Meet the UT Austin Student Who Hosts Her Own Netflix Show

For University of Texas at Austin student and actress Sahana Srinivasan, life changed overnight via a single phone call. In fall 2017, the radio-television-film major received a call from her agent, who told her she’d been offered the starring role in a new
Netflix children’s series, Brainchild.

The show, which counts Pharrell Williams among its executive producers, is a kind of Bill Nye the Science Guy for the Instagram generation, using relatable stories, funky graphics, and experiments to educate young viewers about science. As host, Srinivasan, 22, is the audience’s cool big sister, ditching the white lab coat for trendy overalls or a cozy knit sweater, and nearly always accessorized with a pair of chic black frames and a bold red lip.

Like her Brainchild character, when we meet, Srinivasan dons a pair of dark glasses and an oversized perfectly distressed denim jacket that would look at home among the show’s brightly colored sets. She is articulate and thoughtful, though more subdued than the energetic host that travels to the bottom of the sea alongside puppet co-stars and walks kids through eye-popping science experiments.

When we take a seat on the second floor of the Belo Center for New Media, she’s in between classes, some of her last before she graduates. She says balancing a full-time degree program at the university while shooting a television series is as tough as you might imagine. To devote herself fully to the show, she took the fall 2018 semester off and moved to New York City for two months in order to film.

Srinivasan recruited the help of Noah Isenberg, the chair of the Department of Radio-Television-Film, to tackle this balancing act. Through summer and online classes, she was able to make up the semester and will graduate with her class this May. “I believe her maturity, ambition, and talent allowed her to gracefully handle her many responsibilities,” Isenberg says.

He notes how proud the RTF department is of their young star, who hasn’t let the show interfere with her studies. “It is always refreshing to see diligent, persistent students reap the rewards of their labor,” he says.

For the past four years, Srinivasan has been immersed in the life of an RTF student, learning about cinematic theory, experimenting with cameras, and making short films, something she began as a high school student outside of Dallas. She calls her hometown, Allen, Texas, “a melting pot of different cultures.”

Srinivasan is the first of two daughters born to Indian parents. They spoke Tamil at home, but embraced a variety of traditions—especially in the kitchen. “[My parents] were always cooking a variety of foods … pasta one night, tacos the next, then pasta tacos,” she jokes.

Though both of her parents earned degrees in engineering (her father worked at Texas Instruments while her mother worked as a stay-at-home mom), Srinivasan says they also encouraged artistic, creative endeavors. As a child, she took up theater, wrote skits, and performed in talent shows. By 13, the budding actress was accepted to study under Cathryn Sullivan, a Dallas-based acting coach whose past clients include Selena Gomez, Cody Linley, and Demi Lovato.

Eventually, Srinivasan landed agency representation—hardly an easy feat in Los Angeles or New York, let alone Allen, Texas—and began auditioning for television and movies, even landing a supporting role in 2013’s Space Warriors, a film starring Danny Glover and Mira Sorvino about a group of kids attending space camp.

When high school came to an end, she knew she wanted to study film and selected UT for its lauded RTF program and its location. (Close enough to go home for the weekend, but far enough away to dodge the occasional family party.) She was also intrigued by Austin’s reputation as a movie town. “Austin is an underrated place when it comes to film,” Srinivasan says. “There are so many resources here.”

Srinivasan found another community in Austin: the world of stand-up comedy. Over the past two years, she’s been trying her material at local clubs like Cap City Comedy Club and The Velveeta Room, and as a member of Snafu, one of UT’s on-campus improv troupes.

Stand-up, Srinivasan says, has sharpened her skills as a performer—skills that not only helped her land the Brainchild gig but also navigate its ensuing success. After the show launched in December 2018, Srinivasan received a crash course in balancing school, filmmaking, comedy, and the monumental choices that come with impending graduation, with press junkets, publicity, and, of course, fans.

“Stand-up has helped me read people better,” she says. “When acting, you’re immersing yourself in a character. With stand-up, you are reading the room.”

It’s hard to know what’s in store for the show’s future. Despite good reviews—The New York Times called it “earnest” and “fun”—as of press time, Netflix has yet to announce if the show will get another season.

Luckily, the young star has other things to keep her mind off the show’s status. She’s currently working on a draft for her next short film—her last for the RTF program—and thinking about where she’ll head after graduation. Right now, Srinivasan’s considering staying in Austin, but one gets the sense that Los Angeles or New York may be her next stop.

Wherever she lands, Srinivasan wants to continue to redefine herself. “You don’t have to be this one thing,” she says. “I hope [in the future] to be comfortably making art and keeping people laughing. I hope I have a healthy mindset. I have no idea what I’m going to be doing—that’s the fun.”

Photos by Matt Wright-Steel; courtesy Netflix; Matt Wright-Steel

 
 
 

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