Great news! It’s time for the latest installment of MNN Diaries, our web series offering a peek into the hearts and minds of the talented producers behind MNN’s diverse and innovative programming. Please give a warm welcome to Rao Rampilla, executive producer and host of “Bollywood to Hollywood with Rao Rampilla,” a biweekly talk show that brings to light unique, interesting topics in the name of fun and social justice.
Rao’s arrival at MNN in 2010 was part of a very distinctive trajectory. He immigrated to the U.S. from India 30 years ago armed with three law degrees, eventually installing himself as an international lawyer and diplomat at the United Nations. But when he was unexpectedly cast in a commercial with Kevin Bacon (see below!) in 2002, he discovered his passion – acting – and decided to pursue it. Since then, he’s appeared in dozens of films, TV shows and commercials alongside big names like Adam Sandler and Tina Fey. And on MNN, he utilizes his craft to uncover truths and offer fresh perspectives on subjects like diabetes among Indian immigrants, homelessness in New York and “The Simpsons” (watch head “Simpsons” writer Mike Reiss tell behind-the-scenes stories you’ve never heard on a recent episode of the show!). Rao’s main mission: “to give voice to the voiceless.” Talk about talent and dedication, not to mention the ability to multitask.
Next month, Rao will become the first MNN producer to cover Sundance (“the backyard of Hollywood”) for a program on the network. The resulting episodes of his show will become part of a film festival series, which started with Cannes. We can’t wait to see how it all turns out!
Read on to learn more about the well-known acting pros Rao has trained with, the unlikely audience he intends to reach with his program and how he’s discovered that the skill of improvising improves not just comedy, but talk shows, too.
What led you to MNN?
I was an attorney and a diplomat at the United Nations, transitioning to private practice by working in and around the World Trade Center. Right after 9/11, I became an accidental actor by booking a Super Bowl VISA commercial with Kevin Bacon. All my life I’ve been going against the stream, wanting to become an International Attorney armed with four law degrees from three different continents. But when acting fell into my lap, for the first time I started running with it and decided to let it take me wherever it takes me. Since then, I’ve done 20 national commercials with major stars. And my recent jetBlue commercial is all over TV.
But I did encounter problems to be cast in film and TV because of my Indian accent. So I told myself, ok, if they’re not going to put me on stage, I’ll put myself there.
I wrote a screenplay/one man show called “Gandhi, Untouchables and Me,” - it's about a 10-day hunger strike I participated in at the National University in New Delhi in 1983 to protest caste discrimination in India; we won a few demands, but eventually got kicked out. But I didn’t have money to produce it. An African American director I met at the Harlem School of Arts told me about the MNN, but before he could take me there, he passed away. So I looked for it and came on my own to give myself a voice. MNN gave me the opportunity to put myself on TV and be heard without being edited, and to say what I wanted to say.
At an audition, I had met some nameless actor who was telling everyone he was from Bollywood to psyche other Indians out. After Slumdog Millionaire won an Oscar, every Tom, Dick and Harry came out of the woodwork claiming to be actors even if they didn’t have any skills. So I decided to summarize my reaction to this idiocracy with my show’s title, “From Bollywood to Hollywood.”
What have you learned—about the craft, about yourself—while creating a TV show at MNN?
When I came to MNN, I didn’t even know how to take pictures properly, let alone use Final Cut Pro. It’s a process, and I’m proud to say that with the help of the network’s staff, I manage to edit my own show. Sometimes I need help, and I know who to go to at MNN.
Before MNN, I studied with [actor/director/musician/singer] Alan Arkin, an early member of The Second City comedy troupe. He opened me up to acting and cleared my head. I had never appreciated “Saturday Night Live,” but after studying with him, I understood the blessings of improvisation. Alan assigned me to an instructor at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, [actor and director] Austin Pendleton, who has trained me in the classics for the last four years. Armed with that, I’ve started improvising my show, and they come out right. All I need is a theme. If I were to write a script for my show and follow it word for word, it would be a big mess, especially with non-actors appearing as guests. I developed a knack to walk my guests through it without giving them a script. Recently I had Mike Reiss, head writer/producer of “The Simpsons,” on my show. We talked for an hour and a half, and it became a classic three-episode piece. You see, the way I do it, I don’t have to edit too much. I’m reminded of Woody Allen, who writes his script but lets the actors improvise on set.
While producing and hosting my MNN show, in 2011 I auditioned for Adam Sandler’s movie That’s My Boy. When they picked me, it was only for a couple of scenes. But Adam Sandler liked what I did and lengthened my part, so I ended up working on the movie for three months off and on. See? My training at MNN didn’t go waste.
How would you like your show to impact your audience?
Most of my shows are about fun and social justice. I make sure that they’re not preachy or full of facts. I keep it alive. Besides, I give voice to the voiceless. One time, I found a group of teachers from Hiroshima, Japan protesting against nuclear bombs at the United Nations, and I put them on my show. They told the stories while singing. It was fun. I do whatever comes to my mind. I don’t look for celebrities to be on my show, although if someone famous happens to be on my show, that’s fine. What’s important is the message; I just facilitate that.
People watch my show, and I’ve been acknowledged by viewers all over the world. One time, a member of the Romani group in Europe (a migratory people who originated in India) reached out to me to show her gratitude. To me that’s very gratifying.
How has MNN changed your life, present and future?
MNN made me feel not left out. It’s my First Amendment right to speak. It gave me an opportunity to express myself artistically. In one of my shows, one of my directors from Medicine Show Theatre said, “Rao, art is what the artist says it is.” That summarizes everything. Besides me, my show gives voice to 300 million voiceless “Untouchables” in India, among others from all over the world. Life is simple. So is art. And so is my show. MNN helped me walk through that simplicity.
In three words, why do you love the work you do at MNN?
Express myself (Hear Me Say)
Watch “Bollywood to Hollywood” every other Sunday at 11pm on MNN4, and check out past episodes on Rao’s Vimeo channel.