For this week’s Brown Geek Spotlight we spoke to actor/performer Ritesh Rajan (Definition Please, Stitchers, Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures, Russian Doll, The Jungle Book) about his journey in Hollywood thus far.
From Mighty Morphin Power Ranger Fan to Performer
“Performance for me started at a really young age. I was doing as many musicals and play productions as possible in elementary, middle school and high school. Both my parents are doctors so for a very long time I thought that I was going to be a doctor as well. Somewhere along 7th grade/8th grade, though, I realized that I actually wanted to be a performer.
At the time, I was really into Power Rangers and Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee — all these action heroes. And I was like I want to be an action hero. My interest in martial arts, which I still practice, slowly morphed into performance. Then I was singing and dancing and practicing my moon walk and doing everything I could. I told my parents I wanted to be an actor and they took a very Asian mentality and told me that I needed to do everything I possibly could do to cultivate this. I was fortunate enough to live near Manhattan so I was doing internships in the city in the summer when I was in high school at theaters there then I went to NYU for Drama and after I graduated I moved out to LA and did the stereotypical actor thing. I was working in a restaurant and auditioning.”
His Road to Booking Gigs
“Specifically with voice acting for animation it took awhile. I was working on Stitchers for Freeform and the showrunner said that his friend was doing a show for Barbie and told me to look into it. My voice over agent helped me get an audition. I actually initially played a Forest Prince in my first foray in the Barbie universe. I was not Ken. It was a one-off movie but that’s how they got to know me. After that they asked me if I wanted to audition for Ken and I got the part.
In the acting career itself, I was kind of booking small stuff but everything really took off after I booked a small role in The Jungle Book. I got to do motion capture for Mowgli and after things took off. At the same time I was doing voice over spots on video games and cartoons like Star Wars Rebels.”
On Representation and Playing Ken
“When I think about it, it’s pretty special. When I was growing up, I didn’t see many brown people on the television screen and when I did it didn’t really have a profound effect on me because 99% of the time those characters were very stereotypical or weren’t really fleshed out.
The first time I saw The Night Of on HBO, I was like holy shit this kid could be me. It was a very visceral watching experience. I’m from New York and I grew up in the post 9-11 era. For the first time ever this is what representation feels like. This is what white people feel like when they watch all these movies.
For the first time, I was like wow this is a big deal. For me, getting the opportunity to play Ken it kind of just feels like we are taking the right steps to represent what America actually looks like. We had a movie come out at the end of the summer and it was weird watching my dad watch me play Ken, would he ever have imagined his son would be playing the most famous white boy in animation history? It’s a milestone, it’s a game changer. I hope I can open more doors for other people of color that are trying to break into animation. I just want to give hope.
When people hear, “oh an Indian guy is playing Ken”, it doesn’t feel as farfetched. I want people to know that Ken is Indian so I can hopefully inspire another generation of kids to take up voice acting or acting or anything artistic or anything that goes against the grain. It starts really young. We did a video where Ken teaches Barbie Bhangra and that doesn’t happen if I’m not playing Ken. Mattel has done a really great job of allowing me to bring personal flavor to this character.”
On What’s Next
“I would love to do more of everything. I just got off a feature called Definition Please, written & directed by Sujata Day. I want to do more movies, TV shows, cartoons, video games. I just did a small little audiobook as well. I want to keep learning, keep getting better. Meet more artists and creators. And continue to build that circle and community. Especially within the South Asian community. I just hope that I can have a positive impact on future generations. I want to be able to turn around and help people climb up the ladder.”
You can watch Ken teach Barbie some Bhangra moves here: