Amrit Kaur Talks Sex Lives of College Girls Season 3 and Finding Her Purpose

"What I realized is no amount of success is going to heal my pain.”

“A lot of artists, including myself, go into acting to feel shiny,” Sex Lives of College Girls star Amrit Kaur tells Teen Vogue. She sits in our offices at 1 World Trade Center, dressed down in sweats, no makeup. “I went into acting to be the most beautiful girl because I didn't feel pretty. I wanted to be on the cover of magazines and be like, ‘Someone like me is beautiful, 'cause I'm an atypical beauty.’ What I realized is no amount of success is going to heal my pain.” 

The actor is meditative, with a newfound feeling of clarity for her place in the world, talking as though she’s just returned from an immersive semester abroad. In a sense, she has: While Bela Malhotra was wreaking havoc on season two of Sex Lives of College Girls last fall, Amrit Kaur was in Karachi, Pakistan, filling herself with feelings of purpose and duty as she filmed the independent movie whose working title is Me, My Mom, & Sharmila. “I loved it,” she says, explaining that the experience gave her a space to ground her energy, to be on the receiving end of generosity, sharing on a fundamental level. 

“It was beautiful, being in my trailer while everybody outside was busting Punjabi beats, Bollywood beats,” she recalls. Kaur, 29, who is Punjabi, asked everyone who wanted to speak to her in Punjabi to do so in Urdu because she wanted to practice. Between filming scenes, she immersed herself in language study and spent her weekend nights on Zoom, training in her acting classes for hours. “Now I'm back, and my Urdu is mixed with my Hindi, mixed with my Punjabi and English.”

At the end of filming, Kaur made a pilgrimage to Sikh heritage sites in Punjab, Pakistan. While there, she met with a priest to create order of the threads in her life. “[We talked about] what my purpose is, why I'm an artist, and how to advance and enhance South Asian girls, which is part of my mandate,” she says. “I'm not someone who will do things just because they're popular. I had a lot of scripts and auditions come, but that script [Me, My Mom, & Sharmila] scared me. The film was literally about my mandate — to do art that will teach girls, particularly South Asian girls, that they don't have to live a life of oppression.”

Amrit Kaur wears a Harbison dress, Essenshel hat, Camper shoes, Misho earrings, and Dinosaur Designs bracelet.Jingyu Lin

The “mandate” — a word Kaur uses to describe the North Star of her life’s work — comes up a lot in our conversation. Taking on an indie after a major breakout role in an HBO show created by comedy veteran and television darling Mindy Kaling is not a choice most young starlets would make. But Kaur isn’t interested in walking paved paths. It’s not so important for the public to understand or agree with her because she's trying to make career choices that are influenced by an ambition for art more than fame. 

Kaur has not made a permanent move to Los Angeles, though Sex Lives of College Girls films there. “[LA] is a drug,” she says. Instead, Kaur lives in Toronto, where she grew up and attended York University for theater. She has lunch with her parents every week or two, grounding herself artistically and creatively at Gracemoon Arts, an acting studio she attends. 

Acting is a religion to her, Kaur explains, which is probably why she’s so insistent on having a clear and focused relationship with it. Fame has a way of shining a light in one’s eyes, but Kaur is not letting anyone or anything pull her focus. “I’m not good being in LA,” she says, taking a moment to think about how she wants to clarify. “I feel like there are a lot of people just like me who, instead of giving back to the arts, are using art, stealing from art as a way to not look at their pain…. It’s not sustainable. That's what I learned in the past year, because that temptation exists, and it's so great to have a community, a village behind me that's like, ‘Use this for a spiritual purpose.’”

Amrit Kaur wears an Aliette jacket and skirt, Charles and Keith shoes, Mounser earrings, Jenny bird ring, and Tiffany ring.Jingyu Lin

Me, My Mom, & Sharmila is a mother-daughter story, directed by Fawzia Mirza, about an aspiring actor who travels from Canada to Pakistan to bury her father; while in Pakistan, she and her conservative mother struggle through their frictions as they try to understand each other. Kaur plays the actor and the mother during her younger years. “The mother [character] used to be even more boisterous, even more artistic, but shut everything down to be the good wife, to be religious,” Kaur explains, “to be the things she thought she was supposed to be but wasn't in her heart.”

The contemporary poet Ocean Vuong once spoke of his journey to art as a stake in a “great crisis of the first and second generation.” The first generation’s responsibility is survival and duty, and the second generation wants to be seen. “What better way to make something and fill yourself with agency than to be an artist?” Vuong told Krista Tippett. “So many of us immigrant children end up betraying our parents in order to subversively achieve our parents’ dreams.” 

This idea resonates deeply with Kaur, who agrees she’s had to do the same to her family to show them their own unlimited potential. “My mom was supposed to be an artist,” she says. In the past few years, as Kaur's career has flourished, she’s seen her mom take up embroidery, and her sister restart singing and poetry. “I had to betray them for them to see hope in themselves.”

As a child, Kaur was angry, passionate, casting an eye toward justice at home and within her culture. “I had a mother who I dreamed and hoped for. I had a father who was dealing with alcoholism and systemic abuse that he had learned,” she says. 

In Kaur's early 20s, she met her acting coach Michèle Lonsdale-Smith, at a time “when I was told I was not beautiful, that I had to change my face, that the most important thing was to be attractive to men.” Smith saw through all of that and reminded Kaur that artistic vision can come from trauma, what she’s experienced and seen others experience. “I knew that art was the thing that could, if anything, heal me, heal my family.”

Amrit Kaur wears an Aliette jacket and skirt, Charles and Keith shoes, Mounser earrings, Jenny bird ring, and Tiffany ring.Jingyu Lin

In 2021, I interviewed Kaur ahead of the premiere of Sex Lives of College Girls. Back then, it was as if the actor Amrit Kaur was Bela Malhotra, a first-year student at Essex. She told jokes and stories the way her character did. Now, though, Kaur possesses a sense of serenity that she attributes to a new project and working with her acting studio. 

Sooner or later, though, she will return to the world of Essex for SLOCG season three. Kaur describes an acting method she uses in which she allows a character to get into her body. “I’m slowly getting back to the body of Bela, how she's always thinking in terms of landing jokes,” she explains. Kaur notes that she’s not really funny these days: “I don't have that right now, but while I was doing Bela, jokes were happening just because I was doing this character. But right now, I have no desire.”  

Sex Lives of College Girls is an ensemble show and the four characters are each taking in a lot. After season one’s sexual assault storyline, Bela spirals through season two on a toxic streak. She sabotages and betrays her college-comedy peers and bullying students look up to her in pursuit of attention and importance. At the end of the finale, we see Bela hoping to transfer schools after ruining her academic standing with a 1.8 GPA. 

It’s tough to give those storylines their due airtime, to fully demonstrate how formative and challenging experiences with sex and relationships can be. That’s why Kaur insists on fine-tuning her relationship with Bela and how she changes month to month in college, even shifting the character's style of comedy from energetic (in season one) to dry (in season two).

“[Bela] may not be talking about [the sexual assault] anymore, but her coping mechanism is to double down on bad behavior because of bad things that happened to her,” Kaur says. “Which is so human. It's not noble. It's not the right approach, necessarily. I've been in situations like Bela — a lot of women have, unfortunately. But that is how Bela confronts it.”

To Kaur, even if Bela’s actions are indefensible, it’s her job to show her character’s humanity. “My job as an actor is to see what is in the script, how to justify it, [to ask] what is the truth of the human experience.”

Amrit Kaur wears a Halpern dress, Essenshel hat, Camper shoes, Misho earrings, and Dinosaur Designs bracelet.Jingyu Lin

In pursuit of getting back into a Bela Malhotra headspace after inhabiting a completely different project, Kaur resubmerges herself in the comedy scene. She’s a studious actor, she says, citing an athlete-like affinity for training. She says that comedy’s power is in its unique ability to say “the truth that we are thinking” — for better or for worse. She’s been going back to stand-up specials to prepare for Bela, specifically to Dave Chappelle, as of late. 

“I know people are back and forth and have a lot of opinions about him, but he does a brilliant job of saying what we're thinking, and often we're not thinking the most noble things,” Kaur says of the controversial comedian. Chappelle has been criticized for including transphobic jokes in his 2021 Netflix special, The Closer, as well as for a history of transphobic comments in his work. Kaur, however, refers to a particular joke in which Chappelle compares the Civil Rights Movement to the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights, when he suggests that queer people have seemingly progressed toward liberation faster than Black people. 

Comedy does have the advantage of disarming an audience before delivering a hard truth. But it’s worth interrogating whether shedding light on controversial opinions is the work of truth-telling or emboldening bias. Kaur is queer too, she says, so she understands where Chappelle's critics are coming from.

I ask her if she’s spoken about her queerness before, and she expresses a sense of ambivalence for discussing it. “I think my sexuality is very clear in all the parts I play,” she says, pointing to her gay character in Me, My Mom, & Sharmila. “I get asked about it, but I'm like, 'Just look at my work. I think you'll know the answer.' Acting is a job like any other job. If you can tell me the sexuality of your banker, then I'll answer the question.” Fair enough. 

Kaur doesn’t want to milk her identity for gain, she says. She’s not interested in building a public persona; she’d rather leave the acting on the screen and focus on the craft. Kaur has ambitions to write and develop stories, and she’s part of the BAFTA Breakthrough program to help build her director bona fides. Her heroes are people who have mastered their craft: Viola Davis, Ava DuVernay, Wes Anderson, Phoebe Waller-Bridge. The desire to master her own art feels ingrained. Beyond the fame, beyond social media, beyond the trappings of a hit TV show, is an opportunity to be herself, to be vulnerable in her art. “If my work is vague then the healing will be vague.”

So for now, there’s honest work to be done. The rest is distraction.

Correction: A previous version of this piece included the wrong designer for Amrit Kaur's cover look. Her dress was created by Harbison.