Dileep Rao, Class of '95

As if the buzz surrounding this season’s biggest 3-D blockbuster isn’t enough, UCSD students can add alma-mater pride to the list of reasons to watch “Avatar.” In the James Cameron feature film, UCSD alumnus and actor Dileep Rao — a 1995 Muir College graduate — plays the role of good scientist Dr. Max Patel, acting alongside Sigourney Weaver and Sam Worthington.

While at UCSD, Rao’s passion for acting led him to a class at the La Jolla Playhouse’s Summer Conservatory. Later, after graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in political science, he earned his Master of Fine Arts from the American Conservatory Theater.

Since then, Rao has landed roles in both television and film, including the show “Brothers and Sisters” and “Drag Me to Hell” — a 2009 horror film in which he played a mysterious fortuneteller.

But after his rise to fame on the back of “Avatar,” Rao said he feels he’s truly made it.

“My career is going very well,” Rao said. “I live the life I dreamed — but scarcely hoped for — as young man in the dorms of Tioga and Tenaya.”

Rao said UCSD was one of the most intellectually and diverse environments he has ever encountered.

“I met more inquisitive minds in my four years there than I have in most of the rest of my life,” Rao said. “It’s the strangest hybrid of the finest scientists and mathematicians walking a grand campus with brilliant directors of theater, some great art and strong instruction in a vast range of departments.”

He also credited professors in the theater department for teaching him a “standard of excellence” — something that has stayed with him throughout his professional career.

Rao said he felt fortunate to work with Cameron — both for his legendary reputation and his visionary work.

With “Avatar” behind him, Rao’s next movie will be in sci-fi thriller “Inception,” due to be released in July 2010 alongside director Christopher Nolan and actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

“To be an artist and make my living from that effort is the most satisfying and humbling of journeys,” Rao said. “My only advice is this: Pick what you love as soon as you know it, work harder than you can ever have and never, ever give up.”

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