By Jonathan Decker (Clinical Director, LMFT)
Note: This interview originally ran in Meridian Magazine in 2013. It is written from a Latter-day Saint perspective.
This is a special interview for me: Charan Prabhakar is one of my very best friends. But lest you think this article is born of nepotism, he’s also a very talented actor whose hard work at honing his craft has paid off. In the last year his film The Mine got a theatrical release while another movie of his, The Last Man(s) on Earth, debuted at the Austin Film Festival and has been nominated for Best Picture in the Filmed in Utah Awards.
Both movies are screening at this year’s LDS Film Festival, which runs January 23rd through January 26th at the Scera Theatre in Orem, UT. I’ve seen both of the films and, as a film critic, I’m a fan of Charan’s work. The fact that he’s one of the most joyful, giving, and spiritual people I know is beside the point (then again, maybe it’s not).
Charan was born in India but moved to Utah when he was a boy. Though he was surrounded by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints growing up, it wasn’t until his freshman year at Brigham Young University that he converted to the faith. He served a Chinese-speaking mission to Australia and returned to his studies, which is where our paths converged, predictably, over cinema.
Together we made several student films, from the intentionally stupid DinoHand movies (which we shot for our ward talent shows without any scripts) to my personal favorite 29 films (which parody the TV series 24), culminating with director Alan Seawright’s CTU Provo, in which Charan’s friendship with Donny Osmond proved instrumental in convincing the superstar to cameo as an irritable villain.
Charan got Donny to sing a duet to me with him on my birthday, complete with Indian accents. Though he speaks with an American accent, Charan can switch on an Indian accent at will, playing the sweet and nave tourist to prank unsuspecting persons. I’ve laughed with him at his lack of coordination as a High School Musical backup dancer. We laughed harder still when his “big break,” one line of dialogue spoken to Zac Efron in High School Musical 2, was dubbed over with another actor’s voice.
Latter-day Saint audiences already know Charan from the missionary films Money or Mission and One Man’s Treasure. Having studied acting with esteemed thespian Rick Macy (The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd, Joseph Smith- the Prophet of the Restoration) and struggled long and hard like so many actors do, Charan is primed to explode on the scene with Last Man(s) and The Mine. We’ll be at the LDS Film Festival together for the screenings, and would love to meet you there, dear readers!
It was my pleasure to interview Charan about his recent successes. Along the way he reveals the wonderful dual nature of his personality: he is profoundly spiritual yet incredibly silly. We talked about keeping his faith while pursuing the Hollywood dream, working with Billy the Blind Kid from Dumb and Dumber, giving a famous actress a priesthood blessing, and more. Charan’s full name is Ramacharan Prabhakar, so I began this interview, as I do most of our conversations, by having fun with his name. No cultural disrespect is intended; I just like to annoy him.
[interview continues below]
JONATHAN DECKER: Rama-lama…
CHARAN PRABHAKAR: Really?
CP: I’d hoped you would start the interview this way.
CP: Ah, of course.
JD: Dude, I’m so excited for you! I don’t know if that came across in our recent interactions.
CP: It hasn’t (laughs).
JD: How did a nice Indian boy like you get into acting, anyway?
CP: Excellent question!
JD: I mean, I know, but my readers don’t. That’ll be true of a lot of these questions, by the way.
CP: Cool, no worries. Well, I’ve actually had a passion for acting since I was about 3 or 4 years old. Apparently I would be quoting Indian movies all the time back in the motherland.
JD: Ah, Bollywood.
CP: Yeah, my parents never thought I would actually try to make a career out of it. Unfortunately for them, their fears came true.
JD: How have they reacted to your chosen path? Did it take some getting used to?
CP: Well, my dad especially was shocked. He wanted me to succeed; he just didn’t know if it was a reliable path. But after I started booking a few roles here and there he became a believer.
JD: Nice! It is a tough profession to make a living with. How do you balance living your beliefs and values with finding enough work to get by?
CP: I’ll let you know when I find that balance (laughs). No it’s been a fun ride. Here’s the trick to it all. People have told me time and time again, when you go to Hollywood, don’t lose your way, don’t let go of your beliefs. The truth is, though, my belief in Heavenly Father is what drives my passion for acting
JD: How so?
CP: I need Him in order to succeed. For example, prayer has been a huge part of my success, and when I involve Him in my acting, I feel more excitement and energy in following my passion. I know how to play certain characters. I have more of a purpose, more of a vision. In order to create that good balance, I often produce my own films, so that I can control content and create characters that are fun and challenging to play.
JD: Producing your own films complicates things, I’m sure.
CP: It can, but in all honesty it’s been a great adventure.
JD: It sounds like putting God first helps you to stay grounded. Of course, the Lord also expects us to do a lot of things for ourselves. To that end, you’ve definitely put a lot of effort into honing your craft. You studied acting with Rick Macy for…how long?
CP: Like, four years or so. When I was in Utah, I heard Rick was teaching private acting classes. This was when I was still at the Y. I thought he did amazing in The Testaments, so I called him and started taking classes.
JD: Tell me about training with Rick. How did he push you? How did he help you to grow?
CP: Well first off, he has an amazing passion for acting, and he would tell really great stories about the films he worked on. That inspired me more than anything. He helped me see the purpose for acting, for our art. But in all honesty, as much fun as it was taking classes with Rick, it’s so much more fun to act in movies with him.
JD: Yeah, let’s talk about that. He was a villain in our film CTU: Provo and he seemed to relish doing something different. In Last Man(s) he takes it to a whole other level. A lot of people who are used to his more somber and pious roles will be surprised by how ridiculously funny he can be.
CP: Yeah he’s amazing! Plus, he elevates everyone else’s performances when they are in scenes with him.
JD: I believe it. He’s got a tremendous gift for dry wit. You’ve got him saying some of the most hilarious stuff here, and how he delivers it with a straight face is beyond me.
CP: Seriously! The whole time he was reading the script, he was like “Oh my gosh, how am I supposed to deliver this line?!” But he crushed it. What was funny was after he saw some of his performance in Last Man(s) he looked at me with a straight face and asked: “What did you do to my career?!” It was hilarious.
JD: Well, his role is a far cry from Helam or Joseph Smith, Sr. here.
CP: (laughs) Indeed it is. The great thing about it is, he just goes for it. He doesn’t hold back.
JD: I mean, he gets to do martial arts and stuff!
CP: Oh yeah. His years of watching Jackie Chan flicks paid off.
JD: Is he a Chan fan, or did you say that just for me?
CP: Just for you mostly.
JD: (laughs) Thanks. Well, he makes for a marvelously cranky prophet of doom.
CP: Yeah, he’s awesome. He owned that character. Shooting Last Man(s) we were on set till really early hours of the morning and he never once complained. He always had his lines down and gave it his all whether the camera was on him or not.
JD: You’ve got an excellent ensemble cast in Last Man(s). Your co-star, Brady Bluhm, is known to most as Billy, the blind kid in Dumb and Dumber. I heard that he did the character at an EFY talent show a few years later and people went nuts. Thing is, he’s an insanely gifted comic actor. I’m excited for people to rediscover him in this. You two have got wonderful buddy chemistry. How did you two first get together? How did Last Mans come to be?
CP: I’ve been blessed to work with awesome people on this film, on screen and off. Brady and I actually met at church. We were both in the same singles ward; he had stopped acting for a while and was looking to get back into it, and I was looking to do something new. We had a great cinematographer friend who wanted to shoot epic footage to add to his [talent] reel. I contacted my writer buddy Joe England and asked if he would be interested in creating a web-series; literally after 20 min he came up with a concept that is now The Last Man(s) on Earth. So it started as the YouTube series [get a taste below]…
JD: Which was brilliant, by the way.
CP: Thanks man!
JD: Such a funny idea, two idiots giving disaster survival tips. I mean, you guys aren’t idiots, but your characters certainly are.
CP: We’d be the first to die in a disaster.
JD: (laughs) I love that instead of earthquakes, floods, and tornadoes, your emphasis is on zombie outbreaks, saving the girl, and drinking your own urine to fight dehydration. There’s some disagreement between you two about the viability of an alien invasion, though…
CP: (laughs) Yeah, the need for conflict helped create that. It was fun, and I’m glad we were able to evolve the idea into a feature film.
JD: How did that come about? I’m sure the popularity of the YouTube series and your growing fan base played a part?
CP: It did, but we always wanted to make a movie, at least after the first few online episodes. We knew that the web-series was limited to funny survival tips, but through a feature film we could better develop an actual story. I think we were all intrigued by the challenge. It would allow our characters to have more “meaningful” arcs.
JD: I think one of the best elements of the film is how seriously your characters take everything. We, as the audience, are definitely laughing at them, not with them. It’s both homage and parody of the very concept of action heroes.
CP: Yeah that’s the idea. We knew we were a low budget flick. So we embraced it.
JD: In my experience it’s much more fun to play a person who thinks they’re an action hero (while the other characters roll their eyes) than to play an actual action hero.
CP: Completely. As you already know, I feel like I’m an expert at playing pathetic; it comes so naturally for some reason.
JD: On screen or in dating? Because when I was single, playing pathetic got me loads of sympathy dates. I’m still not entirely convinced that my wife didn’t marry me out of pity.
CP: (laughs) Actually, playing pathetic in life is a great way to be.
JD: Then you get to surprise people when you actually accomplish something.
CP: Exactly! I love when people have really low expectations of me, then when something remotely good happens, they are shocked.
JD: So are you shocked with yourself? This is a breakthrough year for you. I’ll bet that’s rewarding, after all your struggles.
CP: Yeah, it’s been very surreal to tell you the truth. In all honesty, I love acting for the sake of acting. It’s so fun to create memories with friends.
JD: So you’re not trying to be “the next big thing?”
CP: That’s never my goal. I just love creating memories with friends. We’ve had plenty of those with our films. If I can make a living doing it, I’m happy. I also love telling good stories with good characters. That drives my passion. Of course, I’m deeply honored if others like my work and are benefited somehow, even if they just laugh.
JD: And they do like it. Teens embraced The Mine last year, and you were arguably the most popular character. At least with them and with the old ladies who wanted to take you home because you were “just so cute.”
CP: Yeah it’s great. I have the elderly loving me and babies like me because they think I’m made of chocolate.
JD: (laughs). Oh no! Wow…you just went there.
CP: It had to happen (laughs). It’s been fun promoting these movies; a bit of different experience than I’m used to, but if I can inspire others, than that’s an amazing feeling.
JD: What you’ve told me before is that once people see you on screen, some of them treat you differently, like you’re an emerging movie star, and you’re like: “Uh, nope. I’m actually just a huge dork.”
CP: Oh man, when people actually meet me, the mystery is definitely gone! They realize I’m a very normal, wacky guy. That’s who I really am.
JD: Your characters in The Mine and The Last Man(s) on Earth couldn’t be more different. I really hope the LDS Film Festival audiences choose to go to both. You’ve got some range, man. Let’s talk about The Mine. You definitely get the biggest laughs, which helps balance the scares and the drama. How much of that was filmed in an actual mine?
CP: The majority of the film was. I think we had a few days that were shot outside of a mine. But the rest of it was inside the dark abyss. We shot the film in 11 days!
JD: Seriously? I would’ve never known. I’ll bet everyone had to be super prepared beforehand and being in an actual mine made it easier to get in that “creeped-out” mood.
CP: We were definitely cruising! The crew worked ridiculously hard on that shoot. It was my first scary movie and I didn’t realize how fun it was to act in one. It’s kind of a bizarre experience to be scared and freaked-out when there’s like 50 people around you watching.
JD: I’ll bet. You mentioned earlier that you like to choose films with uplifting content. The Mine is a rare scary movie that’s got a strong undercurrent of morality and humanity. Was that a factor that drew you to the project?
CP: I think a big factor that drew me to the project was actually being offered the role.
JD: (laughs) Fair enough.
CP: No, I liked the script and its message. Again, I also just like to tell good stories and work with amazing people.
JD: One of those amazing people, you’ve told me, was Alexa Vega, famous from the Spy Kids movies. Of course, she’s in her 20’s now. You’ve told me several times that she’s a really spiritual person with whom you had a lot of neat conversations.
CP: Yeah she’s really great. I had a lot of spiritual conversations with most of the cast. We all bonded very well. Alexa actually got really sick during filming. She had to go to the hospital one day, so it was a really great experience when I was able to give her a blessing. It was the second-to-last day of filming, and she asked for one.
JD: Even though she’s not Mormon she still asked for it. That’s cool. She is a Christian though, as I remember.
CP: Yes she is. And she had faith that it would work, regardless of religious differences.
JD: That brings me to my next question….Oh man! Just a sec. My baby…dangit…I’ve got a diaper to change.
CP: (laughs) Please put that in the interview!
JD: Okay…(pause while I change my son)…and we’re back. Anyway, I was going to say that faith in Christ is faith in Christ, regardless of denomination, and I’m sure the blessings of heaven were called down that day. Giving an actress a priesthood blessing is merely the most dramatic example of something you do every day, which is love and serve other people. I imagine that in Hollywood, where beliefs and values often differ radically from our own, we’re viewed with suspicion at times. Have you had opportunities to help people see Latter-day Saints in a different light?
CP: Actually I have had some really cool experiences with that. I was taking an acting class in Hollywood once and we were asked to go and do this activity outside with a partner. I went out with my friend Eva and instead of doing the activity, ended up having a spiritual discussion. She asked me how I was constantly working and I frankly told her that I prayed.I asked God to help me with my career, and He did.
It was cool to share that with her. She was actually trying to find her spiritual path at the time too. I also have had experiences with casting directors when they found out I’ve served a mission and that I speak Chinese.
JD: Yeah, being a Chinese-speaking Indian Mormon certainly challenges the notion of a religion made up of whitebread Americans.
CP: Indeed. I think God had fun with me.
JD: I’m sure he does every day. One thing I’ve noticed about you is that your faith motivates you towards love, not judgment. You have your beliefs and values, but never look down on or think yourself superior to those who believe or live differently. You treat everyone like a brother or sister and see worth and good in them. It definitely endears you to people. This wasn’t a question, I’m just paying you a compliment.
CP: Wow, I really appreciate that. Thank you!
JD: Don’t get used to it.
CP: Not from you, anyway.
JD: We don’t have that kind of friendship.
CP: Thank goodness. It could get really weird, fast.
JD: Okay pal, I could talk with you forever, but I’m not sure people would read it, so I’ve got one last question.
JD: What’s on the horizon? Where do you go from here?
CP: To tell you the truth, I love creating good stories. I want to keep creating them; I want to reach a bigger audience. Not for fame…
JD: But for power!
CP: …just for the enjoyment of sharing.
CP: (laughs) So this year, I have a bunch of different projects in development. We want to create a TV show out of Last Man(s). I want to work with more directors.
JD: Who do you want to work with?
CP: I have a lot of directors I’d like to work with. I’ve been talking to Ryan Little [Saints and Soldiers, Forever Strong] lately and hope to do a project with him this year. I’d also love to work with JJ Abrams, Chris Nolan, and Gore Verbinski, to name a few.
JD: I’d love to see you work with Nolan. I think your mocha skin and perfect teeth would look fantastic in IMAX high-definition.
CP: Oh you know it! Most of all, there’s a message I want to share in my future projects: people can find peace now, they can find happiness now, and they can find joy now.
JD: Definitely something the world needs more of. My friend it’s been a pleasure, as always.
CP: Yes sir! Thanks for the time.
JD: I look forward to hanging out with you at the LDS Film Festival and seeing Last Man(s) on Earth and The Mine on the big screen.
CP: Yeah, it’ll be awesome.
JD: Best of luck in your life and work. Peace be the journey.
CP: Godspeed and remember: “To do is to be, to be is to do…do be do be do.”
JD: (laughs) Wow. To steal your line, my heart is now moist.
Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.