The Wild Summer of Wynonna Earp’s Varun Saranga

by Andrew Parker

Actor Varun Saranga is having the busiest summer of his professional life this year, and he’s relishing every moment of it. The Scarborough, Ontario native recently joined the ensemble cast of the SyFy and Space original series Wynonna Earp (airing on Fridays at 10 pm) for the second season, and it was recently announced this past weekend that it would be returning for a third next year. But for the already veteran performer and emerging filmmaker, Wynonna Earp and his groundbreaking character on the show are only the start of the new whirlwind phase of his career.

Wynonna Earp is a mash-up of science-fiction, fantasy, horror, and western tropes adapted for television by series creator Emily Andras from Beau Smith’s Image Comics series. On the series, fellow Canadian Melanie Scrofano stars as the titular heroine, a distant, but direct descendent of famed lawman Wyatt Earp. With the help of a core group of allies (including the now immortal Doc Holiday), Wynonna and her great-great-grandfather’s sidearm keep the spirits of evil forces at bay and in check.

Saranga joined the series at the start of the second season to take on the role of Jeremy Chetri, a scientist working for the secretive Black Badge division of the U.S Marshall’s Service who teams up with Wynonna to help uphold her blood oath to the organization. It’s notable not only in terms of how Saranga’s character fits into Wynonna’s world, but also because several episodes into the current season it’s made known that Jeremy is also gay, making Jeremy a rare example of a homosexual character of color in a genre series that isn’t strictly a sitcom or drama.

Shortly after finishing the filming of Wynonna Earp in April of this year, Saranga began to make the relentless publicity rounds that such a show demands of its cast. A couple of weeks ago when we finally caught up with him over the phone from Montreal, Saranga was still doing press for the show while simultaneously working as an actor on another film project. This is all in addition to his own filmmaking pursuits (having already directed ten short films in his young career to date) and gearing up to attend this past weekend’s San Diego Comic Con with his fellow Wynonna Earp cast members. It sounds like an incredibly busy period – probably even more so now that he has to prepare for the hit show’s third season – but as we learned from our conversation with him, he loves every opportunity the show has afforded him thus far.

We chatted with Saranga about getting used to fandom, social media, special effects, and new responsibilities with his character, as well as what Wynonna Earp has taught him about being a filmmaker.

It’s a busy summer for you, with you working on a movie right now and you travelling all over the place to promote this television show that has such a huge following. What has it been like integrating yourself into the world of Wynonna Earp and what’s it like being accepted into the extended family of this show?

Varun Saranga: It’s been a whirlwind ride! I can’t really even adequately describe it. When I first got the role, I had no expectations about the show because I didn’t really have any insight as to how large or how loyal its fan base was, but as soon as I started everyone prepared me and told me that this was a very big thing that meant a lot to a lot of different people. When the show started airing, I signed up for Twitter – and I never had a Twitter presence really before doing this – and now I have all of these people Tweeting and Instagraming me and telling me all of these cool things about my character and what it means to them and that they love him. I’m taking it in stride, and I’m really enjoying every moment of it.

When you sign up for something like this, I’m sure there are a bunch of different approaches that you could take as an actor to prepare for it. You could go back and watch the first season of the show. You could go back to the comics to get a feel for the source material. Or you could just go by the scripts you’ve been given and try to come up with something from scratch on your own. Which approach did you take when signing to play Jeremy?

Varun Saranga: Often, I always try to watch the entire series of something before coming on board a project that’s already underway, or if I weren’t doing a series, I would try to watch everything from that director’s body of work before I ever touch down on set. You really need to understand the tone of the piece. Most of the time if you’re just handed a script, it can be really hard to gauge what the tone of something should be, and although Wynonna Earp is a ton of fun, this is definitely one of those cases where I wanted to make sure I got everything down about the tone before I came to set. There are so many different facets to it: there’s a visual style, a comedic style, a dramatic style, and I had to watch the show just to get that right. Plus, if you’ve ever watched the show, you’ll know that it’s something that has a lot of history and mythos surrounding it, so I always had to play catch-up with a lot of this stuff.

I actually struck up a good friendship with Tim Rozon, who plays Doc Holiday on the show. He really got me acclimated to the feel of the show, what to expect from the fandom around it, and he got me settled in. The same goes for Emily Andras, the creator of the show. She would periodically send me emails even if she just wanted to pay me a compliment or say that I was doing a great job, so that always boosted my confidence when it comes to joining something like this.

You’ve worked on television before, so it has to be a huge leap between a lot of what you have worked on in the past and a show of this scale, so was there a period of adjustment that you went through on top of trying to make sure that you were staying true to the material?

Varun Saranga: I’ve done so many series in the past that it has always been intermittently new to me no matter what I have gone to work on. I started on a kids’ series, How to be Indie, in 2008 and 2009, and then went onto The Best Laid Plans on CBC, and then I would do a lot of bit parts here and there. But all of those previous experiences built towards this and helped me prepare. I don’t know if I could have adjusted the same without those previous experiences. I’ve had so many different jobs and so many different types of character work that I felt well adjusted and confident that I would be able to figure out what I wanted to do with a role like Jeremy.

Jeremy adds a lot to the show this season not just in terms of what he brings to Wynnona’s team, but particularly since you are an actor of color playing a character that we learn is gay several episodes into the season. Do you feel an added responsibility when taking on a role like this in a series of this size?

Varun Saranga: Yeah. I definitely feel like there’s always an expectation for any new character on a show to sort of earn a spot on the mantle-place, as it were, because there’s always a delicate and precious nature to any series built around a group. You don’t want to ruin or break-up that dynamic, so whatever that character brings to the piece has to add to the group. I think people are always hesitant to add new characters, so it’s kind of a bold move what has been done in the second season here. Because it has been so positive, I’m so happy and relieved to be honest.

Jeremy is homosexual, and I am a person of colour, so there are a lot of things playing into this, and I am always aware of the social responsibility being bestowed upon me with a character like this. I know in my heart that I will never want to play a role that traffics in negative stereotypes, and I’ve actually turned down roles like that in the past. I definitely feel responsibility in terms of what I’m putting out into the world, and I want to be proud of that and feel good about what that means to people. I’m always, at the end of the day, trying to do things from my own moral perspective and my own sense of responsibility to the character, and this has been a great show to work on in both of those capacities.

Did you have to prepare yourself for how the fans would interact with you and this character? I know you said that you didn’t have as much of a social media presence before taking on the role of Jeremy, but has that reinforced your desire to want to do right by the character?

Varun Saranga: I mean, at the risk of getting into a small bit of trouble, I never liked social media that much to begin with, but yes, it does make me want to do right by the people who care about the show so much. I would always think of social media as something I would pop on every now and then to do something to amuse my friends, but now that I have to do it for the public, it’s such a different mindset. You always have to be cognizant of your audience. I feel like there’s a lot of responsibility when it comes to playing a role like Jeremy and a lot of responsibility as a part of this show that people love who also happens to be on social media. People are actually listening now, and that’s valuable. I’m trying to grapple with it, and day by day I am always trying to figure out what’s worth saying on social media. But I always go back to reminding myself that I am responsible to my character and that whenever I am on Twitter, I am just being myself and that those opinions are mine and mine alone and not indicative of any of my roles.

I know that you’re a filmmaker in your own right outside of being an actor, so I was wondering for you if it was the filmmaking or the acting that came first for you?

Varun Saranga: Definitely filmmaking. Filmmaking was and always is my first love. I would just make stupid YouTube videos in high school with my friends, and that was the catalyst for what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I was just having the most fun in the world. All I would do is eat, sleep, and breathe film. I honestly never thought that I would be an actor until I went to an open call and they just happened to really like me! It was my first audition, and I just booked a series! (laughs) I kind of backed into acting in that way and in that respect. I guess I just always had the personality for it, and my brother was an actor who influenced me in that way.

But filmmaking is even how I approach acting, even when I’m talking with a director or my writers. I always engage with them from a filmmaking perspective and a technical perspective. I just love the art of filmmaking, and that’s what I want to get into, ultimately. It would be nice to someday be able to choose between the two.

Are you the kind of artist who likes to take something away on a filmmaking level from a project you have acted on, and what are some of the most valuable experiences you’ve had on Wynonna Earp in that respect?

Varun Saranga: I’m definitely the kind of guy who does not like to chill in the trailer. (laughs) I can’t understand the people who can do that because for me just being on a set of any kind is so exciting. Just watching all of these people working together to build something so incredible is inspiring to me. I’m always on set, and I’m always watching behind the director’s monitor and trying to take in as much information as I can. I think I pester people a lot. (laughs) I can’t lie to you. (laughs) I often just show up to watch the filming of scenes I have nothing to do with just to see how everyone’s going to do it. I’m so fascinated by the process that I want to learn all of these different technical and dramatic approaches and put together this lexicon of ideas and strategies in my head so I can pull it out in the future. “Oh, I remember seeing the filming of this giant fight scene and I know I can do this in this way.” “This dramatic scene worked really well when the director said to try this.” I really want that lexicon of knowledge.

But in terms of what I have learned the most, I think dramatically I learned that the best scenes often revolve around two actors playing characters who want something from the other. Those are the most compelling scenes: the once where you can forget about the staging, the effects, the lighting, and all of that mumbo jumbo. If you just watch two people connecting and trying to figure out what they want from each other on a base level is so satisfying.

Experiences like this are totally invaluable for me. You even have the visual effects component of something like this, and that’s something I had never been really introduced to as an actor or a filmmaker. I’ve gotten really good, I think, at acting in front of nothing. (laughs) I have no idea what things will be like if and when I do my first green screen based film, and I’m terrified to think about it, but I feel like I have learned a lot that’s going to help me in the future.

On a set, I never presume to know more than anyone else there. I just come there knowing my character, and I try to make suggestions on that level, but I will always defer to the people in charge. You can’t really see yourself as an actor. I know about the art of filmmaking and how to make things look good, but when you are in the moment, on the set, you can’t see yourself. You have to put a lot of trust in your directors and defer to them as to what will work the best, but that means I learn a lot more that way.

Wynonna Earp airs on Space Friday nights at 10:00 pm (EST).

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