We had a lovely long chat with Aasif Mandvi on the eve of his new movie, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender. Get a snack, sit back and enjoy his candor.
ROB – You’ve done everything from serious political theater to rom coms, The Daily Show, and now a summer blockbuster. What do you most like to do?
AM – I think I like to change it up. Right now people think of me as a comedian because I’m on The Daily Show, which is not entirely untrue. But I’ve always done comedy and dramatic work in parallel. I’ve been fortunate to go back and forth, and I’m amazed I’ve gotten to do what I’ve gotten to do – a Merchant Ivory film, and then I’m on Broadway in Oklahoma. Not a lot of people get to do both in their career.
ROB - Does it feel like each of these genres feeds a piece of you?
AM - Yeah, it does. I’m a bit of a chameleon. I get bored doing one thing, comedy or drama – I enjoy feeding other parts of myself as an artist. I like to write, I like to act, I like to do comedy, I like to do drama. I think that it’s all different energies and aspects of myself.
ROB – How did you manage to get such diverse roles and not get funneled into a particular genre or medium?
AM – I was fortunate. I started off when there were not many brown actors out there. There were maybe five of us. What happened a lot is that people didn’t know where to put me. I didn’t show up and it was like, “He’s a handsome leading man” or “He’s the character actor.” So I got shoved into different roles because different people reflected whatever they wanted to onto me. Some people saw me as a leading man, some saw me as a villain.
In some ways it was more difficult, because ultimately this is a business and you do need to brand yourself. One thing The Daily Show has done for me is it’s branded me. Branding by its nature is reductive, so now I feel kind of reduced to the brand. “He’s The Daily Show correspondent!” But for a long time people didn’t know how to brand me. It’s true for a lot of South Asian actors who were coming up in the late ’80s and early ’90s. There was no role. You could be a deli owner or a terrorist or a goofy cabdriver. I made sure I was a chameleon. I’ve had a varied life in terms of where I’ve lived and how I’ve grown up. I just kind of took to that very easily, that idea of doing different things. I exploited that in some ways.
ROB – How did you deal with it when people tried to put you in stereotypical South Asian roles?
AM – That’s what I mean by I exploited it. A lot of times I had to play a role – sometimes you have to pay the rent – and the role was in some way reductive or offensive. I had to play it, so you would find comedic elements, you would find things to allow it to be fun and interesting and more complicated. You were facing your own choices in terms of, “Is this stuff I want to portray? But I can do this with it, or put this kind of spin on it.” It was getting roles and making them into something interesting.
ROB – Didn’t the directors want you to do it their way?
AM – It was tough. Directors are always like, “Do it how you want.” But early on, there was this thing where they’d say “Can we do one take with the accent?” But you’re screwed. If you do just one with the accent, they use that one. There were often times like that – that was the reality of the business.
ROB – How is it different now for you as an Indian actor?
AM – It’s evolved now. And yet it’s still like, Aziz Ansari and I will go up for the same role. We could not be more different, but we will go for the same thing. You’ll go up against actors who, if we were Caucasian, we’d never go up against each other. You’re still defined first and foremost by ethnicity and then whatever else you bring to it.
ROB – Couldn’t your role in Airbender have been a Caucasian actor?
AM – Night [M. Night Shyamalan] had a vision for the fire nation. In the movie, the human race is divided into four elements, and each region has its own culture. In the fire nation, he wanted to cast people of Middle Eastern, Indian, and Mediterranean descent. Once he made that choice, then the Caucasian actors weren’t being seen for that role.
ROB – Do you feel changed after playing this role?
AM – I don’t know if I feel changed. It’s like it was an adventure that I went on, and in a way now I want to do more action movies, because they’re so much fun. Actually going back to The Daily Show after that… I kept doing fly kicks off Jon Stewart’s desk.
ROB – Did you always want to be an actor?
AM – Yeah, I was one of those fortunate people who knew my calling early on. When I was 13, there was this film called Bugsy Malone with Scott Baio and Jody Foster. It was a gangster movie but with all kids, people shooting pies at each other. I was watching this movie on TV one Christmas eve, and I was like, THAT’S what I want to do. That was the moment for me. I wish it was Laurence Olivier playing Hamlet but it wasn’t. It was Scott Baio playing Bugsy Malone. [laughs] Scott Baio is why I’m in this business.
But when you’re 13, it’s like, I want to have fun and play fun characters. So that’s really what inspired me to get involved in the local children’s theater in my hometown. Then it snowballed from there.
ROB – Seems like you kind of came full circle from that moment in your childhood to starring in The Last Airbender.
AM – Doing an action movie is going back to jumping off the roof when you’re a kid. I used to go in my parents’ garage and play knights with the garbage can lids. This is exactly that. There were a couple days when I was simply a stunt guy, getting thrown around. My career has been varied, but this was completely different, and amazing. On the other hand the toys were really expensive, and you’re going, “Holy s—t , I hope someone knows what they’re doing here.” [laughs]
ROB - Did you do your own stunts then?
AM - I have one stunt I did, I won’t spoil it, but I did do it. They played into my vanity by saying, “Oh, we can get a stuntman but then we won’t be able to see your face.” As soon as they said that I was like, “I’ll do it! We should see my face.” [laughs] For two days, I was getting hit by 25, 30 gallons of water. It was like standing under a waterfall, getting knocked down over and over again. The stunt guys were like, “Just hold your breath, you’ll be fine.”
ROB – Are you in kick-ass shape from this movie?
AM – We did two months of martial arts training. I wasn’t doing Jackie Chan stuff, but Night wanted everyone on the film to go through basic training. It was a lot of Karate Kid “wax on wax off.” And it does shape your body.
We had this young Chinese kid, our trainer, he was phenomenal. He was the stunt guy in the movie. He’d have me do the same martial arts routine, an entire routine, over and over for five, six hours a day. I’d show him and he’d say, “Oh you’re terrible, you do it again.” [laughs]
ROB - What was it like moving to Tampa Bay, Florida, as a teenager?
I was 16 when my family moved to Tampa. I came from the north of England, from a city called Bradford. Today it’s probably 85 percent Pakistani. It’s brown town. I grew up there in the ’70s, my dad had a little store, and even then there were a lot of South Asians. But I went to a private school where all the kids were white. So when I came to Florida, more than being white, it was just a complete cultural difference. Like I was living in this kind of middle-class American suburban world, in Florida. I thought my life would be like an episode of Flipper. My best friend would be a dolphin and I’d hang out on the beach all day. There are places like that, but not Tampa. Tampa is a city with a lot of rednecks. I was educated pretty fast on the whole flatbed truck mentality.
ROB – That must have been tough.
AM – The thing is, theater has always been my saving grace. I had great friends in Tampa – and continue to to this day – who came out of the theater community. I gravitated toward my theater friends. I still have adult friends from my high school in Tampa, from my first drama class. Wherever I’ve gone, theater has been a sanctuary.
ROB - I would think your being the new kid, and then a theater geek to boot… you didn’t get beaten up?
AM – I didn’t get beaten up, but I came from England, I was from a private school – I was like Little Boy Fauntleroy. I was like an alien to those people. I think that’s kind of been the narrative of my life. I always end up being the outsider. It’s kind of the position I play, and it’s the position I play in my work as well. I use it.
So I just hung out with the other outsiders, who all gravitated toward theater. Because I was in school plays, people knew who I was. I also did this thing – Thriller had just come up, it was the biggest thing in the world, and I actually found I could do a Michael Jackson impression. I did the Billie Jean routine from Motown 25 at my high school talent show, and it was ridiculous. Then people were like, “Oh, he’s that guy.” I found ways to not get beaten up, I guess. To get a weird sort of respect.
ROB – Were you the funny guy even then?
AM – I think I was always funny. Again, it comes from being the outsider, the guy who doesn’t fit in. Being funny is still my default, even today – if I, say, go to a party where I don’t know anybody. Being funny is my opener.
ROB – Have you spent much time in India?
AM - I didn’t go back much as a kid. A lot of my friends go back every year, they have a real connection to India, their parents would take them back. I sort of envy that in a way. My parents went back once every ten years. I have a connection to my grandparents, they’d come and visit, but I didn’t have this real connection to the place.
I’ve gone back now as an adult and sort of started trying to get to know the place as an adult would – not just from my own familial experience, but as a place unto itself. It’s ironic because I didn’t have any Indian friends growing up; I grew up as a middle-class white kid. I didn’t know anything about my culture. It wasn’t until I did my one-man show [Sakina’s Restaurant], which was an expression of my own Indianness, coming from my own family, that all these Indian people came. That’s when I experienced what it’s like to have a large group of Indian friends.
ROB - Would you ever do a show in India?
AM – I’ve been asked to take Sakina’s Restaurant to India. I would. It’s a question of time and where and how would it be done. Right now it’s not something in front of me, but it’s something I’d love to do. I also get asked if I would do a Bollywood movie, which I would love to do.
ROB – Can you dance?
AM – I can dance, but I’m terrible at choreography. The funny thing is, recently someone asked Shah Rukh Khan about the piece I did on him on The Daily Show, and he has seen it. He thought it was funny. I heard he said he’d love to work with me. So I’m just putting it out there that if he wants to do a project, I’d do it in a heartbeat. But I get the girl. I’d love to do a Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis road movie with Shah Rukh Khan. You know, go back to the old 1960s Martin and Lewis comedies.
ROB – Tell us about Today’s Special.
AM – Sakina’s Restaurant, the one-man show I did almost 10 years ago Off Broadway and then traveled around with, was the inspiration for a screenplay that John Bines and I wrote. That movie, Today’s Special, is coming out this fall, in October. It’s an independent film I made, a rom com, starring myself, Naseeruddin Shah, Madhur Jaffrey, an actress and the impresario of Indian cookbooks in the United States; Harish Patel, a wonderful Bollywood character actor; and then Jess Weixler, Dean Winters from 30 Rock, Kevin Corrigan from Superbad. We’ve got a great cast.
It’s a tandoori comedy, it all takes place in Indian restaurants. It’s totally feel-good, with great, old Bollywood classic tunes, modern folky music, gypsy jazz. I love the movie, it’s really fun. We premiered it at the London Film Festival last year, we won the Best of Festival in Palm Springs, it opened the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival, we’re opening the Stuttgart Film Festival in July. Audiences really dig it. For me, it’s kind of the culmination of the journey of writing a one-man show to the movie. It feels like a huge rock that I pushed up a hill.
ROB - What’s next for you?
AM - I’m doing a film in August called Premium Rush. It’s an action thriller with David Koepp, who did Ghost Town. He wrote this movie and it’s a great role, it’s all about bike messengers in New York City. It’s an action thriller on bicycles.
I also just got cast in the Corporate thriller “Margin Call” starring Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci and Demi Moore. The script is inspired by the recent financial crisis and the fall of Lehman Brothers.
ROB – Sounds like you’ll be busy for a while. Thanks for your time Aasif. Such a pleasure talking with you. We wish you luck and you should know that Republic of Brown and our readers are rooting for you.