No one understands the combative nature of actors vying for roles better than Menik Gooneratne and Yasmin Kassim. “We constantly took on roles,” admits Yasmin with a laugh. “We were constantly seeing each other in the audition rooms and shaking our heads. And over the years, this has become an evil look. I secretly hated her.
Menik admits that early in her career, the entertainment industry “really encouraged that sense of competition and that person next to you who was getting that role was not your equal and you shouldn’t be friends.”
Rivalries aside, the two actresses now form an unstoppable creative force and friendship; co-writing and starring in the short film To deathdirected by actor Rose McIver, produced by the funny Luke McGregor (rosehaven), with fight choreography by celebrity trainer Rashad El Amin [below with the actresses on the set of To the Death].
Filmed in Los Angeles, the film is an action-packed adventure about two South Asian Australian actors who have to fight to the death because it’s physically impossible to have more than one brown person on a show.
“They meet in the waiting room for an audition, and they get to know each other and when they’re called, they’re turned against each other,” Menik details. “To literally fight to the death for the part… And we’re trying to turn it around.”
This film clearly has a deep connection for the two actors, who have experienced firsthand the limitations the entertainment industry places on people of South Asian descent; offering more role opportunities on the one hand, but on the other playing heavily into stereotypes, being limited to supporting roles and not embracing a diverse cast of characters.
Menik says they came together on this project with the same troubled experience of navigating the audition circuit in Australia and the United States. “We wrote it as a sort of cathartic release from all the anxiety and stress of being an actor.”
Yasmin promises the film will be accessible to anyone… “who understands the competition in the workplace and the entertainment industry, when being brown sometimes means you’re the only person in a spot.”
To death is their comedic critique of this issue and the good news is that it’s been embraced by the film festival circuit. Recently nominated for the Atlanta Short Film Festival for Best Comedy and now accepted into the prestigious LA Shorts International Film Festival, qualifying it for the BAFTA and Oscar run.
“We didn’t imagine that would lead to the way it’s being received now. It went beyond our expectations,” says Menik.
“It means a lot that people feel the message, because we put our heart and soul into it. Even sometimes, when I look at it, I feel a bit of emotion because it’s so real,” adds Yasmin.
What started as a rivalry between the two actors slowly turned into a level of respect and trust for each other. “We were in an improv class in LA,” Yasmin recalls. “Just like in that movie, we kind of pretended not to know each other. Then I saw her improvise and thought she was just amazing. And we got along so well and that’s when we thought, ‘We should really work together.’ Let’s stop feeling like we don’t have a voice. Let’s team up and we can share our story.”
They each brought so much to the table creatively that it made sense to continue the partnership. “Menik and I have a whole catalog of projects that we’ve made appointments for and it’s crazy,” proudly admits Yasmin. “I feel like I’ve been doing this with Menik for 15 years.
“It was so nice for people to watch this and see how different Menik and I are. We just have such different energies. We’re totally different girls. We’re not the same South Asian Australian girl .
Menik is a Sri Lankan Australian, born in England, traveling to developing countries due to her father’s relationship with the UN to fight climate change, before finally settling in Melbourne. Yasmin is Indian, Malaysian Australian, born in Perth and was discovered at the age of 6 to be a performer on the Michael Jackson ‘HIStory Tour’.
Menik burst onto the acting scene being a regular on the iconic Australian soap opera Neighbors as the character Priya – the first time in the series’ 30-year history that South Asian characters were featured in the main cast. However, Menik felt opportunities in Australia were dwindling. “I couldn’t see myself stepping out of that box to play certain types of characters.”
That’s why, when she heard the bells of Los Angeles calling her name, she took the leap.
“I was so happy to have had the opportunity to go to Los Angeles. It was an escape from being in a club that I had been in Melbourne. To open up to an industry that is so huge, has such a variety of roles… It was really freeing.
This led to her being cast alongside Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman in the Oscar nominated film Lion and later working with Oscar-winning New Zealand director Peter Jackson on the sci-fi blockbuster Deadly engines. “It was a crazy experience. Everyone was so approachable. And it was a real collaborative effort. It made me want to do more sci-fi/fantasy too.
After spending 7 years in Los Angeles and getting a taste of the creative possibilities and freedom of the entertainment industry, Menik decided to move back to Melbourne. “It’s wonderful to be back. My whole family is here. It’s great to be surrounded by grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles and aunts. It’s really important.
“The idea that you can work hard to achieve whatever you want to achieve. How confident the writers and directors are… I really want to bring that here.
After appearances in Neighbors and opposite Daniel Radcliffe in JungleYasmin also headed overseas.
“I was in improv school and someone told me I should audition for this comedy showcase where you create characters,” she says of one of her first experiences in Los Angeles. Angeles. “You had to have 10-20 characters prepped and ready to go and it was such an amazing experience.”
This led to her becoming the first Australian to be one of ten performers/writers on the CBS Comedy Diversity Showcase.
“It’s a very energetic and creative group. As an Aussie it was a crazy experience. CBS really encouraged me to do stand-up and take whatever I feel that has crippled me in my life and turn it around and make it funny.
This led her to perform stand-up around Los Angeles. “I just got booked into the (Los Angeles) Comedy Store in a few weeks. And that’s something to do here, especially with the (writers’) strike going on. It’s a way to stay creative and keep performing. I would love to come back to Australia and explore that avenue too.
With their solo careers turning into gangbusters, Menik and Yasmin are particularly excited about the opportunities to pool their energies. “We’re really learning both here and when we were in LA, that as part of the South Asian culture of the entertainment industry, we’re so much stronger together when we uplift each other.”
And with To death, they want the short film to open doors to an authentic representation of other cultures. “There was something so empowering about writing and creating what we wanted to see,” says Menik. “You can’t be what you can’t see, can you?” You can write your own thing. You can be funny. You can be a Marvel superhero. You can be nuanced and be a remarkable thing that sells. I’m fulfilling 15-year-old Menik’s dreams of playing all these different types of characters.
Speaking to Menik and Yasmin about their future plans, one of the projects in early development on Shrimp Curry Christmas, a romantic comedy that is a combination of their experience with a white Christmas in America and the scorching summers of Australian Christmas. “Heavy on the coms!” according to Yasmin. “We brainstormed all day and all night. We believe in mutual inconvenience.
“We both want to dominate the world. Few people can do what Mindy Kaling did for America. I think we would be very happy to do that for Australia,” says Menik.