Devika Bhise still steals batteries and postage stamps from her parents, but that may be the only childlike convenience of which she takes advantage these days. The 25-year-old actor, who appears alongside Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons in the new film The Man Who Knew Infinity, prides herself on the hard-working mentality that her Indian parents have instilled in her—and her dedicated mindset is finally paying off in a real-world way.
In the film, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, Bhise plays Janaki, the wife of the gifted mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (Patel), who, in the early 1900s leaves his family, hometown of Madras, and his childless wife (back then, all this was quite taboo) to study at the University of Cambridge. "I'm so excited for it to finally be out," Bhise says, sitting at a Greenwich Village hotel that also happens to house her favorite neighborhood cafe. "There are some interesting characters in Indian history—it's great to tell this story in Hollywood."
Bhise briefly admits that the press circuit has taken a bit of a toll on her health, but aside from the slight congestion in her voice, you wouldn't know it: Her skin is perfectly clear, her hair falls in pretty waves, and she's thoroughly energetic. Even through the tail end of a cold, she's gracious about her role in the film. "It's so rare to have such a high quality movie land in your lap," she says, sipping a cappuccino. "People ask me how I chose to accept the role. I'm like, 'There wasn't a choice!'"
Infinity is not the first time Bhise has found herself in noteworthy company: The born and bred New Yorker had a small role in the 2008 film The Accidental Husband, which starred Uma Thurman and Colin Firth; she still counts director Griffin Dunne as a close friend.
"It was such a big deal," says Bhise, referring not to the role as much as the fact that she had to miss an exam to film (at the time, she was a student at the competitive Brearley School on Manhattan's Upper East Side). "When you're in 10th grade, school is your whole life." So, for her senior project, she decided to merge film and school: She made a short documentary on the lives of hijras, a shunned transgender community in Goa, India, where her family has a home. The film went on to win Best Social Documentary at the New York Independent Film Festival (a submission encouraged by Bhise's mother).
After high school, Bhise attended Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She had tried to make the case to her parents to forgo college for acting, but they insisted. Choosing between schools like Middlebury and Vassar, she went in a different direction when John Astin, the head of the Hopkins film department (better known for playing Gomez Addams in the 1960s TV series The Addams Family), pursued her to enroll at the school.
Hopkins offered her the prestigious Hodson Trust Scholarship, and Astin promised to personally train her and connect her with industry contacts—elements which sealed the deal for Bhise. Although she ended up studying art history, she still counts Astin as her mentor ("Filming Infinity, I called him every single day for advice or a pep talk," she says). Now, as she hopes to pursue more producing and directing, she really values the well-rounded college experience she had—noting that she was a member of an acapella group and a sorority.
Graduating a semester early, Bhise returned to New York and went to every audition, sent out her resume and headshot to agents, took classes with casting directors. Then, in 2013, she was cast in the well-received Off Broadway production of And Miles to Go. On the back of the play she secured a manager, and gained a bit more exposure, but she still felt the travails of the industry firsthand: "You have to be vigilant when you're early in your acting career," she says. "The worst is the panic moments when you have nothing going on."
This industrious mentality hasn't changed now that her star is rising—if anything, it's only taken more of a hold. She admits that it can sometimes be difficult to learn that a white actor has been cast for an ethnic role, but doesn't dwell on the issue of diversity for long. Instead, she finishes her plate of quinoa and poached eggs and turns to her love of comedy. "A lot of people in the industry don't see me as a comedy type," she says. "You just have to break through all these barriers. If you want to do comedy, write your own." Which she is, by the way.
Bhise seems full of positive energy as she heads into a busy spring. This month, she'll be one of the artists lecturing with Symphony Space's Global Arts: Cultural Literacy and Heritage program—a role she took over from her mother—where she'll visit schools around the New York City boroughs, teaching students about Indian culture. Then, in June, Bhise will begin filming her next movie, Shambhala. The film follows a man, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who is suffering from amnesia after a plane crash. (Bhise's narrative occurs in what seems to be the past, when her character, a college student, seduces Meyers, her professor.)
Bhise shows no signs of slowing down. When asked what inspires her, she pushes aside what she calls the "overnight dream"—the classic Hollywood starlet tale. Referencing actors like Jon Hamm, J.K. Simmons, and Kathy Bates who found success later in their careers, Bhise sticks by her determined attitude. "What people should be looking at is people who work really hard and consistently," Bhise concludes. "That's what pays off."
The Man Who Knew Infinity is now in theaters. To find out if it's playing near you, see gowatchit.com.
Photographer: Amy Li. Photographer's Assistant: Chris Olszewski. Stylist: Helen Rendell. Hair: Charlie Taylor for Honey Artists. Makeup: Nick Barose for Exclusive Artists Management using NARS Cosmetics