Dial 'H' for Hollywood

Hollywood talent manager and producer, Jai Khanna’s day starts early; more often than not, it’s because of his two dogs getting restless for their breakfast. Working at one of the leading entertainment companies, Brillstein Entertainment Partners, represents many an A-lister like Brad Pitt, Kate Beckinsale, Natalie Portman, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Aniston, and Orlando Bloom among others. Khanna’s typical day for him involves checking emails, phone calls, pitching, selling, producing or strategizing with clients, agents, lawyers, casting directors, producers and studio executives. In the midst of the frenzied pace, white tea plays a pivotal role. Evenings are usually reserved for reviewing films, tapes, episodes and reading scripts.

Get to know Khanna as he talks about Hollywood and Bollywood, and more.

From a baseball scholarship to being a Hollywood talent manager – tell us about your journey. Was it a deliberate or accidental move into the field of entertainment, and why?
Baseball was my passion for 12-years, right from middle school through college. Unfortunately, academics took a back seat. Hours, days, weeks and months were consumed with practice, travel and games, both in the US and abroad. It was a fantastic opportunity to experience intense teamwork, camaraderie, fitness, pressure, along with perks such as travel and creativity. When it came to a reality that my baseball career would come to an end, the transition to entertainment felt natural as it encompassed all of the above. It seemed fun, exciting, ever changing, the ability to work on teams, if to represent or productions, and the perks of travel and creativity would always be present. After much research and trying to emulate the model of successful entrepreneurs in Entertainment before my time, I learned that joining an agency mailroom was the first step to success. In 1996, I transitioned from the Bay Area to Los Angeles and began working at the acclaimed Writers & Artists Agency (WAA) in Beverly Hills in the mailroom and as an agent trainee. (WAA was later absorbed by Paradigm Agency).

How difficult is it to break into Hollywood? Has the success of Slumdog Millionaire, especially, made it easier?
It’s as difficult as ever, but that's not a deterrent for success. The cream is still rising to the top. Slumdog is referenced quite often as a breakout film for Indians and thus a major appetite for more content in this vein. This is a misconception. The industry insiders recognize Slumdog being a fantastic film with great production quality, director, story, and set amongst an India backdrop. All of the stars aligned to make this a seminal film. It stands alone for a great piece of filmmaking, but really has no bearing on Indian talent and the relation to more or less roles. To "break in", still requires the old adage of persistence, talent, perseverance, professionalism and an ounce of luck.

Do you believe Indian-origin actors in Hollywood are finally getting their due (from token roles to substantive ones like, for example, Kunal Nayyar in The Big Bang Theory and Kal Penn in the Harold and Kumar series and House) or is this just the tip of the iceberg?
Indian origin actors are getting their due because they are talented. It’s not by coincidence or a mandate to hire Indian actors. They are trained artists that are competing at a high level. The industry has taken note that their skills are varied, and roles traditionally written American, can now be adjusted to accommodate the best actor for the job. Kunal, Kal, Maulik Pancholy and Parvesh Cheena are trailblazers and evidence that their hard work is paying off. They are presented opportunities and are able to capitalize. I guess this is the tip of the ice berg, but not as a fad or a trend, but the tip of showcasing amazing talent that is now home grown and being viewed as integral additions to a film or TV series.

What is your opinion on the Hollywood and Bollywood crossover – do you foresee it as being a lasting one, or is this just a passing fad?
It’s still too early to determine. I don't see it as a big agenda for Hollywood to bridge this crossover. It will still be on a case-by-case basis. We do see a number of actors from India gauging this industry, but along with myself and others, we are able to lay out the realities. It will take special talent to commit and engage projects from here through the same lens as us. We read scripts and strategize on the best plan of action to help secure the opportunity, all the while enlisting our client for feedback and constant communication. Our client Irrfan Khan is a model of this. His craft speaks for itself, but his accessibility, communication, collaboration and motivation to engage is integral for us to deliver him valuable opportunities. He has committed himself to be open to interesting material, where ever it may be present, India or the US. These are the qualities for a successful crossover talent.
 
How receptive has the Indian market been so far?

The market has been very receptive to collaborating on productions. We have aligned with a number of partners from physical studios, TV and film studios, and most recently with talent agencies. The entrepreneurial spirit in India is refreshing and we are optimistic that future partnerships will be formed. Again, it’s currently on a case-by-case basis, but it’s evident that there are leaders in this area, and we are excited for them to emerge from the pack. In general we are exploring the Indian market from various angles, and the future is very promising.

What are the challenges of being a talent manager?

The primary challenge is wearing multiple hats. We are managers, agents, lawyers, publicists, friend, parent and therapist rolled up into one. At any given moment with a number of incoming problems, a different hat needs to be worn to arrive to a solution. Each client and production is so varied, that you don't know what will be presented at the other end of the line. You need to be prepared to shift gears and adapt accordingly, all while in a respectful, unemotional and professional manner.

Your thoughts on reality shows: Are they a boon or a bane?

My opinion is that an audience watches them, and it’s a big one. You can't fault Hollywood for creating an inexpensive form of programming; all the while the audience is craving it more and more, with ratings soaring. Granted, it has limited the time slots for scripted programming, thus affecting actors, but cable has replaced it with great scripted opportunities for actors, writers and directors. I expect reality to stay as long as audiences are consuming it, and advertisers see the benefit. It’s inexpensive, has the drama and comedy that people crave, and is most cases strikes a personal cord, if they envy the lives of 'housewives' or always wanted to cook like their favorite 'chef.'
 
How do you juggle between being a talent manager and being a producer?
The transition back and forth is fluid, as clients are the one's generating the material worthy of being produced. Our company represents a varied roster of clients allowing us to support their projects in a produciroial capacity. With 40+ years of producing, our clients want us involved to help shepherd and protect their interest. The relationship is organic, since we both have the same goal in mind, which is success.
 
What was your proudest moment?

I'm fortunate to have a number of little proud moments, and they can happen on a daily basis. Our mantra is looking for that one opportunity for the client that will take them to the next level. As managers we are striving to elevate our clients’ career by laying the foundation to stardom. When that opportunity arises and we are successful, there is a feeling in the pit of our stomachs that this clients life will never be the same from this point on. That's a proud moment to feel that you were able to contribute to this amazing journey.

What would you say to aspiring talent managers?

Persistence! This town has its rules in place. Players can come and go, and there will always be someone to take your place. You need to be motivated that this business drives you, it excites you and there is no other place you would rather be. The money is limited at first, but the old adage is true, that it will come with success. Put your head down, work hard, find your niche, and there are no short cuts. The reward is great.
 
When not working, how do you unwind?
My two passions are tennis and my dogs. Having been a fitness fanatic for sometime, I transitioned to playing tennis as it keeps me fit, the flexibility of varied partners, and the joy of getting fresh air. My dogs are my life, my responsibility and my joy. A simple evening will likely be spent on the floor wrestling with the two of them and listening to music. It’s a great way to recharge my batteries.

What’s next?
Outside of representing talent, we have recently been offered other interesting opportunities in working with investors, funds and the tech industry. These players are surfacing more and more and seeing the value of Brillstein, and as a bridge to entertainment. We are sourcing these potential clients as they fit nicely into our roster and can complement the needs of our existing clients.