If you went back to Ray Panthaki’s early twenties, you’d see a very different man. The actor gives me a call from his home in the UK, and at 41 years old he has new-found motivation: “I want to be able to help others as much as possible,” he says.
Like most, the lockdown in light of the coronavirus pandemic weighed heavy on Ray, but it’s this purpose that kept him focused. “What motivates me now, is probably different to what motivated me when I started out,” he says. “As I’ve worked on myself more in the last few years spiritually, I’ve started to realise what motivates my decisions, is being able to do work that’s going to inspire. Do work and create art that can change the world in some way or give a voice to the voiceless.”
There’s something different about this interview than most I’ve done as the digital editor for Men’s Health. Ray and myself are both of Indian descent. I can’t help but feel a deep sense of pride joining the millions of Indians he’s giving a voice to in the latest Netflix series Away, which sees him star alongside Hollywood giants like Hilary Swank.
Ray has a sense of pride, too. No more like the man in his twenties, it is not all about him or his Oscar-winning dreams, he says. Rather, now more than ever, representation is needed in Hollywood. And Away, which sees astronauts from all walks of life suit up for a trip to Mars, is one of the most inclusive shows on TV.
COMING TOGETHER IN WORLDS APART
“[Representation] is really important,” says Ray, who carries a warm and insightful demeanour. “I’m happy that things are changing slowly but surely. One of the things that appealed to me about this show was the diversity. It’s high time something so mainstream was representative. And what’s more beautiful about this is that these people, from different cultures, races, religions and sexualities are coming together for something far greater than themselves. Away shows what happens when we put earthly politics aside for a moment and make it about humankind. For me, that’s the beauty about it. It’s a huge part of the show’s core.”
Away shows what happens when we put earthly politics aside, it’s about humankind.
The show is not your everyday alien-crushing saga, rather it is a deeply moving drama about the human experience. One that shows the trials and tribulations of being apart from one’s loved ones. And in a strange twist of fate, it feels as if it were made to watch under lockdown – as the world suffers from a similar experience of loneliness. In this regard, Ray says he found himself strangely prepared for lockdown in the UK.
“When I arrived last year in Vancouver to shoot the show, it was the longest time I’d been away from home, away from my loved ones,” he says. “I arrived and immediately felt an extreme sense of loneliness.
“But the strangest pre-cursor was, on my flight over to Vancouver, I’m reading the New York Times and there’s an article about the worldly epidemic of loneliness. And this article begins to move me, move me so much because I just never appreciated and realised how many people in the world are suffering with it,” he adds. “I arrived in Vancouver and within a week I’m feeling the same thing, unable to speak to my loved ones or share a stressful day when I wanted to.
“But it all started to tie together in some poetic way, not only was I able to use it as a facet for my character but when I got back to London and lockdown kicked in, I felt a bit more prepared than most.”
Nowadays, Ray’s routine has shifted and he’s still getting used to Zoom calls. “I still find it weird, I’ve always needed human connection, I guess I just need to physically feel the energy of the person I’m speaking to. But this is the kind of world we’re living in,” he says. “It’s a dichotomy, the beauty of Away is that it’s about humankind coming together. And yet, through this pandemic we’re apart, but it means people are at home and able to watch it and receive what it’s saying.”
GETTING FIGHTER PILOT FIT
The drama underscores the value of family and relationships. Ray’s character Ram Arya is one who loses his family at a young age and goes on to become a quick-thinking fighter pilot who joins the team to Mars.
But in real life, Ray’s dad was in the air force with a background in the military. With Ray, who was born in London, drawing inspiration from his dad to play Ram. His dad spent ‘many an hour’ talking him through his experiences.
“My father was actually in the air force himself, so I was able to draw a lot of nuance from him. The thing that intrigues me about fighter pilots is that these guys have to be some of the most quick-thinking humans on the planet,” he says. “You have to make split-second decisions that could literally mean life or death and I really wanted to get into that mindset.”
But getting mentally prepared for the role was just one aspect of the job. Being fighter pilot fit and acting in a world of zero gravity, took some serious work. “The other extreme training that came from the show was the wire work we used to represent zero gravity, that was something,” says Ray.
The actor was only notified weeks before shooting began that he needed a strong core for the wire work required on set, in order for characters to look as if they were in space. He had to be prepared. And for starters, that meant 200 sit-ups a day.
“We got a little heads up two weeks before we started shooting,” he says. “It was to say ‘you need to work on your core because we’re doing wire work’. So cut to me at home attempting 200 sit-ups a day, every day, and of course there’s only so much you can do in two weeks.”
Building his body was a slow but steady process, masterfully planned by stunt coordinator Jeffery Aro and team. “I got there and we got introduced to these wires. I remember getting into them on day one and at first you can hardly stand up in these things. I just remember thinking, how the heck am I going to be flying and doing flips in two week’s time? Impossible.
“But we had an amazing stunt team, they took us through a series of exercises. Every day doing a little bit more and within a few days you find yourself balancing better, a few days later you’re bending forward, and eventually you can spin and then by the end you’re showboating,” he says.
Shoot to two weeks later and Ray says it felt like they were in Cirque du Soleil. “We’re high up in the in studio, doing spins and I’m discovering muscles in my body that I never knew existed, it really is an extreme workout.
There were times that were taxing. But it looks authentic and was the right way to do it.
“You have your astronaut suit on which weighs a ton, and then you’re hanging horizontally, trying to deliver lines with the integrity of the character while your abs are shaking, it was hard!” he recalls. “There were times that were really taxing. But it looks authentic and was the right way to do it.”
After all, it was worth it in the end. “I left set with a six-pack and I’ve never had a six-pack in my life!”
LESSONS FROM HILARY SWANK
Hillary Swank, who plays the space team’s commander Emma Green in the show, took the lead in real life, too. “In 25 years of doing this, I probably learnt more from her in seven months of shooting. Of course we all know she’s an amazing actor but first and foremost she’s an incredible human being,” says Ray.
“A lot of people give this cliché on film sets but I really mean it about this one. I felt like I was part of a family with these guys and I like to think it shines on-screen. They’re a talented bunch of actors,” he adds. “We were filming in an isolated space, beautifully led by Hilary. She guided me through a lot of this show and I’m grateful to her.
If any actor should be directing movies, it should be Hilary Swank.
“Not only is she a fearless leader in the show, she’s a fearless leader on set and very collaborative. If there’s any actor that should be directing movies it should be her, she’s got an unbelievable wisdom and instinct when it comes to filmmaking. And she’s all about the other actor, much more concerned about you hitting your light than herself.
“Every set should have Hilary Swank energy! It’s contagious.”
MAKE YOURSELF UNDENIABLE
To aspiring actors of colour, make yourself undeniable if you want to make the big time, says the Away star. Many can learn from the path of the BAFTA Breakthrough Brit, who made his own movies when roles didn’t open up.
“I started making my own movies because I kept hitting a glass ceiling and knowing myself that I could be a leading actor,” he says. “Early in my career I wasn’t getting the opportunities of being a leading actor when I felt I had the ability to be, whether that was mostly due to my skin colour with less opportunities back then.
“But I just thought to myself, I can stand here and complain about it and waste all that energy. Or I can use that same energy and go and create something and make myself undeniable. And that’s what I decided to do, thankfully it paid off.”
The actor says that if you have a dream, you should always aim for it and believe in yourself. “With the accessibility we have in the world right now, if you find the doors are closing or you’re hitting a glass ceiling, do what I did. It’s a lot easier now because we have access to cameras, we have access to equipment, all that is more affordable,” he says. “You can make a movie on an iPhone and so I would say make your own content, if you have a dream and people don’t give you the opportunity to realise that dream, take that dream to them and make yourself undeniable.”
WATCH AWAY ON NETFLIX FROM 4 SEPTEMBER 2020