Punam Patel may be a brown, curvy woman on the surface, but fans of her character Kim on Netflix's short-form comedy Special see her as a woman with a tender heart and the roar of a lion.
Special, which returned for its second (and final) season on May 20, is the semi-autobiographical story of a disabled gay man – played by creator/writer Ryan O'Connell – who is trying to live an independent life. Patel plays his fashion-forward, body-positive best friend at work.
In the second season, echoes of Patel's personal life and childhood can be seen in Kim's storyline.
"We do a deep dive with Kim's character," says Patel, an Indian American actress who grew up in Florida. "Kim's a sassy, self-assured and confident woman. In season two, we chip away at the façade she's created. We realize that half of that façade is her, and half is her trying to present that way."
In real life, Patel notes, we all have confident sides to our personality, and not-so confident sides.
"It's important to remind people that you can be confident, and still doubt yourself," Patel says. "In season two, you get to meet Kim's family, and see that she has struggles with her identity."
In real life, Patel's parents were immigrants who owned and ran a convenience store in Vero Beach, Fla. She says their hard work allowed her to attend a local private school before getting a journalism degree from the University of Florida.
Her initial goal was to become a foreign correspondent, but after a short stint with a fashion magazine in Atlanta and a job hunt in New York, she moved back home to Florida.
Patel had done some improv in college and loved it, so her mom suggested that she move to Chicago, known for its Second City training center, and take some improv classes. "My mom's encouragement is what made me go," she says.
The temporary move to Chicago turned into a five-year stay. Patel took improv classes at The Second City and iO Theater while working as an editor at a magazine, and found her passion.
"I've always been an attention hog," Patel says. "As a kid, I was always doing Bollywood dances and imitating people. I love being funny, and making people laugh. Being able to spread joy to people I don't know is amazing."
When Second City offered Patel a stage, she jumped at the chance to write her own shows. From that, she signed with an agent and began auditioning for acting gigs.
Even then, she says, in the back of her mind, Patel thought acting would mean working in theater, then moving to a teaching position somewhere. "I never saw people who looked like me on TV, so didn't think I could do it," she says.
Her first foray onto a set was playing a receptionist on NBC's Chicago Fire. "I had two lines, and was so nervous because the guy I was the receptionist for was so handsome," she recalls. "When it aired, they cut me out."
Still, her performances at Second City caught the eye of Dorey Poder (now vice president, talent and casting, CBS Entertainment), who pushed to get Patel in the 2015 CBS Showcase, an annual sketch comedy event that highlights diverse talent.
Patel moved to Los Angeles to be in the showcase, and soon after, booked a series regular role on Kevin From Work, a romantic workplace comedy that lasted one season on Freeform. She says the cast and crew there were so welcoming that "that gave me the confidence to demand respect on every set since."
In the meantime, one of the other participants in the CBS Showcase, Brian Jordan Alvarez, was writing a YouTube web series titled The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo. Alvarez asked Patel to appear in one scene, which she was happy to do as a favor.
Ryan O'Connell, who loved Patel's performance in the show, sent her the scripts for Special.
"I'd never seen anything like it," Patel says. "Ryan and I met, and hit it off. I was like, I'm in 'cause I want to work with you."
Patel, who once wanted to become a journalist to make a difference in the world, says acting is another way to create change, and the platform she now has is being used to do just that.
Since Netflix has a global audience, Patel says she's gotten fan mail from around the world.
"A gay man from Australia who was an immigrant and heavy set told me that Kim inspired him to come out to his friends and family," Patel says. "It's blown me away seeing how many people are inspired by Kim."
On a trip to Colombia in 2019, before the pandemic shut-downs, a gay disabled man reached out to her, saying he'd never seen someone like himself on television. She ended up having dinner with the fellow and a friend of his, becoming friends with both.
She says being a role model for others is difficult, especially when it comes to being seen as a plus-size female. In the body-positive movement, she notes, there are so many different body types and experiences that people have.
"There are people who think I'm the biggest person they've ever met," Patel says. "And there are those who think I'm the tiniest person. I don't want anyone to feel I'm appropriating their struggles. I try to focus on body acceptance."
Her role as Kim on Special led to a 2019 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Actress in a Short Form Comedy or Drama Series nomination and more auditions for other projects.
She's booked a recurring role on Netflix's series Space Force, and was recently cast opposite Vanessa Bayer and Molly Shannon in the Showtime comedy pilot I Love This For You.
"Now that I'm making my way in this world, and see that I can represent people, I'm really active in anything for Southeast Asians," Patel says. "I've done work with Act to Change, and am part of The Salon Mentorship Program. As for what's ahead, because of Special, people can see what I'm capable of. But no matter what, the reward is so great when I know I've made people feel something."
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