Creative Careers: An Interview with Nikhil Rai

Nikhil is a model and performer based in London. After completing his A-Levels and a Musical Theatre course at the Arts Educational Schools London, he moved onto train in Musical Theatre at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, where he is currently a student. His modelling credits include shoots for Vogue and GQ India. He joins Aisling Lally to discuss theatre during the pandemic, his inspirations and advice to aspiring models and performers.

Left: Photo by Thomas Serre. Right: Photo by Sam Hendel

What is it like being a performing arts student during lockdown? How has the pandemic impacted your training?

It’s been interesting. I don’t think I could come out and say I wouldn’t have it any other way. But who would? At the start, the uncertainty was the hardest thing, but it’s definitely gotten better.

In the first lockdown, Mountview adapted to online learning well. I think they did a great job. They provided as much as they could online, which took some getting used to. Once we had got used to it, the main thing I missed was the social aspect.

It’s no secret that you get worked hard at drama school. It can sometimes be physically and/or mentally taxing. You need to have fun; you need to laugh about funny moments; you need your friends to remind you why you’re doing what you’re doing. But in many ways, I feel a lot closer to individual friends now because we made the effort to have conversations, check-ins, calls and more. I feel very lucky for that.

How did you get into performing?

Actually – you [Aisling] have a lot to do with it! I always enjoyed being on a stage at school, and when I was 14, I joined the local theatre club that put on musicals every year. I made a lot of new friends, including Aisling, who one evening convinced me to audition for stage schools for sixth form, and I ended up beginning my training at sixth form at ArtsEd in Chiswick, where I learnt what Musical Theatre actually is.

Alongside full-time performance training, you’re an accomplished model. How did you get into modelling? Was this a career option that you have always been interested in?

Hahaha, thank you! Actually, no, it wasn’t something I’d ever considered. When I was 17, I was on my way to see a show in Finsbury Park and got scouted on the street. I thought I was being scammed. I spent most of my teen years as a lanky, scrawny kid (as you’ll remember, I still am of course). I really thought there was no way it wasn’t a joke. But turns out it was all legit, and four years down the line, she and I are still working together. She got me signed in London first and in Milan as of this year, which is cool.

You will graduate next year with the training to work in an industry that has been turned upside-down over the past year. How do you think the theatre industry will emerge post-pandemic?

I do believe that live theatre will bounce back. I think it has to. I think we’ll see the revival of classic shows at first that’ll attract people from all walks of life, which will be wonderful, but also we’ll get to see the effects of all the innovation done this year, so I do think we’re due a Roaring 20s.

What advice would you give to aspiring performers?

This is hard – I’m not sure if I’m experienced enough to give advice yet. However, I have found affirmations to be really helpful during training. “I am a great (x) because (y)” and all that. You can’t stop your brain from having negative thoughts, but you can give yourself positive ones. Just helps get you out of the stuck place.

And for aspiring models? 

Find something you enjoy that isn’t modelling – invest all of your energy into that. Let any success in modelling be by accident. It’s not healthy to value yourself for what’s on the outside.

What, and/or who, inspires you to create?

I suppose what It’s A Sin and I May Destroy You have in common is that their stories were birthed out of necessity to say something about certain groups of people. I was fortunate enough to get to speak to Lin-Manuel Miranda for an episode of Mountview Live, and similarly to Michaela Coel, I admire him for telling the stories of minorities proudly and creatively, without reducing us to ‘other’.

Telling the stories of those of us who are underrepresented inspires me to create. Lin said something along the lines of, “no one is going to write your dream musical. You have to write your dream musical.” It reminded me of Gurinder Chadha’s film Bend It Like Beckham and how seminal it was in giving us British South Asian representation, and if I can do something like that for a new generation then that’s so much reason to keep on creating.

Finally, if you could go back and tell yourself three things before becoming a musical theatre student, what would they be?

  1. Believe in your individuality.
  2. Keep inspired.