*Canadian-born writer, director and actor Sugith Varughese (Soo-Jith Vara-Geez) stars in the highly anticipated new Starz limited series executive produced by Steven Soderbergh titled “The Girlfriend Experience.” It is a series based on the 2009 film of the same name also executive produced by Soderbergh.
The series centers on the life of law student Christine Reade (Riley Keough) who interns at a prestigious firm and enters the world of transactional relationships. Known as GFEs, these are women who provide The Girlfriend Experience – emotional and sexual relationships at a very high price. Christine Reade lives a duplicitous existence, but she quickly finds herself drawn into the GFE world, attracted to the rush of control and intimacy but eventually ends up dealing with people who may threaten to expose her extracurricular activities.
Sugith plays the role of Tariq Barr, one of the head lawyers of the law firm where Christine is interning and the friend/partner to David Tellis, played by Paul Sparks.
EURweb.com had the chance to catch up with Sugith to discuss his titillating new series filled with power, sex, and intrigue.
Describe what your new drama series the Girlfriend Experience is about?
The Girlfriend Experience is on Starz, and it’s a television spin-off of a movie that the great film director Steven Soderbergh did a few years ago. It doesn’t use the same story, characters, or actors from the film. It’s a new chapter in that story because it uses the title, the scene, and the theme about a young woman who lives a double life. By day she works in a law firm and by night she’s a high-end escort, it’s a very provocative show.
You have an interesting story on how you landed the role of Tariq Barr.
(Laughs) I’m a journeyman actor; I was called to audition for a three-line part, maybe four lines in The Girlfriend Experience for one scene as a potential client. Because of the nature of the show and I talked about it with the casting director at the time I decided to do it as an East Indian [entrepreneur]. I was born in India, but I grew up [in Canada]. But I put on an East Indian accent because I thought “Ok, here is this rich [man] from Bombay, who wants to hire one of these escorts,” and so that’s what I did for this audition. I thought I nailed it, but my agent called me a week later and said, “Well, I don’t know what you did, but you didn’t get that part. They want you to play this much bigger part of the managing partner of the law firm where [the main character] works.” I asked my agent do they want me to do the part with an Indian accent and she said no. They want you to do it with an American accent because you’re an American guy. In fact, the part was originally written for a white guy, and they changed the name so that it would make more sense if I were playing it; this was just a few days before we started filming, it was amazing.
So based on that experience, what is your stance on diversity in Hollywood? Do you think it is improving with employing diverse actors?
I think in my experience, and it’s not just on this show, it’s definitely improving in television. I’m not sure if it’s improving in movies yet, but television is definitely paying attention to diversity at least in front of the camera. I think there’s a long way to go still behind the camera in terms of the writers and the directors, but in front of a camera, I think [television is] paying attention. I don’t know if they’ve reached the point where they’re ready to have a lot of diverse leads in shows except maybe in Shonda Rhimes shows, but they are paying attention to that in television. I just finished doing a pilot for F.X., and again it was a part that was not conceived as a non-white character, but they cast me in the role. So I see that happening more and more in television.
Does the character present any interesting challenges to play as an actor?
Well, I saw this as a huge opportunity, not in terms of career but in terms of getting a chance to play a part that was something that only I could do and by that I mean I am the son of immigrants. I grew up here, and my mother told me, “You’re going to have to be twice as good to get half as far in this country.” Now she was right, and I felt that was what I could bring to part of Tariq Barr. Here’s a guy who’s the managing partner of the biggest patent law firm in Chicago, and he didn’t get that job from the old boys’ club, he didn’t get that job because his uncle owned the firm. He didn’t get that job because daddy had enough money to send him to Harvard. He got that job because the son of immigrants, and you are laser focused to succeed because of your parents and to have a life that they came to this country for their children to have. He knows he’s the smartest guy in the room. He’s had to be to get where he is [and to have] that level confidence because he knows he is not like everybody else in this firm. It was that sort of attitude that I thought I’m the only one that could bring that to this part because I understand it, that’s who I am on some level.
How much research did you have to do to prepare for your role?
I would have loved to do a [ton of research] by hanging out at a patent law firm for a few days. But I had I didn’t have the time; I was cast two days before we started filming. So I let the script take care of that, I just trusted. Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan’s writing on that part of it and I felt that what I could bring the personal sort of attitude that was unique to me and I just trusted that was going to work. As an actor, I’ve played a lot of doctors and lawyers; I mean that’s what television is right now, doctors, lawyers, and cops. So over the years, you pick stuff up and know the jargon and the technical side. I hope that I have made Tariq Barr a unique character compared to another defense attorney that I played in some other show.
Like you said, the show focuses on the main character, Christine Reade, who works as a part-time high-end escort, in what ways will the viewer find this series intriguing?
Well [the series] will attract viewers because it gives the chance to go inside of a world that most of us will not be a part of and I think that’s what drama does best. It takes us places we’re not going to go whether it’s to the moon, the dark underbelly of society, or in somebody’s family. You get to live vicariously [through these characters] or to observe this world that most of us won’t know. It’s not just a sexy show I mean there is sex in it obviously since it is about high-end escorts, but it’s really about something that is a lot more interesting which I think is the whole notion of double lives.
The character of Christine has no guilt, no shame; she is not this downtrodden person who becomes an escort. I mean yes she’s doing it because she needs money but you realize as you watch this show that it’s not quite that simple. It is an interesting character study without passing judgment and provocative in a way that you would not expect.
What is it like working with Stephen Soderbergh?
I wish I knew (laughs), Steven was the Executive Producer, and he would show up on set but he for some reason he was never there when I was. It is a show that he gave responsibility to Amy and Lodge who wrote all the scripts together and directed episodes it is their show. I’m sure he had a supervisory capacity, but he wasn’t on the ground as they were so it was more of an experience of working with two of them which was interesting because they couldn’t be more different.
Your resume is extensive; you have eighty credits in films, television programs, and theater one of your credits was on Degrassi: The Next Generation, did you ever have a chance to work with hip-hop artist Drake?
(Laughs) I did not; I was the cancer doctor for one season, so I never got the chance to work with Drake.
I had to ask.
You are also an accomplished screenwriter and director, do you foresee yourself wearing some of those hats on the Girlfriend Experience, maybe writing an episode or directing?
Well, I mean I would love to, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen. The cast and crew are the best I’ve ever been a part of so just to do a show with them is a blast. Acting is storytelling in front of the camera, writing is storytelling on paper and directing is storytelling behind the camera, and when I’m doing any one of those jobs, I try to keep the hat clear, so when I am an actor, I’m an actor.
Are you working on any writing projects now?
I have two pitches that are being considered by the Canadian networks, and I live in Toronto, and one of them is about a Sikh Monty in a small town, and it’s a very dark drama, what goes on in the small town and what he has to deal with; and the other one is a stage play I wrote and produced a couple of years ago, and so I’m now trying to pitch that as a comedy series.
You were born into a Syrian-Christian family what are their views on the Girlfriend Experience? Have they watched an episode and what do they think of the show?
Syrian Christians are a very ancient form of Christianity, in the Bible; there was Thomas one of the twelve apostles. After Christ’s death and resurrection, the Apostles spread Christianity around the world. The legend is Thomas went to India and converted my ancestors to Christianity so that Christianity took its roots in India long before they were Christians in Europe long before Roman Catholicism even existed. That [belief] is what I was born into; even my surname is a Syrian Christian name that Indian people would recognize.
It’s an interesting background because on the one hand it’s extremely open minded and liberal in terms of how women are treated, they are treated equally. But on the other hand, it is quite conservative [regarding] cultural mores. I think they would be shocked and fascinated. Heaven forbid one of their daughters became a high end escort. I don’t know if my parents have seen the show, yet I think I would have heard if they had. I have to check to hear their take on it.
What is the biggest takeaway from the show in your opinion?
It is compelling viewing. It’s an interesting premise in addition to having a strong female lead. That’s also another hurdle that Hollywood has to get over, that a woman can carry a story. All the women in the cast are interesting, unusual, and strong roles. They are not the kind of parts you normally see women playing; they are there front and center and it’s their show more than anybody else spend. I think both men and women watch [the show] for a lot of different reasons. It’s sexy on some levels, but it’s not just that, you get your cake and eat it too with this show.
The full series of The Girlfriend Experience is available on Starz on Demand.