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The Lankan-born American White

By Kavishna Wijesinghe

Bernard White is a Sri Lankan-born American actor, screenwriter, and film director who is popular for his work in over 30 feature films. White played a leading role in Quarantine (2008) and his other memorable roles include “Agha Babur” in American Dreamz (2006) and “Rama-Kandra” in The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003). His bubbly personality has helped star in The Scorpion King (2002), City of Angels (1998), and several independent films; including Killing Obsession (1994), The World Unseen (2007), and TV series like Silicon Valley (2014-2019) and The Blacklist (2018). White spoke to Junkyard Theory a few weeks back about his sweeping career.

The Sri Lankan in White

White was born in Kandy, Sri Lanka – back when the country was known as Ceylon, he happily recalled. As they were Burghers, his father foresaw the ethnic conflict and took them to Warsaw, Indiana in the US to protect them from any turmoil. His father, Stanley White whose brother happens to be the Sri Lankan Olympian Duncan White, instilled in them the belief that they were Caucasian, as fair skin was treated well in that context. He even wrote a book called Struggle and Trial about the journey they made all the way to America. White admits that coming from a Sri Lankan origin to become an American actor is out of the ordinary.

Further, he went on explaining about his attempt to make a movie inspired by his uncle but how it was turned down by multiple people. However, his idea is still there, and he is determined to make the movie inspired by his life story.

Doors to Brown people

According to White, the opportunities for Brown folk in Hollywood have increased with time. People’s refusal of stereotypes has encouraged the appearance of talented people like Aziz Anzari, Kavi Raz, and Persis Khambatta who was known for the role of Lieutenant Ilia in Star Trek (1979) in Hollywood.

However, back in the day, White’s role models were far from any Brown person. It was James Dean, Robert De Niro, and Dustin Hoffman. As he explained, there were not many opportunities for Brown people to take roles in movies before the 9/11 incident. He played roles of terrorists for some good movies and did a TV show called The Unit where David Mamet was an Executive Producer. Even though White received a more humanised character on that show, he ended up shooting people which he said he couldn’t put his mind through as the world was too complicated for him to perpetuate it. Yet, sometime later he got more opportunities with Silicon Valley.

Playing roles

When questioned about the roles he played in The Matrix, Silicon Valley, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, he explained that it was a combo of luck and hard work. He was reluctant to play Denpok Singh in Silicon Valley initially as he was worried whether he would have to put on a stereotypical Indian accent for the character. Anyway, his agent convinced him into playing the role and Bernard was surprised at the unusual direction in which his character was taken.

Moreover, through the character of Rama-Kandra in The Matrix, he gave people an insight of love and how machines and humans interact, which is “a beautiful thing” he recalled. In the new movie The Matrix Resurrections (2021), he hoped that there will be much more about the same elements hopefully.

Prepping for a character

White stated that prepping for a role was something that has gradually changed with time, “with appearance and everything”. As he learned over the years, he always believed that the approach to acting is purely spiritual. Therefore, he practices dreamwork; spiritual awakening through consciousness before he takes on a character. He explained how it helped him in being grateful always while “being in the now”.

White concluded the interview wishing to see movies made in his motherland, as he was not very familiar with them but that he would like to be. His advice for filmmakers was to stay true to who you are and tell stories which are authentic. 

The full interview with Bernard White is available on the Junkyard Theory YouTube channel.
Junkyard Theory is Sri Lanka’s first and only film education platform that brings on veteran filmmakers from Hollywood as guest speakers. Their webinars, hosted by Akash Sunethkumara, have been recognised on industry sites such as “No Film School”, and the team now runs film courses for upcoming filmmakers in the country.