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‘Patti Cake$’ Star Siddharth Dhananjay Has Visa Problems, Too

The Indian-born actor is on the brink of breakout success but things aren’t easy when you’re an immigrant

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Urvija Banerji May 22, 2017
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Siddharth Dhananjay is paving the way through largely uncharted terrain as a first-generation immigrant actor. Photo: Michael Becker

Siddharth Dhananjay is paving the way through largely uncharted terrain as a first-generation immigrant actor. Photo: Michael Becker

Next week, Siddharth Dhananjay, the Indian-born, Los Angeles-based actor who stars alongside fellow newcomer Danielle Macdonald in the upcoming feature Patti Cake$, will get on a plane to Cannes, France. The trip, which is to promote the film at the Director’s Fortnight associated with the city’s eponymous film festival, will be Dhananjay’s first to Europe.

“I had to go get a Schengen visa; I’ve never done that before. It’s just crazy complications if I have to go anywhere or visit a place,” says Dhananjay, who grew up in Jakarta but still holds an Indian passport. “It’s not worth it to do all of that to go anywhere. It’s crazy to think that if you’re a different passport [holder] you can just like, freely roam the earth,” he laughs.

Though perhaps not freely, Dhananjay has indeed roamed the earth on his Indian passport. When he was three years old, his father accepted a job in Jakarta and Dhananjay’s family relocated there from Trivandrum, where he was born. Dhananjay went through the international school system in Indonesia, but attended the prestigious Bengaluru boarding school Rishi Valley for four years before returning to Jakarta for high school.

Consequently, Dhananjay speaks with what you could call an “international school” accent–that is to say, an American accent with occasional Indian pronunciations and Britishisms. Though he’s speaking over Skype with a nondescript bedroom background behind him, the discrepancies in his accent are still jarring when you situate him in New York City, where he’s spending the week to re-record music for the Patti Cake$ soundtrack.

“I got a random email one day being like, ”˜Oh I’m a producer, we made 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' [2012], we’re making this movie, would you want to be a part of it?’” Photo: Michael Becker

“I got a random email one day being like, ”˜Oh I’m a producer, we made ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ [2012], we’re making this movie, would you want to be a part of it?’” Photo: Michael Becker

Dhananjay eventually made it to the United States for university, and graduated from Grinnell, a liberal arts college in Iowa, in 2014. Around that time, he started making parody rap videos with friends for a college film festival, and a friend posted them online. In the videos, which are still up on YouTube, Dhananjay poses as fictional rapper Dhananjay the First. “People loved it, so we were like ”˜Damn, okay, let’s do this, let’s keep doing a bunch of these, this is fun,’” he says.

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“They’re like, spoofs, they’re supposed to be funny; it’s almost like a comedy. It’s not like I’m a rapper, I’m not really a rapper at all,” Dhananjay admits. “In fact, those are basically like my acting portfolio.” He’s being more literal than you might think. The Dhananjay the First shorts, in addition to garnering positive feedback from the online community, also landed Dhananjay an audition, just as he was about to graduate, from Hollywood execs who’d seen the videos. They wanted him to read for a preliminary Patti Cake$ script that they were testing out at Sundance Film Festival’s Director’s Lab.

“I got a random email one day being like, ”˜Oh I’m a producer, we made Beasts of the Southern Wild [2012], we’re making this movie, would you want to be a part of it?’” recalls Dhananjay. “I was like, ”˜Fuck yeah, what do I need to do? Where do I sign?’”

The producers flew Dhananjay to Utah, where the festival is held each year, to have him audition alongside Macdonald, but it would be a few years before he was able to sign anything. While he was waiting to hear back about the Patti Cake$ role, Dhananjay moved to New York with his friends from college and took up a series of internships at the tail end of his student visa. “I was interning at ad agencies and stuff. My plan was to–that just seemed like the least office-y office job, so I guess I went with it,” says Dhananjay.

"People have already been [asking me to do roles], but I haven’t been able to do them, because I don’t have the visa yet." Photo: Michael Becker

“People have already been [asking me to do roles], but I haven’t been able to do them, because I don’t have the visa yet.” Photo: Michael Becker

“After Grinnell, I was on my OPT [Optional Practical Training], which you get as a college student. I rode out my OPT–obviously was not getting anyone to sponsor an H1B, especially cause I’m not in computer science or some shit,” says Dhananjay, referring to the primary work visa used by the United States to employ foreign workers. Dhananjay moved to Bengaluru after his student visa expired, where he lived with his aunt, until he heard back from the Patti Cake$ execs, who told him that he’d scored the role. “I don’t know what I was doing… if all this stuff hadn’t happened, I would probably [still] be in Bangalore, working somewhere,” he says, and then, as an afterthought, adds, “Which would be chill. All my best friends are there still.”

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Patti Cake$, which is slated to hit U.S. theaters on August 18th, is about an overweight white woman, Patricia (Macdonald), who aspires to be a rapper but is hindered by her circumstances, including the fact that she lives in small-town New Jersey. The much buzzed-about film received mixed reviews when it premiered at Sundance in January, but critics tended to agree that Macdonald was the breakout star. Dhananjay, who plays her R&B crooning sidekick Jheri (with the cringeworthy stage name “Jheromeo”), has been dubbed the film’s other breakout star.

Aside from the Dhananjay the First videos, Patti Cake$ is Dhananjay’s first acting role, a fact which actually led to complications in securing him an artist’s visa to the U.S. Since Dhananjay had no prior acting experience, he didn’t have the credentials it took to warrant the O1 visa he needed to shoot the film. As a solution to that problem, the filmmakers had Dhananjay latch on, as an O2, to his costar Macdonald’s O1 visa, since she herself is an Australian citizen, though she plays an American and raps in a Jersey accent in the film. “They had to make the case that I was essential to her performance in Patti Cake$,” Dhananjay says, with a mix of bemusement and exasperation.

Actors on the verge of their breakout roles never have it easy, but the situation is particularly hard when you’re an immigrant. “Right now I’m on a quest to get the O1, which will let me act freely in America,” Dhananjay says. “Once I have that, I can audition for things and do roles. People have already been [asking me to do roles], but I haven’t been able to do them, because I don’t have the visa yet.”

Watch the just-released trailer for ”˜Patti Cake$’:

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