‘The Dropout’ Star Naveen Andrews on Sunny Balwani’s Relationship With Elizabeth Holmes: ‘Sunny Is Lady Macbeth!’

The Dropout -- “Green Juice” - Episode 103 -- As Theranos rapidly expands, Elizabeth’s technology struggles to keep pace and members of the board become increasingly wary of her secretive behavior. Sunny considers joining the company.  Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried) and Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews), shown. (Photo by: Beth Dubber/Hulu)
Courtesy of HULU

SPOILER ALERT: This piece contains spoilers for the first three episodes of “The Dropout,” which premiered on Hulu March 3.

In the final moments of the third episode of “The Dropout,” Amanda Seyfried’s Elizabeth Holmes finally transforms into the figure that those of us obsessed with her story — as recounted in John Carreyrou’s book “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup,” Alex Gibney’s documentary “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley” and indeed in “The Dropout” podcast on which Elizabeth Meriwether’s Hulu adaptation is based — have been waiting to see. Throughout the episode, Elizabeth has been practicing her newly baritoned voice, and having batted back Theranos’ insurrectionist board of directors — powerful men of her own choosing, who’ve nonetheless started to realize that she’s lying about the company’s technology — she dons the all-black Elizabeth Holmes uniform from tip to toe. (The scene is even set, winkingly, to Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black.”) Staring into a mirror resolutely, Elizabeth is again ready to put patients’ lives at risk and defraud her investors. Not that she thinks about it that way, of course.

By her side, looking equally determined is her boyfriend, Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews). On the show, when Elizabeth meets Sunny in her late teens in Beijing, the summer before she starts at Stanford, she is an overly earnest nerd determined to learn Mandarin, and he is a bored multi-millionaire looking for something to do. “I want to help people, and I want to be a billionaire,” she tells him. “Like Steve Jobs.” Then she thanks him for not laughing at her; it’s possibly a first.

On “The Dropout,” as in real life, Balwani joined Theranos, with him acting as Holmes’ COO enforcer (as well as her secret boyfriend). The pair were eventually busted, and they were indicted in 2018 for allegedly defrauding investors and patients. Earlier this year, Holmes was convicted on four (of 11) charges of wire fraud and conspiracy, and will be sentenced in September. Balwani’s trial is set to start this month.

Playing Balwani adds to Andrews’ already long résumé of complicated roles, which include Kip in “The English Patient,” Jonah on “Sense8” and — most famously — Sayid on “Lost,” on which his Iraqi character, a former member of the Republican Guard, dispensed torture and romance in almost equal measure (in this case, to different recipients).

In a recent conversation with Variety, Andrews talked about playing Sunny alongside Seyfried. “To play these characters, and render them as human beings, you can’t have any judgments,” he said. “It’s imperative not to.”

He also delved into how he, Seyfried and Meriwether created the fictional Elizabeth-Sunny dynamic — and how the Holmes trial affected the show.

Had you followed the Elizabeth Holmes-Theranos story when you were approached for the role of Sunny?  

I was aware of intermittent bursts in the media when the story broke. But I have to say, I wasn’t particularly interested because it seemed to have to do — out of ignorance — with business and corporations and startups and entrepreneurs. And that wasn’t terribly interesting to me. It was only when I got the script that I realized, Oh, good God! There’s a lot more to this story than what’s been presented. It seemed to have Shakespearean dimensions to me. I mean, I thought of “Macbeth,” to be honest.

Tell me more! 

Sunny is Lady Macbeth! Because the fact is, they had started at the outset, it seemed, with good intentions. And how you can then move from those good intentions — because of acquiring great power, wealth — into uncharted territory.

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Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews) and Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried). Courtesy of Beth Dubber/Hulu

What research did you do to create the Sunny character? 

A lot of film and video of him, because I wanted to physically resemble him. And I thought it was very significant in terms of where he came from: He was born in the Sindh province in what is now Pakistan, but used to be India, and he was a Hindu. So, I was interested in that sense of displacement, and questioning of identity and rootlessness, which I feel I have an empathy with.

And most importantly, the fact that he was besotted with her, and in fact he seemed desperately in love. And I believe still might be. The romantic aspect of the story appealed to me, because the fundamental question is: How far are you going to go love, if you love somebody? What are you prepared to do? And I think he kind of went all the way.

What kinds of conversations did you have — with Amanda, with Liz — about the dynamic between Sunny and Elizabeth? 

Together with Liz’s writing, Amanda and I on Day 1 instinctively seemed to make a decision about the level of intimacy in the relationship, the depth of it. Then in terms of what happened later on with the trial, and the text messages that were released between them — not the allegations that were made, but those text messages — it certainly made me and Amanda feel like, “Oh, perhaps we were in the right ballpark with that decision.” You make a gamble at first, and hope to Christ it’s the right decision. And then when these texts came out, and Liz started using them in the script, it made us think, “Yeah, we might have been in the right ballpark.”

Because of how into each other they appeared to be? 

Texts like, Yes, Tiger, I love you — that was quite startling. Because it’s like, “Oh, my God, they’re obsessed with each other! They need each other!” And that’s what we were thinking and feeling — but to have it confirmed.

How did you and Amanda work together to portray the jarring age difference between them?

I think we both felt that if there’s a fundamental imbalance in the relationship, it opens the door to all sorts of toxic behaviors from both parties that one can use to undermine the other — cat and mouse, a struggle for power, perhaps.

Did you conceive of Sunny as a predator at all? And if you did, did you try to imbue the character with that energy? 

I can’t say that I did. I mean, in my own relationships, the mother of my eldest is 16 years older than me. And I went out with Barbara Hershey, who was 21 years older than me.

It does seem different when it’s the man who’s older? To me!

Oh, yes! You’re right. But he was in his 30s, and correct me if I’m wrong, she was 19. And I don’t know — in the world that we live in, I personally think it’s great when it’s the other way around. I’ve said too much! Go on.

I did know those things when I asked the question, and was curious whether you brought any of that to the dynamic.

Both of these characters were very presentational — like, interested in iconography. With him, it was his aggression and protective shield. But it’s what’s behind that that’s interesting to me: There was a great insecurity behind everything. That informed everything. And perhaps it can’t fail to do with that age difference.

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Seyfried and Andrews, as Elizabeth and Sunny in Beijing. Courtesy of Hulu

Right. And he’s pretty controlling of her from the beginning. During their first social plan in Beijing, he pressures her to eat a scorpion, which makes her sick. How did you approach that kind of rom-com meet cute with something more sinister below the surface?

These things on the surface may be dismissed, or perceived as old world charm on his part, can actually, as you say, betoken something else on a deeper level.

And those scenes were set when they first meet in the early 2000s, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Sunny is — rightly — angry about being constantly profiled. What sort of experiences of yours as an actor or as a person did you bring to that part of the character? 

Oh, gosh! I guess a lifetime’s worth, so it’s useful. Going through the airport, I don’t know how many times. But yes, I have to say: real experience.

At the end of the first episode, Sunny says to her, “You can’t push me away again,” which is scary, of course — and they have their first kiss.

Yes, that was our first day together, me and Amanda. So when I was talking about the decision that we made, that was when we made it. I mean, who knows what it is that that binds two people. Without waxing lyrical, it’s, like, secrets in the heart. Maybe they don’t even know.

In the second episode, when Sunny comes to her office where she’s basically living in her sleeping bag, he says he likes being a secret. Can you talk about furthering their dynamic with that scene?  

Amanda and I, outside of our characters, were slightly appalled at the sleeping bag. I don’t want to speculate on what can be done in a sleeping bag. But I suppose we should leave that to the audience’s imagination.

In that same episode, her father has a health scare, and Sunny swoops in to the rescue. Does Sunny see that as an opportunity to further his relationship with Elizabeth? 

I think that that scene that you’re mentioning works on many levels. He definitely sees a vulnerability in his partner at that time. And it’s not for me to say whether it’s even consciously thought out as some kind of master plan to control someone — I don’t know if I agree with that. But he certainly sees one more chance to be of use to her. He desperately wants to be important to her, I feel.

Later in the episode, she gets sick from drinking, and she confesses to him that she faked the test results at Novartis. And then she says, “I don’t feel things the way other people feel things.” How do you think he receives that confession?

I remember saying to Amanda at that time that I felt that was one of the most important lines in the whole piece: “I don’t feel things the way other people do.” And the fact that she says this to Sunny is an enormous privilege — he receives that as a gift, because of the precious intimacy of it, I think. Because she wouldn’t say that to anybody else.

Was that joy ride scene in his Lamborghini at the end of that episode fun to film?

I have to be honest with you, I think that’s a dreadful car. It’s an awful bloody car! But it’s so Sunny. But for me personally, that car does not drive well. You have to really put the gas on in order to go relatively smoothly. It’s very jerky at low speeds. I’ve got a Porsche, though. The Porsche is better. Much better.

In the next episode, they have the intense fight about him giving her green juice — in an episode titled “Green Juice” — and he’s physically threatening to her. Can you talk about what went into filming that scene?

You’ve already seen in one of the earlier scenes in Beijing a kind of violence, if I may call it such. So it’s definitely there. And we shot it in all sorts of different ways — we spent a lot of time on that scene. It deserved that amount of time. And it’s very significant that almost as that scene ends, she says, like, “Are you coming to bed?”

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Seyfried and Andrews. Courtesy of Beth Dubber/Hulu

Elizabeth Holmes alleged in her trial testimony last year that Sunny was emotionally and sexually abusive throughout their relationship. Did that affect how you filmed any of the scenes, and were you all paying active attention to that? 

Oh, gosh, we were absolutely paying attention! And yes, there’s definitely moments where we thought, “Oh, my goodness, is the whole tenor of the piece is going to change?” But the jury ruled, and I think she’s appealing, and there’s going to be sentencing, etc. And he will have his day in court, you know? So I guess we’ll have to wait and see about his side of the story.

In the third episode, she basically extorts the board into allowing her to stay by promising the company Sunny’s money. And when she presents this to him as a done deal, he almost seems to respect it. He has a little smile on his face.

It’s perplexing to even get ’round my own head how somebody would even stay in the same room, you know what I mean? Like, Jesus Christ! But for him, everything’s through that prism of love. In the most perverse way, it endears her even more to him.

I felt it was it was one of the happiest days of his life when he was given his role at Theranos — it’s something that he’d been champing at the bit for. So there was a certain relish and joy, I felt, for him at being given a role. Any kind of recognition, I think, was very important to him.

In terms of where it ends up in at the end of the piece, I don’t want to give it away. But considering how important and precious it is to him to have this role, he’ll be very reluctant to give it up.

I have to ask you just a question or two about “Lost” since the 20th anniversary is approaching in September 2024.  

Good God. I’m that bloody old.

As am I. How did playing Sayid change your career and your life, if it did? 

I had never done that kind of sustained work. Because it was almost six and a half, seven years of your life. And there’s worse things you can do with your life, isn’t there, for seven years? And I have to say, on a very personal note, I got full custody of my youngest when he had just turned 3. And that was around about the third season, and he came out to Hawaii with me. And it was it was wonderful for him to grow up there. And to be able to look after him in those circumstances, that’s how it changed my life.

That’s lovely. Reunions have become a big thing in recent years — do you know whether there will be anything for the anniversary of “Lost?” 

I’m sorry, I don’t.

Do you think of Sayid as a significant role you’ve played? 

It’s hard for me to think about these things as significant at all, to be honest. But my 16-year-old did say to me the other day, and then somebody else was talking about how for the time that apparently it was significant, because the country was at war, and it was unusual to see not just an Iraqi, but a human — one that had relationships with somebody who looked like Miss America. And was also violent, and yet was romantic, I guess. And for that time maybe, it was unusual.

A real person!

Yeah. A real person. Yeah, so who knew? I guess maybe that was important at that time, but that it’s not for me to say.

This interview has been edited and condensed.