She scrubbed her skin in the shower in an attempt to change its colour but finally, after a 20,000-kilometre emotional journey, Melbourne actress Sarah Roberts says she is comfortable with who she is.
Being teased as a 10-year-old at primary school for her Sri Lankan heritage made Roberts even more determined to discard her family culture, and she says when she was growing up her only concession to her ancestry was to wear a sari to her grandfather’s funeral.
Entering an Australian reality TV series in an attempt to win a lead role in a major Bollywood film has also seen Roberts, 27, in a sari. But what started as just another quest to score an acting role became a path to self-discovery, she says.
There’s no doubt she is embracing her mother Sharma’s side of the family in her glamorous pose on giant advertising billboards around Melbourne for the recently screened SBS series, Bollywood Star.
One of the exotic posters is in Hawthorn, one of many suburbs Roberts and her younger sister Lauren grew up in; the family moved house every year, renting in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs and briefly in Sorrento.
Roberts swapped schools often and says she found it difficult to settle in.
The constant in her life was dance. “Tap was my favourite because it was the loudest. I used to practise on the bathroom tiles and get in trouble.”
Alongside dance she has added skills in stage and TV acting, singing and TV presenting, and mixes music as a resident Saturday-night DJ at a Crown nightclub.
In her gap year between high school and the uni career she planned but didn’t pursue, Roberts taught English in China for a year. Her high-school Japanese lessons proved useful when she auditioned for a Disney stage production and won work in Tokyo.
“I guess they thought I looked like Princess Jasmine from Aladdin. I sang A Whole New World in Japanese and sat on a moving carpet. Working for Disney was such a great job; they pay very well, put you in an apartment and pay you an allowance. I got to go to work and be a princess every day.
“My sister Lauren visited me in Tokyo for my 21st birthday. We travelled to Kyoto and Osaka and we went to a photo studio to dress up as geishas.”
Roberts’ résumé of acting and dancing roles and an audition for three Indian judges in Sydney took her past hundreds of hopefuls and onto a plane for the trip to Mumbai as one of the Bollywood Star finalists.
“For my audition, I wrote a monologue about a butterfly,” she says. “I made an analogy that I had this cocoon when I was younger and then I finally grew into my skin and became a butterfly.
“I spoke about my grandfather and how I was teased when I was younger about being Sri Lankan and wearing saris. I wish my grandfather could have seen me in my saris when I was on the show.”
In Mumbai, Roberts and the other five finalists studied intense acting and dance training, absorbed the extremes of wealth and poverty in Indian life and met stars of Bollywood films.
As one of the final four, Roberts had a “sleepover” with a family in the slums of Dharavi, famous for its potters, to add to her exposure to Indian culture. She slept on the floor and helped her host family move hundreds of pots to the kiln as part of the day’s work.
Bombay rock: Bollywood Star contestants Sarah Roberts (left), Rickardo Wesley (centre) and Lucky Singh perform for locals in Mumbai.
Finally, she auditioned for leading Indian director Mahesh Bhatt, who she says unnerved her with his silence as he studied her face. “You use your smile as a shield,” he told her. “Get rid of the mask.”
“It is overwhelming,” she says of her two weeks in India in a video diary about the show. “This place is teaching me to accept myself a little bit more and that you can be beautiful when you do that. The women here wearing saris look stunning, and that’s something pretty cool for me to see.”
Of the finalists, it was Gold Coast contestant Teigan Lloyd-Evans, 23, who won the prize of a prime role in Bhatt’s next movie, to be shot in India in December.
Film crews captured every moment of the contestants’ two weeks in Mumbai, and Roberts says she was anxious about seeing the edited result on television.
“I was quite honest when I was in front of the camera … but it was so confronting to watch the show and I got nervous every Saturday when it was on. You forget everything you said and did in Mumbai and I was hoping they would not show something that made me look like an idiot. There were so many hours of footage. Sometimes you just forgot the cameras were there.
“A friend and I were talking the other day about high school and I went to a tarot-card reader in Collingwood who said I was going to be in a Bollywood film. We thought it was a really strange thing to say at the time.”
Follow-up talks with casting agents in the Bollywood film industry may lead her back to Mumbai, but in the Roberts is now preparing to resume a role in a return season of a play for which she received rave reviews.
Fly-On-The-Wall Theatre director Robert Chuter cast Roberts in the Australian premiere of Alan Ball’s poignant play All That I Will Ever Be for its initial season in May this year at Chapel off Chapel in Prahran.
“We were going for an ethnic look and I wanted mixed races in the play,” Chuter says.
“I remember her saying once as a girl she tried to scrub her skin off because she was very ashamed of what she was. That interested me a lot.”
Roberts plays two characters, the only female roles in the play. Cynthia, in glasses, a dress and hair in a slick bun, is career-driven and refined. Beth, stoned and smoking weed, wears jeans and flowing hair and laughs uncontrollably in a seven-minute scene that Roberts says she had to “dig deep” to achieve every night.
“It’s a great script,” Roberts says. “It was written by the same guy who wrote True Blood and Six Feet Under and it’s extremely witty. But I did find it very challenging getting ‘stoned’ for 14 days in a row. It was hard to find things that were funny all the time.
“I study the Chubbuck technique with a teacher in Melbourne, Lyndelle Green. She helped me with a four-step process to make me feel stoned at the end of it. I had to imagine that my brain was fairy floss … that it was turned into mush. I used that a lot of nights.”
Backstage, as she released the bun and transformed into hippie Beth, “my scene partner lifted me up and tipped me over so that I was dizzy when I got back up, and not quite there. That helped, too.”
All That I Will Ever Be is Chuter’s 207th play, and he has directed for more than 30 years.
"I did find it very challenging getting 'stoned' for 14 days in a row. It was hard to find things that were funny all the time."
“In all the years I have been working with many actors I hadn’t met one with such an incredible work ethic as Sarah,” he says. “She arrives early, knows all her lines and her manners are impeccable. She smiles a lot, sometimes to hide any feelings or anger she might have.
“I think she’s got a big future. I’m interested to see the next role she takes on and what she chooses next to do.”
Green’s advice on getting any script is to adapt it to her own life.
“My character Cynthia in All That I Will Ever Be drinks bourbon on the rocks, so whenever I go out for a drink with friends I drink bourbon,” Roberts says.
She is often at Melbourne’s nightclubs and lounge bars mixing commercial house music solo or sharing the deck with her best friend, Kate Lister. As a duo, Vamp, they have co-written and recorded a single they hope to get played on Melbourne radio.
It’s not bourbon that keeps Roberts fired up; she has a thermos of chamomile tea and honey at the console.
“I dress up and try and take on a rock-star role … but I don’t tell anyone about the tea!”
Theatre » Sarah Roberts performs in season two of All That I Will Ever Be at Chapel off Chapel in Prahran. August 1-12. Bookings 8290 7000 » www.chapeloffchapel.com.au
Sarah wears a gown by Amaline Vitale
Hair & make up by Evelyn Farag
Styling by Tori Heywood-Smith