Indira Varma's World of Possibilities
From stage to screen, the actress is transcending stereotypes.
When Indira Varma started her career in the '90s, people used to say she looked like she "came from everywhere," she recalls.
Born in Britain to a Swiss mother and an Indian father, she took the comment as a compliment and used her mixed ethnicity to play any character she chose. When she was admitted to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Britain's premier acting school, she says, "I thought I could do anything."
But her early years in television taught her otherwise. "Suddenly, you realize that's not how the industry is: they see you in a very two-dimensional way. And I didn't want to just represent my ethnicity. That's probably why I've ended up going into something that is not necessarily my go-to."
Her go-to is the theater and in 2021, she became the first woman of South Asian descent to win an Olivier award, the British equivalent of a Tony.
What's not her "go-to" is sci-fi and fantasy, yet in the last few years Varma has gone forth and prospered in imaginary realms. From 2014 to '17 she appeared in HBO's Game of Thrones as Ellaria Sand, then entered the streaming world in 2019 in Prime Video's neo-noir fantasy, Carnival Row. Last year she joined the Star Wars universe with an extended role in Obi-Wan Kenobi on Disney+.
"I seem to be doing a lot of sci-fi, and it's not really what I choose to watch," she says. "But I appreciate the brilliance of what something like fantasy or sci-fi can do in engaging an audience in different subject matters — whether it's about race or gender or politics."
Varma's current projects will engage — and perhaps enrage — audiences too. There's Extrapolations, an anthology series on Apple TV+ from Scott Z. Burns (Contagion), which looks at how climate change affects individuals across the world. Varma plays a scientist whose innovations allow humans to play God.
Then there's Obsession, Netflix's series remake of the 1992 film Damage. Varma's Ingrid is betrayed by the affair her husband, William (Richard Armitage), conducts with his son's fiancée (Charlie Murphy).
Varma wanted to do Obsession, she says, "because she is a victim, she suffers, and often I don't play those emotional characters. When I was younger, I used to get a lot of, 'We really like her, but she's not vulnerable enough.' And I remember thinking, what does that mean? 'Not vulnerable enough' because I wasn't blonde and doe-eyed?"
These days, viewers know Varma can do vulnerable just as well as she can do strong-willed or brazen. She can do anything — just as she believed when she first started acting.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #3, 2023, under the title, "World of Possibilities."