Praneet Akilla‘s star is on the rise. Born in Mumbai, India and raised in Calgary, Alberta, Canada; Praneet’s love for the arts blossomed at a young age. After working as an engineer for a year, he decided to ditch that to pursue what he loves most — performing.
Fresh off a recurring stint on The CW’s Nancy Drew, Praneet can now be seen as the snarky Gregorio in Season Two of Freeform’s Motherland: Fort Salem. Recently, I had the privilege of chatting with the talented multi-hyphenate regarding his role on the show, what fans can expect for the current season, his dream projects and much more.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.
Melody McCune: We at GGA love a good origin story. What’s Praneet Akilla’s origin story?
Praneet Akilla: It’s a long and complicated one, but I’ll try to shrink it down a bit. I was born in India. I grew up in Middle East Kuwait, and then immigrated to Canada when I was eight years old.
Throughout that time, I was always interested in movies and performing, and doing little skits for my family and friends. They wouldn’t tell me how bad they were, but that didn’t matter to me. I was just having fun, you know?
Then, throughout junior high and high school, I would do [the] yearly school musicals. But growing up in a South Asian household, the arts weren’t a stable career choice. So I went to a university for chemical engineering and graduated with a chemical engineering degree.
I worked as an engineer for a year. Then, I quit my job because I was miserable. And I thought to myself, “I’m young, I should probably take the shot and pursue my actual passion.”
I started auditioning for a bunch of theater companies and regional theaters all over Canada and the United States. I was lucky enough to book a few jobs doing that. I moved out to Vancouver and got a film and TV agent. It’s a long and winding road, but that’s the origin story as best I can describe it.
MM: You’ll be appearing in Season Two of Motherland: Fort Salem as Gregorio. Can you talk about what the audition process was like?
PA: That audition process was in the middle of quarantine last year. Typically, as an actor, you’re used to going in person and meeting at least some of the casting directors and producers face-to-face before you get the role. Of course, there wasn’t any of that.
I got the script from my agents and fell in love with it right away. I thought it was such an interesting take, having the matriarchy be the center, the focal point, as opposed to so many patriarch-led stories.
I was able to do my audition on tape. There were three rounds of auditions. Then, I didn’t hear back for about a month. Finally, I heard that I got the part and left right away to start filming. We filmed from September to April of this year.
MM: Tell me about your character, Gregorio, and how he fits into the overall narrative for Season Two.
PA: The three main characters that we follow are female witches. Basically, Season Two is [about] them going to War College. The stakes are much higher. They’re actually preparing for the real world and the enemies that it presents. There’s a group of witch hunters called “The Camarilla” that’s after us. There’s a group called “The Spree” that’s against mandatory witch military conscription.
My character, Gregorio, is a male witch. He’s from the rich High Atlantic society of witches. He’s from the same society as one of the main characters, Abigail.
What he realizes is that the male witches in this universe were there to procreate and extend the line of female witches. He’s not a fan of that. I think he feels that male witches can do much more in today’s society, and he lets his opinions be known. He’s a funny, snarky character that the three main characters meet at War College.
MM: Did you do anything, in particular, to get into character such as listening to music or writing as Gregorio?
PA: I didn’t listen to music or anything like that. The roles I’ve played in the past have been very dramatic, and finally, I’m getting to play a role that’s more like me. I’m an awkward nerd in real life. I get to play somebody that’s funny and makes snarky, witty comments when things are going very wrong.
I always did a lot of improv so, for me, it was a chance to flex those muscles. Of course, I did research in terms of societies and instances where there are minorities. Where they feel oppressed and what that feels like to fight against the patriarchy. In this case, he’s fighting the matriarchy, which is an interesting flip.
I’m also an actor of color and a minority in this industry. So I know what that feels like. I don’t have to do too much work. I think I related to the character on an instinctual level.
MM: Do you have any fun behind-the-scenes stories from the set?
PA: Oh, a ton. My first day on set, not even a “hello” or “hi,” not even an introduction — I was literally thrown into the fire, and me and the girls were battling creepy, tall baby dolls.
We had to literally punch them in the face. It was after we finished a bunch of takes when I finally got to introduce myself to the girls.
It’s still funny, this job. I always used to go home and think to myself, “This is a kid’s dream,” you know?
That first day will always be memorable to me. I think that was a good way to get to know the family of Motherland and integrate myself into the world right away.
MM: What can fans expect for this season?
PA: It’s incredibly dark. Lots of action. The stakes are tripled from the first season. It’s going to take a lot out of our main characters, as well as people like Gregorio and other characters at the War College, to stand up for themselves and fight for the good cause.
I think the best way to describe Season Two is “dangerous.” Danger’s at every turn, and you never know who you can trust. It’s a very precarious season, and the stakes are infinitely higher. I think the cast and crew did such a marvelous job of bringing that to light.
The acting on the show is just next level. During the times I wasn’t shooting, I would be on set and admire the performers, and the gravitas and the weight they brought to all the emotional scenes. I think the audience is in for a lot of that.
MM: Let’s switch gears a bit. You’re also producing and starring in the upcoming short film Mom vs. Machine. Can you talk about the premise of the short and how you became involved with it?
PA: It’s based on a semi-true story. For Christmas two years ago, I bought my mom an automatic tortilla-making machine. In terms of Latin America, they’re tortillas, but in India, they’re called rotis. My mom’s a big cook. Funnily enough, I thought by gifting her this automatic roti-making machine that she would be thrilled. It’s less work for her. But she wasn’t.
She was like, “You know I love to cook, so why would you give me something that literally takes away my identity as a mother?”
It was just like, “Oh, this is weird. It’s subverted all my expectations.” Then it got me thinking, “What if this machine literally replaced my mom?” She came downstairs one day and saw my dad, my sister, the machine and me being a family?
I came up with a dark comedy where an Indian mother has to battle a sentient, food-making robot to compete for the affection of her son. It’s an incredibly dark comedy. There’s a lot of action in it. It’s very funny. Of course, I’m biased. But it’s going around the festival circuit right now, and I’ll have more announcements as to where people can check it out.
You never see South Asian actors at the forefront of the sci-fi genre. You always see them as side characters, but you never see them being the action heroes in sci-fi or any action-adventure in Hollywood. This is really cool because there’s a 60-year-old South Asian actress who gets to be this badass, John Wick-type character battling a robot.
I’m really proud of it. Hopefully, we get to turn it into a feature film or web series.
MM: You also have a background in theater and musical theater. Do you have a favorite production that you’ve worked on thus far?
PA: I was able to [star in] Sunday in the Park with George, the Stephen Sondheim musical. It’s such a good one. Obviously, there’s debate whether it’s aged poorly or not. I think there’s certainly a debate to be had about that, but I do think the music is incredible and I think the characters are incredible. I got to do that right after I graduated from university in a regional theater in Canada.
That will always stick with me because I got to play George Seurat. It was colorblind casting and they didn’t care that I was a brown guy. It didn’t matter. I would say that it was definitely my most memorable performance. I haven’t done that many musicals as of late, but I really want to get back to doing more.
MM: Do you have a dream role?
PA: I don’t necessarily know if I have a dream role. All I know is I want to work on a series. I don’t know if you’ve seen Chernobyl, that HBO show. I want to work with actors at that level.
One of my favorite actors is Jake Gyllenhaal, and I’d love to be on that level and get to work with incredible directors like Denis Villeneuve, who’s doing Dune. I’m a big sci-fi nerd and I love that genre. If I can be in Dune 2, that’s the pinnacle for me. Not necessarily a dream role, but dream projects for sure.
MM: You also write — would you consider expanding your resume to include scriptwriting?
PA: I’m doing it all the time on the side. I’m not the best writer by any means — I’m still very much learning. Luckily, a lot of my friends happen to be screenwriters, working for writers’ rooms and things like that. I always show them my scripts, and then they critique them.
At this stage, I just write for fun. I don’t have any goals with it. I do think that I have the skillset of a producer more than a writer. I like bringing people together and putting the right pieces in place to produce something. Collaborating with people that are much better than me to make something happen. We’re working on a few projects so, hopefully, some of those get announced very soon.
MM: Do you have any advice for aspiring performers looking to get their foot in the door of the industry?
PA: It sounds clichéd, but you really have to believe in yourself. There are a lot of “noes” in the industry. There are a lot of people that’ll tell you it’s a mistake to follow this path, but you’re the only judge of that. So much of my life I spent caring about what other people thought, and it was a waste of energy and time.
The moment I made that mindset switch to caring about what I want and going after what I wanted, things changed. A lot of positive energy came into my life. You have to believe in yourself and not care about what other people think.
The other thing I would say is, in this business, you don’t control much. You can control your performance, you can control what you bring to the character, but you have to learn to let go. It’s much easier said than done, believe me. I’m not an expert at what I’m saying right now, but I think you have to let go of any expectations. You have to enjoy the process more than the result.
You have to treat the result as a bonus. If you get the job, great. But if you don’t, you have to ask yourself, “Even if I don’t book a job for the rest of my life, do I enjoy the process of doing this?” And if the answer is yes, then you have to keep doing it.
If the answer is no, then you’re probably better off doing something else with your life, which will give you more money and more security and probably make you happier. This isn’t for everyone, I’ll say that much.
MM: Excellent advice! What’s on the horizon for you, career-wise, besides Mom vs. Machine?
PA: I wish I could say! Unfortunately, I’ve signed various NDAs. There are a couple of things coming. I really wish I could say. I’m bursting at the seams. But one thing I can talk about is, theater-wise, there’s something called the Mahabharata, which is a Lord of the Rings-esque Indian epic based on Hindu mythology.
It’s being performed next year in Toronto and then it’ll go on a world tour. But it’s the first time it’s being done with an all-South Asian cast and it’s a six-hour show. It’s a huge show. It was done in the ’70s on Broadway, but it critically panned at the time. We’re finally getting ownership of the story and really making it what it deserves to be.
It’s actually the world’s longest poem. Not many people in America know about it, but there are so many sayings — you think about words like “karma” and “dharma” and those things — that come from the Mahabharata.
A lot of the spiritual practices we do originate from this poem. So, it’s got an interesting origin story. I can’t wait for people to see it. That’s something I’m going to get into rehearsals for next year.
MM: That’s so cool. Congratulations! Have you binge-watched anything interesting during the pandemic?
MM: I was going to ask you if you watched Tiger King like everybody else did.
PA: I watched it. Do I regret the time I spent watching it? Maybe. Tell you what, I’m looking forward to the Tiger King movie with Nicolas Cage. He’s playing Joe Exotic.
MM: I’m intrigued by that too! Because he’s involved, you know it’s going to be a bit weird. Last one! Name your top five favorite films or anything that comes to mind.
MM: Thank you so much for chatting with me, Praneet! I really appreciate it.
PA: Thank you so much, Melody!