In the realm of Hollywood, few individuals possess a resume as diverse and exceptional as Salma Qarnain. An award-winning Pakistani-American actor, producer, rocket scientist, and co-founder of Black Man Films, Salma has emerged as a force to be reckoned with, revolutionizing the entertainment industry while championing authentic representation and inclusivity.
An Ivy League scholar, Salma’s academic journey took her through esteemed institutions such as Stanford, MIT, and Harvard, where she honed her brilliance in the sciences and business. As if that were not impressive enough, she has seamlessly transferred her intellect and passion to the TV/Film industry, making a profound impact as both a producer and actress.
With an illustrious career spanning two decades, Salma has garnered numerous accolades, including two Helen Hayes Awards and an AUDELCO nomination. Her work has graced major networks like CBS, ABC, NBC, HBO, HBO Max, and Hulu, in addition to captivating audiences in off-Broadway productions. Now, she celebrates a monumental career breakthrough as she joined the cast of the Broadway play, Life of Pi, a groundbreaking adaptation of the acclaimed 2012 motion picture. In the play, Salma portrays not just one but two dynamic South Asian characters, Mrs. Biology-Kumar and Muslim cleric Zaida Khan. Life of Pi marks a pivotal moment for representation on Broadway, being the first production centered around South Asian characters since Bombay Dreams in 2004.
Despite her successes, Salma remains steadfast in her commitment to pushing the boundaries of inclusivity and representation in Hollywood. As the co-founder of Black Man Films, a company she runs alongside fellow actor Roderick Lawrence, she uses the platform of film to spark crucial conversations often overlooked by mainstream cinema. Black Man Films merges art with activism, producing films highlighting the Black American experience and offering developmental opportunities to burgeoning Black and Brown talent behind and in front of the camera.
Silent Partner, a film orchestrated by Salma from conception to launch, serves as a shining example of their commitment to creating impactful cinema. The project dominated the film festival circuit, earning acceptance into 19 festivals, including four Oscar qualifiers, and garnered eight awards and nominations, qualifying for an Oscar.
Salma Qarnain’s indomitable spirit, intellect, and dedication to authentic representation in Hollywood have propelled her to the forefront of the industry. With every project she undertakes, she paves the way for a more inclusive future, where diversity and innovation coalesce to redefine the entertainment landscape. As Salma continues to break barriers and challenge norms, her influence and transformative impact on the entertainment world only continues to soar.
Salma recently had an exclusive interview with StarCentral Magazine to delve into her remarkable journey within the entertainment industry. Here’s a glimpse of what unfolded during the conversation.
Can you tell us more about yourself? How did you get started in the entertainment industry?
I was born to Pakistani parents and emigrated to the US as a child. My grandfather was actually a filmmaker in India and Pakistan, but he passed away at a relatively young age, leaving my father’s family unstable financially. My mother always had a love of theater as well, performing in stage plays. However, as immigrants to the US, they instilled upon us that we needed to be financially stable, and that meant not having a career in the arts, even though my dream was to sing and act. College is where I really began to pursue these dreams – you could either find me in the lab or in the student-run theatrical society at Stanford called Ram’s Head. I then received a fellowship to attend MIT for Aeronautics/Astronautics, and I used some of that stipend to pay for voice lessons. So, it was something that I was building, albeit slowly, while building stability for myself and my family.
What do you like most about acting?
I love the rush of performance and embracing different parts of the human experience. It’s something that I love to do. Embodying characters different from myself, especially those bolder than myself, encouraged me as a shy child to become more outspoken and build a stronger empathy for others. You have to be open enough to learn what it means to embrace and identify with others’ experiences. Acting is also a collaboration – I enjoy working with a team to bring a creative vision to life. I have grown tremendously as a person and as a professional through it. The Salma you would have met 20 years ago is not the same Salma as today.
How different is it to act in a movie and to act in a TV series? And which one do you prefer?
Movies afford you time, whereas TV moves quickly. With a film, you can dig into the character and create a strong point of view in collaboration with the director, cinematographer, and fellow actors who are your scene partners. You get the luxury of a rehearsal process. On a TV show, your scene may change the same day, and you have to bring a character to life quickly. I long for the day that I am a series regular again (when I first moved to NYC, I booked a series regular on a web series that HereTV then picked up, called “People You Know”), because I love to be a part of the world building on a TV show with the writers. Honestly, I don’t prefer one over the other – what I care about is that I am in a free and collaborative space in which my voice is heard and respected and that I am doing work that is meaningful to me and will touch audiences.
What are your weak points when it comes to acting? How do you try to improve them?
Do you ask all actors this? (laughs) I truly believe that on my worst day, I’m a 7/10, and that’s still pretty good. But I am always working to improve. If I didn’t love the learning process, I wouldn’t still be in this business because with acting, you are constantly learning, growing, and stretching. To improve, I study others I admire and inspire me, and then I also work with acting and vocal coaches that I trust to give me feedback to improve my work. When I am doing theater, I tend to make bigger gains because I am actively working on the scenes and discovering new things about my work every day. Strength training is also something that I do to keep my mind in working order – a healthy body/healthy mind.
What are your strong points as an actor?
Probably the biggest thing is that I can learn and grow, so I feel my work gets more nuanced and more flexible. I used to perform more drama but have also found myself in comedy and have recurred on “That Damn Michael Che” on HBO Max. I think that my collaborative mindset allows me to be open to change and remain in the moment as an actor – responding authentically to what is being given to me at any moment.
What have you learned from the directors that you have worked with throughout your career?
That I don’t need to push. Relaxation is the key to presence, and the camera picks up every thought. When I’m relaxed, I am flexible enough to take in the world around me and my performance is more full, because I am focused on what I need to communicate versus on myself, which gets in the way of authentically living the situation in the scene and within the given circumstances.
What are some of the difficulties of the acting business?
Not knowing when your next job is and not having a stable income stream. You are an independent contractor who is always hustling for your next gig. That is why I am finding more stability on the producing side with Black Man Films. Roderick Lawrence (currently Ike Turner on Broadway’s Tina: The Tina Turner Musical tour) and I co-founded our production company, Black Man Films, in August of 2020 and have since created two narrative shorts that have performed well on the festival circuit (Oscar-qualified “Silent Partner” and Dances with Films: LA Grand Jury Prize winner “Speak Up Brotha!”), have EP’d a third that is in post-production (“Harlem Fragments”) and are now producing our first feature film based on our short “Silent Partner.” We control our time and the type of work that we do. Having that kind of ownership is invaluable.
What’s challenging about bringing a script to life?
From an acting perspective, it’s finding the time to do all the preparatory work I need. If the story is based on a true situation, I like to make sure I research what went on, who was involved, and how things unfolded. But with any script, the first thing I do after reading it is think about how each scene fits into my character’s journey – what do I want at the beginning, has it changed over the course of the piece, and what I’ve discovered by the end. From there, it’s about breaking it down into what my character wants in each scene. Not to mention the text work on figuring out your beats, builds, and the operative words for the scene to make sense. So it’s a process.
From a Producing perspective, bringing a script to life starts with finding the right teammates who are aligned with the script’s vision and will elevate the script alongside you. That’s the biggest challenge.
What do you do when you’re not filming/rehearsing?
I love to spend time with my 10-year-old son and meet up with friends. If I had more time these days, I’d probably travel more and finish the Ph.D. waiting in the wings for me.
What has been the most memorable experience of your career so far?
Starring in “Life of Pi” on Broadway. It had been my dream as an actor for so long – I’d walk around Times Square and say to myself, wouldn’t it be amazing to come here every day as my job? And that is just what happened. As a Pakistani-American who spent the first part of my career in engineering, I couldn’t have asked for a better role than Pi’s favorite science teacher, making my Broadway debut alongside 18 others and within the largest Asian-American cast on Broadway!
Who have been the most interesting people you’ve met so far?
Acting and producing have allowed me to work and form friendships with so many interesting people from all walks of life. For example, it has just been a gift to work with the entire cast of “Life of Pi” as well as co-starring alongside my producing partner Roderick Lawrence in Off-Broadway’s “Bars and Measures.” But one memory that sticks with me is improvising with Colin Jost on “That Damn Michael Che.” I felt like I was performing on SNL! It was a magical day. Also, having Mariska Hargitay whisper into my ear on “Law and Order: SVU” and being held by Aaron Paul while being pulled out of a burning building on “The Path” were both quite memorable.
If someone is going to make your life into a movie, who would play you?
Someone unknown – a Muslim, Pakistani-American actress. However, I have an idea for a short film based on my experiences starring my younger sister, who is an incredible actress and voice artist – Zehra Fazal. It might be time to pull that draft script out of the drawer and dust it off!
What are your future plans? Inside your career or out of it.
This year, I’ll be producing my first feature film with my production company Black Man Films. And then? I just want to keep telling stories that change hearts and minds and have incredible fun doing it. Other than that, I want to prioritize my happiness. We only get this once.