Buffalo Grove grad's 'Code Black' role just latest in her success
She holds a mechanical engineering degree from Stanford University, a second-degree black belt in Shotokan karate, the title of Miss India America 2007 and a regular role on the CBS TV series "Code Black."
Melanie Chandra, a 2003 graduate of Buffalo Grove High School, describes her character -- Dr. Malaya Pineda, a first-year resident at an understaffed Los Angeles emergency room -- as "a very smart, very confident and capable doctor."
"She's trying to make a difference in a crazy world," Chandra said.
Smart, confident, capable and trying to make a difference? That would be the real Chandra, a 29-year-old multi-tasking dynamo.
She not only works as a model and actress, but she's been employed at a New York management consulting firm, hosted New York TV shows, competed at national and international karate contests, and was a Stanford cheerleader. She also co-founded the nonprofit Hospital For Hope charity and built a hospital (with four Stanford friends) in one of the poorest sections of India.
And she's been playing piano since the age of 6.
Still, performing was not her initial career path. Chandra, whose maiden name is Kannokada, comes from a family where she was encouraged to go into engineering or medicine.
She initially chose engineering because "I just had a natural knack for it."
"In my heart, I had always dreamed of being an actress, but I never told anyone about it," Chandra said.
"My focus had always been on school and achievement. But that dream never went away."
During her first year of employment at a New York management firm, she decided to take a leap of faith, get an agent and go for the dream.
Within a week after moving to Los Angeles, she landed a supporting role in the CBS sitcom "Rules of Engagement" with David Spade.
She went on to act in ABC Family's "The Nine Lives of Chloe King," NBC's "Parenthood." CBS' "NCIS: Los Angeles" and HBO's "The Brink."
"I fell in love with it," Chandra said of acting.
"This was what I was meant to do. I had to do it!"
"It's the self-expression that you can't get in any other industry," she explained.
"From the moment I get on stage and work on the material, it triggers different parts of me that have so much potential. I just love connecting with people. I love self-expression. I love, love, love telling stories that challenge people or inspire people."
Her parents, Suresh and Sicily Kannokada, weren't so sure at the start.
"They considered acting a very unsafe industry and they were concerned for their daughter," she said. "But then they saw me on TV for the first time and they've been proud of me ever since."
Chandra said Indian-American entertainers are more accepted because of Danny Boyle's 2008 movie "Slumdog Millionaire."
"Ever since 'Slumdog Millionaire,' people have slowly awakened to the idea that they can cast a South Asian woman in a leading role and appeal to a global society. The movie proved you could tell a story about another culture in a non-stereotypical sort of way."
Chandra met her future husband, Neeraj Chandra, back at Stanford. He was a senior when she was a freshman.
"He asked me out on a date and I said no," she said. "I said 'no' many times. Then I finally agreed to have lunch with him."
She thought he was a wonderful guy, but he was graduating, so she didn't see much future in that.
A few years later, they bumped into each other on a New York street. They fell in love.
But wait. Karate? Where did that come from?
"My brother was taking classes through the Buffalo Grove Park District," she explained.
"I told my parents, 'I want to do that! That looks like so much fun!'"
By the time she reached high school, she was training up to four times a week and became a two-time bronze medalist at the Pan American games.
"It was very exciting and it took me out of my comfort zone, because I was a very quiet, reserved kid," she said.
"The moment you tell someone you have a second-degree black belt in karate, they look at you in a completely different light ... in a good way."
-- Dann Gire
• If you know suburbanites who work in showbiz and would make a good column, contact Jamie Sotonoff and Dann Gire at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.