Why She’s On Our Radar: It takes talent to stand out in an ensemble that includes the likes of Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton and Tom Wilkinson; and newcomer Tena Desae does just that in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (in theaters this Friday via Fox Searchlight). In the crowd-pleasing romp, directed by John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love,” “The Debt”), Desae plays a call center receptionist in Jaipur, dating the young head of a new hotel (“Slumdog Millionaire” star Dev Patel) that hosts retirees from overseas.
The film, already a huge hit in the UK, marks Desae’s English speaking breakthrough. The 25-year-old got her start by taking part in the Indian reality TV show “Get Gorgeous,” a modelling contest in the vein of “America’s Next Top Model.” “The reality bit of the show was a nightmare,” Desae told Indiewire in New York. “The fights that they wanted to get you into were very stressful. They only let us sleep three hours a night, so you’re bound to be cranky.” Despite not winning in the end, Dasae still walked away with a contract with Elite Model Management that led her to move to Mumbai, where she started her work as a model.
After two years in Mumbai, Desae made the move to acting, landing a slew of commercials, two Bollywood films (“Yeh Faasley” and “Sahi Dhanhe Galat Bande”), and a key supporting part in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”
Did you just fly into New York for your press day and premiere?
No I’ve been here for the past week! I wanted explore. I love Victoria Secret! [Big laugh] That’s reason enough to live here. It’s been great. I did the whole tour so I got to see Radio City Music Call, the Chrysler Building, Empire State, Brooklyn Bridge — all the touristy things.
Everyone goes on about how Bombay is so similar to New York, so I had see what the big deal was. The bustling crowds are the same, but it’s a lot quieter, it’s a lot cleaner and it’s not humid. I think the energy is very similar to Bombay. I was telling my friends, I’m in New York but it’s not overwhelming, because it’s so similar to Bombay in many ways.
When you were starting out in India, did you have the intention to break into the English-speaking market?
No, I didn’t even think about it. You don’t, because it doesn’t happen. I think “Slumdog” was probably the first big film that happened in India, but even that seemed like a one-off thing. So it’s really great that it’s happening. “Mission Impossible” shot a little bit in India, so there’s a lot of interest now. I love that. I never thought I’d do anything in the West. Now I have and I love it. I really hope I can do more. I still want to continue with my Hindi films because that’s also fun.
Let’s talk about the Freida Pinto connection for a sec. Both you and her starred alongside Dev Patel in your breakthroughs, and modeled before becoming actors. Comparisons will inevitably be made…
[Laughs] We were both with the same agency initially! I haven’t’ been in touch with her since she did “Slumdog.” I think the last I spoke to her was when she was leaving for Toronto and getting her Visa in time so she could make it for the festival.
Dev’s like the lucky one. Come on, do you thing.
Given that this is only your third film, how nervous were you to share the screen with the likes of two Dames?
We were cracking jokes the whole time! It was just a very easy-going set. It was very light hearted. It’s also a comedy, so everyone was having a lot of fun. I wasn’t gearing up to cry for three hours.
The film’s indeed pretty light-hearted for the most part, but your character’s struggle to be accepted by her boyfriend’s family is handled pretty seriously.
Well that’s common unfortunately; arranged marriages still happen in India. My friend had to just break up with his girlfriend because she’s Christian, and his parents want him to mary a Bunt, which is their community. That’s still happening. I get a happy ending in the film.
Right now, you’re undergoing the opposite journey of what Judi Dench and co. go through in the film. What’s your game plan now that this has been such a big hit in the UK?
I don’t plan, because everything goes against my plans anyways. There’s absolutely no point in planning anything. I’m just enjoying the moment. I’m meeting with a whole lot of people — casting directors, directors, agents. I have things going on everywhere, but I have no solid plans.