Even through the telephone I can tell I’m speaking to a tenderhearted mother.
Every time I ask her a question about ‘Ajay Naidu’, she doesn’t fail to respond by calling him ‘Jay’.
We know him as the Chicago-bred actor who appeared in Office Space, The Guru, and Loins of Punjab Presents; and starred on various TV shows including The Sopranos, The West Wing, and LateLine.
She knows him as the 11-year-old boy who one day brought home a piece of paper that changed their lives.
“His teacher gave him an ad in the paper saying they’re looking for a boy to act in a movie, about 10 to 12 years old, tough but appealing…in the Chicago area,” Rukmini Naidu says.
“So he brought home this paper and showed it to us. And we—my husband was a doctor and I’m a physical therapist—we said that people don’t get into any Hollywood movies by going for something like this, and it’s not really something which we wanted to pursue.
“But he said ‘No, my teacher said I want to go’, and my husband’s very kind hearted so he said ‘OK, I’ll take you.’”
As neither of his parents was familiar with the industry, Ajay took the lead right from the start.
When he arrived at his first audition, his father said to him, “I don’t know what you’re supposed to do.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll find out,” Ajay reassured him, and went inside to talk to the team.
“I guess they liked him so they said he had a callback,” Rukmini says. “At that time I didn’t know all these terms,” she adds with a laugh.
But Ajay’s determination did not stop there. When Rukmini took her son for the callback, she was told they thought he was very good for the part, but they had to select a mom for the role first and then decide who would play the son.
Ajay promptly told them in return, “You say I do well and I’m good, so pick me first and then you pick a mom.”
“They were all kind of surprised about that,” Rukmini laughs. But Ajay landed the role, and the family flew to L.A. to meet the crew.
Before they knew it, their son had become a child actor, and even before Ajay reached high school, he had starred in various movies and TV shows.
Rukmini admits it was hard at times, as one parent always had to go along as a guardian. It also affected his schooling, because even though there would be tutors on set, Ajay’s parents felt it was not the quality of education they would have liked for their son.
“So when he got into high school we said ‘now you cannot do it because it takes away a lot of time from school.’”
Lucky for Ajay however, he went to a high school with a strong theater program and “was in every production—either acting or stagecraft or writing” from the summer before his freshman year until he finished high school.
Although Ajay’s parents were supportive of his dreams, they did not undermine the value of a good education.
“We didn’t want [our son] to be in some other profession and be frustrated…But we did want him to study; at least be educated well.”
Ajay did just that at the American Repertory Theatre Institute at Harvard University.
“I know that most Indians, we like secure careers; my other son is a doctor. But we knew that for Jay this was very, very important and that’s what he liked to do so we were supportive of him.”
“We had discussed with him…if you want to pursue another career and then do acting, but he knew that if he did that then this would become a side business, and every time you go for a audition and you don’t get it, you go back to your job. But he obviously had a passion for this, and my husband and I both realized that.”
Rukmini says living in a place like the US makes it easier for young people to take chances in careers that are less secure.
“That’s one thing very encouraging about being in the US…if you don’t succeed in one profession you can always learn and go into another profession. And maybe while they’re doing acting in high school, they can explore other areas where they might be able to support themselves financially if that need comes.”
“But I would definitely advise [parents] to let their children pursue their dreams because that’s very rewarding.”
And just as I add my two cents in about how that has definitely paid off with the success of Ajay Naidu, she reminds me again that we’re simply talking about her ‘Jay.’
“Jay himself would advise children unless this is all that you want to do and you’re very passionate about it, think about it because financially you’re not always going to be safe. You may have jobs and you may not have jobs. You have to be ready to face whatever comes. That’s what he advises little kids when they ask him.”
Just like any proud mother, you can hear the love in her voice.
“He’s a wonderful child,” she says. “I talk of him as a child, but he’s a very nice, very affectionate person.”
Ajay Naidu’s directorial debut, Ashes, is making its US premiere at the Chicago South Asian Film Festival, taking place October 1-3, 2010.