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The Impending Stardom of Rahul Kohli

Fandom delights like ‘iZombie’ and ‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’ only mark the beginning of a flourishing career for this stellar actor.
Rahul Kohli Bly Manor Netflix
By  · Published on November 26th, 2020

Welcome to Filmographies, a biweekly column for completists. Every edition brings a working actor’s resumé into focus as we learn about what makes them so compelling. In this entry, we spotlight the filmography of Rahul Kohli.

Genre fans would be so lucky if Rahul Kohli should regularly grace our screens. For the past five years, the hilarious, heartful actor has steadily become a favored performer in various science-fiction, action, and horror vehicles — with an admirable rising profile that ought to usher in bigger and better roles in the future.

Before Kohli garnered his first starring role in iZombie in 2015, his screen credits were minimal and remain relatively elusive to track down. He features in several short films made between 2007 and 2015 — The Vacancy, Alone Together, I’ll Be Home Soon, and Antidepressant — but these are tough to find beyond trailers and the odd defunct MySpace page. That said, the crowdfunded I’ll Be Home Soon did premiere at film festivals in 2014.

Kohli was slowly emerging into the TV scene around the same time, popping up in the British medical drama Holby City as well as the tenured soap opera EastEnders for an episode apiece.

iZombie (2015-2019)

Thankfully, Kohli’s grind within the entertainment industry finally paid off once he booked iZombie. The disarmingly funny, heartfelt, and outright ingenious brainchild of Veronica Mars alumni Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero-Wright ran for five seasons on The CW. But make no mistake, it still holds as one of the network’s most consistently engaging offerings.

While a plethora of procedural crime dramas, comic book adaptations, and zombie-themed media certainly exist, the show comprises a particular cocktail that highlights the most entertaining elements of these subgenres. iZombie, which is based on Chris Roberson and Michael Allred’s eponymous DC Vertigo comic, tracks protagonist Liv Moore (Rose McIver) after she transforms into a zombie during a disastrous boat party. A subsequent never-ending hankering to eat brains compels her to switch jobs from medical resident to coroner’s assistant to gain access to a free-flowing supply of the stuff.

The side effects of Liv’s brain consumption — after which she assumes the traits and memories of their original owners, resulting in randomly-triggered visions — outweigh the consequences of any abstinence. The eventual loss of her own mental faculties for good. Being a zombie undoubtedly leaves much of Liv’s personal life in shambles. Yet, she tries to use her newfound powers for justice, harnessing her visions to solve murder cases that turn up on her operating table.

The ins and outs of iZombie’s supernatural lore are further expanded upon once we meet Kohli’s character, Dr. Ravi Chakrabarti — head medical examiner and Liv’s boss. In the pilot, he keenly observes her secret cravings for ingesting people and is the first to correctly guess the status of her condition. Ravi, an ex-employee of the CDC, expresses a deep interest in science. This, coupled with his general big nerd energy, then encourages him to help Liv find a cure for zombieism.

Ravi is such an ideal first role for any actor. The character is but one part of a larger ensemble, but he memorably stands out beyond an immediate impression of comic relief. Particularly during iZombie’s first couple of seasons, Ravi’s tongue-in-cheek sensibilities really steal the show — the zeal with which Kohli delivers pop culture references can inspire full-on belly laughs.

Additionally, Ravi’s indisputable moral compass calls for a good grasp on a more sobering range of emotions for Kohli, which he delivers gracefully and with solid impact. We easily recognize his good humor, as well as the love and care he has for Liv and other people in her inner circle with whom he eventually becomes closely acquainted.

Kohli’s amiable chemistry with a very charismatic McIver is especially notable for its palpable and natural qualities. The friendship between Liv and Ravi adds particular dramatic weight to iZombie’s increasingly bleak narrative over the course of every season. The stability of their character dynamics becomes the fulcrum of the show as they constantly rely on each other outside of work and — for a time, at least — fight to contain the apocalyptic spread by themselves. Ravi’s earnest exuberance and kind-hearted nature make him the perfect confidante, ally, and crime-solving buddy.

Supergirl (2015-)

Besides Kohli’s regular gig in iZombie, he makes more sparing, if equally indelible mainstream TV appearances. His brief stint playing scientist and entrepreneur Jack Spheer in the second season of The CW’s Supergirl delightfully fits into the series’ empowering and emotional blueprint.

As Jack, Kohli portrays the ex-boyfriend of Lena Luthor (Katie McGrath). He abruptly turns up on the turf of Kara Danvers / Supergirl (Melissa Benoist) in National City, promoting purportedly revolutionary nanobot technology that crisply heals wounds instantaneously. Such miraculous advancements are too good to be true, though, and there are dark secrets behind the curtain of Jack’s medical breakthrough.

Kohli gets to tap into his more stoic side in Supergirl as he tackles this familiar trope of the dashing, charming, and wounded ex-lover. He is magnetic while depicting the character’s restrained emotionality. Kohli’s suaveness has an air of mystery about it, lending credence to both Jack’s slimy potential and the moments of sincerity that he shares with Lena. Unfortunately, with just one full Supergirl episode and a minor re-emergence in flashback sequences a couple of seasons later, Jack is frustratingly transient on the whole.

Gangsters Gamblers Geezers (2016)

Kohli’s feature film résumé is noticeably thin in contrast to his burgeoning TV slate, leaving room for a bigger selection of characters for him to explore on the big screen. For now — of the two in his filmography — let’s just say that the British movie Gangsters Gamblers Geezers could be better.

It tells a personal odyssey of the stoner comedy variety, wherein its dopey main characters find themselves in hot water with a slew of caricatured villains after losing all their money. Kohli basically only cameos in this — playing the judgemental older brother of one of the leads — and although his performance is solid, the unfocused narrative and niche jokes of the film are collectively tough to digest, overall.

Happy Anniversary (2018)

Jared Stern’s romantic-comedy Happy Anniversary has its own set of awkward moments, but they actually contribute to the overall arcs of the film’s protagonists. Mostly a two-hander between Ben Schwartz and Noël Wells, the movie tells the tale of a long-standing couple that harbors many unresolved personal issues, all of which threaten the strength and future of their relationship.

Kohli steps into the supporting role of Ed — the sarcastic best friend and business partner of Schwartz’s character, Sam. Ed feels reasonably typical for a movie like Happy Anniversary. Given that even though his views about virtually anything are contrarian to those of his pal, they mostly serve to benefit Sam. Case in point: he first appears irately cursing out Wells’ leading lady, Mollie, after he discovers that she wants to take a break from her three-year relationship with Sam, complaining that her lack of commitment is less than he deserves.

That said, as foul-mouthed, grumpy, and unreasonable as the character can be, he clearly cares about his friend’s well-being. At times, Ed even showcases a softer, more insecure side when his own messy romance is hinted at. Whether or not he is expressly likable doesn’t mean that we as the audience won’t get where he’s coming from. Kohli is as impassioned and earnest as he is droll, making Ed more well-rounded than the character initially seems.

Rage 2 (2019) and Gears 5 (2020)

In recent years, Kohli’s distinctively expressive English accent has been put to good use in voice-acting ventures. They have been an applaudable avenue for him to explore a diverse assortment of characters. Some of these gigs have a cross-media appeal as well. For instance, Kohli features in the first-person shooter video game Rage 2 and third-person shooter vehicle Gears 5. The below snippet of his gruff character from the latter project aptly captures the actor’s hot-headed, impulsive side.

Harley Quinn (2019-2020)

DC Universe’s adult animation effort Harley Quinn is my favorite of all of Kohli’s voice work thus far. The series follows the travails and shenanigans of the iconic DC baddie as she attempts to break away from her toxic relationship with the Joker and make a name for herself as Gotham City’s next villainous kingpin. Harley’s mishaps on her path of infamy pit her against the Legion of Doom, where Kohli shows up on occasion voicing Dr. Jonathan Crane / Scarecrow.

The role of Scarecrow is frankly very minor in the grand scheme of Harley Quinn, but the gusto with which Kohli sinks his teeth into playing the closest thing to an all-out villain is very fun to witness. The show covers a spectrum of debauchery from all of its bad guys, which lends a delightfully chaotic flavor to the proceedings that Kohli gets to delve into. His Scarecrow exhibits certain characteristics that are recognizable in his other comedic characters, such as his signature awkward humor. Yet, the anticipation that he could be a legitimate danger to Harley at a moment’s notice adds to the thrill of the series.

The Rocketeer (2020)

Disney Junior’s animated superhero show The Rocketeer is the most family-friendly of G-rated affairs. The series centers on a little girl who leads a double life as the eponymous jet-pack wearing superhero and employs Kohli’s vocal chops as the enthusiastic father of the protagonist’s best friend. Obviously, a show like this embraces vibrant simplicity in its storylines and subjects, but it does provide him with his most buoyant role to date.

The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020)

The Haunting of Bly Manor — the second season of Mike Flanagan’s Netflix anthology show — is admittedly my personal impetus for going back and rediscovering Kohli’s work. Being once familiar with iZombie many moons ago and having loved such a feel-good show at the time was one thing. However, seeing Kohli commit to a story that seamlessly blends into the immersive vibe of the Haunting series is akin to witnessing him in a new dramatic territory.

Flanagan’s takes on classic stories within the horror genre tend to involve the common thematic thread of family, and The Haunting of Bly Manor — taking inspiration from Henry James’ literary works, including “The Turn of the Screw” — is no different. The nine-part series centers on a group of individuals from disparate walks of life who are drawn to the house of the same name with a supposedly straightforward purpose: to look after Bly Manor’s grounds and take care of the children who live there.

Kohli portrays Owen Sharma, the cook of the residence whose penchant for puns brings good-natured banter and mirth to the daily lives of Bly’s maladjusted inhabitants. Although he doesn’t board at the manor — opting instead to return to his own home every evening to care for his terminally ill mother — Owen develops an exceptionally close bond with the kids and the other caretakers, especially the housekeeper Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller).

Besides creepy ghosts and a hair-raising atmosphere, significant and enduring interpersonal relationships such as the one shared between Owen and Hannah represent the true narrative crux of The Haunting of Bly Manor. The love that these characters experience with one another in platonic, familial, and romantic ways renews their zest for life.

For Kohli’s part, he exudes a wealth of sweetness, generosity, and open-heartedness in the series. While such characteristics are evident in some of his earlier roles, Owen’s much purer witticisms are uniquely and powerfully driven by the sting of loss. 

Be it the promise of prestige he leaves behind in France or the looming death of a family member, Owen’s loving gestures and gentle teasing easily tugs at our heartstrings. His presence in the series is as comforting as an embrace, not least of all because he repeatedly makes the heartiest dishes in Bly’s gorgeous kitchen. Owen is a critical addition in a show that is so intensely driven by emotional turmoil and release — that brutally taps into the traumas that haunt every character beyond Bly’s borders — and Kohli’s expressiveness is an invaluable asset.

Despite a presently limited selection in his filmography, Kohli’s cross-platform résumé makes me extremely curious about his potential to leap into bigger projects on the big and small screen. As far as his upcoming projects are concerned, he will reunite with Flanagan on Netflix’s Midnight Mass, which definitely continues to enrich his horror repertoire.

I also hope that more substantial film work will come Kohli’s way in the near future — the kind that will exercise his dramatic skill in the same way The Haunting of Bly Manor does. Avid fan bases are no stranger to Kohli, given that he regularly returns to the world of gaming and superheroes over the years. Still, it is time for an even bigger audience to recognize his immense talents.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)