missindiaamerica-posterI think actress Hannah Simone is one of the best things about New Girl, the Zooey Deschanel sitcom now in its fifth season on Fox. Her unlikely on-again/off-again relationship with Schmidt (Max Greenfield) is one of the funniest pairings on television. I was happy to see Simone pop up in Miss India America, Ravi Kapoor’s funny new comedy that he co-wrote with his wife, Meera Simhan. The film stars Tiya Sircar as Lily Prasad, a driven young women who is graduating from her Orange County high school at the top of her class. She has a plan — “The Lily Plan” — to become a brain surgeon like her father and she expects her loyal boyfriend Karim (Kunal Sharma) to become a high-level petroleum engineer. They’ll get married, have kids, and live happily ever after. But Lily’s plan is thrown into confusion when Karim becomes smitten with the reigning Miss India National and runs off with the beauty queen. Not happy at losing anything, Lily decides that she herself must enter and win the pageant. She’s used to crushing the competition but finds a formidable opponent in the beautiful and talented Sonia Nielson (Simone). I talked to Hannah Simone about how she ended up as the executive producer of Miss India America as well as one of the members of its delightful ensemble cast.

Danny Miller: Were you involved with this project from the very beginning?

Hannah Simone: I got involved pretty early on. In the second season of New Girl we were shooting this episode called “Table 34” where Cece goes to an Indian dating convention. The woman who ran the convention on the episode was this wonderful actress named Meera Simhan. She came up to me that day and she told me about this script she had written and said there was a part she thought would be perfect for me. She mentioned that she wrote it with her husband who was also going to direct, Ravi Kapoor. I said, “What?!” I was already a big fan of his work. I loved the script so I went back to them and said I’d like to do whatever I can to make this film a success. And that started the long collaborative process.

Could you personally relate to what Lily Prasad is going through in the story?

Oh, definitely. For me, it’s the story of a teenaged girl trying to figure herself out. The stakes always seem so high in high school and you’re constantly trying to figure out your identity and what you want in life. I thought Meera and Ravi did such a great job of writing that story and putting it against this backdrop of Indian-American culture and the crazy pageant world. But I think every girl will be able to relate to what Lily is going through, and what my character, Sonia, is also dealing with: pressure from your parents to do things a certain way, figuring out what is really important in life.

Reading in your bio about the different advanced degrees that you have makes me wonder if you had your own “Lily Plan” growing up.

I definitely always knew the value of education which has opened so many doors in my life. But I was also very blessed to have parents who never had the idea that I had to be one specific thing. I was a passionate academic growing up and I wanted to work in international development but my creative outlet was always acting. I was always doing plays and things on the stage while also pursuing activities in the human rights world — those two things have always been a constant in my life even if they’ve sort of switched hands in terms of which one helps me make a living!


Did you have any involvement in the world of pageants?

No, not at all, but I grew up in Saudi Arabia and we didn’t have a lot of pageants there! I love that this film tackled the issue of having a plan for your life when you think you know what you’re doing and then life takes all these natural twists and turns that makes you rethink what’s really important.

Did your character’s “talent portion” of the competition, the Shakespeare monologue, give you any pause? Did you already have experience with Shakespeare?

No, I was terrified by that! I remember I was shooting some crazy loft antics on New Girl during that day and thought, “Oh my gosh, now I have to go do a Shakespearean monologue and it has to be good because that’s the whole point of the scene!” It was nerve-wracking but really nice to flex a new muscle and try something different. I enjoyed the challenge. 

How was it punching Tiya Sircar in the face? Had you had done many fight scenes before?

(Laughs.) I think the closest I had come to an actual fight scene was an episode of New Girl where I got to kick Jake Johnson in the junk. I remember they brought in all these stunt people and special jockstraps for him, all these crazy stuff, and I was like, “Oh, come on!” But that was really fun!

You’re so great with comedy — are you itching to do more straight dramatic roles, too?

I would love to. But I also feel like my character on New Girl has allowed me to do such an interesting range of stuff. Cece has actually gone through a lot of big emotional moments with her relationship with Schmidt, with her mom not supporting her marriage. That’s why I love TV so much, these are fully realized characters that you’re telling hundreds of hours of stories about so you really get to explore them.

Am I crazy or is the woman who played her mother on New Girl the same person who plays your mother in this film?

Yes! Anna George — she’s the most talented, amazing woman! That was kind of a weird coincidence. And Satya Bhabha, who I almost married on New Girl until Taylor Swift stole him away, is also in this movie as Sanjay, the MC of the pageant!

I loved Cece’s arc last season on New Girl but it’s so fun to see her and Schmidt back together.

Yes, they’re planning their wedding now, it’s been so fun. We’ve spent years with this will-they-or-won’t-they storyline so it’s great to see them as a couple, they’re just so funny together. This has been the most fun season to shoot ever.

I assume you’ve seen Max’s new movie, Hello, My Name Is Doris, with Sally Field?

We all went to see it together, including the crew. We’ve been together now for more than five years so we feel a lot of pride when one of our own does something like that. We’re such a close family, it’s a wonderful environment of genuine support.

You mentioned the human rights work that you’re also doing?

Yes, I work very closely with this great organization called Free the Children. I’ve gone with them to India to build a school and to Kenya to work on different projects. They’re hosting a massive youth empowerment day here called WE Day at the L.A. Forum and I’ll be speaking there along with some of the other cast members from New Girl. Kids don’t buy tickets to go, they have to earn there way there through community service, it’s really amazing, and all about supporting the next generation of change.

Miss India America opens in select theaters on March 25, 2016, and will be available in Digital HD On Demand on April 5.