Lisa Ray calls herself the "accidental actress."
The Toronto native may be in demand in both Hollywood and Bollywood, but Ray says she grew up painfully shy, intending to pursue a quiet life in the arts.
She's a writer and a painter.
She's also as beautiful as she is intelligent -- which seems wildly unfair, but never mind -- and not surprisingly, Ray took a detour into modelling at age 16.
She was 'discovered' while visiting relatives in India and became an overnight success in Mumbai. Modelling quickly gave her an international following that evolved into an acting career. Ray was a very successful model and she turned down a lot of film offers before starring in the 2001 Bollywood drama, Kasoor. That film allowed her to be 'discovered' again, by director Deepa Mehta, who gave Ray a part in Bollywood/Hollywood.
Then she was cast in the hugely successful Water, and her new career was launched.
She's currently starring in The World Unseen, a drama set in South Africa in the '50s. She plays a conservative housewife and mother who, to her own astonishment, finds herself attracted to another woman. The World Unseen is a film about oppression and freedom; it's directed by Shamim Sarif and based on her bestselling novel. (In the Middle East, where homosexuality is illegal, one film festival sent back The World Unseen, noting, "This subject matter doesn't exist." Says Ray, "It doesn't exist. So -- you can't show it," and she laughs. "Something existential about that.")
During promotion duties for The World Unseen in Toronto, Ray talked about the peripatetic nature of her work. This city is home for her, but she's lived in India and Paris and studied acting in England. "I can't even commit to a houseplant," she jokes.
Ray took on her role in The World Unseen to continue doing diverse work. "For me, that's a personal goal," she says. "It's not been that long that I've been acting, and I'm grateful that I can find this kind of work. There really aren't a lot of strong roles for females. It's not about polarizing between men and women -- it's just a reality in the business."
She thinks a film such as The World Unseen offers insight into another world, "And a bit more substance than people are used to getting from the studio system. That's what I crave as an audience member," she says.
Ray adds, "I love the big blockbusters, too, don't get me wrong -- I loved watching Get Smart on the plane here. It's just that this is an interesting time, with the big bubble bursting and all that, and people seem ready to reassess things."
Ray has had auditions for some of those big blockbusters, noting that she sometimes got very close, "And then not got the role. But for me, it's a huge learning process, and I feel grateful to even be there in the mix, on the basis of really heartfelt work."
That work -- tough, smart, tiny budget -- is the actress' route to artistic contribution. "There are so many things you feel in the world, and I don't have the persona of an activist, or the mind of a scientist. My way of contributing is through these kinds of projects, like The World Unseen, or I Can't Think Straight," she says, of another Shamim Sarif film that opens in November.
"I feel good, looking back over the last few years," Ray continues, "because I've managed to be a part of projects that have something to say. I don't want to sound over-earnest, but these films are ballads. They're entertaining, and they're certainly not preachy."