Geraldine Viswanathan has nearly 100,000 Instagram followers, a collection of current and former colleagues that includes Allison Janney and Steve Buscemi, and the singular honor of having voiced a Bojack Horseman character (the memorable Tawnie). By all measurable accounts, Viswanathan is famous — but try telling her that.
“I don’t feel famous at all,” the actress says when we speak over the phone. ”I don’t think I’ve really felt like there’s been a huge change in my life in that way. Now I have more Instagram followers than I used to and I’m very used to just posting dumb stuff and now I have to be a bit like, ‘Hmm. Not only my friends will see this. Do I really want to put this picture up?’”
American audiences were first introduced to Viswanathan two years ago, when she played the laid-back teenage daughter to John Cena’s patently overprotective dad in sex-positive comedy Blockers. From there, the hits kept coming, with Netflix’s dick joke-driven farce The Package, coming-of-age drama Hala, and TBS anthology comedy series Miracle Workers. Her latest, festival favorite Bad Education, falls somewhere on the spectrum between the easy laughs of Blockers and the quiet introspection of Hala. Viswanathan plays yet another high schooler: Rachel Bhargava, a student journalist who absorbs Roslyn, Long Island superintendent Frank Tassone’s (Hugh Jackman) words of advice (“A real journalist can turn any assignment into a story”) and ultimately aids in the unveiling of a school district embezzlement scandal.
The film is based on true events that transpired in Roslyn in the early-aughts, a time long before Viswanathan, a native Australian, ever lived in America. Stepping into the shoes of a Long Island teen in the year 2002 required a return to the era’s dreaded low-rise jeans (“I can’t think of anything worse”), a visit to a local bakery, and a hefty dose of nostalgia.
Read on as Viswanathan discusses her new film, playing high school (again), and the etiquette advice Hugh Jackman gave her.
InStyle: How are you coping with the quarantine and everything that’s happening in the world right now?
Geraldine Viswanathan: It’s a bit of an emotional roller coaster but I’m OK and just trying to stay present. I feel like the news has gotten to a point where it’s just a bit repetitive and distressing in a destructive way that’s not helpful to anyone. So I’m kind of just trying to take a step back from looking at my phone and checking updates. I find that helps.
What have you been doing? Have you picked up any new hobbies or anything?
I’m trying to get better at cooking. It’s quite confronting how bad I am at cooking. Trying to do more exercise. I’m used to just going to a class and having someone yelling at me, telling me what to do. So now I’m having to figure out if it’s just me and YouTube and the yoga mat, what happens?
You’re 24 but you’ve played high school a lot. Does that make you feel nostalgic at all for your own high school experience?
It does. It really does. I mean, time is weird. I still feel like I’m 18. I feel like I’m just perpetually 18 years old. I don’t know why I froze in time like that, but it is nice. I loved high school, so it’s fun for me to pretend I’m still in high school. Especially American high school, because I always dreamed about like, [not wearing a] uniform and having a locker. So that’s been a fun fantasy for me.
Are there any parallels between your own high school experience and your character Rachel’s?
I guess I really was entertaining becoming a journalist for a hot second. I applied to study journalism at university, which I did for two months and then dropped out. But I think that’s probably it. I had an interest in English and writing.
Since you and Rachel had such different high school experiences, what did you do to prepare for the role of a Long Island teen in the early 2000s?
The writer, Mike Makowski, and I actually took a little road trip to Long Island and Roslyn and talked to some locals and went to the bakery and that was actually really informative and helpful in just kind of understanding that world. I come from sort of a small town-minded place. But it’s just the nuances that are different, so I think that was the most helpful. Overhearing the Long Island moms at the bakery talking about their kids …
Were you excited to go back in time, fashion-wise?
I wasn’t. Really, that is the most unflattering fashion period. Low-rise jeans. I can’t think of anything worse. I’m a curvy girl, I need high-waisted jeans, and that just wasn’t around. So the costume fitting was kind of rough. But there are some aspects of that fashion era that I like, like flip phones.
You’ve worked with so many huge names in this industry already, in Bad Education, but also in Miracle Workers and Blockers and so on … Has anyone acted as a mentor of sorts?
During production, I feel like everyone becomes really close and sometimes you feel like you’re being given little nuggets of wisdom. But no, no one’s really taken my request to be my mentor. I guess Hugh [Jackman] was really great for me to work with and get to know in that way just because, I mean, his wife [Deborra-Lee Furness] has family in my hometown. I just kind of felt like I already knew him. I was so nervous to meet him. And then as soon as we met, I felt very at home with him. I think it is probably because we’re Australian and there’s that kind of camaraderie in that. He was really wonderful in making me feel comfortable and confident. And he told me, when you’re given a gift, to always open the card first. Which I thought was good advice. And then I proceeded to open his present first.
Photograph by Courtesy of HBO
What did he get you?
He got me a book of poetry about New York. Because he lives in New York, and I was about to move there. So yeah, that was really helpful.
So you’ve played Americans in the bulk of your recent projects. What did you do to get your accent so good? Were there any particular films or TV shows you watch to study?
I watched so much American TV growing up, so I feel like I probably picked it up in that way. And then when I did Blockers, which was my first movie here, I got an accent coach. I got one session on Skype with an accent coach and he taught me how to say “no” like an American, which was like saying “no” to a dog. He said, “Say ‘no’ like you’re saying ‘no’ to a dog.” Because Australians kind of sing the “no,” but Americans are just straightforward, like it’s a command. So that was really helpful. And then I think ever since just living in America and being around Americans, I think I just adapt naturally. So it starts to feel more natural for me to be in an American accent.
With a few big movies under your belt, do you get recognized on the street a lot?
Sometimes. Maybe when something has just come out, like the month after Blockers. But I find not that much and I often will get like, “You look like that girl from the Blockers poster.” It’s not overwhelming at all.
As a minority actress in an industry that purports to be moving forward in terms of diversity, do you see that happening?
Yeah, I do. I mean I feel very fortunate to be entering the industry at this time where I am able to play a leading role or a role where I don’t feel completely defined by my ethnicity. I feel like definitely the playing field has opened up and kind of evened out in a way that it hasn’t been before. And when I talk to my actor friends of color, who are a little bit older than me, it’s definitely clear that things have changed. And even since I’ve started, I’ve felt the progress and I think it’s moving in a good direction, but I think there’s still a ways to go. I just hope we keep telling different and new stories and keep going with it.
What did your childhood bedroom look like?
My childhood bedroom was very purple, very dark purple. And I was in a bunk bed with my sister, and horse posters just absolutely everywhere. Purely horse decor.
What’s your favorite item of clothing you own?
I’m wearing this sweat set right now. It’s light blue sweat pants and sweater and it’s really soft on the inside and it’s really fluffy and comfy, and I’ve been wearing it every day for like, three weeks. In my mind that’s actually the only piece of clothing that I own. It’s from Entireworld, and it’s a really nice color and I definitely am very grateful for this outfit.
Who have you been the most starstruck to meet?
I met Tyler the Creator once. And I know it’s a random one, but that really did me good because he’s just such a mythical creature in my mind. I’d say him, and I was pretty starstruck when I met Hugh Jackman.
What’s one book you could read over and over?
A Man without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut — it’s a collection of his short essays on different issues, and it’s something that I feel like is very grounding for me and I just respect and admire his take on the world, and it often gives me hope.
What was your last binge-watch?
I just finished watching Tiger King on Netflix, which is crazy. When there’s those Netflix of-the-moment series, it’s always a big commitment and everyone’s talking about it. But this one was really fricking crazy. I was so riveted the whole time.
Do you have a worst audition story?
There are a few from when I was 18 and went to L.A. and was self-submitting on Actors Access. There was one audition where they didn’t really say what it was for until you got there. And I showed up and there were all these girls in really hyper sexy dance gear. And I was like, “Where are the sides?” And they said, “Oh, there are no sides. This is an audition for a girl group.” And then I looked at the posting for the audition, and it was for a new group that was like The Pussycat Dolls but sexier.
I called my manager at the time and was like, “This is a singing, dancing, girl group. There’s not even any acting involved. Should I leave?” And he was like, “Well, the costume director is pretty good, so you should probably do it.” So I went in and I had to dance to this Egyptian music for 30 seconds and that’s all I had to do. And that was probably the most painful 30 seconds of my life. And it was kind of that thing of when you’re uncomfortable then the people watching you are uncomfortable. And I also can’t — really, really truly can’t — dance. And the note was to be sexy, which is just not in my repertoire. So I’d say that was probably my most traumatizing audition and it upsets me that that footage is probably somewhere.
If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would you choose?
Maybe avocado toast. The way I make it, which is with balsamic and cherry tomatoes and lemon and olive oil, I feel like that’s something that I could eat forever because if I choose my favorite pasta or curry, it’s like if I have to eat that for every meal, then I think I would feel quite heavy. But because avocado toast is kind of light and on the healthier side, it might feel better.
What’s one thing you want more people to know about you?
I feel like I’m such an open book. People know too much. Maybe that I’m Australian? Most people don’t realize that I’m Australian. Some people think I’m Malaysian and Swedish, but I’m Indian and Swiss and born in Australia.
Bad Education launches on HBO April 25.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.