You know Arjun Gupta as frustrated, reluctantly gifted "traveler" Penny on Syfy's The Magicians — to be real, even the Syfy website refers to the character as an asshole — but you'll soon be seeing him in a vastly different light. In Gupta's new film The Hungry, the actor plays Sunny Ahuja, a character he describes as "emasculated" and "completely disrespected." A character who is, by all accounts, Penny's mirror opposite.
The Hungry, an Indian adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, is set to hit film festivals later this year. Not only did it present Gupta the opportunity to film in the country of his ancestry, it also offered a risk the Florida native says he couldn't resist.
"It was one of Shakespeare's least popular plays, but probably the most brutally tragic," Gupta told Zimbio Friday, March 31.
Adapted to tell the story of present-day capitalist corrupt India, Gupta says the film enabled him to fulfill a dream.
"It's a really risky project, I love Shakespeare, and this was a chance for me to work in my homeland," he explained. "To work with up-and-coming Indian talents while at the same time getting to share the screen with one of India's greatest actors, Naseeruddin Shah. The opportunity was thrilling, and it was everything I could have expected and more."
Whereas his character on The Magicians is ego-driven and emotionally immature, Gupta's voice softens when he describes his role on the Indo-UK film.
"[I play] a character that's wildly different from Penny," he shares. "Sunny is kind of the black sheep of the family, he's emasculated in this wild way and just completely disrespected by his father."
Penny, meanwhile, spends much of his time on the show struggling to achieve normalcy as the result of too much power.
"Traditionally with these kind of shows, characters are like, 'Woah, exciting! I'm now powerful,' where as Penny was so reluctant," Gupta says. "He just wanted to get the voices out, get away. He didn't want to become a traveler. That was fun for me as an actor. Like, what is that? To not be excited by this amazing thing. To see it as a hindrance, or an annoyance."
Penny also represents a topic of growing ubiquity on television: mental illness. Being a "traveler," or a magician with the ability to appear anywhere in the universe at a moment's notice, he can also move objects with his mind, and hear the thoughts of others.
"The conversation about mental illness is very important," Gupta continues. "Quentin [Jason Ralph] suffers from depression, and Penny hears voices, so that's schizophrenia. These are issues of shame. It's powerful to paint in a world where these things are not viewed as detriments, but are actually the source of power. I think that could do a longstanding service in [eliminating] the taboo against mental illness. Not that the show is that political; I personally think all art is politics — consciously or unconsciously. But these are some of the themes that really excite me about a show."
And chances are The Magicians' boundary-pushing tendencies won't slow down any time soon.
"It's exciting," he says. "[We] have a group of artists that make an impact, and want to use a story to create change. I'm not writing the story, so I can't say that's what [series writers] John [McNamara] and Sera [Gamble] are doing, but the proof is in the pudding. A lot of credit goes to Syfy for giving us the leeway to do that, and a lot of credit goes to our writers for taking it there. A lot of credit also goes to our audience who are sticking with us as we push those boundaries, and being receptive to those kind of conversations. Because it's not easy. I think that we can do more. I hope we can do more in seasons to come."
As Gupta points out, The Magicians isn't the only series confronting controversial topics head-on.
"It does seem like there's a shift with [emerging series like] Shots Fired and Underground," he says. "These shows that are out there recognizing the power of story. I think we're in this moment right now of everyone checking in with themselves and saying, 'What is my civic responsibility?' in any industry. And it'll be really interesting to see how well that plays out in the next few years."
As with any important story, Gupta says, The Magicians takes a village.
"Everyone on the cast is like, 'We really want to be a part of something big,'" he explains. "And not necessarily commercially big, but impactful. Everyone that's read [The Magicians author Lev Grossman's] books knows what poignant and timely storytelling it is in this moment. When you have a group of people who are so different — because we are all wildly different human beings — coming together to do something bigger, it's a beautiful energy. Fortunately for us, we were [filming] in Vancouver and none of us knew anyone from Vancouver [at the time]. That first year, we bonded in a pretty powerful way."
As the show's second season rapidly approaches its April 19 finale, Gupta thinks Penny may just be growing up.
"[Penny's power] definitely allows him to escape where he wants," he says, "but it never seems to really help him that much, to be honest. It's really interesting. So often we really do want to jump away from where we are. [But] there's a lesson to be learned in that sometimes you gotta stick through something, and Penny hasn't quite figured that out yet. Maybe he's learning to with the contract with the librarians and with him committing to Kady [Jade Tailor] in some sort of way. Maybe we're witnessing him growing up a little. I don't know yet. I don't know."
And maybe, just maybe, Kady will be a driving force in that growth.
"I think especially in the first season, before he knows she's betraying him, she plays a hugely important character for [Penny] — so that we see the other side, we see his vulnerability, and we see him without his masks," Gupta says. "That's key. Relationships are an important part of our lives. They're a huge place of growth. I had a friend that once said, 'A relationship is a mirror.' You see yourself in it, and you grow through it. I think we're seeing Penny grow through Kady, through the most intimate relationship he has."
Interestingly, the actor doesn't relate to his character on an emotional level.
"Penny operates from a place very different than where I want to operate from," Gupta says. "You know, I think that when I was younger, there might have been more elements of anger or arrogance. But Penny operates from a place of ego a lot; he operates from a place of defensiveness a lot. I'm trying to operate from a place of openness and vulnerability. So that's a huge difference between the two of us. It's also just super liberating to play someone that's so different. It's just really fun."
But for those who do relate to Penny's struggles, Gupta would like to remind fans to look inside themselves.
"You're never as alone as you think," he says. "And if you are alone, being with you is a pretty great thing. Too often we rely on external factors when all we need is within us.
"The more we can start cultivating that relationship with ourselves," he finishes, "the better off we are. I like the quote, 'Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.' As we unlock our light, we unconsciously give those around us permission to do the same. I believe very strongly that all of us are huge lights. Every single human being. It's just about us unlocking that."