These daring performers who took matters into their own hands have a lot in common. They were exhausted and fed up because they weren’t getting the roles they truly craved. In some cases, these actors weren’t even being offered any roles at all.
Making it in show business is a monumental challenge. Now, picture how much more exhilarating it is for a South Asian American actor, given the scarcity of diverse roles out there. Actors often find themselves trapped in stereotypical characters, and movie roles can start feeling like a never-ending cycle of déjà vu. Sometimes, all an actor yearns for is to create a show or film that deeply connects with them and, hopefully, resonates with audiences too.
When these unstoppable actors couldn’t find what they were searching for, they took matters into their own hands and crafted their own scripts. Let’s rally behind these actors whose passion projects brilliantly showcased their talents and unique abilities.
1. Sylvester Stallone, ‘Rocky’
Back in the early 1970s, Sylvester Stallone was going through a tough time as an actor. Despite some small successes on the big screen and his role in the drama The Lords of Flatbush, Stallone was facing financial difficulties. In fact, he was so broke when he moved to California to pursue his acting dreams that he had to sell his beloved dog Butkus for a mere $40 because he couldn’t afford to take care of him anymore.
One day, Stallone attended a boxing match featuring Chuck “The Bayonne Bleeder” Wepner going up against Muhammad Ali. Against all odds, Wepner managed to go the distance, leaving a lasting impression on Stallone. Inspired by the underdog story, Stallone decided to write his own screenplay about a fighter named Rocky Balboa who fights hard and perseveres.
Surprisingly, Stallone completed the script for Rocky in just three days. He wasted no time in getting it into the hands of producers, who were instantly captivated by the story. They were so impressed that they offered the unknown actor/writer an unprecedented $360,000 for the screenplay. However, there was a catch – the producers didn’t think Stallone was the right fit for the lead role of Rocky.
Despite his dire financial situation, Stallone stood his ground. He refused to sell his script unless he could be the star of the film. Stallone expressed his determination, saying, “I thought, ‘You know what? You’ve got this poverty thing down. You really don’t need much to live on.’ So I knew in the back of my mind that if I sell this script and it does very, very well, I’m going to jump off a building if I’m not in it. There’s no doubt in my mind. I’m going to be very, very upset. [Laughs.] So this is one of those things, when you just roll the dice and fly by the proverbial seat of your pants and you just say, ‘I’ve got to try it. I’ve just got to do it. I may be totally wrong, and I’m going to take a lot of people down with me, but I just believe in it.'”
Finally, the producers came around and agreed to let Stallone star in his own movie. Rocky went on to become a massive box office hit and even won the prestigious Academy Award for Best Picture. The success of the film led to the creation of seven sequels, with more possibly on the horizon.
In a heartwarming twist, Stallone was able to reunite with his beloved dog Butkus. He shared, “The screenplay for Rocky sold, and I could buy him back, but the new owner knew I was desperate, and charged me $15,000… He was worth every penny!”
2. Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, And Glenn Howerton, ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’
Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, and Glenn Howerton were struggling actors in their early 30s when they crossed paths in Los Angeles. Feeling frustrated with the industry, McElhenney came up with an idea for a short film. He envisioned a scenario where a friend goes to another friend’s house to borrow sugar, only to be told that the friend has cancer. However, all the guy can think about is getting his sugar and leaving.
The friends found the idea amusing enough to shoot a few scenes. With the assistance of an agent, they managed to sell the concept to FX, thus initiating the creation of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
When the network expressed their disinterest in a show centered around actors, the friends were unfazed. McElhenney, being from Philadelphia, suggested setting the show in his hometown and making it about a bar. This choice allowed for characters with plenty of free time yet still able to support themselves financially.
Taking on multiple roles, including executive producers, writers, and stars of the series, the friends were determined to maintain a specific comedic tone. They aimed to portray a group of best friends who care very little for each other.
Remaining true to their original vision, the creators have upheld the dark comedy sensibility for 14 seasons as of 2020. The characters have consistently showcased their selfish, crude, and often cruel nature towards one another since day one.
3. Bill Hader, ‘Barry’
Bill Hader, a beloved cast member of Saturday Night Live for eight years, was known for his standout performances and incredible impressions. Characters like Stefon during “Weekend Update” and his spot-on portrayals of Vincent Price, James Carville, and Al Pacino made him a fan-favorite.
After leaving SNL in 2013, Hader landed a development deal with HBO. Alongside Alec Berg, he conceived the idea for Barry, a dark comedy centered around a Marine grappling with depression and PTSD after coming back from Afghanistan. Barry finds himself working as a hitman not because he aspires to, but because he excels at it. However, he eventually realizes his true passion lies in acting.
During an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Hader opened up about his performance anxiety on SNL and the inspiration behind the character Barry:
“It was more of this idea that I was naturally good at impressions. I was telling Alec Berg this when we were just starting, right? I go, you know, I was always good at impressions, but what I always wanted to do was write and direct. I moved out to Los Angeles 20 years ago to be a writer-director. And I was a production assistant, and I did all these things. And, you know, I was a crew guy forever and then kind of happened – you know, in a fluky way got on Saturday Night Live…
…But I could kind of just do impressions, and the irony was that the show I did the impressions on – it was, like, slowly destroying me because of the anxiety of having to perform in front of a bunch of – in front of the nation. You know, I just, it’s – I still get – I hosted a year ago, and I was a wreck. And I told Alec this, and he went, I think that – I think that’s the show. It’s about a guy who thinks, you know, the thing he’s naturally good at is destroying him but the thing he wants to do he’s not very good at you know? And he goes, well, that’s an emotion you understand. We can write that.”
Barry turned out to be a huge success for HBO, earning eight Emmy Award nominations. Hader himself won two consecutive Emmys for Best Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. Both Hader and Berg take charge of writing every episode, and Hader has also directed five episodes across the show’s first two seasons.
4. Billy Bob Thornton, ‘Sling Blade’
Billy Bob Thornton, in a casual and laid-back manner, mentioned that he had written around 20 screenplays before finally getting one produced. Most of these were co-written with Tom Epperson. However, a turning point came when he decided to venture out on his own and came up with the idea for Sling Blade while working as an extra on a cable movie.
In his own words, Billy Bob shared a rather interesting anecdote. Feeling a bit down during his lunch break, he found himself in the trailer, gazing at his reflection and goofing around. Suddenly, he made a face and a voice just came out, leading him to have a conversation with himself. It started as a random rambling, but then he spontaneously delivered the opening monologue in one go. It was eerie how it all came together, seemingly from nowhere.
This peculiar character that formed in his mind eventually became Karl in Sling Blade. Karl is an intellectually disabled Southern man who is released from a state mental hospital after committing the tragic act of taking the lives of his mother and her lover.
Interestingly, Thornton only began writing screenplays because he had aspirations of becoming an actor. Reflecting on his journey, he explained that writing scripts was never his initial intention. He had dabbled in writing short stories as a teenager, but his heart was set on pursuing acting. When he arrived in Los Angeles, he enrolled in an acting class, and that consumed his thoughts. The collaboration with Tom Epperson in 1980 to write scripts was primarily a means to break into the movie industry. However, he discovered that he had a natural talent for creating compelling characters and crafting dialogue, and it turned out to be an enjoyable experience.
Not only did Thornton write the script for Sling Blade, but he also made his directorial debut with the film in 1996. His exceptional writing skills were recognized when he won the Academy Award for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay. Additionally, he received an Oscar nomination for his outstanding performance in the leading role.
5. Nia Vardalos, ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’
Nia Vardalos started her career in show business at Chicago’s Second City. Her dream of becoming an actress led her to Los Angeles, but she faced difficulties due to her Greek ethnicity, which hindered her from landing acting roles.
Instead of feeling discouraged, Vardalos took matters into her own hands and decided to write her own starring vehicle, one that celebrated her cultural heritage. In her own words, she explained, “I mostly auditioned for parts that were Hispanic, although I believe true Hispanics should be hired for Hispanic parts. I think it’s insulting to the Hispanic community to have someone doing that accent. I kept losing these parts to what I call ‘true ethnics,’ and while I believe I’m ethnic, there was no voice for my people. So, I set out to create something Greek.”
In 2002, Vardalos’s creation, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, made its way to the big screen. This sweet romantic comedy turned out to be the surprise hit of the year. Despite being an independent film with a modest $5 million budget and lacking A-list actors (the most recognizable name in the cast was John Corbett from Northern Exposure), it managed to strike a chord with audiences. Initially, it did not receive a wide theatrical release, but that didn’t stop Vardalos’s movie from raking in over $360 million in the United States alone.
6. Donald Glover, ‘Atlanta’
Donald Glover, known for his role as Troy Barnes on Community, left the show after five seasons to pursue his own creative vision. Growing up in Atlanta, he wanted to create a unique comedy-drama series that would have a significant impact. In 2016, FX premiered Atlanta, which was a result of Glover’s ambition.
Glover had a specific goal in mind for the show. He wanted to challenge the idea that white people have a comprehensive understanding of Black culture. He acknowledged that it might be easy for them to believe they know everything, like staying updated on the latest dances or following social media accounts that showcase aspects of Black culture. However, Glover aimed to show them that there is more to it.
In Atlanta, Glover plays the character of Earn, a Princeton University dropout who becomes the manager for his cousin Paper Boi’s rap career. The series quickly became a hit among both critics and viewers. It received two Golden Globe Awards for Best Television Series – Comedy, while Glover won a Golden Globe for Best Actor, two Emmy Awards for Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series, and the Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series, making him the first Black American to win that award.
Glover expressed his intention for white people to truly experience racism and understand what it feels like to be Black in America. He wanted to go beyond the surface level attractions of Atlanta, such as strip clubs and music, and delve into the deeper issues. The characters in the show don’t just smoke weed for the sake of being cool, but because they are dealing with PTSD – a reality for many Black people. Glover wanted to shed light on the struggles of being at the bottom and feeling like society expects them to keep digging, without offering any real solutions.
7. Emma Thompson, ‘Sense and Sensibility’
Emma Thompson, the talented English actress, was frustrated by the lack of substantial female roles in the film industry. In her own words, she expressed, “There are a lot of highly intelligent women who can act. There are not too many roles to fill – that’s the problem.” Instead of merely expressing her discontent, Thompson took matters into her own hands.
She embarked on the task of adapting Jane Austen’s timeless novel, Sense and Sensibility, for the silver screen. This way, she could portray the composed and collected Elinor Dashwood, a character she resonated with. As Thompson boldly declared, “I wrote [a role] and then I bloody well played it.”
Her first venture as a screenwriter proved to be a resounding success, as she not only won the prestigious Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay but also made history. In 1996, Thompson became the first individual ever to win Oscars for both screenwriting and acting.
8. Seth MacFarlane, ‘The Orville’
Seth MacFarlane is the creative force behind the beloved animated series Family Guy. Not only did he create the show, which has been on air since 1999, but he also lends his voice to several of its main characters, including Peter Griffin, Brian Griffin, and Stewie Griffin. MacFarlane has also had a hand in developing other animated series like American Dad! and The Cleveland Show.
However, MacFarlane’s interests extend beyond comedy. He has a deep love for science fiction, which he transformed into reality in 2016 with his creation, production, and starring role in the science fiction comedy, The Orville. Inspired by Star Trek, this Fox series takes place 400 years in the future and follows Captain Ed Mercer, played by MacFarlane, as he leads an exploration crew on the starship USS Orville. While it’s a science fiction show, it also serves as a parody of Star Trek.
As a young kid, MacFarlane was greatly influenced by the Carl Sagan documentary Cosmos. He acknowledges the impact it had on him, stating, “One could argue that there is nothing more interesting than science. It’s the most interesting thing that’s ever happened to the human race.”
MacFarlane’s intention with The Orville was to create a science fiction program that offered a different perspective from the prevalent dystopian narratives like The Hunger Games. He explains, “I’m personally a little weary of that corner of science-fiction storytelling. I’m getting tired of seeing filthy people running around with guns, fighting for their own survival, rather than fighting for a cause, for values, for the advancement of the human race. There’s nothing like that out there. Does optimism still have meaning for people? It could feel outdated, like a nineteen-thirties musical that’s devoid of cynicism and is looking at the world through rose-colored glasses and is oblivious to what’s going on.”
9. Aziz Ansari, ‘Master of None’
Aziz Ansari, known for his role as Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation, starred in the popular sitcom for seven seasons. After it ended in 2015, Ansari expressed his desire to work on a project that reflected his own creative vision.
Teaming up with Parks and Recreation writer Alan Yang, Ansari pitched the idea for Master of None, a television series inspired by his stand-up routine. The show was picked up by Netflix and began streaming in 2015.
While not entirely based on Ansari’s life, Master of None does draw from his experiences growing up in the United States with South Asian immigrant parents. It also explores the challenges he has faced as a person of color in Hollywood.
Ansari’s work on the show was recognized with a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy in 2018. He also won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series in 2017.
Ansari was pleased to see producer Sam Esmail and actor Rami Malek from Mr. Robot also receiving recognition at award ceremonies. He noted the significance of having more diverse voices in the entertainment industry, saying, “All these people that normally didn’t get a voice in entertainment have a voice, and so we all want to scream as loud as we can while we have it.”
10. Mindy Kaling, ‘The Mindy Project’
Mindy Kaling’s parents are South Asian immigrants, and while growing up, she never saw a family like hers on American television. She is a stand-up comedian, writer, producer, and actress. Kaling’s career took off when she joined The Office as a writer/performer after graduating from Dartmouth. However, she realized that if she wanted to continue acting after The Office ended, she would have to create and write her own series.
Reflecting on her journey as an actress, Kaling shared her struggle:
“My career has only become what it is out of sheer necessity, not because I chose it that way. I knew that if I wanted to perform, I had to write for myself. The dream is what I imagine Amy Adams’ life is like. Someone calls and says, ‘Hi. David O. Russell wants you to do this part.’ While I am happy with how things turned out, it’s not my first choice to have to write every role I play. I could play the lame, nagging friend of the beautiful white protagonist, but that wouldn’t be as fulfilling or lucrative.”
In 2012, Kaling’s creation, The Mindy Project, premiered. In this comedy series, Kaling portrays Mindy Lahiri, an obstetrician/gynecologist working at a medical practice in New York City. The show revolves around Lahiri’s romantic and professional escapades.
Kaling discussed what makes playing Lahiri such an interesting character:
“People had trouble with the character. She isn’t immediately likable. She does and says things that you rarely see in any character, let alone female characters. For example, she says things like, ‘I’m going to hell because I don’t really care about the environment and I love to gossip.’ She even thinks Rick Santorum is handsome. She has a wide range of opinions and feelings that the writers come up with, which makes her truly original and enjoyable.”