Karen David has been racking up the frequent flyer miles this year, traveling between Los Angeles and London in order to ensure the many cogs of her career remain well-oiled. Ever since her 2008 Hollywood debut in the Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior (she played Layla), David has found it necessary to retain an L.A. agent and manager—and yet thankfully, there is nothing Hollywood about her.
The 28 year-old has taken the recent career upswing in stride—downplaying her looks, her success, and maintaining an attitude of reverence when asked about musical collaborator A.R. Rahman. Humility is part of her charm.
She is an Indian girl at heart, born in Shillong, Meghalaya to a Chinese-Khasi mother with Himalayan roots and a father from Chennai. She spent her formative years in Canada (Toronto) before settling finally in London to pursue an education in acting.
Theater came first. While a student at the Guildford School, one of the UK’s most prestigious drama academies, she began working with ABBA musician Benny Andersson, who encouraged her to try out for the musical Mamma Mia! in London’s Westend. She did, landing not just that part, but another.
One night after her performance, she received a visit backstage from audience members Shekhar Kapur and A.R. Rahman. They told her they were putting together a new musical, a little something called Bombay Dreams. Rahman asked for her help in developing material. And she was happy to oblige.
Then in 2001: the big screen. David starred opposite James McAvoy in the British production Bollywood Queen and has since appeared in Batman Begins and in Vince Vaughn’s romantic comedy Couples Retreat. These days she can be seen on the primetime BBC drama Waterloo Road.
When I caught up with her a few weeks ago though, it wasn’t acting that was on her mind as much as music; specifically, her debut album, expected in the spring. “The journey from the starting point up until now has been ten years,” she told me. “My team and I jokingly call the album ‘Overnight Success: The Longest Night’.”
Garry Hughes and Andrew Mackay of the Bombay Dub Orchestra were brought into the Chennai recording sessions, held at A.R. Rahman’s AM Studios (Rahman and David have also co-written a few songs together). “The album is kind of autobiographical in parts and in other parts it just celebrates the sounds and vibes that I love,” she explained. “I tell people that my style is exotic pop, or ‘pop-exotica’… Pop exotica meets quirky, electro pop beats, that’s Karen David music.”
It perhaps also describes Karen David herself, in a way: part goddess, part popster, part girl-next-door. When I asked about the pressures of keeping up appearances as an entertainer, she told me she doesn’t give it much thought. “Being me is all I know how to do,” she said. “I don’t have time to waste worrying if I’m skinny enough, or if my breasts are large enough, or if people will like me or not. I think as you get older, you begin to embrace your quirks, because that’s what makes you special—that’s what make you, you.”
But when the going gets tough sometimes, David says she does think back. “I just remember when I was a little girl and wanted to sing and act so much when I grew up. I remember the innocence of wanting to do it for the love of it – that’s the energy that keeps me going and feeds my drive and determination. It’s all to see my childhood dream come true.”