Aasif Mandvi Contains Multitudes

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The actor and comedian Aasif Mandvi’s three-decade career—which began with a bit part on “Miami Vice”—encompasses three distinct eras of Hollywood. There was the pre-9/11 era, when precious few roles were available to Indian American performers like himself. Frustrated by the scripts he was being offered, he set out to write his own. The result was the Obie-winning one-man show “Sakina’s Restaurant,” in which he played half a dozen characters, including the unfulfilled immigrant parents who run an unsuccessful eatery and their restless, unappreciative Americanized children. Then came the post-9/11 era, when he broke through as the “Senior Muslim Correspondent” on “The Daily Show” while the industry at large was steeped in Islamophobia. In one memorable segment, Mandvi interviewed a woman who claimed that thirty per cent of Muslims were terrorists—and that their “mother ship” was in Tennessee.

Things shifted again during the streaming era, when a content boom opened new doors to artists of color. Working steadily in various mediums, Mandvi proved quietly ubiquitous, amassing more than a hundred screen credits and appearing in major theatrical productions such as “Oklahoma!” and Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced,” which won the Pulitzer in 2013. Perhaps his most prominent role since his decade on “The Daily Show” is in “Evil,” the critically acclaimed Paramount+ procedural from “The Good Wife” creators Robert and Michelle King, which recently found a larger audience on Netflix and Amazon Prime. A spooky (and kooky) religious satire that evokes the best of “The X-Files,” “Evil” stars Mike Colter as David, the priest who wants to believe; Katja Herbers as Kristen, a psychologist who tends to attribute the weekly cases of “demonic possession” to mental illness; and Mandvi as Ben, the skeptical scientist from a Muslim family. The fourth and final season, which began airing this week, gives Mandvi his biggest showcase yet.

Mandvi has a facility for storytelling and a chameleonic quality that he credits in part to the experience of having been an immigrant kid twice over: moving, at age one, from Mumbai to Bradford, England, the post-industrial city where he spent most of his childhood, then to Tampa, Florida, as a sixteen-year-old during the Reagan Administration. (He eventually won over his classmates—at least for the duration of a song—through impersonation, lip-synching and dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” at a school talent show.)

Mandvi and I spoke first in his fashionably cozy Brooklyn residence, which he shares with his wife and their preschool-age son, then again on the phone a few days after “Evil” wrapped. Our conversations have been edited and condensed.

You write in your 2014 memoir, “No Land’s Man,” that, because there were few roles for South Asians at the start of your career, you tried out for characters of various races and ethnicities: “Black, Latino, Native American or Arab.” Does the industry still cast that way? Or, maybe because of where you are in your career or where Hollywood is, do people tailor roles to you?

The industry has definitely changed. I think probably because I am who I am now, people know me—so I don’t find myself getting asked to be as reductive as I used to get asked to be. Ben [Shakir] on “Evil” is a perfect example, right? That character was originally some white guy. The reason his name is Ben is because the original name was, like, Ben Schwartzman or something. But, when the Kings cast me in that role, they allowed for the ethnic specificity to enter into that character. I don’t think they’d ever intended to write a brown, atheist guy who comes from a Muslim family. So I think that was interesting to them in a way that I don’t think would have been conceivable fifteen, twenty years ago. I don’t think it would have ever occurred to any television executives to do that. I went to L.A. in 1996 for pilot season, and I just sat in my apartment. My agents literally said, “Save your money and go back to New York. Nobody is writing any parts for you on television.” And now I think it’s much more normal to see actors of color and just a level of diversity in television that we’ve never seen in the past.

What was in New York that wasn’t in L.A. back then?

Well, theatre. They were, like, Go to New York and do theatre, because that’s where you can get hired. I couldn’t get hired other than, like, doing Shakespeare, because in Shakespeare there was all this nontraditional casting. You know, I walked into an audition in L.A. for a pilot. And I remember reading the lines of the character, and I said to the person who had written this pilot, “I’m really glad that you have written the role of an Indian character, but it’s a shame that you’ve never met an Indian person, because this character doesn’t speak like a human being.” So I wanted to write characters that had real dimension and complexity and humanity. And that was what “Sakina’s Restaurant” came out of. And Wynn Handman, in his wisdom, was, like, “There’s something here that will speak to people.” He decided to produce it at the American Place Theatre. It was supposed to be run for two weeks, and it ran for six months. We won two Obies.

People were thirsty for it. I was just trying to get work. It’s an actor’s showcase. It was this big audition piece that got produced, and then people were coming and seeing themselves—that was the most satisfying thing for me. And then what was even more satisfying was how, years later, young South Asian kids would come up to me at various events and say “Hey, I used the monologue from your play to get into grad school.” It felt very gratifying to me that there actually was a space for these young kids.

I’m very excited for younger generations who get to actually grow up with so many more kinds of stories.

It’s crazy. My son has role models on television now and people that he can look at—he doesn’t watch television, he’s four. But when he does he’s going to see people that look much more like him and reflect his experience of life—much more than I did growing up. Everybody on TV was white. I wrote the story about Omar Sharif in my book because he was the only guy—he and Sidney Poitier—that my parents could point to and say, “Those guys made it.” And the joke was that, if you want to make it, you’re gonna have to wait until one of them dies, because there’s only going to be space for two guys. That was what was instilled into me: it’s difficult or impossible to make it in an industry that is mostly geared toward the experiences of white people.

In my view, Ben, your character on “Evil,” was less integrated into the show, initially—the show even acknowledged that jokingly sometimes by having other characters ask who he was. Do you remember the moment at which you started to feel like, Oh, I have a bigger role now?

It was probably Season 2, when the Kings sat me down and said, “This is what we’re planning for you next season.” The show did start off as a twosome with a third wheel. Michelle and Robert probably conceived this show initially based on their own relationship, which is that he’s a practicing Catholic and she’s a secular Jew. The two of them have these debates all the time. Then Ben comes in and adds this other dimension to it.

You said that the Ben character originally was written as a white guy. What is your sense of why the Kings chose you for that role?

I’m clearly incredibly talented. [Laughs.] I don’t know why they did, and, honestly, I’ve never asked them. The trio of us—an African American man, a white woman, and a South Asian man—is a very twenty-first-century sort of trio. Maybe they saw the possibility of stories that would open up that you couldn’t tell otherwise. I think that’s always been the advantage of diversifying and having more “color” in your casting—it allows for more interesting stories.

I mean, the same thing happened on “The Daily Show,” when I was the first brown, nonwhite correspondent [hired during Jon Stewart’s tenure]. It allowed them to tell stories and speak about things from a vantage point that the white guys and girls couldn’t necessarily speak from.

When you were on “The Daily Show,” you were this pivotal voice for Muslim America, but you were also highly conscious of the fact that you were not a believer or a practitioner of Islam.

Remember, when I got on “The Daily Show,” it was 2006. It was still pretty soon after 9/11. The reason they hired me originally was because they wanted a “Muslim correspondent” on “The Daily Show,” even though that was always kind of a joke—

A joke but not a joke.

Right. I was not and am not a practicing Muslim, but it is probably something that exists in my familial DNA, and it’s who I am. But, at the same time, that platform did allow me to speak to what was going on in our country at that moment. I think religions are sort of like sports teams. It’s like, you grow up with your dad as a Mets fan, your grandfather’s a Mets fan, and that’s what you are. And even though you don’t go to baseball games or care about baseball, if the Mets are in the World Series, that’s who you’re rooting for, because that’s just kind of who you know.

There’s an “Evil” episode where Ben gets very defensive about how David and Kristen treat the idea of a jinn, which is a Muslim spirit. Ben feels like they take this Catholic stuff so seriously, but not Islam, and he compares his defensiveness to nationalism. The line sounded like it could’ve been lifted from your book. Was that your influence?

No, it wasn’t my influence. I don’t get involved at all in the writing of the show. What I identified with in that moment was that sense of marginalization, which I talked about in the book a lot—the sense that who you are in your culture and where you come from don’t really matter. That is the experience I had of moving to America, which was that nobody really cared whether I was Indian or Mexican—unlike the racism I experienced in England, which is connected to the history of colonialism. In America, it felt like, We don’t care where you’re from, because the idea is that you’re now American. But what it does is it sort of extinguishes the specificity of who you are and the culture that you come from. Until 9/11—and then suddenly, everyone’s, like, Wait a minute, you’re Muslim.

Ben, some of the characters in “Sakina’s Restaurant,” and Amir, your character in Ayad Akhtar’s play “Disgrace,” are lapsed Muslims. Do you think of that as, like, a through line in your career?

I don’t, really. That’s interesting, though. I don’t really think of it as a theme. All those characters were very different from me. Amir in “Disgrace” was far more articulate and much angrier than I am. And, in “Sakina’s Restaurant,” actually, I played a character who was struggling with his Islamic identity—the character that goes to the prostitute. That’s much more from my own experience as a younger man, when I was struggling with my relationship with Islam. Ben’s like a MacGyver character, just so not me. My wife is constantly, like, “Why can’t you be more like Ben? He’s so sexy—he can fix things.”

One of the cool things about Ben is that, often as a brown actor, you end up playing a scientist or some kind of nerd, and you’re completely desexualized. What I really appreciated about what the Kings did with Ben is that he has sexuality. He lives in his body. That is where I live with Ben more than the lapsed-Muslim stuff. I always imagine Ben as a tree trunk—he’s planted in the earth. He’s all about stillness, and that’s very unlike me.

If Ben is a tree trunk, where in nature do you find yourself?

I’m water. I change shapes according to the vessel that you pour me into. It’s why I’m an actor, but it’s also my real life. It’s the versatility that I have been able to have in my career—because one of the struggles that I have always had in my life is finding where the “there” is. They say, in L.A., there’s no there there. That’s how I feel; there’s no there there. I am multifaceted and I have multiplicities, but I’m actually very envious of people who have singularity in themselves.

Your publicist told me that you are more of a dramatic actor than a comedic actor.

I would say that I’ve always straddled both disciplines. And I don’t think that’s unusual. When you go to drama school, it’s not like you say “I’m going down the comedy track” or “I’m going down the drama track”—you do it all. So I think that, as an actor, I’ve always embraced comedy and dramatic stuff. What’s probably true is that I’m not a natural standup comedian.

What do you think makes you not a natural standup comedian?

To be a great standup comedian, you need a standup persona. Woody Allen had it, Jim Gaffigan has it, Jerry Seinfeld—whoever you want to talk about. Because I’m a chameleon, it has always been hard for me to designate a real standup persona. “The Daily Show” was the closest that I ever came to that kind of character, which is the high-status buffoon. All the “Daily Show” correspondents ultimately were the high-status buffoon. And Jon [Stewart] played the low-status clown who knew that the king’s crown had fallen off. He was the fool from “King Lear,” and we were Launcelot Gobbo from “The Merchant of Venice.” I’m making very annoying Shakespeare references—I’m that guy. One of the reasons that Jon hired me on “The Daily Show” when I auditioned was—he was, like, “I don’t want a comedian. I want an actor who can do comedy.”

One of the great things about being on “The Daily Show” all those years was working with all those amazing writers who helped me hone my comedic timing and comedic writing. I’m not scared of comedy like a lot of dramatic actors might be—but I love doing drama.

Your big breakthrough was “The Daily Show.” And reflecting on South Asian Americans’ recent progress in Hollywood, the people I think of are Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, Kumail Nanjiani, Hasan Minhaj—comedians or people who work in comedy. Have you thought about whether comedy is easier to break into for people of color than drama?

That’s an interesting point. I hadn’t thought of it that way. In standup, you can tell truths through comedy, and I think it probably has been a more accessible road for people of color.

I got the most recognition that I ever got, in my career, for being on “The Daily Show,” and being a person who was, you know, doing satirical comedy. I could speak truth to power, and it was palatable because it was coming under the auspices of comedy and “The Daily Show.” Maybe it’s that white people really want brown people to not be downers. [Laughs.]

I think that’s actually true.

“If you’re gonna be on television, at least make us laugh!” I’m being flippant about it, but I think there’s something true about that—not to say that there aren’t tremendous brown dramatic actors as well.

Ben Kingsley is out there.

Ben Kingsley, who people don’t know is Indian. But I’m talking about people that I came up with: Sakina Jaffrey and Faran Tahir and Sarita Choudhury.

By the time you got to “The Daily Show,” in 2006, did you feel like there were other Indian Americans or other brown people that you could look to for solidarity, especially in speaking out about the Islamophobia of the time?

In my personal life, yes. But I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say there were really no brown voices on television.

That was my recollection, too, but I thought yours might be different.

No, I don’t think there were, and I think it was why the first time I was on “The Daily Show,” the L.A. Times wrote an article about it: Who’s the brown guy?

Yeah, I don’t think there were a lot of other people. I think back on it now and I’m, like, Wow, I just happened to be there in that moment, you know? Because there wasn’t anybody else who was speaking to what was going on and had that platform.

There was one story about a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, which was being protested. And they were originally going to send Wyatt Cenac to do the piece and interview the imam and all these people. And I said, “No, I think it should be me, because I think that I have a perspective and a way of talking about this that Wyatt will not.” They said, “That’s a great idea.” And it was one of my favorite pieces that we ever did on “The Daily Show,” because I had the specificity of the understanding of what was going on from the perspective of the people in that mosque. And I embodied the person that the protesters were against. So it made it a much more powerful piece.

Wyatt Cenac has talked about how Jon Stewart wasn’t always the most receptive to racial critiques in the writers’ room. Was that your experience on “The Daily Show”?

My experience was not that. I know Wyatt had that experience. I was not there for that. My experience with Jon was always that he seemed to appreciate my talent.

When I first auditioned for “The Daily Show,” I sort of thought the whole thing was beneath me, because I had just done a Merchant Ivory movie [“The Mystic Masseur”] and been in “Oklahoma!” on Broadway a few years earlier. I was this theatre actor and had gone to L.A. to try to break into TV and movies. So, to suddenly get this, like, basic-cable comedy show, I remember walking into the audition with Jon and him asking me if I’ve ever performed in front of a live audience before. I looked at him and was, like, “I’ve been on Broadway.” I was dripping with contempt. And he was, like, “O.K.!”

At least he didn’t hold it against you.

I think he thought it was funny. He hired me on the day that I auditioned and put me on the show that night.

What was your reaction to Hasan Minhaj not getting hired on “The Daily Show”?

I’m not going to get into the details of that situation. But that was a decision that they made because of what happened to his brand after the [New Yorker] article came out. I’m not involved in that world as much anymore, so I don’t know what the details were in that decision-making. I just know how Hollywood works, and whatever controversy came out of that Hasan thing, they probably saw it as a liability. “The Daily Show” needs to find a host at this point. I don’t think they can survive just doing guest hosts forever. There’s definitely great people out there that could do that show—including Hasan.

Did you reach a point where you felt like you were done with political comedy?

Yeah, I probably did get to a point where I wanted to go off and do something else. The reason I left “The Daily Show” was because I got this incredible opportunity to do this HBO series called “The Brink” with Jack Black and Tim Robbins, which, in its own way, was a political satire. But it was a narrative, and I wanted to work with Jay Roach. They offered me a place in the writers’ room, which never happens. To their credit, they were, like, “We need diversity in the writers’ room.”

Have you had experience in other writers’ rooms?

No, other than my own show. I actually produced a pilot for Apple with my wife, where I put together a writers’ room.

What was this Apple show?

It was a pilot that I created called “Aasif Mandvi Saves the World.” It was actually an idea that my wife pitched to me. It was a non-scripted show—the vibe was “The Daily Show” meets Anthony Bourdain—where I went to other countries and tried to figure out how they solved some of the same problems that we were dealing with in this country. Our pilot was actually about Confederate statues. We went to South Africa and Hungary to talk about how they dealt with apartheid statues and Communist statues. The pilot never got made into a series. But then, ironically, the B.L.M. thing happened in 2020, and, after that, all those statues that we were talking about in Richmond and other places came down. That’s kind of what we had talked about, in our pilot: ultimately, it’s not about statues. It’s about a consensus on the historical truth of what happened in this country. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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