the more established show biz players – like Raging Bull co-star Cathy Moriarty and Inside Amy Schumer comedienne and singer Bridget Everett – were called upon to try things they had never done before.
“Cathy is aged 20 years, which is something she has never done,” Dhananjay says about the 50-something actress, who is playing the wheelchair-bound grandma in the film. “Bridget, this is her first dramatic role. Geremy, this is the first movie he has directed; his first screenplay, and first movie.”
However, this sense of adventure and risk just made everyone more determined to make the most of the opportunity.
“It felt great because everyone knew that everyone was going through this,” he said. “It was a very supportive atmosphere. Everybody just loved each other so much, wanted everybody to do their best, wanted to help each other as much as they could. It never felt like work coming into set. It was more like we’re all having these incredible experiences. It was just great.”
Moriarity, who with classic films like Raging Bull, Analyze This, Kindergarten Cop and Cop Land on her resume was the closest thing to a “Hollywood” name in the cast, made sure to take the younger cast members felt secure.
“She instantly became the mom on set. She’s just the sweetest person and we love her so much,” Dhananjay laughs. “She was out there taking care of all of us and making sure that everything was working well. She walks in and you instantly feel how much of a star she is. Then she starts speaking to you and you realize that, wow, she is just this beautiful human. It was so great to have her around.”
She took a special interest in Dhananjay.
“Once she found out this was my first movie she was like ‘that’s it, you’re under my wing. I’m going to make sure everything goes right for you. We’ll figure it out.’ She was definitely the glue to all of us. I had a lot of fun just hanging out with her, even if we weren’t in many scenes together.”
Pretty cool, particularly for a guy whose previous biggest show business productions were DIY videos, mostly made locally with a few people. Even a small independent film like Patti Cake$ takes a huge amount of people and work to get it off the ground. And now, he was in one of those shoots.
“It was crazy,” Dhananjay admitted. “I’ve always been a huge cinephile; I’m really into movies, but this was another level. I just learned so much being there on set. Like, I had no idea that there’s another who holds focus and it’s not just one guy holding the camera.”
He laughed, remembering how little he really knew about the process. “Just small things like that. Because I’m so interested in the process of making movies, it was such an incredible experience for me to watch what happens. Who are all these roles? Just the whole structure of it. It never felt intimidating for me. It was almost like I was a kid at a candy store going ‘wow, this is so cool.’ It was blowing my mind every day.”
A little more par-for-the-course in his life were his performances in the film’s rap productions. While he is not sure if he wants to pursue music professionally as a separate career, he did enjoy the ability to use his skillz as an actor.
“I’m musical and love music and have some experience doing it, but I’ve never really considered myself a musician, per se.” Dhananjay admitted. “In terms of the movie, all of the music was really fun and exciting for me. With the acting I was nervous, because I had never done it before, but going into the studio to work on the music and performing all the tunes together, all of the numbers; with that I felt really at home. It was very natural. It was really fun.”
Another thing that was really natural was his relationship with co-star Danielle Macdonald. On screen they play besties, good friends who know and understand each other so well that they can finish each other’s sentences. That kind of connection can’t be faked, and often on screen you can tell when two actors don’t connect.
“When we first met it was the summer of 2014, so it has been a while since we’ve known each other,” he said. “Instantly the first time we met, we gelled so quickly. She keeps saying that she was so nervous to meet me, because she had only seen the videos and she didn’t know if they were a joke or not, or if I were just that guy in the video. Then she met me and was like ‘Ha, that’s it he’s just like my little brother.’”
The connection was instantaneous and lasting. The two of them felt comfortable together from the start and are still friends.
“It was really easy. Since 2014 we’ve been really good friends. It never felt awkward. We never had to go through some ice breaker process for us to get comfortable with each other. That’s why it was so easy to work on all these scenes with her. It felt right. While watching the movie you can really see the chemistry. It was very effortless to say what I wanted to her, or push her around, and vice versa.”
Now, three years down the line, the film is finally being released, to critical buzz. Macdonald and Dhananjay are being pointed out as potential breakout stars. Not bad for a guy whose last premiere was on social media.
Which led to another new experience for Dhananjay. After seeing himself streaming online multiple times, he has finally had the opportunity to see himself on a big screen. It was a surreal experience, to say the least.
“I’ve seen it now four or five times,” Dhananjay said. “The first time was really powerful. I was just ‘why is my face doing that? Why am I doing this?’ It was really weird to see myself. And to watch the movie. I still can’t really watch the movie excessively. I look at it as all of those fun times we had last summer shooting this and all the people involved. I’m still getting used to watching it as a movie. I don’t know if that’ll ever happen or not, but it’s really cool when other people come up to you and talk to you about how much they loved the movie. I’m so glad you guys enjoyed it as much as I did and it’s not just something that was in my head.”
Sadly, as an immigrant living in the United States, particularly in this current political climate, there are some other barriers in his way. It was dramatically exposed when Dhananjay wanted to travel with the cast and filmmakers for the film’s performance at the Cannes Film Festival in France, only to learn that he could not get a travel visa to make the trip.
It was a shame, but not a complete surprise to the young actor.
“For me I have to be here on a visa,” he acknowledged. “When we did Patti Cake$ they got me an O2 visa, which is an actor’s visa. Usually what you need is an O1 visa to act in America, but because I had no prior experience, the only way to make it work was to latch me onto Danielle’s O1, because she’s Australian. That worked out, but now the problem is that I need to get the O1 visa to continue working as an actor. Basically, that’s what I’ve been working on for the past few months.”
Right as his career is starting to come together and start a buzz, he is in a bit of a bureaucratic quagmire to stay in the US. However, Dhananjay does not think the new anti-immigrant wave in Washington is necessarily the cause. It is tough to do, he realizes, because it must be.
“It’s a complicated process and they ask a lot of you,” Dhananjay said. “As much as I would love to blame it on the new administration, in terms of the O1 itself, the process hasn’t really changed; it has always been like this. I’ve always been here on visas that you get when you get certain types of jobs, or certain types of situations. When I came here as a student, I had a student visa.
“As a person with an Indian passport, it’s just something that I deal with all the time. Anywhere that I want to visit, I need a visa to visit. Be it France, when I was trying to go there, anywhere. Even on vacations with the family, we have to figure out the visas before we can plan to go. It’s a thing that I’ve realized is just a part of my life at this point. It wasn’t as frustrating or depressing as it sounds, because it’s not like I didn’t know it was going to happen before it started; I knew that I had to figure out the visa. That’s just the reality that I have to deal with.”
Unfortunately, that unsure status has been making it impossible to get more work until everything is worked out with immigration. Dhananjay was offered a role in a film called A Name Without a Place with Patrick Fugit and Elizabeth McGovern, but it does not look like he will be able to do the film.
“I guess, technically I’m not in that movie, just because I can’t actually be in another movie until I get the right visa,” Dhananjay explained. “Who knows? They gave me a deal, they said they wanted me to be in the movie, so I can use that contract to try and get the O1 visa, but that really shouldn’t be on my IMDB, I don’t know why that’s there.”
Dhananjay also does not rule out the idea of returning to his home country, which has a thriving film industry. However, he’s not quite ready to abandon the dream of Hollywood for Bollywood.
“I grew up in India and I follow that scene as well as I follow the one here,” Dhanajay said. “It definitely is a dream of mine to work in the movies there at some point. I think right now having Patti Cake$ as my first movie and it is getting all this buzz, I want to take this very seriously and see what jobs are here while I can. Maybe even joining an acting class, taking acting seriously and trying to work on learning how the Hollywood business works. I’m not even thinking about going back to India and working there. In the future, hopefully, but right now I feel like I haven’t even had the time to sit back and think about all of the crazy stuff that have happened so far. It has just been one [thing] after the other and I’ve sort of had to roll with the punches.”
Copyright ©2017 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: August 20, 2017.
Photos © 2017. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. All rights reserved.