Issue 46 / Actress Harveen Sandhu Previews Shaw Festival 2016

Actress Harveen Sandhu Previews Shaw Festival 2016

Apr 24, 2016

Harveen Sandhu looks ahead to Shaw's 2016 season and explains how last year's groundbreaking turn as Eliza Doolittle has changed her life in more ways than one.

At the tender age of nine, Harveen Sandhu was bitten by the acting bug — or, to be more precise, the acting wolf. Prowling the boards in her school’s split production of The Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood, the Ottawa native huffed, puffed and snarled her way to a lifelong passion for theatre.

“I volunteered to play the Wolf, because no one else wanted to,” Sandhu recalls. “And I had the most amazing time of my life. It was my first time ever on stage. It just felt right.”

Sandhu with Neil Barclay in another 2015 Shaw production, The Twelve-Pound Look.
Photo Credit: David Cooper/

Given what’s transpired over the past couple of years, you’d be hard-pressed to argue with that instinct. After graduating from Ryerson University’s theatre program, she quickly found a home at Niagra-on-the-Lake’s prestigious Shaw Festival. The 25-year-old is preparing to kick off her fourth season with the festival, in rehearsals for two new productions that will run concurrently — Alice in Wonderland (opening May 13) and a modern take on Chekhov’s classic Uncle Vanya (opening May 14).

Lucky for us, she somehow managed to carve out a few minutes in her jam-packed schedule to chat.  

“At 10 in the morning until about one or two, [I rehearse for] Alice in Wonderland, which is this huge, ambitious musical with a cast of 22 and video designers and lighting designers and costume designers. And then I have an hour-and-a-half lunch break and I spend the evening doing Uncle Vanya,” she explains, “which is a Chekhov realist tragedy — totally different world from Alice in Wonderland, which is fantastical and wonderful, childlike. So far, it’s been a really amazing contrast. It’s exhausting, but it’s been an amazing opportunity.”

Amazing though it may be, one imagines Sandhu will be hard-pressed to top her 2015 season, when she made headlines across the continent as the first woman of colour to be cast as Eliza Doolittle in a professional North American production of Pygmalion. For the actress, it was a surprising bit of trivia, to say the least.

Sandhu, with Dave Meadows and Patrikc McManus, in Shaw's 2015 update of Pygmalion.
Photo Credit: Emily Cooper/


“I kind of went, ‘What? Really?’ I was deeply honoured by that. And of course, there’s a bit of pressure . . . but I didn’t have to worry about that,” she says. “I can’t play colour; I just have to play the person, play the human. And the colour is what we see, and it’s beautiful, and Peter [Hinton, the director] embraced it, used it — the fact that she’s a third-generation immigrant [fit into] the modern context of [our] play.”

Much as her character was undergoing a transformation from street urchin to debutante, Sandhu felt herself evolving as a performer.

“It was a game-changing role in that it was the hardest role I’d had to play up until now. Peter was really amazing; he’s so deeply challenging, and he really upped my game enormously. Like, I cannot approach a script in the same way after that show. He made me examine theatre and acting big-time, like 180 degrees. So in that way, it’s sort of like the Before Eliza and After Eliza; my acting will never be the same.”

The role of Eliza Doolittle forced Sandhu to evolve as a performer.
Photo Credit: Emily Cooper/

The show also had a profound, and somewhat unexpected, impact on her personal life. Sandhu’s parents had — quite reasonably — always had misgivings about the inherent instability of her career choice. In part, it took her brothers (“my pillars,” Sandhu calls them) — who growing up were always quick to drive their sister to a production or help her build a set — to convince mom and dad to put her through theatre school. But when they made the trek down to Niagara and saw their daughter centre stage in a world-class stage production, something changed.

“It was an extremely important moment, because they finally saw, on a very big scale, what it is I do, why I do it, why it makes me happy,” Sandhu says. “They saw that I could do it, that I was decent at it . . . And now, it’s even getting to a point where mom will almost give me notes. She’ll say, ‘You know, in this one scene you spoke very fast, and I didn’t understand everything you said. You should slow down. And maybe a bit louder.’ And I love it, I was laughing my head off.

“I didn’t realize up until then what a big difference it would make for me emotionally, and just how important that was. And it’s not like they didn’t support me; they sent me to theatre school. But to have them emotionally support me, is a huge breakthrough for me.”

This year, she's much more of an ensemble player; in Alice, she’s taking on a handful of small roles — most notably the Queen of Hearts, a delightfully larger-than-life member of Wonderland’s loopy rogues gallery whom Sandhu succinctly sums up as being something of a "Kardashian.”

It’s a big, silly, whimsical story, but Sandhu was very much drawn to the more profound questions buried deep within author Lewis Carroll's colourful tale.

“That loss of dreams, that loss of innocence, when logic replaces magic — kids live in magic for so long, and when does that shift? Why does that shift? What happens when logic replaces magic? And can you go back to magic? I’m blessed, I suppose, as an actor, because I’m forced to live in my imagination a lot for my work. So as a human, I keep my sense of play . . . But a lot of adults, a lot of nine-to-fivers, how do we keep our child alive? Or does the child just die completely as we get older?”

Sandhu's performance in Pygmalion finally won over her skeptical parents.
Photo Credit: David Cooper/

She gets the chance to deal with the melancholy mysteries of life in a much more direct, heartrending fashion in Uncle Vanya, and in a much more prominent role as well, playing Sonya, one of several characters struggling to move past life’s many disappointments, unrequited loves and general ennui during a fateful family gathering.

Top to bottom, Sandhu says, Chekhov’s source material is a “masterpiece,” but she was particularly intrigued by Sonya.

“The fact that she’s a survivor, the fact that she’s the one at the end of the play that, despite her own suffering, picks everyone off the floor, and puts everyone back on their feet. At her young age, it’s really inspiring to have the strength that she has in her . . . My mom is and will always be the biggest influence and inspiration in my life, the strongest woman I know. And just to be able to portray that strength and find that strength, it’s exciting.”

The advance publicity for her 2016 shows has been significantly less than it was at this time last year — understandable given that she’s not . . . well, making history. But for Sandhu, that’s hardly a problem. Personally, and professionally, she’s happy with where chasing her dreams has landed her.

“Did everyone come knocking on my door [after Pygmalion]? No, that’s not how it really works, and I’m totally fine with that. And too, at the Shaw Festival, you play a lead, and then next year you might play a smaller part. We all share the spotlight. And I know that I am respected and valued here.”

Note: Due to an illness, Harveen Sandhu was recently forced to withdraw from both Alice in Wonderland and Uncle Vanya for the 2016 season. We wish her a quick recovery and hope to see her back on stage next year.

Main Image Photo Credit: Shaw Festival

Matthew Currie

Matthew Currie


Having gotten his start with Anokhi Media as an intern in 2009, Matthew Currie was honoured to accept a position as the magazine’s Arts & Entertainment editor earlier this year. A graduate of the Professional Writing program at York University, he’s spent the past four years working as a fre...


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