Sachin Mehta is the star of the legal thriller The Advocate, hitting DVD November 19 from Osiris Entertainment. We had the chance to catch up with the talented actor… and lawyer.
How does a lawyer become an actor? Or are lawyers actors… and that’s where the skills came in? Interested in the journey for you.
I grew up stuttering, which made me stay away from high school theatre and anything that smelled like a performance. College came along, and I made it a point to put myself in front of people. I started with some speech competitions, which led me to radio and eventually the debate team. Theater was the next step, but I wasn’t out of the woods yet – I remember by senior year I auditioned for an Asian-American theatre group, but during meetings I still stood in the back, never volunteering for any role. I regret that.
As some point in my law career, I was sitting behind a desk, swamped in paperwork, and I thought about the thing I’ve always wanted to do – acting classes. So I signed up for an acting class at UCLA extension. Which turned into more classes, which turned into scene nights, short films, getting an agent, commercials, bit parts in movies, so on.
Are trial lawyers natural actors? Yes, in the sense that, you have to stand up, and in front of an audience of two or a hundred, fill up the empty, silent void with “you.” Lawyering taught me how to make this leap and just start talking, trusting my training and instinct, letting the words fill up the space, creating meaning out of nothing. Also, I think litigators access the improvisational and associative parts of their brains, and have to be attuned to a judge or juries’ moment to moment reactions and respond accordingly. So that helps. But lawyering’s not entirely like “acting,” because I’m generally not pretending or inhabiting another person’s reality, or aiming toward creating art.
How do your peers and colleagues react to you also acting, when you’re outside the courtroom?
I try to keep it a secret. I don’t tell actors or filmmakers I’m an attorney, and I don’t tell attorneys I’m an actor. I like being incognito because I’m not beholden to anybody’s expectations. Of course, this movie is breaching that wall, and it’s a coming out of sorts. The legal colleagues who know the other side of me are very supportive, and they’re excited to be witnessing my journey as an actor over the years.
Was it easier, you think, to play the role of a lawyer in “The Advocate” because you didn’t need to do any research beforehand?
Yes, in that the legal jargon was easier to spit out, the courtroom felt at home, and cross-examination felt natural. But still, the “attorney” part of my character was an attribute, albeit one central to the story. Ultimately, I still had to paint my character’s psychological landscape, his hopes, fears, which is how I would approach any character. What did make it easier was working on the script with Tamas for a year and a half. As the character soaked through me over time, I filled out the lawyerly shell with psychic substance.
What differences between ‘movie lawyer’ and ‘real lawyer’ did you spot though? Does Hollywood embellish a little?
A little? The reality is that for most attorneys, one episode of Law & Order can easily contain all the highlights that a real-life attorney can experience in 10 years. What Hollywood doesn’t depict is how attorneys – and I mean litigators — are really paid to just play the game, and wade through tons of paper. “The Advocate” tries to capture this reality, and Tamas’ script really finds the drama in the reality of my character’s legal practice.
How did you work the film into your busy schedule at the firm?
It wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t run my own law office. During pre-production, my law partner, Jessica – who was the rough inspiration for my character’s law partner, Julia (played by Steffinie Phrommany) – decided to get pregnant. We had an understanding that while she was on maternity leave, I would handle the office on my own; and when she came back, I’d leave the office to concentrate on pre-production and filming while she handled the office. It actually worked out very nicely. Though I remember during the shoot, I had to make a few gnarly phone calls to settle one of my cases. I had to pretend to be a lawyer while I was pretending to be a lawyer.
The film has a very John Grisham vibe about it. Would you say that’s a fair assessment, or is there another film that comes to mind that serves as a better comparison?
I think that’s very fair. One difference is that with Grisham, I feel like the progression of the stories is to climb higher and higher the echelons of power to unearth a conspiracy. Instead, The Advocate penetrates deeper and deeper into a bit of a psychic hell, which reminds me of Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Dial M for Murder, movies I know Tamas’ loves and was inspired by when he wrote The Advocate.
Have you family back home in India who have seen the film? Are they ecstatic for you? What’s their reaction?
The only Indian family members who’ve seen it were our executive producers, Nalin and Manan Shah, who saw a close to final cut of the film. It was great to have executive producers who trusted our creativity and judgment, and then loved the final product without reservation. Manan especially, though he said it took him about 10 movie minutes to get over seeing me on the silver screen. My parents, who live here, were really giddy. I thought they’d be nervous over some of the naughtier parts. But if they are, they haven’t told me. And I hope they keep it that way.
Do you still get a thrill seeing your face on the film’s poster?
Yes. It’s a beautiful poster. I like standing next to people who don’t know me, who are looking at the poster, and watch them do a double take. I tell them, “That’s my sister.” And then I chuckle to myself.