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Anjali Bhimani, Exandria Unlimited’s Fy’ra Rai, talks D&D, roleplaying versus acting roles, and joining the Critical Role series

“I take roleplaying with me whenever I’m performing in any other medium.”

Anjali Bhimani
Image credit: Critical Role

Critical Role’s latest series Exandria Unlimited has introduced a brand new character, the enigmatic fire genasi monk Fy’ra Rai. While the character may be a fresh addition to the recent spin-off from the smash-hit Dungeons & Dragons actual play series, the player behind her is a familiar face - and voice.

Anjali Bhimani previously appeared as Miriam Landisman in Critical Role’s horror-western Deadlands mini-series UnDeadwood, as well as making a cameo as pain elemental Phyllis in a one-shot based on video game Doom Eternal.

Outside of Critical Role, Bhiamni has survived a zombie apocalypse in Geek & Sundry’s We’re Alive: Frontier - a campaign run in horror RPG Outbreak: Undead - and braved Lovecraftian nightmares in Call of Cthulhu show The Calyx.

Off the tabletop, Bhimani provides the voice of reality-bending hero Symmetra in team shooter Overwatch and minigun-wielding character Rampart in battle royale game Apex Legends, as well as various other roles spanning TV, film and video games.

Ahead of Fy’ra Rai’s debut in Exandria Unlimited today, I caught up with Bhimani to discuss her lifelong love of tabletop RPGs, the differences between roleplaying a character and acting in a role, returning to the Critical Role table, and her fearsome Scrabble skills.

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What’s your history with Dungeons & Dragons and tabletop roleplaying as a whole, outside of your previous appearances on UnDeadwood and Critical Role’s Doom Eternal special?

I actually started playing D&D when I was eight years old, when my brother bought me a basic rules set. I devoured it and because he played D&D and I wanted to be him, I immediately read everything that I could right away and started playing with friends. I was so in love with it I remember doing a whole report in the fifth grade about medieval weaponry. I think my teacher was a bit shocked at how much this tiny Indian girl knew about, say, polearms.

It wasn’t until the end of high school and beginning of college that I ultimately had to stop playing for lack of time, but the love of it was always there. I scratched that itch for a little while by playing some of the Forgotten Realms RPGs online, but really I didn’t get to come back to full tabletop RPG‘s until Marisha [Ray] connected me with [We’re Alive: Frontier GM and UnDeadwood co-host] Ivan Van Norman to be a part of the cast of We’re Alive: Frontier at Geek and Sundry.

I was so in love with D&D I remember doing a whole report in the fifth grade about medieval weaponry.

The second I started playing RPGs again, I knew I wasn’t going to want to stop - Ivan is such an incredible GM, and the game system had me hooked. Once we started filming, that ride was so emotional and engaging through both seasons I knew I had to keep getting my fix. I did a home game with some of the players from that show, and then did The Golden Spiral with Bryan Dechart and Amelia Rose Blaire on Twitch, which was my first foray back into D&D. When Ivan and Marisha brought me in to join CR for UnDeadwood that was my first time joining this gang, and then the Doom one-shot pre-pandemic.

Over the last year I’ve streamed a few Call of Cthulhu games with Becca Scott, but really this is my first chance to jump into a world this fully fleshed out… so happy to be digging in here.

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Other than D&D 5E, have you been playing any tabletop RPGs lately? Is there something you’re especially excited to play/try?

I really love the game system we used for UnDeadwood, Savage Worlds: Deadlands. I love the combination of unpredictability and historical fiction that you get to play with. I’d also love to play with a few of the different Savage Worlds rulesets now that I’ve experienced Deadlands. And after We’re Alive: Frontier I really enjoy Outbreak: Undead - although my nerves can’t take too much of it because that zombie apocalypse horror feels so close to something that is remotely possible in our day and age. Our storage unit during the pandemic was an awful lot like what I imagined my character in that game would have had stored away… minus the heavy artillery of course.

Because of Ivan’s connection to it [through RPG studio Hunters Entertainment], I’m also very intrigued by Altered Carbon. I have yet to do anything cyberpunk/futuristic that way, and I’m a huge lover of sci-fi. And I’m extra excited to see what the new Marvel RPG is going to be like as well.

Fy'ra Rai character artwork from Exandria Unlimited
Anjali Bhimani plays mysterious enigmatic fire genasi monk Fy’ra Rai in Exandria Unlimited. | Image credit: Critical Role/Hannah Friederichs

Could you tell us about your character in Exandria Unlimited, Fy’ra Rai, and why you’re excited to play her? Do you have a particular aim in mind for the character?

Fy’ra Rai is a bit of a mystery to the people around her, which I also think it’s true because she was a bit of a mystery to herself for a good portion of her life. I don’t want to spoil anything, so let’s just say that she was driven by one purpose/guiding light for most of her days and then something happened to rock the framework of her world which changed her mindset forever. She is incredibly passionate and strong and strong-willed, and has a very clear moral compass. Whether or not we see her find her way, well… that remains to be seen.

My time on UnDeadwood definitely taught me even more of the give-and-take of RPG storytelling.

Did your time on UnDeadwood and the Doom Eternal one-shot influence how you will play Fy'ra? Do the characters have any deliberate similarities? Differences?

My time on UnDeadwood definitely taught me even more of the give-and-take of RPG storytelling, especially since it was such a complete story that so perfectly tied up at the end.

For this campaign, obviously things feel much more open-ended. Fy’ra herself is very different from both Miriam and Phyllis, which was relatively intentional. Whereas Miriam led with her heart and Phyllis was… well, Phyllis… Fy’ra is both incredibly confident and somewhat awkward at the same time. Miriam was much more gentle and almost maternal, and Fy’ra is all fire - outward and inward.

I am hoping to explore both her incredible confidence and her vulnerability and sadness within the context of this group. On one hand she feels like a natural leader and on the other hand sometimes she seems as lost on the inside as anyone.

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How does roleplaying as a character in a tabletop RPG differ to your work creating and portraying characters in TV, film and video games?

In a lot of ways, I find it more artistically fulfilling, because you are so much a part of creating the story and writing the story rather than just performing a story that someone else has already sent to paper, or realizing someone else’s idea. It’s fully collaborative… and while there is much that is out of your control given that the dice determines so much, just like in life, how you choose to use what you’re given is the sauce. It’s a lot like long-form improv, except that instead of getting suggestions from the audience you’re building the world with your GM and the dice nearly dictate part of what is possible. You really are only limited by your own imagination.

I find that the bond that I have with players and castmates in RPGs is often a lot stronger than other projects because you really do feel like you’ve been through the experience together. As an artist and a human I think of it as a vital part of my life now - it brings me such joy and community and connection that I feel like I take it with me whenever I’m performing in any other medium.

I find that the bond that I have with players and castmates in RPGs is often a lot stronger than other projects because you really do feel like you’ve been through the experience together.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to non-actors that could help when roleplaying at home?

Remember that it’s less about what you do and what you think you want to do than working with what you’re given and using your imagination from there. Just like life it isn’t about what you’re handed but about what you make of it and sometimes the greatest gift comes out of what seems like a missed opportunity. Those natural 1s are as much a chance to do something amazing as those natural 20s. Use them all. And remember it’s a game, so again, just like life, even when you’re frustrated or disappointed, the goal is to have fun and play big.

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What’s something you’d like to see more of in tabletop roleplaying - either in actual plays such as ExU, or the hobby as a whole?

I just love to see more and more new players experiencing the joy of it… Just because you see actors doing it here on CR or on streams, it doesn’t mean you have to be someone in a creative profession to benefit from the joy of playing. I want to see people from all walks of life, from all backgrounds, of all ages getting a chance to experience this in the world. It’s wildly empowering to take these experiences out into the “real” world - I think everyone benefits from feeling like they can handle whatever the dice and GM deal them.

Just because you see actors doing it here on Critical Role or on streams, it doesn’t mean you have to be someone in a creative profession to benefit from the joy of playing.

You’re known for playing Symmetra in Overwatch and Rampart in Apex Legends. Would you be interested in exploring either character further in a tabletop RPG, given the chance? Is there a particular game/setting that you feel would suit either character?

I’d absolutely LOVE both. I think both games have created so much intriguing lore for the characters that they would lend themselves beautifully to an RPG situation. There are so many worlds and settings and maps within the actual video games I’m amazed this hasn’t already been done! Let’s get on it!

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Outside of roleplaying games, what other tabletop games do you enjoy?

Honestly these are the only tabletop games I play! I don’t really take a lot of free time for fun that doesn’t have some kind of larger purpose to it, and I get so much out of RPGs as an actor and a person I pretty much stick with these. Although I have been told I’m rather lethal at Scrabble… might need to find time to pick that up again someday.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I really hope audiences fall in love with this show and these characters as much as we have. There’s such a beautiful world that Aabria [Iyengar, Exandria Unlimited DM] has laid out for this band of adventurers and I hope audiences love the ride as much as we do. Most of all, I hope more people are inspired to play more themselves after watching this show, even if they are coming to it for the first time. It’s just too great a joy to not explore no matter who you are.

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