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Sonal Shah : From Stage to “Scrubs”

Photography by Maia Rosenfeld

As a pre-med student at Chicago’s Loyola University, Sonal Shah found herself yearning more for the stage than her biology books. She went as far as to take the MCAT, but soon came to the life-changing decision that theater, not medical school, was her true path. The alternate ego, she confesses, “led me to have this weird dream of wanting to play [a physician] on TV.” A testament to the power of visualization, Shah was cast as intern Dr. Sonja “Sunny” Dey on the final season of “Scrubs” and is the star of the web series “Scrubs: Interns” on ABC.com.

It seems pre-med was only holding her back. After graduation, Shah became a staple in the Chicago Theatre Community and performed with The Tony Award Winning Goodman Theatre among others. She is a founding member of Rasaka Theatre Company, which explores South Asian plays and playwrights, and supplemented her acting education at The Moscow Art Theatre School at Harvard University.

Reflecting back on her decision to move to LA, Shah laughs and says, “saying I wanted to be an actress, felt like saying I want to be a princess.” But the pieces started to fall into place: she was signed by Stewart Talent in Chicago who had contacts in LA, she met a girl that was moving to LA and needed a roommate, and others were encouraging her to make the move. With only a month to decide, Shah bought a car and drove out of Chicago by herself. Good things started to happen quickly for her, she tested for pilots and booked her first series regular role in a sitcom pilot entitled “The PTA” for ABC Family. In early 2008, she auditioned for “Scrubs” and received the seal of approval from the casting directors, Bill Lawrence, and the producers.

Her years of improv training certainly helped her land the role. The actors on Scrubs are given opportunities to improvise their lines during the shooting process. “The cardinal rule at Scrubs, I’m not sure if I am allowed to say this, but I believe I can, is that Bill Lawrence likes for us to do the script verbatim at least 2-3 times, and then the last time, we can go off the page. [I] did have that opportunity, I don’t know how much actually made it to the show, because I could never improvise more genius than the writers”, states Shah.

Sonal Shah on the set of ABC's Scrubs

Sonal Shah on the set of ABC's Scrubs

Shah’s character, “Sunny” Dey, is the quintessential peppy overachieving Miss Congeniality. Not so different from Shah, who started her career as a competitive dancer, was named the Miss DuPage County Queen/ Ambassador and attended Loyola University as a Presidential Scholar. Addressing the similarities, Shah gushes, “Oh gosh! I am not going to lie, I have been sort of Tracy Flick from “Election”. My goal in high school was to be in everyone’s year book. But not in a bad way, not in a psycho way! I just love people.”

An Illinois native, Shah exudes Midwest charm, full of compliments for her “Scrubs” co-stars, calling them the most “amazing” people to work with, and stressing how the biggest downside of living in LA is being away from her family. Her Jain parents, Gujarati born and Mumbai raised, settled in the suburbs of Chicago where Shah was born and raised, she describes them as “the most wonderful people alive.” It is evident that Shah is not an “LA girl” at heart, she copes with her current separation with the mantra that, “all we can do is take the energy and teachings of our parents and instill them in others,” she confides,”one huge thing for me is the support to go explore and ‘follow my dreams’. [My parents] have been unbelievably supportive.”

Even with the “Rise of Taj” and token quirky Indian male characters, Shah does not see many roles for quirky Indian actresses. But she is not concerned, stating, “to quote Sean Penn’s remark when accepting the award for ‘Milk’, ‘we don’t play gay or straight, we play human beings’. That’s really stuck with me, in ‘Scrubs’ I’m not playing an Indian, I’m just playing Sunny.” She paused and then clarified, “I do love that we are seeing more South Asians on the screen these days. It is very important for me to tell the story of the South Asian experience.”

- NATASHA KHAN

Find more information about Sonal at www.sonalshah.net

  • Padma K.

    I really enjoyed this article, it’s nice to meet someone so true to their midwestern roots and values in Hollywood. Though, she might be trying a little too hard not to be Hollywood…to the point, I feel like she would rather be doing plays than be a part of the LA rat race!

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