Being an actor is very similar to being a magician. Both trades require you to suspend reality. They ask you to create illusions and put on awe-inspiring shows. They often deem you geeky in high school. Arjun Gupta is currently exploring both professions as the star of Syfy’s new show The Magicians. Gupta plays “Penny” is the, the farthest thing from a geek Television’s ever seen; he’s a badass a grad student at Brakebills University—a secret school for budding magicians. Magician “Penny” and the actor who plays him, Gupta, are extremely good at what they do. With skill and focus both men give captivating performances from which you can’t look away. And while a magician can never reveal their secrets, there’s no rule about actors sharing their tricks. In this interview, that’s just what Arjun Gupta does.
When did you catch the acting bug?
I actually didn’t start acting until high school. But once I did I realized it was the only part of the day I was excited about and so I thought, maybe I should pursue this. And crazily I did.
Did anyone or anything inspire you to pursue a career as an actor?
I think my experience working on stage at school got me started—then the incredible teachers I had at the Stella Adler Conservatory and the Experimental Theatre Wing really inspired me. They showed me the power of art and how transformative it could be. That really set the foundation for what I wanted to do in my career and the kind of artist I wanted to be.
What training did you do to help set you up for a successful career?
Everything! I had incredible acting training as I said before, but being a good actor means looking at the world and living. Stella Adler has a famous quote, to which I subscribe, “Growth as a person is Growth as an Actor.” So every day that I live I am training. I do want to shout out Richie Jackson here. He taught a class at NYU while I was there which was preparing for the profession and he taught us to approach our career as if we would have a long career. It was a huge lesson in not approaching our career from a place of fear.
Damn, now you got me feeling all grateful so I want to shout out two other huge factors for my success for far and hopefully my continued success: my family and Elise Konialian. My family for their support and having my back completely through this wild ride. And Elise, my manager, who has helped me grow as much as anyone else in my life.
Your “big break” was on Nurse Jackie. What was the biggest thing you learned on that set?
Oh man, I call Nurse Jackie my grad school, so the more appropriate question is, “What DIDN’T I learn on that set?” If I had to pick a biggest thing I learnt it was how to be a true professional. I had incredible [role] models on that set who showed me how to work and lead with grace and openness.
Now you’re on The Magicians! How did that job come about?
Bribes. No, I am kidding. I had worked with Sera Gamble before on a pilot and then got the appointment to audition for this project. I just auditioned and hoped.
Penny is a very complicated guy. What work did you do to try to understand his emotional life?
All people are complicated because the human experience is complicated. So I did the same work with Penny that I do with all characters: break down who he is. I worked hard to understand the effects of someone who had been kicked out of [his] home that young. I am also fortunate that with my theatre company we work with homeless youth. Working with that community allowed for insight that I tried to apply to the work.
The show’s cinematography is super dynamic and there are a lot of special effects. If at all, how do those complexities affect the work you do as an actor?
We are blessed with an incredible DP in Elie Smolkin and a great special effects team run by Darren Marcoux that strip away any complexities we may face. We are so blessed that these guys make our jobs much easier!
You’re the co-founder of Ammunition Theatre Company (Ammo). Can you talk a bit about the work that goes into building and maintaining a theater company?
You know it doesn’t feel like work when it’s a group of like-minded people working together on something you believe in. Yes, there are immense challenges and obstacles we face. But, I have been stunned and continue to be so by the amount that can be achieved and accomplished when we strip away ego and work collaboratively. I could talk for hours about the logistical setup that is required and the mistakes we have learnt from, but the main key to building and maintaining a theatre company or anything is this: passion and shared vision combined with lack of ego and collaboration.
Ammo has such a great mission statement. What’s your specific criteria for choosing the shows the company produces to fulfill that mission?
Our criteria is quite simple, tell stories from communities that aren’t being heard. We want to foster original works and re-imagine classics to bring light to communities who have been in the dark. Our next play we’ll produce The Judgment of Fools by Bernardo Cubría hit on all those points. It is a highly theatrical piece that engages the audience to confront the biases and prejudices they bring to their daily life…
What’s your advice for aspiring actors?
Build a craft. Craft allows for the potential of a long career. And stop trying to be liked or right, court failure. ♦