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Exclusive Interview with Melinda Shankar

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Talk Nerdy With Us had the pleasure of chatting with Canadian actress, model and Martial arts artist Melinda Shankar. Melinda is best known for portraying Alli Bhandari on Degrassi and Indie Mehta on How to Be Indie.

Read our interview below to get to know Melinda better!

Tell us a bit about Miss Conception.

“Miss Conception is an image consulting agency. It’s geared towards teens and essentially my demographic that I’ve acquired from my acting world. I mean, with social media in today’s society, everyone’s trying to compare each other to certain standards set from the media. Since I played a character (Alli) in the industry I have all these fans who say, “I wish I could have that. I wish I could look like you and have my hair like that.”

I just needed to have an outlook to use my social platform and give back in a sense. The purpose of Miss Conception is to work on self-esteem and promote confidence and personal empowerment. We focus on what makes you individual and unique versus what makes everyone the same.”

Because you are and have been in the spotlight for a long time, did that really affect your self-esteem growing up?

“I don’t think I had too much of a choice realizing a difference because, like you said, I’ve been on Degrassi for eight years. Prior to that, I was still involved in the industry, and I was young. You go into auditions and you’re not tall enough. I’ve heard I’m not “authentic brown” enough. I’m like, “What does that even mean?” Last time I checked I was very brown, but okay. [Laughs]. It’s just always about comparisons.

I’m very lucky that I have a really good salvation at home. My siblings keep me grounded and remind me just what’s important. Yes, it definitely has been a challenge, but now having the blessing of being on the other side of it, realizing and understanding it, that’s the reason I wanted to start Miss Conception. To just make it known that it’s absolutely worth it to just focus on yourself.”

Growing up, your dad owned a karate store. When did you first start doing martial arts?

“Ever since I could walk actually. My siblings had been involved for five or six years prior to me even being born. My dad was involved as well, so my sisters started first and then my dad was kind of like, “I have to drive these kids a couple of times a week anyway, so you might as well join.” By the time I was born, I didn’t really have a choice… [Laughs].

I’d pick my sisters up and go with my dad and then just play around for hours there. That developed into joining the class, which developed into “Now you have a black belt.” I was definitely with an older crowd, a more advanced crowd at a young age because I’d have to stay around for hours while my sisters and dad had their classes. Now we are all black belts, so we all just have different classes and take turns teaching at the school”

Did having a black belt also help with your self-esteem since you knew that you could defend yourself and that made you more powerful?

“Absolutely. I’m a small girl, I’m five feet tall. So everyone has this misconception that because you’re small or because you’re a girl that you’re not tough, you’re not strong, you’re not powerful. I have made it a point to defy those misconceptions of women. Especially as a young girl growing up in this kind of industry. It got to the point where I was not even allowed to fight girls anymore. I was disqualified indefinitely from fighting against girls. 

My dad was part of the legal board for the karate school because of his store. So he went and got this document drafted up saying “Will accept all liabilities, but she can’t not fight. She has to fight boys then if you won’t let her fight the girls in this division.”

So I spent most of my life fighting boys, which in turn has made me a stronger person. Even character-wise when meeting someone new, I don’t find I’m intimidated. I just treat people as an equal and I give that respect right back. I absolutely emphasize that with all of my friends, especially my friends in the public eye.

I think it’s pretty funny actually because if I’m hanging out with any of them we have martial art seminars. Currently I’m at Lyle and Olivia’s house. They’re at work and I’m just always here. We’re always together, but I often have little martial arts seminars with them. Every single girlfriend I have, it’s like I need to show them how to throw a solid punch just because, God forbid, something does happen, they need to know that they’re not vulnerable. I haven’t ever had to throw a punch, thank God, in all of my years, but in the event that it happens, I at least feel secure enough that I’m a bit prepared.”

Melinda could have kicked Leo’s butt, but Alli wasn’t as lucky, unfortunately.

“Absolutely. It was so hard to not have my reflexes just punch him right back. I’m very close with Alex who played Leo in real life. Every time something would happen, I’d be like, “But if this was me?” The directors are like, “Right, but right now, you’re Alli and you don’t know how to punch.” I’m like, “This is not pretty, guys. I’m really frustrated.” [Laughs].”

Why weren’t you allowed to fight girls anymore?

“The girls would cry [Laughs]. There are certain things that you can’t do. It’s unacceptable to punch or kick in the face area and I wouldn’t do that, but my body portions, my legs are really long for my body, so when I kick, naturally the only place that it hits is the side of your head. That’s fine. That’s acceptable, but often times, people would just say it was in the face. It’d be a wrong shot and then I would a get a warning. Once you get three warnings, you’re disqualified.”

My signature move is kicking because my arm span isn’t that long. I guess people caught on to that and every time I’d have a tournament or a competition, they would cry and say they got hit in the face. Then after a while, it was like, “Well, she’s kicking people in the face, so we can’t really have her fight anymore.” I never actually did kick people in the face, but then I got to fight boys, so that’s a way better scenario.”

It all worked out for you.

“Exactly!”

You did martial arts, karate and ballet. What made you want to pursue an acting career versus martial arts or dance?

“Well, I think the best part about them both is that I’ve always known that I was going to find a way to segue them all. I started ballet and karate at the same time. I started them both when I was three. I did it for hours every night. Like I said, I had the karate school, so while my friends would go out and play or do their social life after school, I’d go from school to either my own dance classes or teach karate for five hours. I was just a teenager, but I’d be teaching thirty year old men.

I felt like I kind of got that fix. When I wasn’t doing karate I’d be doing dance competitions all over North America. I loved it, but it was just time to start my next chapter.

My grandmother, she was an actress in South America and my great-grandfather was one of the first directors. He started one of the first production companies in South America that traveled. They had little performances and plays that they would just do in a third-world country where the entertainment world isn’t necessarily a priority. People were just trying to make money to feed their families.

My family just wanted to influence the importance of art and the art world, so I was really lucky to be exposed to that and know a bit about that beforehand. When I told my parents I wanted to start acting, it wasn’t a foreign world for them. They were able to just help me get situated and then I was really lucky how it turned out.

Since then, I’ve done a dance movie and gotten to do martial arts and some of my own stunts and things, so it does really go hand in hand. Moving forth, my ideal path for my career would be action roles. The only way for that to be taken seriously is with a heavy martial arts foundation, so my master plan is working out!”

Did you just twirl your fingers, and say “Muahahaha. My plan is working.”

“Exactly. With a cat across my lap.”

Did you ever think of doing stunt work had acting not worked out?

“Absolutely. When you’re acting on a set, they have stunt people come in for you. They don’t want the liability of you potentially getting hurt, but I find joy in doing my own stunts. Now I’ve developed a good relationship with stunt coordinators that they give me leeway and they talk to productions and let them know that I can do it. I’ve gotten the sense of both worlds now. I think it is so fun to just go and do stunts, but ideally I would like to act and do my own stunts.”

When you’re working out, do you have a workout playlist?

“I don’t have a specific workout playlist just because I do a variety of different workouts. They have different moods and different tones depending on what I want to do, but EDM music always gets me raging. I definitely work out to a lot of that.”

What’s been your best photo shoot experience?

“I started when I was sixteen years old on Degrassi and my character was in grade nine at the time on the show. Then I had a kids show called “How to be Indie” where I played thirteen years old on that show for a long time, so naturally with being short, everyone always just thought of me as younger.

The first photo shoot that I showed up on set and they had an attire that was just matching my specific personality as Melinda, not as a character or not as just an image that the public has formed. It was actually true to what I thought represented me, I think that was a pivotal point in my career. Also for me as a person just because I was realizing that this is a whole new step. I’m grown up and these are all going to be completely different experiences from what I’ve had in the past ten years.

It was just an exciting time that I was ready to take. Now I think the world is starting to understand me versus Alli. It’s funny because when I go out, sometimes people think they know me or they’ll bring certain things up. I’ll be like, “That was a character. That was definitely not me. That didn’t happen in real life. I don’t even know anything about that.” People just have it all mixed up and naturally so. I’ve been Alli in their eyes for eight years. When people get me as me. I think that’s just generally when I’m most excited for a photo shoot.”

I think Canadian shows actually cast more age appropriately. I feel like especially on Degrassi, everyone, give or take a couple of years, was really similar in age versus shows in the US like “One Tree Hill” or something where they’re ten years older.

“They’re 30 playing teenagers. It’s ridiculous. [Laughs].”

Exactly. What was your worst photo shoot experience?

“I’m really small and people don’t believe me when I say I’m the size that I am, for some reason. I often get to set and none of the clothes will fit me. Nothing at all whatsoever. The stylist will have to take clamps and just clamp them tight at the back so I have some type of shape, but it doesn’t usually end up looking like that. I think the worst photo shoots are the one’s with a bad tone. If you don’t feel like you look good, it kind of sets the tone off and the energy off within yourself.

I don’t necessarily have a “look good, feel good” mentality, but I mean that’s a very dominant part in your confidence. Your self-esteem is your appearance because that’s what people think of you, especially in this  industry. People are staring whether I want them to or not. They’ll  compare a good photo to a bad photo and they’ll have their opinions of me.

I had to do a photo shoot with the clothes that didn’t fit me and those were the pictures that everyone else was going to see, I think that just put me off a bit. I was very young at that time, so I didn’t really understand the importance of having to be vocal, have an opinion and the difference between standing up for yourself and being a diva.

I mean, that’s not something that I’ve ever been interested in. Now knowing the difference is the reason I started Miss Conception. I have workshops for people in the industry or that are trying to get into the industry. There are workshops for people who just want a general base knowledge of the industry and the do’s and don’ts. How to style your hair and makeup and wardrobe incase you have to do it.

I’ve gone to set before and the makeup artist just didn’t know how to properly do my face and make my skin color match. I had to secretly send my dad out to a local drugstore and I was like, “Dad, get this and this and this.” I have to do my own makeup. Thank God I knew how to do it because that was me in a movie. [Laughs]. 

That would have been my image. The importance of just knowing how to at least maintain yourself is something that I stress when I do my Miss Conception workshops. It’s your image at the end of the day and you have to protect it.”

When did you first learn how to do your own makeup?

“I think I was born knowing how to do makeup.  [Laughs]. I don’t know why. I have older sisters and a fairly girly mother, so when I was three, I started dance. If you know anything about dance competitions, you would know there’s a crap ton of makeup that has to go on the little girls. I had to start wearing a whole face of makeup at three and then with competitions all over the place, sometimes my mom wouldn’t be there and my family wouldn’t be there, so I would just do it myself and prefer to do it myself.

Just within my home life, I was always playing with makeup and doing makeovers on my friends, my mom and my sisters. Even to this day if we have to go out anywhere, I’m getting ready with them. It’s without a doubt that I have to do everyone’s hair, everyone’s makeup, style everyone’s clothes and then I get yelled at for being late and not being ready when I was just helping everyone else. [Laughs]. That’s the routine that happens in my household. I’ve just always been the one to know how to put together an outfit or a look or a mood.

I think that really just stems from my experience in the film world, because when you’re picking the wardrobe for a character, you’re not picking for yourself. I’ve had to learn how to separate and put myself in the shoes of the person I’m being dressed for. Sometimes I’ll get to set where and I’ll say, “I want to wear that.” They’ll be like, “Well, that doesn’t suit that character.” I’ve had to understand the difference of what a certain person would wear or what kind of clothes they would be interested in versus what I would want for myself. I think having all of that experience is why I wanted to start the image consulting agency.

You’ve filmed in Canada, but you’ve also filmed in L.A. and New York. Is it really different?

“Completely. I filmed mostly in New York and just a few things in L.A., but the difference is almost night and day and it’s sad. It shouldn’t be that way. In the States it’s “I want the power trip, I want to be the star, the number one on the call sheet,” I won’t say always, but it’s a very dominant mentality of “If you’re not the only one, then you’re not good enough.” I only can compare because it’s been multiple years, and different shows.

In Canada, I’ve left every production with a whole new family. I’ve kept on with them day in day out. It’s always just felt like a group collective effort versus anyone trying to be better than the other person or to have more. We’re all just very happy if someone gets an opportunity. I don’t know, maybe I’m very lucky, and I keep getting to work with the right people.

You might as well just enjoy the ride, and have a good day with a bunch of friends. You just happen to work together and enjoy the same career path. I feel like it’s a choice that you make. You can either go and set your energy and set a good tone with someone and just be yourself, do your job, stay professional and leave, or you can make it a mind game and a power trip.”

Do you have a process for getting into a character’s mindset?

“It depends on the depth and the severity of the storyline. There’s certain things that often times the storyline will reflect my own life and I don’t have to do too much work to get into the mindset because I know it so, so frequently and commonly. For the Alli-Leo storyline where there was something much heavier to handle and it was an abuse storyline, I wanted to do it justice. For me, I get to go home, take my Alli suit off and call it a day. For most people that go through that, that’s a real life experience. They don’t get to break free from that. That’s their reality.

I really just wanted to tread cautiously with that and do it justice. I asked the production for Alex and I to speak with guidance counselors to give us some kind of insight and mindset on what the mentality of an abuser and someone who’s being abused. To just give us tips how to behave, how to act, to get into the mindset like that. I definitely do my research if there’s a storyline that I don’t know much about. That was a sensitive subject. I wouldn’t want to do anything else other than justice and I hope we did.

I had four hours of prosthetic makeup for that. Even though it was fake makeup,  I would walk around with my beaten face on set, and everyone would treat me so much nicer. They’d run and open the door. The attention I was getting from that was insane considering it was just makeup, but they did such a real job on it that we all felt it.”

When you started Degrassi, you guys were doing twenty episodes a season and then it went to forty. How was it different? How did you guys manage forty episodes?

“It was insane. It was absolutely madness. You get caught in this whirlwind of just work mode and you don’t really realize how much time is passing. You just know that this is what’s asked of you and this is your career. This is your job and you just do what you’re told.

People always say, “Did you ever expect your life to turn out like this?” I’m like, “Absolutely not.” [Laughs]. I knew I wanted that. Of course, this has always been my goal. 

Ironically, Degrassi was the only show I wanted to be on growing up. I don’t watch much TV, but it was the only show that I would watch while doing my homework that I would rush home to see. I started at sixteen and I didn’t know if it was going to be one episode, two episodes, a season. Eight years later, here we are.

I left my hometown at sixteen. I left my dance girls right before competition season, I left my classes at my karate school, I left my real high school, I left my friends behind. I just went with the flow. I just let it all unfold and happen and I could not have asked for a more amazing experience. That’s not something you can ever plan. In this industry, there’s not much logic to it. You just have to feel it out and go with it.

Would you still film an episode every week?

“We filmed four episodes at a time. Four in eleven days. That’s our block filming. Often times what they would do is if we’re filming in the gym, we’d shoot all of the episodes that required the gym together. We would just do all of the scenes. Not even in chronological order, not even in story line order, nothing. We would just go and change after every scene. Run upstairs, change, run back down, do a scene from a whole different episode. It was up to us to understand where the character arcs were. We had to keep consistent with where the story line was and just stay fresh within ourselves.

It was madness considering when I first started, I didn’t know anything about the TV world. Most of my experience was modeling prior to that, so I didn’t really know much. I’m glad it wasn’t starting with the forty, then went to twenty because I got a gradual process and learning experience. By the time the forty came out, I was like, “All right. Bring it on. I’m ready for it.” [Laughs].”

It’s prepared you for everything! There’s not many other shows that do forty episodes a year.

“I honestly tell every single person that asks me that I feel like I just graduated from university, but it was like an entertainment industry university. Degrassi and Epitome Pictures from my first day on an actual set, gave me all the platforms and knowledge and experience I needed. I feel like I’m absolutely prepared for anything thrown my way. I can only confirm that because random things have gone haywire. I’ve filmed on other sets and they’ve been different, but nothing as extreme or bold as my first initial experiences on Degrassi.

It’s prepared me for absolutely everything and that’s exactly the reason that I started Miss Conception. I wish I had that workshop and knowledge right before I started. I wouldn’t have had to learn from the actual beginnings. I didn’t even have any acting training prior to Degrassi. It was my first thing television-wise. I made this “Acting Entertainment World for Dummies” book workshop of the basics and everything that everyone should know. I only made that because I started knowing nothing. Degrassi has prepared me for a lot. I’m so thankful!”

Do you have time to watch TV?

“Not a lot, but, none of my friends or family want to watch TV with me because I notice the technical things. I can’t really get involved in the story lines because I’ll be like, “Oh, the continuity on her hair. Oh, she was wearing that shirt and now she’s wearing that shirt. Look in the reflection. I can see the camera guy.” It’s ruined for me. [Laughs]. I find it really difficult to get lost in a story line unless it’s just effortless fun TV .”

Do you read graphic novels? 

“Absolutely. I just went to the Marvel Studios in May just to hang out with them and get to know them a bit because of Ms. Marvel. She looks very similar to me! She’s supposed to be short, she’s supposed to be a teenager and her story line is almost identical to my Degrassi story line except her double life is being a superhero.

I went and they gave me so many comics that I could not even bring them all home. I had to share them with my friends that were in New York and they were like, “You’re the best.” They’re all limited editions right from Marvel. I have the important ones that I’ve kept. I brought them on the plane and guarded with my life, but yes. I definitely read comics. [Laughs].”

What’s something you haven’t done that you want to try?

“In the fall if all goes well with my plans, ideally I’m going to be going to Thailand and going to different Muy Thai boxing schools. I’ll be learning a different style of martial arts. My sisters did that. They’re third degree black belts. I’m only a first degree. They went and just lived the Thai life. They went backpacking and fought different guys at different dojos and came back. They are just such amazing fighters. I mean, I’m never stopping my acting, but I think that my future, if I had it my way, would be action roles. It would only be in my best interest to have a balance in all things and honor all the different sides of me.

I’d like to incorporate it. If I come back a better fighter and if I have a role here, then I’m just ready to go. I’d like to do more traveling. It’s funny because I have traveled a lot. With Degrassi, we’ve been to Haiti and Ghana and Ecuador and the craziest places that I would have never gone to as a teen or ever, really. 

What I learned after finishing my time on Degrassi, is how to manage my own time and do what I want to do versus someone building my schedule for me. It’s a fairly exciting new time where I just get to do what I want. If I don’t have to do anything else, I’ll be going to Thailand to do Muy Thai in the fall.”

So you’re taking a break from acting?

“I definitely have many things that I want to do, Miss Conception is something I feel equally as passionate about. I also love exploring and being adventurous. I want to go climb mountains and stay in tree forts. I definitely have the natural hippie side to me that I love, which I need to balance my acting side because that world is so concentrated once you’re in it.

You don’t really have time to do anything. You don’t think for yourself, you don’t dress yourself, you don’t say the things you want to say, you don’t stand where you want to stand. I think in order to stay sane in this industry, you have to have a balance. I’m just learning to figure out what mine is, so until I find that … If the right role comes along, then I feel like that would be my natural next step, but until then, I’m just going with the flow. Whatever happens.”

 

Melinda’s Favorites

Type of chocolate? “Lindor. I’m such a chocolate person.”

TV show? “Right now, I’m obsessed with Orange is the New Black.”

Superhero? Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan. She’s one of the new Marvel characters. I just love her and everything she represents! I’m hoping they make a live action version so that I can be her. She looks like me.”

Makeup brand? “I don’t have a specific favorite because I like to use a bit of everything. If I had to pick one, there’s a brand called La Sante that specializes in South American skin tones. I use their foundations and stuff.” 

Lipstick color? “There’s a new bold one that I love called “Heroine” by MAC and it is purple. I never thought I’d ever be wearing purple lipstick until I saw this one. The shade is very elegant. That’s my summer color this year.”

Season? “Summer. I am not a winter person. Last winter, I hibernated with Lyle and Olivia, my cast members. We just stayed in, lit candles, watched documentaries, and meditated. We refused to go outside unless we had to. I was teaching them how to cook and be a chef and we just stayed inside. I refused to go out.”

Meal to cook? “I like to cook a lot, so that’s fairly difficult. Probably baked salmon with cream cheese, garlic, dill and lemon just because it’s healthy and I’m trying to always be on a healthy tip. That’s my favorite.”

Constellation? “One of my favorite apps on my phone that I bought is called “Starlight”. You literally just hold it up and it has all the constellations that you can see as you go and rotate it. Even if you point it down to the ground, you see the constellations through the other side. What would be there. I can’t pick one. That would be difficult, but if I had to pick one that I always search for, it would be my Aquarius sign. 

I’m also obsessed with the moon and finding the moon. After a stressful day on set or anything, I just need to go outside and just stare up at the sky. It sounds fairly strange, but it’s just one of those things that instantly calms me down.

I should be Starlight’s spokesperson because I’ve turned so many people on to this app and I’m obsessed with it. I was in New York the other day and I was just staring at my phone. Some person came up to me and they were like, “Are you lost? Are you looking at a map?” I was like, “No. I’m looking at the stars.” That’s when they were like, “Uh, okay.” I was like, “I don’t even care. I need a moment right now with the stars.” [Laughs].”

Book? “I read a lot of textbooks. In my library in my room, I have so many astrology books. They’re all dream dictionaries. I have this birthday book that is my favorite. It’s more a novel. Basically it has every single day in there of the year and it breaks down the person’s birthday, character traits, everything. It’s so specific. It’s not one zodiac sign for the whole month or two months. It’s always so creepy after it. You can tell. Whenever I meet someone now, I’m like, “What’s your birthday?” Then I look in my book and I feel like I know everything about them. So far, I have not been wrong.”

Degrassi memory? “There have been so many. Forty eight episodes times eight seasons. That’s a lot of memories. Some of my favorites are from the first episodes just because they were the most insane memories that have ever happened to me, being a sixteen year old. Definitely the purple vibrator story line. That was a fun experience for a child. [Laughs]. Considering that was one of my first episodes and telling your grandfather and everyone, “Watch this episode.” Then I’m like, “Never mind. Don’t watch! It’s a bad episode. It’s the one after that.”

That story line was definitely fun and then there was one shortly after that in the same first season that I was on, season eight, where we had to have a snake in the tent. We filmed until 3:00 in the morning and it was raining in the story line, so we were just soaked and we were camping. Then we had this snake that was supposed to let loose in my tent, but at one point, we actually lost the snake. I was actually having a heart attack, but they were rolling and they were like, “That was good. Cut!” I was like, “No. You lost the snake. That was real.” I think they ended up using that take because they were like, “The emotions are so real.” I’m like, “No. That was a genuine panic attack. I’m dying right now.” [Laughs].”

Relationship that Alli has been in on Degrassi? “She’s definitely had many. That was always fun on set. Going to the read throughs and going through this section, looking up and being like, “You’re next” to all the boys. 

I’d pick Leo and Alli. I know that sounds twisted because of the nature of the story line, but just having such a crazy character arc to balance with, which is true to situations that someone out of high school like Alli, who thinks she’s an adult and has it all together could face. She fell in love in France, it was beautiful and romantic and finally, a dominant man versus a school boy.

That was all she’s ever wanted because she’s boy crazy. Then he ended up being aggressive, but she finds it as a sign of affection and endearment. Then the repercussions after that are just so heavy and almost unexpected. I just really enjoy the whole experience of having to put myself in someone else’s shoes. I think playing Alli has helped me personally avoid so many issues because I didn’t really ever get to experience any of these typical high school or teenager experiences firsthand. I’ve lived through my character who happens to have an array of them, so I just got to learn from her mistakes.”

Tell us two truths and one lie about you.

“I can tell the weather with my hips when it’s going to rain. I was a tomboy growing up. I’m obsessed with astrology.”

Fans now it’s your turn to vote for which answer you thinks is the lie! Follow @TalkNerdyWithUs to find out the correct answer!

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