Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Aasif Mandvi Contains Multitudes | The New Yorker

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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.

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