Over the last few years, several Indian origin women have shown their spunk by playing lead characters in Hollywood. One of these talented women is 19-year-old Avantika Vandanapu, who reprised the iconic role of Karen in the new Mean Girls movie that hit screens in January. The American artiste of south Indian origin, who broke barriers by playing Karen Shetty in her latest film, hails from a Telugu speaking family and was born and raised in California.

Avantika has acted in a few Telugu and Tamil films earlier, besides some Hollywood movies like Senior Year (2022), Moxie (2021) and Spin (2021) where she played the protagonist’s role of a young girl on a quest for delving into her identity, marking her debut South Asian lead in a Disney production. Having garnered immense acclaim for her role in the very popular Mean Girls, Avantika is now impressing Indian audiences with her new show BGDC. Make way for the desi Mean Girl…the curly-haired stunner, who never fails to showcase her desi heritage on social media and in her public appearances, as she takes us through her journey from acting in Tollywood to getting noticed in Hollywood in this exclusive conversation with Provoke Lifestyle Magazine.

How has life been post the release of Mean Girls?
Things have been really amazing and hectic. I was busy promoting my Amazon show BGDC (Big Girls Don’t Cry), so I haven’t been able to fully experience the aftermath of the release. I walked into the process scared and nervous, so experiencing such a positive after effect feels surreal.

How did you deal with the pressure of reprising the iconic role of Karen, originally played by Amanda Seyfried?
I was seven years old when I watched the original film. There was pressure as there is pressure with any reprise, especially if the character has been loved so much. My predecessors were really amazing, so living up to the legacies was intimidating. But doing it alongside a cast of girls who are supremely talented and also expected to do the same thing comforted me a little bit. I knew I was not alone in it.

How did you get cast for the role of Karen?
I did a typical audition process where an audition call showed up in my inbox. I never ended up doing a call back or a director’s session, but one day, my agents called and said I had an offer for this film. It was so unexpected and never felt real until I showed up for rehearsal and realised that Tina Fey was in the office next to me!

How was the experience of working with Tina Fey?
It was really amazing. I’ve admired her for so long and she is an inspiration to so many. My dad and I admire her so much. I grew up watching her and to finally meet her and know that my casting was approved by her and working alongside her was wild.

Several Indian origin women are being cast as mainstream characters in TV shows and movies. Indians are no longer the geeks or the weirdos in Hollywood. How does that feel?
I feel very blessed as I came into the industry at the right time. The women who came before me paved the way to allow young women of colour to take on leading roles without having the fear of being put in a box or being typecasted. I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time.

There was a lot of trolling because a brown person was chosen to play Karen’s role. How did you deal with it?
On the bright side, 80 percent of the response was positive. When you walk into something expecting nothing and the response is overwhelmingly positive, it’s easy to drown out the ten percent that is negative.

When did the acting bug bite you?
I was ten years old when I wanted to start acting. I grew up being a dancer. I knew my future would be somewhere in performing arts, but knew it wouldn’t be in ballet, which I grew up doing. So I kind of simultaneously ventured into drama and local theater and fell in love with it. I always knew I was going to be associated with the arts.

How supportive have your parents been towards your career?
My parents were extremely supportive. It’s impossible to do it without their support. Being south Asian in this industry, you do face a lot of criticism and rejection. It helps to have a solid grounding system and people you can rely on. You need people who will be behind you no matter what. Even to this day, they’re extremely encouraging. I grew up in the Silicon Valley and my parents were okay with me straying away from what was the typical path.

You are the first person of Indian origin to helm a Disney show in Spin. How did that happen?
I had ended up auditioning for Spin when I was 13, but the project got shelved. It came back to me two years later and I auditioned for it again. Spin was one of my first big auditions and for it to also be the first English language film I’d booked was also full circle. It felt like it was meant to be.

Your acting debut was in the Telugu movie Brahmotsavam opposite superstar Mahesh Babu. How was the experience of working with him?
I was really young and it was definitely an interesting experience to watch somebody so powerful and iconic. He’s always very inspiring. He’s a stoic, humble and educated person. He was an absolute class act and as someone so young and new to the industry, I was inspired by his work etiquette and ethic.

Would we see you acting in Indian films in the near future?
I’d love to act in Indian films. The industry here is slightly different so you need a different approach to make your mark here. I’d love to do more work there as well. I’m currently excited about my new show BGDC (Big Girls Don’t Cry), which is a boarding school drama. I hope this will be a great launchpad into the Indian film industry for me.

Tell us about your experience of shooting for BGDC.
The show was shot in India. Working with Nitya Mehra (the director) was really amazing. It’s cool to work with a female south Asian director. She is one of the best. Nitya has a way with women and directing them. To be directed underneath her was amazing. Also, it was fun to explore cities like Ooty and Mumbai with new friends. Exploring familiar places with people I was working alongside and held so close to my heart will always be one big special memory in itself.

Who are the Indian filmmakers you want to work with?
I’m a fan of Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Rajkumar Hirani, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Shekhar Kammula and Rajamouli. I’d be lucky to work with any of them. I am open to any genre.

Back in Hollywood, what’s happening in the workspace?
I have a movie called Tarot coming out this summer. It’s a horror film with Sony Pictures. It’s a Final Destination meets astrology kind of film. Horror has been my favourite genre so I’m excited about it. It’s got a fun twist and is a commercial horror film.

You are a student at the prestigious Columbia University. What are you studying there?
I was studying Cultural Anthropology and Economics at Columbia University. I have currently taken a temporary leave of absence from Columbia. It’s been very hectic for me. I didn’t think it was realistic to attend college in person while travelling for promotional events. My professors are very cooperative. So I try to optimise, prioritise and balance things. I do everything to the best of my ability. I know that it’s okay if you aren’t perfect at everything. It can’t be when you’re doing so much so it’s important to come to terms with that. I intend to join back when I return to the US.

Did you get to meet the star cast of the original Mean Girls?
Yes, I got to meet Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams and Amanda Seyfried. It was a really cool experience. I met them post the film’s shooting. It was amazing to meet them as I admire them so much. Amanda (who played the original Karen) gave me her blessing and I was excited about it. She was really kind.

What kind of films do you aspire to be a part of?
I would love to be in the film festival circuit. I want to do an indie film as my previous films have been quite commercial. I’d love to do an action film.

Who are the actresses you admire?
I really admire Viola Davis, Natalie Portman and Meryl Streep. As for Indian actresses, I love Alia Bhatt and Priyanka Chopra. I like Priyanka Chopra for how she balances a career in both India and the US. It’s tough to make a mark in the Indian film industry and more so in the American film industry as an Indian artiste. They’ve overcome a lot of odds and made a mark in the industry. They’re dignified, elegant and wonderful role models for young girls.

Several South Asian women are breaking stereotypes in Hollywood. How does it feel to be one of them?
I feel incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to do so in the first place. It paves the path for me to do more and more in the future. South Asian people have a lot to offer and the film industry can feel intimidating to our community. I’d like to show that there’s nothing to be scared of. We should feel welcome there and feel like our voices deserved to be heard.

May is celebrated as the month of Mother’s Day. Tell us about the bond you share with your mom?
My mother Anupama and I share a very close and special bond. She is someone who has supported me right from the beginning of my career in showbiz. We also have a relationship where we’re good friends with each other, so I feel comfortable sharing my deepest secrets with her. My mom has always encouraged me to pursue my dreams and it’s because of her that as an Indian origin American actor, I’ve been able to break barriers and explore my talent.