By Laura Janota | From the Spring 2011 issue of Roosevelt Review
Roosevelt University theatre alumnus Parvesh Cheena always wanted to make people laugh.
Now, he is doing that before a national audience of millions every Thursday night as a lead actor on the new NBC-TV comedy Outsourced. Based on the dealings of an American company that has outsourced its order processing to a call center in India, the show has been ranked as one of the top new television network series of the 2010-11 season.
“It’s a dream come true and I thank everyone, including my friends at Roosevelt University, for their love and support,” said Cheena, who plays a socially awkward call center employee named Gupta on the show that’s a take-off of a 2006 John Jeffcoat movie of the same name.
A suburban Chicago native, Cheena came to Roosevelt’s Chicago College of Performing Arts in 1998 from the acting program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “After I had my fun at a Big 10 university, I began to realize that my friends in Chicago were getting more opportunities with agents and with acting,” said Cheena.
The actor, who starred as Samir in the American comedy film, Barbershop, was a musical theatre major in the Theatre Conservatory at Roosevelt. However, from the beginning, it was obvious that comedy was Cheena’s first love and true talent.
“It was clear to me early on that Parvesh had a great comic sensibility,” said Joel Fink, professor of theatre, who isn’t surprised his former student has hit the big time in Outsourced. “He’s got a combination of talent, determination and drive, and it seems to me that this is about the right time for him to be making this kind of breakthrough,” said Fink.
“The fact that it (Outsourced) is neither embarrassing nor deeply offensive – once it gets rolling, the show is actually quite charming – is a credit to the cast and the writers,” according to a recent review in the New York Times.
The San Francisco Chronicle’s sfgate.com commented in a recent review that “we all know someone like” Gupta. “Some of us are someone like him.”
For his part, Cheena is having a great time these days on the set of Outsourced, which will run for at least one season, and possibly beyond. “I get to work and get paid to laugh and to make other people laugh, and that priority starts with my fellow cast members,” Cheena said.
Cheena transferred to Roosevelt’s Theatre Conservatory because it offered opportunities for him to audition in his free time after class for parts around the Chicago area in theatre, commercials and film.
“I realized if you want to be a performing artist, you’ve got to be in Chicago,” said Cheena, who grew up in Naperville, Ill., where his parents still live today. “It’s the best town in the nation for it, and Roosevelt University afforded me access to a lot of opportunities.”
Besides making his film debut as a Roosevelt student with Barbershop, Cheena starred in Apple Tree Theatre’s Indian Ink, a 2002 drama production on the British empire and Indian culture that made the top-10 lists of the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times. As a Roosevelt student, Cheena also appeared in 2003 in Lifeline Theatre’s Jeff Equity Award production of Aroundthe World in 80 Days and had roles in a variety of TV commercials and industrial training films.
“The theatre program at Roosevelt really helped me identify and develop my strengths and I really enjoyed my time there,” he said. While at Roosevelt, the young actor played the part of a drunken old man who periodically yells at patrons in a bar in the Theatre Conservatory’s production of William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life, which was staged at Roosevelt’s O’Malley Theatre in December 2001.
Steve Scott, associate producer at the Goodman Theatre and an instructor in Roosevelt’s Theatre Conservatory, directed the play. He remembers Cheena looking the part of the drunken old man in the production, in large part, because of a beard that Cheena had grown. According to Scott, he told Cheena to keep the beard for the part because it made the young actor look older.
As luck would have it, during rehearsals for The Time of Your Life, the bearded Cheena auditioned for and got his first big break in the part of Samir, the convenience store owner whose ATM was stolen in Barbershop. Filmed on Chicago’s South Side in early 2002, the movie came out at the end of that year.
“I always wondered whether the beard made him look like the character they were going for in Barbershop,” said Scott, who credits Cheena, above all, with allowing his true, likeable nature to show through in his acting.
“The best thing about Parvesh is that he has this real sweetness – a kind of innocence about him – but at the same time he has this wicked sense of humor. I think that double edge is what has gotten him where he is today,” said Scott.
For his part, Cheena remembers being simultaneously overwhelmed and not knowing what to expect when Barbershop came out. “It was surreal. My friends were calling me up and saying that when they saw the movie they thought it was a really, really big deal.
“I remember thinking I was just really excited to be doing a movie with Ice Cube. It was kind of surreal for me to see myself on the big screen because at the time I was just a kid in school trying to make people laugh,” said Cheena, who linked with an agent as a result of the break.
The actor, who returned as Samir in the movie sequel, Barbershop 2: Back in Business, moved in 2004 to Los Angeles, where he began to pick up commercial work, including appearances as Sanjeev in popular ad campaigns for Esurance as well as recurring roles on TV shows including Help Me Help You, Til Death and Brothers and Sisters. On the TV circuit, he’s also had guest parts with ER, The West Wing, The O.C., The Suite Life with Zack and Cody, Crossing Jordan, My Name is Earl and Sons of Tucson.
“He has worked so hard and it’s great to see that it’s finally his time,” said Jaya Subramanian, a 2003 graduate of Roosevelt’s Theatre Conservatory who remembers being an ensemble member with Cheena in Roosevelt’s 2000 production of Hair.
As students, the two started a southern Asian theatre company at a time when such an endeavor was a rarity in Chicago. Today, the Rasaka Theatre Company has gone on to win Jeff Equity awards, notably for the play, The Masrayana, which was staged during the 2005-06 season.
In 2007, Subramanian moved to Los Angeles and has seen her friend, Cheena, babysit, cut chickens at Whole Foods Market and do improvisational theatre with a variety of companies in Los Angeles, all the time working daily on the set to build his budding TV career.
“He’s the first out of our class and our group of friends to make it big on TV,” said Subramanian, who is also working to build a career in commercials and as an actress in Hollywood. “When you see someone try so hard and achieve a goal, it’s an inspiration to everyone else,” she said.
Cheena’s success is an inspiration – and a feather in the cap – for Roosevelt’s Theatre Conservatory, which has been the foundation and training ground for a number of other recent success stories. Some of these include: Stephen Buntrock (BFA, ’04), who was leading man last fall opposite actress Bernadette Peters on New York’s Broadway in the Tony Award-nominated A Little Night Music; and David Tomczak (BFA, ’10), who was chosen in November as one of the winners of Bobby Cronin’s prestigious Rising Star Contest that is part of the Broadway at Birdland Series.
“The barometer is really going up for the Theatre Conservatory,” said Sean Kelley, director and associate dean. “We are seeing our graduates make it in entertainment careers, and that says a lot about our program.”
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