Photography by Hayden Greene
Sophomore medical drama “New Amsterdam” (NBC Network, U.S.A.) and its heavily cross-cultural main cast give a glimpse into the often awe-inspiring optimism of those who straddle identity.
Biracial, tricultural actor Freema Agyeman; Domestic Adult Third Culture Kids (DTCKs) Jocko Sims and Janet Montgomery and expat Anupam Kher exhibit amazing chemistry on the network’s latest dramatic hit. Perhaps it’s no coincidence, as each actor brings so much personal character to their roles and each credits personal history as the foundation of their skill. Little did they know, their straddling of culture helped inform these profound performances — and the ease with which they get along with each other.
British actor Agyeman was best known for the BBC series “Doctor Who,” “Law & Order: UK,” and Netflix’s “Sense8” before her current role on “New Amsterdam.” Her parents are Iranian and Ghanian, and she grew up in north London in a tightly knit family with two siblings and an ultra-supportive mother. “My mum always said, ‘As long as you have a passion for something, I’ll support you. The minute you start wavering, then we’ll have to start having a conversation.’”
Originally interested in the sciences, Agyeman also dabbled in athletics and music, ultimately graduating university in theater. “I loved, loved, loved education, and arts wasn’t something that was on my mind,” she says, explaining that theatre “just happened” when a teacher convinced her to take the lead in a play, rather than focus on her marine biology dissertation. Once she hit the stage, the acting bug took hold.
Surprised by their mutual love of science, Agyeman and her costar Jocko Sims (who originally planned to become an actual doctor) share other similarities, as well. Their tight-knit, supportive families provide strong foundations, and they each tried acting on a whim and never turned back.
The differences begin in Sims’s background as a DTCK. Born in Houston, Texas, U.S.A., he moved with his family to San Antonio, Texas, at age 6, and later, finished high school in Los Angeles. He returned to his roots attending university in Houston. “I’m excited to work at this time, in this period, where diversity is in the forefront,” he says. “It’s a good thing, and I’m glad to be working to tell these amazing stories, these multicultural stories.”
“I think what happens in the first five, maybe 10 years of your life, it shapes who you are. I’m grateful for it because I don’t think I could do my job as well if I came from a different background. I think it makes me appreciate my life so much more.”
-- Janet Montgomery
Sims, a producer and actor known for his roles in “Dreamgirls” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” as well as his guest appearances on “Criminal Minds” and “Masters of Sex,” previously worked on a show with no people of color in the writers’ room. He “feels the difference” having diverse writers in the room this go ‘round. Both Agyeman and Sims agree this time, this place in the industry and in the world make multicultural storylines timely.
The show itself leaves glimpses of hope peppered throughout its plotlines where there are sometimes seemingly hopeless situations. Show creators make sure “the light” is apparent throughout — so viewers can remain optimistic no matter how bleak circumstances seem.
As “New Amsterdam’s” other DTCK, Janet Montgomery survived many moves in a small seaside town on the south coast of England. She is a veteran of NBC’s “This is Us,” Netflix’s “Black Mirror,” ITV Network’s “Downton Abbey,” and the movie “Black Swan.” Montgomery and her two siblings each have different fathers, and her stepfather (whom she calls Dad) is still one of her closest family members. She credits her beginnings for informing her work.
“I think what happens in the first five, maybe 10 years of your life, it shapes who you are. I’m grateful for it because I don’t think I could do my job as well if I came from a different background. I think it makes me appreciate my life so much more,” she says.
Montgomery was carrying her first child, a daughter (now 9 months old), when New Amsterdam aired its first season. Because of her self-described unstable upbringing, she has made a point to educate herself on her child’s potential needs. Along the way, Montgomery has learned many of the principles that are key traits to culturally mobile individuals. “The first few years are so vital to ensure they meet their needs as a secure person,” she says. “So much of it stems from things you don’t even remember.”
Anupam Kher has humble beginnings in a small town in India, which also informs his current work. His extended family of 14, including grandparents, aunts, uncles and children, shared a home comprised of one bath, one kitchen and a one-room space for living. As he fondly speaks of his upbringing, Kher relays a notion his grandfather shared with him: “When you’re very poor, the cheapest luxury is happiness.” He remembers that someone was always there to answer his questions, so he wanted for little. His life was rich.
In his 20s, Kher left home for Mumbai to “try his luck in the movies.” What followed was three years of living on the streets — homeless. At age 28, he landed his first acting role playing a 65-year-old man, and within one week signed on to do 57 films.
The last 35 years have seen him complete 515 films. Recently, labels like “thespian legend” and “veteran” were thrown his way. Kher found it frightening as those words seemed to want to push him toward retirement. For the “Bend it like Beckham” and “Silver Linings Playbook” performer, the opportunity to move to New York City and appear on New Amsterdam was like his childhood dream renewed.
“When you’re very poor, the cheapest luxury is happiness.”
-- Anupam Kher
Kher feels that though this career allows individuals to meet many people, actors share the same culture the world over. But culture shock was imminent for the India native once he hit the shores of New York’s shining sea. “[In India you] don’t have to make appointments to our friends to see them,” he shares. “Over here, [when speaking] you say one line, then the sentence, then close the sentence [with another line].”
While acclimating to east coast living, Kher enjoys visits from his family and Skyping with his bride of 35 years who lives in India, since she’s a member of Parliament. Still, the first-time expatriate is navigating U.S. life beautifully. “I have a great sense of wonder about life. I celebrate failure,” he says, explaining that, to him, failure is an event, rather than a person.
Leaving his homeland for the wonders of the U.S. and a role on “New Amsterdam” with all its changes seem fitting as Kher reminds us, “This series makes you believe in goodness, makes you believe in compassion, makes you think there is hope beyond all the negativity.”
ABOUT 'NEW AMSTERDAM'
“New Amsterdam” is based on the book Twelve Patients: Life and Death at Bellevue Hospital http://www.twelvepatients.com/ and its author Dr. Eric Manheimer, who is the former medical director for Bellevue Health Center in New York City.
Bellevue, the oldest public hospital in the United States, is the inspiration behind this medical drama, as it follows the institution’s newest medical director Dr. Max Goodwin (played by Ryan Eggold). In the midst of fighting his own serious illness, Goodwin is determined to make a difference at the legendary health institution with a mantra of “How can I help?” and frequent upending of traditional bureaucracy. Goodwin and his staff work tirelessly to ensure this underfunded, understaffed city unto itself serves everyone in need of care, regardless of potential consequences.
“New Amsterdam” airs on NBC in the U.S. on Tuesday nights and can be streamed online https://www.nbc.com/new-amsterdam.