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.
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.”
Art Direction: Antonio Pendones
Production: Gustavo Reid
Make up and Hair: Diego DeMatos
Styling: Kirsten Reader, Judy Inc.