When it comes to popular culture, Malaysian actors are slowly but definitely making their mark in the world.
We’ve had Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh as a Bond girl in Tomorrow Never Dies and more recently, as a captain in Star Trek: Discovery. Then Henry Golding snagged the lead role in Crazy Rich Asians due for release in August.
And now, we have our very own Batman villain. Or Gotham villain, if you want to be completely accurate.
Malaysian actress Shiva Kalaiselvan recently landed a recurring role on the popular American crime series Gotham.
Being on the show, she said, felt “surreal”, especially since she had always wanted to be on the show since it debuted in 2014.
“I don’t exactly know what I would call the feeling. It’s more than happy or joyous. You dream of opportunities like this in this business, and you have an idea of what it is going to be like when you get it. But it’s more than that. I couldn’t have imagined this experience,” Shiva said via an e-mail interview from New York, where she is currently based.
A Shadowy Role
For those unfamiliar, Gotham is an ongoing television series based on characters from DC’s Batman comics. It focuses on a younger Commissioner James Gordon’s (Ben McKenzie) attempts to deal with the crime-ridden city of Gotham, as well as the journey of Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) towards becoming the Dark Knight we all love and fear.
Shiva plays Lelia, the leader of the female contingent of the League of Shadows, a powerful group of assassins. She recently made her debut in the episode The Dark Knight: One Of My Three Soups, which aired in the United States on March 29.
“Rules and loyalty are big for her. She is someone that holds true to the teachings of the league, and stands true to them, no matter what,” Shiva said of her character.
Being on Gotham, she said, was definitely a memorable experience.
“I did get to work on some small fight scenes, but I won’t get into them as you will just have to watch the show and I don’t want to give anything away. In the first episode, I did get to fire a semi-automatic rifle. Definitely not something I would ever do in real life so that was an interesting experience to say the least,” Shiva said.
“I got to meet most of the cast – either through working on scenes with them or while we were getting our hair or makeup done. Everyone was AMAZING! Incredibly friendly and welcoming.
I was mostly in scenes with the ‘villains’ of the show, but they were definitely beautiful people off camera,” she added.
A Return To The Arts
How did a girl born in Kuala Lumpur make it all the way to Gotham City?
Well, performing has always been a major part of Shiva’s life. When she was younger, her parents exposed her to music, travelling and the arts, and encouraged her to be involved with Indian classical singing and dance.
As she grew up, however, Shiva found herself more drawn towards the theatre; while studying at Assunta Secondary School, she learnt to act and direct, and became involved with the Actor’s Studio.
When it came to further education, however, Shiva decided to pursue a more traditional degree, and ended up pursuing business.
While she thought she could do acting on the side, Shiva soon fell in love with finance. She pursued a career as an investment banker in the US and Britain. Her acting was put on hiatus for a while.
As they say, however, once something’s in the blood, you can’t hold it down. In 2009, due to the “craziness of the industry” (as she puts it!), Shiva was forced to leave her career. After a brief stint of travelling, she came back to Malaysia, where she rediscovered her love of performing.
“That was where I came to terms with the fact that I have always and will always want to be an actor. I asked my friends at home how to get started in theatre again and was introduced to KLPAC (Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre) and the work they did there.
“I spent the next two years in Malaysia falling back in love with the arts and I just couldn’t go back to finance,” said Shiva, who names Viola Davis, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling as her acting inspirations.
After being involved in a few shows here (After Juliet, Indicinelive IV and Malaysian Girls, among them), Shiva was accepted to Columbia University, New York. She graduated in 2015 with a Masters in Fine Arts in Acting.
Since then, Shiva’s produced two off-Broadway plays (Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me by Frank McGuiness and Exposure by Laura Zlatos). She’s also acted in the Off-Broadway play Nathan The Wise alongside Academy Award winner F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus).
Be Like Batman
Getting into Gotham, though, was not an easy task. For her first year out of Columbia, Shiva never got an audition with the agency that cast Gotham. The actress, however, made it a point to get to know them. Doing her research, she managed to take a class with the head casting director of the agency.
From there, Shiva started to get called in for shows that they cast. It took her one-and-a-half years of auditioning, however, before she actually got the part she has now.
Her advice to new young actors and actresses? “Be Batman,” she replies, tongue-in cheek.
What? We never thought we’d hear a Gotham villain say that! But as she explains: “I think the idea of a superhero without super powers is so significant.
“That you can be what you want to be without being from another world, bitten by radioactive anything, or artificially reconstructed through experimentation.
“That you can wake up one day and decide to be something and make it a point to do the work and become it.”
She added: “He is just who he is with all his flaws and failings but also strength and resilience. Not shying away from your shortcomings but accepting them and work your hardest to become who you need or want to become.
“Hard work and persistence will always pay off – even with all your inadequacies.”
Next up for Shiva is a role in the final season of the series The Originals, due to air in the US in April.