When I met sisters Sonya ’15 and Kalina Venugopal ’17 for the first time, I felt as if I’d known them forever. Even across a distance of nearly 3,000 miles, mediated by technology, their warmth, charisma, and, most especially, their joy radiated through the screen. They exude the deep, gratified happiness of those who are relentlessly following their passion, and are now seeing their dreams and hard work come to fruition.
In a few weeks’ time, Sonya will make her Broadway debut in “Life of Pi,” while Kalina has focused on television and film with roles in popular TV series like “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin” and “New Amsterdam.”
Since they strapped on their first pairs of tap shoes as kids, they’ve been together every step of the way. Their sisterly bond runs deep, strengthened by the moments of struggle, celebration, tears, and laughter they’ve shared. They joke that they are like an old married couple as they giggle and interject, unabashedly finishing each other’s sentences and telling one another’s stories.
I caught up with them recently, curious to learn about their journeys and to find out how Santa Clara helped shape their stories.
Lindsey Kouvaris: Sonya, can you talk about what attracted you to SCU?
Sonya Venugopal: We grew up in Clovis, California, and were both very involved in theater and dance. One of our friends from the area attended Santa Clara and invited us to see her in a show. I think I was a junior in high school. When it came time to apply to colleges, I threw a wide net and applied to a lot of different schools. I didn’t really know what I wanted to focus on, but I knew I wanted theater in my life.
When we came to see our friend in the show, I remember thinking, “Wow!” I walked around campus and it just felt like I fit. I didn’t get that feeling at the other colleges I visited. I loved that Santa Clara was private and Jesuit, and I really liked how the core curriculum was structured so that I’d have an opportunity to take classes with other students who weren’t in my major.
There’s something just magical about Santa Clara. It’s one of those places that you just feel at home, which is wonderful.
LK: Kalina, by the time you were applying to schools, Sonya was already at SCU. How did that affect your decision to apply here?
Kalina Venugopal: Actually, I was very against going to SCU because she went there—which is hilarious looking back. I wanted to go to a school far, far away. I knew I wanted to pursue theater, so I did college auditions all over the place. I got into the University of Hartford in Connecticut. They have a very small theater program, but it’s very well known and I was set on it. But, once I accepted the admissions offer, I just didn’t feel right about it, so I pulled out and decided to attend SCU instead.
LK: Tell me a little bit about your experiences at Santa Clara. Were there any professors, classes, or key moments that really influenced your journey?
SV and KV: So many!
SV: The theater department at Santa Clara is pretty small, so it kind of becomes like your family. We had special connections with Jeff Bracco and Kim Hill, but any professor in the theater department had our back. Those classes were really integral in building who we are now. As a major, you had to take a certain number of acting classes. You were also required to take courses in design and production for exposure, which really helped you become a holistic performer—not just an actor on the stage.
LK: Sonya, you mentioned that you didn’t initially know what you wanted to major in, but finally landed on theater and communications. How did you arrive at that?
SV: We’re really blessed to have very supportive parents. They’ve always wanted us to go after whatever makes us happy. But, in the back of my mind, I was worried it wouldn’t work out. I tried a bunch of different courses—and declared majors four times—but nothing really seemed like the right fit. Then, I had a really good conversation with Professor Hill. She told me, “This is the kind of place where you can make mistakes. You can try out different classes and see what you like. But at the end of the day, if this is something that you know you want to do, you should stick to it.”
So, I became a theater major and I also chose to major in communications because it really interests me. We want to start our own production company someday, and I think the knowledge from those courses is going to be really helpful.
“You come to a point when you have to make a decision about whether or not you want to keep going after your dream. We’ve known we wanted to do this our whole lives, so we decided there’s no point in giving up."
LK: Santa Clara is in the heart of Silicon Valley, which can be very tech-focused. Did you ever feel pressured to explore something more STEM-related?
KV: No, not at all. I actually wrote my college essay about how I hate math. I’ve always known I wanted to be an actor.
We could have started auditioning right after high school—we didn’t have to go to a traditional college. But, we really wanted a normal college education. That was our choice. We knew as soon as we graduated we were going to be auditioning. It was going to be a theater 24/7 kind of world. We wanted to get a holistic education; that was really important to us.
SV: Our parents never pressured us either way. They wanted us to go after the career in the arts that we wanted to have. The way they framed it was so beautiful. They told us, “You are only going to have those four years. How do you want to spend them?” There was never pressure, but they were thrilled to see both of us choose to go to a school like Santa Clara, where we could try different things.
LK: The path to success as an actor isn’t always easy. Can you walk me through your journey after SCU?
SV: Both of our paths are a little different. I went straight from undergrad into a graduate program at a conservatory. Then, I signed with an agent. Kalina had also signed with someone. So, we moved to New York at the same time, ready to pound the pavement.
We’ve lived here since 2017, but it has really been post-pandemic that we’ve started to see the fruits of our labor. It’s been tough. You come to a point when you have to make a decision about whether or not you want to keep going after your dream. We’ve known we wanted to do this our whole lives, so we decided there’s no point in giving up.
KV: The toughest part was actually leaving the safety net of college—seeing all of our friends, who weren’t theater majors, making money with full-time jobs and health insurance. That was hard, but everyone’s journey is different.
SV: We have a very unique situation because we’re very close and we boost each other up. I’m pursuing musical theater and she’s pursuing TV and film, so we’re both able to do our own thing and then meet back together to help each other with self-tapes (audition videos), or attend premieres. It’s such a unique situation because we’re really able to understand each other’s experiences.
LK: Kalina, you’ve had a number of roles on television shows. What draws you to TV and film?
KV: I used to watch TV for hours as a kid. Not because I wanted to watch TV, but because I wanted to be in the world of TV. I wanted to know everything that was happening, especially behind the scenes.
Part of it also comes from being South Asian. As a kid, we didn’t see a lot of actors that looked like us. It’s getting better now, but there’s still not a lot of diversity in the arts—especially body diversity. When I first moved here, I was often told that I needed to lose weight or I wouldn’t get roles. But rather than let that get me down, I just decided I was going to prove the people who told me that were wrong. The industry is changing, which is refreshing, but it takes time.
SV: That’s part of the reason we want to have our own production company someday. We want to create a safe space for people who don’t always have opportunities.
LK: Sonya, what led you to musical theater?
SV: I put on tap shoes and started performing on stage when I was 4 or 5 years old. At first, I just thought it was fun to dress up in a costume and perform. But now that I am older, I take pride in the work that I do and the projects I say “yes” to.
Before “Life of Pi,” which is opening later this month, I was in a new musical based off of a huge Bollywood hit. It was a mostly South Asian cast. It was that moment on stage, when you’re taking a bow, and you see every type of person in the audience–young, old, male, female, non-gendered, South Asian, not South Asian—all relating to a story that is told by South Asian people. That truly moved me.
I get chills going on stage because I feel like there’s going to be a person in the audience who is truly going to connect with what I’m doing for many reasons—because they see a South Asian girl on stage, because I’m weaning a saree...There are just so many reasons why I think live theater connects to people immediately and that’s what feeds my desire to keep doing it.
We don’t want awards. We don’t want to be known. We just want to be doing work we’re proud of.
LK: Sonya, you mentioned you’re a couple of weeks away from your Broadway debut in “Life of Pi.” What role are you playing and what has that experience been like for you?
SV: I still don’t feel like it’s happening! We were seeing a different show last night and we walked by the marquee. That was the moment it started to sink in.
I’m playing Rani. In the book, it’s Ravi. He’s Pi’s brother, but in the play, it’s his sister. It’s been a really incredible experience.
The first few performances will be really exciting, but then it turns into a job. It’s very cool and you feel proud, but at the end of the day, it’s a job. You have to make sure you keep your ego in check and make sure you’re doing your job. Just like anyone else showing up to work.
KV: We’ve talked about this a lot. We both wondered “What’s it going to feel like when we finally get to XYZ?” When we did, we were excited, but we weren’t as excited as we thought we would be because we realized we can’t put all our worth into this…we can’t tie our worth to the jobs we get. It would crush us as humans.
LK: I’ve heard some students say they feel pressured to choose a “practical” major. What advice would you give to a student—or to anyone—who wants to pursue a career in the arts?
SV: You should never stop going after the thing that you actually want to do.
KV: And it’s never too late.
SV: And, just because you have a job that might not be in the field you’re passionate about—that shouldn’t take away from your determination to get where you want to go. We only live for so long. Why not spend 5 to 10 years going after the thing you want? It really will make you happier. If you’re not truly happy, you’re never going to feel satisfied.
KV: It’s doable. We wanted the stability of money and health insurance just like everyone else. We’ve both had more traditional jobs along the way. Just because you’re in the arts doesn’t mean you have to struggle.
Ella Fitzgerald said, “Just don’t give up trying to do what you really want to do.” I’ve always stuck with that. If you really love something and you really want to pursue it, you won’t give up.
You never know when you’re going to make an impact on someone, so you might as well go after your passion.
"If you really love something and you really want to pursue it, you won’t give up. You never know when you’re going to make an impact on someone, so you might as well go after your passion."