Why this engineer and beauty pageant winner left McKinsey to pursue acting and modeling (and how she got her foot in the door while working full-time at McKinsey)
This interview is with Melanie Kannokada, a film and television actress and model who divides her time between Hollywood and Bollywood. She has appeared in CBS’s “Rules of Engagement,” ABC’s “The Nine Lives of Chloe King,” and NBC’s “Parenthood,” and she most recently played the title role in the independent feature film “Love, Lies & Seeta.” Melanie was crowned Miss India America in 2007 and is currently the face of Bare Escentuals Cosmetics. (Download the audio recording of this interview.)
- Stanford undergrad
- Miss India America
- Model and actress
Q. Tell us about your background.
A. Sure, I’m 26 years old, I received my mechanical engineering degree from Stanford University, and after graduating I worked as a business analyst at McKinsey & Company before breaking off to pursue my passion for the arts.
Q. Tell us how your career path has taken you to your current work.
A. I’ve always wanted to be an actress. It was a childhood dream of mine, but I had no idea how I was going to make that happen. I grew up in a very conservative Indian household in the Midwest, and the arts as a career option was never really a possibility for me.
My path was to focus on academics and pursue the sciences or law or engineering. So I was very fascinated with math and science when I was young. And becoming an engineer seemed like the most respectable profession out there that was catered to me.
So I ended up pursuing my engineering degree, but along the way in grade school and high school and even college, I would always take part in our school variety shows. And it gave me a chance to perform, and I absolutely loved it.
I was also a dancer in college and did some dancing in high school as well, and it gave me another venue to perform onstage.
Now fast forward, after I received my mechanical engineering degree, I got accepted into the Mayfield Fellows Program, which is a high-tech fellowship for 12 engineering students at Stanford interested in entrepreneurship.
At the time, I was working at digital media startup, and there was this pageant notice that came about for Miss India America. I’m of Indian origin, and another classmate of mine who had done a similar contest in the past told me, “Melanie, you should definitely do this. No matter where you want to go in life, it’s a great platform to have and it’s just a wonderful experience.”
So I went ahead and did that and I happened to win that, and it was a very exciting moment. It gave me a first glimpse into the entertainment world. That experience also gave me some exposure into the acting and modeling worlds.
But I set it aside and decided to go get a “real job,” and I had this great offer from McKinsey & Company in New York so I decided to go do that.
A couple months before I started work at McKinsey, I had some time to explore the New York arts scene. And from the attention I got at the pageant, I was offered to screen test for an on-air hosting position for a local Indian network there that aired in India as well as the U.S.
I got the part and I began hosting that show and another show, and then I got invited to host yet another show for a larger network. So, again, my creative juices were flowing, I was really excited, I was told I was a natural at this, and I was even making somewhat of an income.
Then I started receiving a few modeling opportunities along the way, and I experimented with that and started to build up a portfolio.
But then McKinsey came along and I decided to push that aside for a little bit and focus on work. Working at McKinsey was an invaluable opportunity. I loved it. I learned so much and I was around brilliant people.
But part of me missed this other career of mine. And so I started taking acting courses and exploring it a little further. I met a writing partner, Rajiv Satyal, and we started writing comedy sketches together and hosting events. And that was another venue for me to perform.
And soon enough, while I was in the middle of my McKinsey career, I got approached by a young agent at William Morris Endeavor, which is one of the top talent agencies in the nation, who saw my work and told me it was very good and that I was very unique, and that I should consider doing this full-time if it’s something I wanted to do.
I said that my heart says it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but I never knew it would even be a possibility. So he said, keep doing what you’re doing, training on the side, exploring on the side outside of work. And whenever you’re ready to leave your job, let me know.
So I continued that. I was taking classes in the evenings. I was shooting things on the weekends. I was creating my own content. I also joined a dance company in New York to continue that as well.
And my heart grew more and more attached to that life than the life I was living at McKinsey. McKinsey definitely satisfied the intellectual vigor within me, but the creative side of me was completely energized, and I couldn’t deny it.
It got to the point where I was getting a lot of traction in the entertainment world, meaning I had some great modeling agencies approaching me and wanted to submit me for auditions. I was receiving offers for independent films. And I found there was more potential than I even realized, and I had the support of a great talent agency.
So through a series of moments I realized, “Hey, this is something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s my childhood dream and I can see it happening. I can visualize it. I have the money saved up. I have a group of supporters cheering me on. Why don’t I do this?”
I consulted with some people internally at McKinsey, too — some of my former project managers and one of my mentors there.
And surprisingly, they were actually very, very supportive of it. I think they could see the light in my eyes when I began to talk about what I was doing. One of them told me, “McKinsey will always be here for you. You should do it.”
So I gave my notice and I left. And then I became a young girl pursuing her dream.
Q. While you were working a day job at McKinsey, how did you get those first few opportunities doing modeling and acting jobs?
A. That’s a very valid question. A lot of people kick start the engine in completely different ways, and there isn’t a right answer.
For me, it was as I was starting this TV hosting show; it was a South Asian program. And I would cover these South Asian media events and film festivals, or I would interview entrepreneurs or artists.
And through that, I started to build a network of people in the entertainment space. So that was a good starting point for me, and that’s how I started to receive smaller projects in modeling or short independent films, or learn about good acting classes.
So I pursued those leads. Once you get to the point where you want to actually go on proper casting, there are several resources if you don’t have an agent to do that.
This is what you should be doing before you get an agent: you need to find out the resources where there are castings and self-submit. There are plenty of resources to do that, and I could go on a long time explaining the logistics of that, but in a nutshell what you need to do is find active ways to build a body of acting work, or if you want to do modeling then find ways to do photo shoots so you can build your portfolio.
So for me, what happened was that, just through networking, I was able to absorb so much knowledge and find those resources, and find the good acting classes to take, and get connected to young filmmakers, or even student filmmakers who were shooting projects. And I would get involved that way.
Q. How did that first agent from William Morris find you?
A. He had actually come across the TV show I was hosting. It was a national cable show. Then he looked me up and realized he had a friend of a friend in common with me.
So one day I woke up and I saw this e-mail chain. It was this guy who e-mailed this person, who e-mailed another person to get in touch with me. And that’s basically how it worked out.
Q. What was the step-by-step process for how you left McKinsey to pursue modeling and acting full-time?
A. Absolutely. As I mentioned, when I left the firm, I had some internal champions at the company cheering me on. They knew I was heading in that direction and I was going to leave. It didn’t come as a surprise to anyone. So as I was transitioning out of McKinsey, I kind of had a game plan together.
These are the sorts of opportunities I’m going to go after: I had hosting experience; I have access to other hostings, castings, and opportunities. So I can go forward with that.
I knew some modeling agencies and I had some friends who were models as well. So I’m going to reach out to them and I’m going to get an agent. And I knew how to peruse the industry trades and submit myself for castings.
I had already been doing some paid modeling work while I was at McKinsey, so that was an income stream for me. But I wasn’t sure when I’d actually generate income from my acting work.
It was a tough decision, right? It’s really hard to plan things because you never know when those opportunities are going to come about.
You can think of your acting career almost as a startup, where you are the product. You should invest the money in training; you will need to invest in your own expenses that a company would normally cover, like healthcare and transportation.
So what I started to do was I figured out how I was going to make money. I knew modeling was one resource but it wasn’t consistent. And so I thought out other ways to make money, from tutoring or SAT coaching, which used somewhat of my academic background.
But at the end of the day, I was like, you know I really want to invest in this full-time. I don’t want to be distracted. So I just went hard-core pursuing these opportunities in acting and self-submitting. And I began to get traction. I wasn’t making a lot of money when I first started, but I did have some money saved up that would last me at least three months.
Q. You were still in New York at this point?
A. I was still in New York. I didn’t really anticipate moving to Los Angeles until the agent that I began working with in New York, the one that had supported me, moved to work at the William Morris Endeavor office in Los Angeles.
And that’s when he told me, “Melanie, if this is what you’re seriously considering, you need to move out here. There are just so many more opportunities out here for actors and entertainment professionals in general.”
So I thought about it, but my base was in New York. I didn’t want to leave it. I didn’t really know anyone in Los Angeles. So I spent a year in New York, where basically my mindset was: I’m going to train; I’m going to become the best actor I’m going to be; I’m going to take the best courses; I’m going to network and attend all these workshops. And I’m going to build up my resume doing independent film and stage work.
Q. How, when, and why did you decide to move to Los Angeles afterward?
A. Sure. It was at the end of 2010. My contact at William Morris Endeavor said you should come out here in January, because that’s when pilot season starts. Pilot season is the time when all the TV networks start ramping up for upcoming new TV shows that all the networks are casting for, so that’s when all the actors flock to L.A. and try to get on a new TV series.
At that point, I was going through a transition point in my life. I had shot two independent films at that point. New York was great, but I didn’t see as much opportunity there as the potential that L.A. held. I just felt in my heart that, “You know what, if I’m going to do this, I really gotta go for it.”
So I literally just packed up my stuff. I put a lot of stuff into storage in New York, and I moved to L.A. with two suitcases. Just to kind of test the waters.
I moved there mid-January 2011. And I was sent on a casting to guest star on “Rules of Engagement,” which is a TV sitcom on CBS with David Spade. And I booked it. It was my first big guest star role on any TV show and any Hollywood project.
After that, I was signed to William Morris Endeavor and kind of just hit the ground running. I was at the right place at the right time.
Q. Was your heart set on film and television acting at this point, even more than modeling? Has that changed or do you aspire to do both in your career?
A. Well, I definitely think one needs to focus on something. So when I moved to L.A., the focus was acting. It was to get TV and film work.
Modeling was great and it supported my livelihood while I was in New York and I would invest in acting training. But I didn’t want that to be a distraction while I was pursuing TV and film auditions, which takes up time in and of itself to prepare for.
With modeling castings as well, you could be running around town going after projects here and there that are not necessarily going to elevate you to the position you need to be where you can really capitalize on larger TV or film opportunities.
For me, it was more of a way to pay the bills. And I’m not going to lie: I definitely enjoy it. And so if modeling work came directly to me, which it did a lot this year, then of course I would take it if it’s a big enough project.
But the focus has always been to be the best actor you can be, focus on your craft, and do the best you can at your acting auditions — and the work will come.
Q. What happened after you booked “Rules of Engagement” shortly after arriving in L.A.? How did you get steadier work?
A. Sure. So after that, I had the backing of a great talent agency, and I would get in the door for all these amazing auditions. And it’s important just to have consistent feedback of: “She’s a great actor; maybe she’s not right for this project, but we’ll keep her in mind for something else.”
And that’s the thing you have to learn if you’re pursuing an acting career anywhere, but especially in L.A., because you can be the best actress and walk into a room, but you’re not necessarily that character, or you’re not right for that part.
So it’s definitely a struggle. I mean, coming from a background of going to Stanford and working at one of the best consulting firms in the world, I think a lot of us are overachievers and we expect to win every opportunity. But in acting, I hit the ground running and then I booked something shortly after that, and then there was a period where I was like, “Okay, well, nothing is sticking.”
But what I learned is, you’re going to have ebbs and flows in this career path. And I think the most important thing is that you just maintain a very optimistic outlook, because I think for people here who are not booking anything for a while, or they’re not even auditioning, you can become very jaded.
But my strategy is to just really believe in myself — and when I do have that the work comes in. And I work very, very hard. So I do think that hard work and professionalism pay off.
Q. How does booking projects work? Does your agent go find your projects? Do you find your own and involve them in negotiations?
A. Once you have a talent agent, it’s the responsibility of the agent to get you in the door for auditions.
For example, if ABC is casting for a new character on a TV show, what they’ll do is they will send out a breakdown or description of the role to all the top acting agencies out there, and then maybe the next tier or even the next tier.
But at the end of the day, they’re going to get thousands of submissions. So an agent’s job is to get you, the client, to the top of that list. So out of those thousands, maybe they’ll see fifty people for that role.
Now, your job as the actor is to crush the audition. And once you do that, and you get the offer for the part, then it’s your agent’s job to negotiate that contract.
If you don’t have an agent, there are other projects, non-union projects, or smaller projects, that will publish their castings on several online sources, and as an actor you submit your headshot, your resume, and your reel, and if they like what they see, they’ll bring you in for the audition. And then you manage that process on your own.
The third way to do everything is by networking, and building contacts and relationships with the filmmakers, the directors, and the writers themselves, who will invite you to just work with them.
Q. What is your experience like day-to-day?
A. Sure. There is no day-to-day for me, really. I can give you a glimpse of a week.
A normal week for me would be anywhere from one to ten auditions, which would be comprised of film or commercials, or there’s even some modeling work I’ll still do.
Outside of the auditions, and preparing for auditions, can take several hours and a lot of your thought process.
When I’m not doing that, I’m in a class once a week. I think it’s really important if you’re in between projects as an actor to continue honing your craft. And I take lots of meetings, whether it’s meeting with my agent, my manager, or other folks in the industry — producers, writers, directors, or other acting colleagues — to just continue to build relationships.
And then other than that, I take care of myself mentally and physically. I do a lot of yoga. I go hiking. I try to stay active and fit.
Q. It sounds like you have to be very self-directed each day since there isn’t any set structure.
A. That’s absolutely correct. And the one thing I forgot to mention is, when you book a shoot, then that’s what you’ll be doing that week, and everything else is pushed to the side.
So if you’re booked on a TV show, you could be shooting every single week and have a structure Monday through Friday.
If you’re shooting a film, you could be shipped off to Thailand to be working 12 hours a day. So it’s a very unpredictable schedule, but I find so much excitement in that.
Q. If you look at the acting industry as a whole, is it more common for opportunities to arise through networks, or do shows typically run casting calls for all the parts they want to cast?
A. I think it definitely shifts once you reach a certain level in your career with the body of work you have and your visibility.
When things are taken to the studio level, big-budget Hollywood movies, they usually already have a star cast aligned. When you’re a Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie, for example, you’re not going to be auditioning for projects. People are going to be packaging projects around you.
But when you’re just starting out, you still have to audition. And I think for smaller projects, networking can definitely come into play. Because if you’re in independent film, and you meet an actor you really like, you’re like, “Wow, I think she’s perfect for my character.”
And as an independent film, you have more control over the entire production. But if you’re a $20 million movie, you can’t go up to the producer and say, “Hey, my friend is really great. You should consider her for this role.” It doesn’t work like that. There’s actually a pretty strict casting process.
It does help if you have a great reputation, and maybe the executive producer is really fond of your work and will root for you, but there is so much riding on a project like that, that they can’t be like, “Hey, you know, you should meet my friend. They’d be great for this, but they don’t have much experience.”
Q. What is the distinction between union vs. non-union work?
A. The two main unions for a professional actor are SAG, which is the Screen Actors Guild, and AFTRA, which is primarily a union for TV actors.
They recently merged, so now it’s great for actors who have to join a union. They don’t have to pay dues for both of them separately; they can just pay for one.
But what the union does is it standardizes the day rates; it standardizes the amount of time you can work before overtime; it standardizes the meals you have, the time for meals, when you should have breaks; and it provides healthcare and other benefits once you reach a certain income level.
Now, for an actor just starting out, there are pros and cons to joining the union right away. A lot of smaller projects like student films and independent films are non-union, because if they are union projects, you have to pay a set actor X amount of money per day. Let’s say, $700 or $800 a day to shoot a project.
Whereas if you’re non-union, you can not pay an actor at all, you could say, “Hey, this will be great for your reel.” You can have an actor work on your project for two weeks at no pay or a very low wage.
So as an actor starting out, you should pursue all the non-union opportunities you can. Because once you join the union, you’re unable to cast for the smaller projects that are more likely to cast you.
But once you reach a level in your career where you’re auditioning for bigger projects, you’ll need to join the union because they don’t hire non-union workers. Basically once you start to take your acting career more seriously, you should join a union, and that’s when you establish yourself as a professional actor.
Q. Have you joined the union? How did you decide it was time?
A. When I was building up my resume in New York City, I was non-union, and I was doing independent film. That was all non-union. When I moved to L.A. and I booked my first major TV commercial, that’s when I had to join the union.
If it’s a union project and you’re non-union, sometimes you’re forced to join, and that’s when I had to join. There was no choice, but at that time I realized it pays for itself.
There is a big upfront initiation fee to join the union, but at the same time it guarantees that you’re going to get paid a certain rate, and you’ll get residuals whether it’s TV or commercial projects.
So for me, it was beneficial financially for the long-term, and I was at that stage in my career where I was only going to audition for the larger Hollywood union projects.
Q. What do you find most exciting about your current work, and what do you most wish you could change?
A. There are several things I find exciting, but one is I wake up completely energized to be able to do what I’m doing and make a living off of it.
Acting for me is the craft of self-exploration, and it’s the study of human nature. And those are two things that I’ve wanted to do my entire life, but I never took the time to do, because I was so actively focused on academics and sciences. So that’s something I’m continuously learning.
And as an actor, you get to play make-believe for a living. It’s like going back to your childhood days, but now you get paid for doing so. And I just think that’s absolutely wonderful and magical, just to take on so many different characters.
The hard part about this industry is the instability. Not knowing if you’re going to have a gig lined up next week or a month or six months down the road.
That’s challenging, and as a person who came from a strong academic background and went into a career that was very structured, where you saw a path of success, there really isn’t so much of one right now. It’s hard initially to deal with that sense of ambiguity, and just not knowing.
So many things in the entertainment world, from the actor’s perspective, are out of your control in terms of what is going to make you successful. Are you the right look for this market? Are there roles being written for people like you? Do you have people that believe in you?
With all those things, you can’t be sure what’s going to stick at the right time. So if I could change anything, I personally wish I could have more control. (laughter)
But at the same time, it’s exciting — the mystery that lays ahead and what’s going to happen. It is exciting and it keeps life really interesting, but what keeps me going is optimism. And I do have a lot of supporters out there, and I’m so thankful for that.
I get to do what I love to do, so I’m blessed.
Q. As someone who came from a fairly career conservative South Asian family, how did you break the news to your parents about pursuing acting?
A. It was a gradual progression. I just started doing things. I didn’t really ask for permission. I was a little bit bold. And as I mentioned, as I was starting McKinsey and even before that, I had already begun to explore the entertainment world.
And I shared my work with them. With the modeling stuff, I really didn’t know how they were going to react. They were extremely proud when I did the Miss India America pageant. But again, I didn’t even tell them about that. I just did it, and I only told them two weeks ahead of time. I’m like, “Hey, I’m doing this. Hope you can come watch!” And they were totally supportive of it.
Fast forward, as I’m doing this gradually, there is a sense of pride. And I’m sure they were concerned that this might become my full-time career, but they generally sensed my happiness, and my sense of passion with it.
As I continued to gain more work and more recognition for it, the prouder they became. And they’ve always trusted my instincts. Whenever I’ve told them in the past, “just let me do this,” things have generally worked out.
So I had a good track record of that. And so I told them, “I love this. I think this is what I was destined to do. I will pay back all of my student loans. I will take care of myself. I will take care of you. That is my commitment. And so I’m going to do this.” And they knew they couldn’t argue with their daughter at that point.
Q. Do you face any challenges as an ethnic minority in the entertainment industry?
A. Being both a woman and a South Asian in this industry, where you don’t see that many South Asians on TV or film, my answer to that is things are changing.
The reason there hasn’t been many South Asians on TV or film in leading characters is (a) because the parts haven’t been written for them, and (b) we have been pigeonholed in the past, and they only see us as characters like doctors or engineers or lawyers or taxi drivers.
But all of that is changing right now, I have to say, for both East Asians and South Asians. Writers are writing parts for us, and it’s a matter of time where the American public can see a serious lead on a TV show, or the leading character of a film, as being Indian or East Asian, and being able to relate to them a hundred percent.
The American audience wants to see people on TV that they can relate to, but unfortunately the entertainment world I don’t think recognizes that we’re just as American as any other Americans on TV right now.
But that mindset is changing. What you need are supporters; you need great agents or managers who are not going to pigeonhole you, and only send you to castings for roles that are specifically ethnic types. And instead, they are going to send you in for the leading characters, which I’m very fortunate that’s what my agent and my managers do.
I’m not pigeonholed — yes, I’ll go out for castings that are specifically written for South Asian females, but at the same time, I go out for other roles that are written for Caucasian girls or ethnically ambiguous characters.
So to your question, there are challenges, because there aren’t as many roles specifically written for us. But the mold is being broken right now, and I think younger generations see that we’re just as part of this American society as anyone else.
The other thing is, the trend now, and the advice I always give, is to start creating your own content. I mean, you see these YouTube stars that have more followers than a lot of these TV shows and major networks do, and entertainment professionals are starting to see this and take notice of it as well.
I know a couple of young YouTube stars who have their own content deals with Hollywood studios and TV studios, and it’s quite amazing. If you can’t find those roles for you in TV and film, because they don’t exist, then you can create them for yourself.
You can write it, you can produce it, you can direct it, and you can act in it. So in that way, you create those opportunities and you can control what you share to the world.
That’s another great way to be proactive in your career.
Q. What actors and actresses do you most admire?
A. Definitely Natalie Portman. She’s been very smart and strategic with her career. Her acting is incredible, and she’s just done a phenomenal job and been in some amazing pictures.
But she also has her production company, which is a very smart thing to do. That’s something I’m thinking about getting into later down the road as well, producing my own projects. And I like her because she kind of stays out of the press and the gossip, and from a public perspective she’s created a very nice classy brand for herself, and I respect that.
Two other young actors I really love are Emma Stone and Mila Kunis. I just think they’re fantastic and I love their on-screen persona. I also look up to Zoe Saldana, and Meryl Streep is also a classic one.
But, yeah, there are several talented actresses out there. I think it’s more of the way they carry themselves in the public eye and the films they choose that impresses me the most.
Q. Where do you see yourself in the future, and how do you think what you’re doing today will help you toward that goal?
A. I see myself in the next couple months building up my resume with more mainstream TV roles. In the long-term, I see myself as a feature film actress.
People might think that’s silly of me to say right now. That’s kind of what I visualize — but like I said, there are things out of your control, and you never know what’s going to stick.
I can audition for a project tomorrow that’s a major TV show, and I’m there for seven series, and that becomes my character and my niche. Or tomorrow I can get booked on a major Hollywood project, and that sets me off in the direction of a feature film actress. Or maybe I get picked up to do a Broadway film, or I realize my heart is in theater.
There are so many different avenues to navigate. But if you were to look at this career from a practical standpoint, a lot of actors and actresses build up their resume with TV credits. There are so many more TV shows shooting in a year than there are films. There are so many more TV roles open for you, that are right for you, than film roles.
So it’s more acceptable to do TV work, and I kind of see myself building my career right now doing that, and hopefully transition into film. But again, I preface that by saying all of that can change tomorrow.
Q. What advice do you have for other people who might have dreams about pursuing a career in the arts or entertainment?
A. Absolutely. I would say to just absorb as much knowledge as you can, and just be really curious. Ask people who are doing it, and ask people to put you in touch with the people who are pursuing the careers that you want. And just learn from them.
Take classes. If you want to be a painter, take painting classes. Start painting and share your work with people. Same as what I did with acting — I just started taking classes, I built my craft, and I started sharing it with people.
Before you jump into anything, I think you should really educate yourself as much as possible, and if you’re thinking about making the career switch from a stable job to something where you’re going to have no income, make sure you have a plan of action when it comes to income, or at least save up some money so that you have a cushion.