The thoroughly Canadian charm of Lisa Ray

Actress Lisa Ray has a Bengali dad, a Polish mom, a Bollywood pedigree and a Hollywood career

By necessity, Lisa Ray’s home is entirely portable. Since her incandescent performance in Deepa Mehta’s Oscar-nominated movie Water in 2005 – in which she played Kalyani, a young widow forced into prostitution in 1930s India – Ray has been working steadily and hasn’t stayed in one place for longer than two months.

There’s so little baggage to speak of. “I wouldn’t say I’m a completeýly low-maintenance girl,” she says, “but all I need is my sound system, my laptop and my yoga mat. And I’m happy.”

Water had taken her away to a set in Sri Lanka. All Hat, a modern western that premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, brought her back to her native Ontario. Then there’s the upcoming release The World Unseen, based on the award-winning novel by British author Shamim Sarif, in which Ray’s character defies 1950s conventions and falls in love with another woman. Its exotic locale: South Africa.

Even before her film career took flight, this rootless soul spent a decade shuttling between India (where she was a sought-after model), London (where she studied acting), Paris (where her Italian-born photographer boyfriend is based) and Toronto (where her parents live).

Ray’s current crash pad is a hotel room in Montreal, where she talks to me over the phone about her family, her work and the gypsy life.

Born in 1972 in the then-largely white Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, Ray exemplifies Trudeau-era multiculturalism: Her father is Bengali and her mother is Polish. She was exposed to her parents’ birth cultures from the start, and “rejected and chose little bits here and there from each, which was a wonderful way to grow up.” She ate curry, spoke Polish to her maternal grandmother and watched movies by Federico Fellini and Satyajit Ray with her cinephile dad.

Ray observed Toronto’s transformation into a diverse metropolis – a place where more than 100 languages are spoken and half of the population is made up of immigrants. She calls the city “a beautiful laboratory, mixing together all kinds of different colours. I think the only hope for world peace is interracial marriage. That’s the only way that people get insight into another culture and another way of life.”

Yet, Ray adds that the “womblike security” Canadians have can be both a blessing – “especially if your family has come from elsewhere” – and a hindrance. An artist as curious and adventurous as Ray “needs a little chaos.”

That fear of complacency led to a modelling career at age 16. An agent picked her out from a crowd in India, while she was on vacation with her family. Ray’s Slavic cheekbones and hazel eyes made her a hit in Mumbai, and she was featured in high-profile ad campaigns, commercials and music videos. In a poll by the Times of India, she was named one of the top 10 beauties of the millennium. Of her sudden success, she says, “everything is lived in technicolour in Mumbai. That’s Bollywood style. You become a star overnight or not at all.”

Naturally, India’s film directors came calling. By then, however, she’d spent years in the modelling business; Ray had become disenchanted with Mumbai’s celebrity life. So she began painting and writing for magazines instead.

As fortune would have it, one of her only Bollywood roles, as a lawyer in the 2001 crime thriller Kasoor, caught the eye of Toronto-based Deepa Mehta, who cast her as a free-spirited escort in her 2002 comedy Bollywood/Hollywood. In time, the director sent Ray the script for Water.

“What impresses me about Lisa,” Mehta says, “is her absolute desire to absorb and imbibe knowledge. She had only done a few films when I cast her in Water, and I wasn’t sure at first that she could do the role. But as soon as we started shooting I could see she was a very serious, very intelligent actor.”

Water was not only acclaimed, it became one of those rare Canadian features to earn more than $1 million at the domestic box office. Its success liberated Ray: She quit modelling and began to make a wish list for her career – popcorn movies, serious drama, stage work, writing – the whole lot.

She is even considering putting down roots in Toronto, at least for a spell. Ray would like to be closer to her parents and, for the first time in a long while, she’s “craving,” she says, “a room of my own.”

Then again, it’s tough to make commitments. “I love Canada, but I won’t spend the winters here,” she admits. “It’s too damn cold.