In her new film Miss India America (in select theaters, on HD Digital, and On Demand platforms now), Hannah Simone plays Sonia, who is pretty much the girl you always side-eyed in high school because she was just a little bit more sparkly than you were (we’ve all got a Sonia). She’s in major competition with the film’s main character, Lilly (Tiya Sircar), in the Miss India America Pageant. Besides delving into the ever fascinating world of beauty pageants, the film deals with some weightier issues, like female competition, happiness vs. success, and allowing who you are to be enough, flaws and all.
We talked to Hannah about all of this and, of course, about New Girl.
HelloGiggles: Hannah, thank you so much for speaking with me today. We at HelloGiggles are such fans of you (and New Girl! Congrats on it being renewed for a sixth season, by the way)! This film is entertaining and sweet, and your character is played in an exceptionally genuine way.
Besides touching on deeper messages for women, the movie is also very funny. My favorite part was your character busting out a “Constance from King John monologue” for the talent competition and then watching Lilly trying to copy it. What scene did you have the most fun filming?
Hannah Simone: Oh my goodness, I had so much fun! I mean it was such a fun set to be on. A lot of those girls have actually competed in pageants, so it was fun to watch them do their incredible real talents! I think one of the most fun scenes to shoot was the Nanige story. I found the story to be so well written, it was really fun to perform. It reunited me on stage with Satya Bhabha, who, on New Girl, plays Shivrang.
HG: OMG yes!
HS: Yeah! (laughs) So it was nice to have a moment on screen with Shivrang again — that was great!
HG: Growing up, did you encounter a lot of competition with other girls? How did you combat it?
HS: I don’t know if I encountered any competition with other girls. I moved schools every couple years because my family moved around a lot. I went to three different high schools in four years in Cypress, in India, and in Vancouver so (laughs) there wasn’t enough time to develop rivalries. I guess I’ve been really lucky, on the show with New Girl too. We have such a positive female driven space. Our show creator, Liz Meriwether, is a woman, and the lead of our show, Zooey, of course is a woman who is incredibly talented and kind and generous, as you guys know. I guess if anybody tries to be in competition with you it’s just a gentle reminder to yourself to not buy into that. You can only do your best every day and try to improve yourself every day. Nobody else is you and so to be in competition with somebody else is a pointless task.
HG: It would really be great if women could all learn to support one another instead of bringing each other down. In your real life experience, do you feel like as you grow older you find more women helping each other, or do you think the world is so competitive that this will never become the norm?
HS: I mean, I feel like it’s kind of what you choose. I feel it all around me all the time. I think I work in an incredibly female-positive space. I just did We Day, and did like a round table with Lilly Singh and Amandla Stenberg. They are the sweetest, most incredible women and that was a space for women to come in and talk about why it’s important for women to speak out and support other women. So, I feel like if that’s important to you and if that’s how you’re leading your life and you’re leading by example, you will find yourself surrounded by a strong sisterhood. If that’s what you feel like you need to see, then you need to lead the charge and women will come from all over to support you.
HG: The character of Lilly is extremely high-achieving and wants to win at everything she does, whereas Sonia doesn’t seem as competitive. Which character were you more like in high school?
HS: I mean…(laughs) I think I was a mixture of both! I was very into my academics and very into school. I did have a plan for myself of making sure that I was going to be a strong, educated woman. That was something that was instilled as a child by my father, that that was such an important gift that was given to me that will never be taken away from me. You know, you can get a little less cute over the years, things can change, you know — how you look and how you feel and who’s in your life and who’s out of your life — but education is the gift that can never leave you. So there’s definitely a little bit of Lilly in there. But what I really loved about Sonia is that Sonia found a way to make herself and those around her happy without compromising herself, which I thought was great. She had a lot of integrity. She was just a great character.
HG: In the film, Lilly’s Mother is more concerned with her enjoying her life and experiencing things, whereas Lilly’s Father focuses on achievement and winning. I know you’ve said before in interviews you worked very hard in school, but what advice would you give young girls reading this now who struggle with perfectionism?
HS: I think the greatest lesson for me in letting go of all that was realizing how long life is and how unpredictable it is, and that’s the beauty of it. So this thing that is so important and you are focusing on that you think will be the defining, massive turning point in your life, probably isn’t. If it goes different directions, that’s probably the path you were meant to be on. If you had told me five years ago that I would be five years into this incredible TV show with friends that I now consider family, I wouldn’t have believed you. So, I feel like it’s that idea of kind of letting go — wake up every day, do what makes you happy and proud of yourself, and makes you a better person. Sometimes that means learning hard lessons. Sometimes that’s part of a really good day. Understand that the sun will keep rising so it will come up tomorrow and understand that you’re always going in the direction that you need to go in so just trust that a little more.
HG: Seemed like in both Miss India America and New Girl you’ve gotten amazing opportunities to work with a lot of badass women. How unusual is it, would you say, to be working with so many strong, talented women in Hollywood? Do you feel like conditions are improving in terms of opportunities for women and equality?
HS: I mean, it’s improving, but it’s improving very slowly. The reason it’s improving is because of all those badass amazing cool women you’re talking about. And it goes back to what I was saying about the sisterhood: I think women (as they’ve always done, but right now it’s happening a lot more in this town which is cool) are banding together and supporting each other and creating work where we put amazing women in it. I mean, I think on Miss India America, it was written by a woman, we had very strong female producers, all the leads in the film were women, and all were women of color, which is a really cool thing, to have women and diversity. So, you’re lifting up a lot of things that need a lot of help. So I do think it’s changing, but I think it’s changing by those who need the help, which is often the way.