Openly gay actor Parvesh Cheena is coping with the pandemic on NBC with a show called Connecting. This new ensemble comedic tale is told through video chats each week covering current topics such as mask wearing, delivery service during COVID times and the Black Lives Matter movement. What makes the eight-episode series Connecting stand out from the pack is the diversity included throughout the plot, such as a gay parent storyline with Cheena's character Pradeep and a transgender friend as part of the group chat, Ellis, played by Shakina Nayfack.
Cheena is of Indian descent and grew up in Naperville, Illinois. He attended Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora before studying musical theater at the Chicago College of Performing Arts. Leaving the Windy City to move to Los Angeles has paid off with numerous television roles on hit shows such as The Goldbergs, Fresh Off the Boat and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. He is also a part of the cast of season two on Family Style, which airs on stage13.com and YouTube.
His voice over work has become a highlight in his career with Disney's The Owl House and Transformers: Rescue Bots.
Cheena's positivity and humor was apparent over a recent Zoom call from his home as he spoke about his pandemic project Connecting:
Windy City Times: Hi, Parvesh! You were born and raised in the Midwest?
Parvesh Cheena: Yes. I was born in Elk Grove and I went to University of Illinois my freshman year where I was a theater major.
WCT: Do you have a favorite musical?
PC: Caroline, or Change. It is from composer Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner, who wrote Angels in America, says it is his most autobiographical work, as a Jewish kid growing up in New Orleans and his Black maid played by Tonya Pinkins. Anika Noni Rose played the daughter and won a Tony. Tonya Pinkins lost the Best Actress Tony to Idina Menzel for Wicked. There is a documentary about the musical of 2004.
WCT: Yes, I have seen the doc ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway in the past and Boy George was rude to some people in the film.
PC: Yes, but we are just glad he is alive and here! He's hosting on The Voice UK right now.
WCT: When did you come out of the closet?
PC: I was never in. I am a character actor and ethnicity was always the biggest thing. They could not deal with me being gay on top of that. I was only allowed one minority at a time.
I was out in college and when I moved here to LA in 2004. It only became of notice when I did Outsourced for NBC as my first big break. They claimed I was suddenly out, even though I had walked down the red carpet with my partner many times. I have been fortunate and never had to do that straight dance in my career.
WCT: What have been the challenges of being a minority and how has it changed over the years?
PC: We are dealing with so much on Connecting with Black Lives Matter and trans issues on the show. These are the things we talk about as a society, finally, even though it is uncomfortable sometimes.
I am 41 years old, I am very open about my age. I can't hide it! So, the 9/11 attack happened when I was at Roosevelt University to see the Cows on Parade art project. I was taking photos of my friends there and some random white woman said I might be plotting something when I was standing there. That is when race really hit home.
Theater professors told me I would play a terrorist for a long time when I really only wanted to play Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet. The first 15 years of my career were about being ethnic instead of things I knew really knew about.
Only when I quit giving a damn a few years ago, could I get a part like Pradeep on Connecting. With him, he's just the gay dad. Being ethnic and adopting kids is all addressed, but it is not the focus. It is nice to not carry everything on my shoulders. I don't have to defend every part of who I am for a change.
WCT: How different are you from Pradeep?
PC: There's very little difference between me personally and Pradeep. We had to do so much setup for the show at home, even with the ring light that I am looking at now, and the leftover makeup that NBC sent me. When we started the show, it was difficult, where I had seven lights and five iPhone cameras to use.
I am not that good of an actor. [laughs] I am okay, but I am not a chameleon. I can give a range of emotions depending on what a director needs, but only so far. I am not Gary Oldman or Meryl Streep. At the end of the day after all of the lights and camera, I just want to play me. My partner, Eric Fuller, and I don't have children yet, but that is really the only difference.
WCT: NBC didn't come into your house and help you set up?
PC: No, we did it all ourselves. My partner helped me when he wasn't working. I think all of the Connecting cast have partners to help them, but no cinematographer came into our homes. Think of it like mission control where they tell the astronauts what to do!
WCT: Were there many takes during the filming of Connecting?
PC: Once we finished with the setup and lighting, we filmed it much like a play. A half hour sitcom is about 30 pages, give or take. We filmed 10 pages a day, which is a lot. It is all dialogue and very chatty.
WCT: Was the show developed quickly after the pandemic happened?
PC: Yes. Martin Gero and Brendan Gall are producers and show runners. They did Blindspot and have deals with NBC. They have had dinners and played poker virtually with friends, so this is based on their friend group. It is nice that this show is based on truth and reality.
Shakina Nayfack has made history on the show as the first trans actress to star on a major network sitcom comedy. She was open to share stories and the producers were open to those stories. We have a trans writer in the writing room as well. There are things I don't know and we are all still learning. Cis gender gay people have a lot to learn about the trans community. Just the fact that we have these conversations on a network TV show makes me proud to be on it.
WCT: There is some crying on Connecting. Is it too real?
PC: I only deal with reality through a lens of humor. Comedy is how I process real life, so I don't ignore the bad things. I like this type of late night humor. Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert don't avoid life, they comment on it and satirize it. This take with scripted TV is to humanize it, but also not be sour and dour. Please tell me some jokes right now!
WCT: Connecting is cancelled after season one for prime time television, but is online a possibility?
PC: We are going to transition to streaming services such as Hulu, where television is heading in the future. There were some schedule challenges with all of the election coverage and we got lost in the shuffle. Connecting is the first of its kind with Brown, Black and a mix of people. It is the most diverse show I have been a part of with religion, race, gender, orientation and everything.
WCT: You have an upcoming part in the Sia produced film Music?
PC: Yes, but it is just a small part.
My friend Sujata Day from Insecure has her directorial debut on a film that I was in about a spelling bee tutor. It is another story that we have seen before and deals with mental illness.
My bread and butter, even before the pandemic, is voice over work. I have a voice over closet where I record next to my jeans. I am performing on a bunch of cartoons like Mira, Royal Detective and T.O.T.S. both on Disney Junior. Megan Hilty and Vanessa Williams are both with me on T.O.T.S. Mira has every Indian I know, including Chicago Indians, on it!
Tune in to Connecting Thursday nights on NBC at 7 p.m. CT.