Canadian Actress, Activist and Globetrotter Lisa Ray: Full Circle

She played with maps as a child, then lived out her dreams as a globetrotting actress and model. Lisa Ray opens up on her career, health and nomadic life.

LisaRay-Interior
Lisa Ray wears a Gown from Greta Constantine and a Necklace, Kenneth Jay Lane, Carole Tanenbaum Vintage.

Lisa Ray’s average commute makes most people’s look like a walk in the  park. When I sat down to chat with the model/actress, she was fresh  off a flight from Athens, and was leaving again for Hong Kong just  days later. If she was jetlagged, she didn’t show it; after all, covering three continents in a week isn’t that out of the ordinary for  Ray.

A self-described travelista, Ray has always aspired to a nomadic lifestyle. She crossed the Atlantic for the first time at the age of six months, and she’s been a wanderer ever since. As a child, she would sit on the purple shag rug in her family’s home and flip through an atlas, memorizing capital cities. “Honest to god, my true intention from that age was just to travel. I thought, I want to be a collector of travel experiences. Whatever I  accomplish along the way [would be] fantastic, but that was actually  my main goal,” she says.

It’s safe to say that she has achieved that goal. Born and raised in  Toronto in an Indian-Polish family, Ray moved to India at age sixteen to pursue a career in modelling. After a successful stint on magazine  covers and working her way up to icon status in India, Ray turned her  attention to acting and made her film debut in the 2001 film Kasoor.

Since then, her various roles and accomplishments, including a lead  role in Oscar-nominated Canadian film Water, have taken her to all  four corners of the earth.“I’m half Indian, half Polish, and born and   brought up in Canada. So  what exactly does that make me? Well, I don’t know, I think it means that I can fit in almost anywhere in the world. And if anything I  think that’s my special skill,” Ray says.

Ray’s unique global perspective and cross-cultural experience has  endeared her to both Indian and North American cultures. She describes  herself as “not quite Indian, and not quite Canadian either”, which situates her in a unique vantage point and made her stand out in her  professional life. “I think that maybe because I’m an only child, I’ve always had a bit  of the observer in me…. I’m an insider but also an outsider, watching  a little bit from the outside,” she says. “It’s never been about  fitting in for me; it’s just been about observing, and about  experiences. And you know, to an extent I don’t want to fit in.”

Ray’s versatility has allowed her to take on a wide range of roles,  from a leading part as a young Indian widow in the film Water to the host of  Top Chef Canada. Back in the 90s, however, her status as one of India’s top models and the limited scope of Bollywood films made it  challenging for her to seek out the kind of weighty, issue-oriented  projects she craved. “In those days the small meaningful films that they were making, they weren’t offering to me. I got offered a lot of money to do mainstream  Bollywood films. And maybe I should’ve done it, but I didn’t. I couldn’t,” she says.It was these limitations that inspired Ray to reinvent herself by  moving to London to study acting. Although the decision broadened her  artistic horizons, it did nothing to diminish her deep soul connection  to India.

Having spent her formative years, from age 16 to 30, in  Bombay, Ray feels molded by India and says it will always feel like  home. Her enthusiasm for the place is obvious; when asked to pinpoint  one aspect of India that she would share with Canadians, she insists  that an entire road trip would be necessary to take it all in.“It would have to be a road trip, starting probably in Rajasthan and  going down towards Kerala, along the west coast. You’d start in a  desert and end up in these lush green backwaters, and all within a couple of days… Just seeing the geography is awe-inspiring.”

Travel tips from a wanderer as experienced as Ray are definitely worth  paying attention to. Over a lifetime of extensive travels, Ray has  always made an effort to fully experience the essence of the places she visits.“I used to say that there’s a difference between a traveller and a  tourist,” she says. “Being a traveller means you’re gritty and  authentic, and you get in there and take off your shoes and walk barefoot in the street, or whatever it takes to have a very authentic  connection with the culture of the place you’re visiting. Whereas a  tourist is a bit distanced, kind of seeing through plate glass; you’re  just on the surface.”

Even after all she has accomplished, the best may be yet to come from  Lisa Ray. “I’m not someone who sits and looks back on things – I’m  always looking ahead for the next challenge,” she says. As for what that challenge might be, Ray’s creativity knows few  limitations. Although acting has been her most consistent fling thus  far, she plans to expand her focus to expressing herself in other  creative realms such as writing and design.“I’ve always been passionate about design, and that’s an area I’d like  to explore in the near future,” Ray says. Her future design projects  will be riding the wave of success of the line of saris she launched  last year in collaboration with renowned Indian design house Satya  Paul last year.

However lofty her ambitions for the future, Ray knows to take things  slow. Her recent struggle with cancer has taught her the importance of  focusing on her state of mind and well-being. After being diagnosed  with multiple myeloma in 2009, Ray returned home to Toronto for  treatment, and declared herself cancer-free in 2010. “My priority is health and harmony. Everything else stems out of that.  I learned the hard way, if you don’t concentrate on your health and  your state of mind, and developing your mindfulness, you can’t really  do anything else.”

Ray refers to her experience with cancer as a “healing journey”, which  seems like a telling representation of the perspective she chose to  adopt. “I’m not saying it was easy, and it isn’t easy, and frankly I’m still  living with it. But it’s made me live in an even deeper and fiercer  way. And because I was able to reframe the experience and see it as  just another experience, and something that I’ve managed to grow from,  that has really changed the context of everything.” Ray lived these words during her journey by keeping a blog called “The  Yellow Diaries” to share her experience with cancer patients, and by  taking control of her health and involving herself in the treatment  process.  

Her positivity when tackling such a difficult topic of  discussion is truly staggering. Listening to her describe her  experience inspires not pity for the hardships she was forced to  undergo, but awe at the immense strength she demonstrated in facing them. Four years later, with her cancer under control and her recent  marriage to Jason Dehni, her life has settled into a rhythm that’s  balanced and healthy. “Now my health has stabilized and I’m in a great place, and I’m in a  wonderful relationship that’s given me wings…. If I’ve learned  anything from my cancer journey it’s certainly that I don’t want to  live in a frenetic way, that I have to step out of the hustle. But  there are a couple of dream projects that I have.”