There aren’t many actors who can lay claim to playing Indians, Arabs, Pakistanis and any number of slippery guys called Ted and Dmitri. But Aasif Mandvi, the Mumbai-born foreign correspondent on The Daily Show, the satirical news programme hosted by Jon Stewart, has conquered the whole wide breadth of human races: as Mr Aziz, the pizza parlour owner in Spider-Man 2, Dr Kenchy Dhuwalia in cult US TV hit Jericho, Ali Durrani in the Tony Kushner play Homebody/Kabul and most memorably (to his parents that is) as a pixie in his grade school play. In a phone interview with Lounge, Mandvi — who will soon start shooting an as yet untitled project starring Madhur Jaffrey and Om Puri — spoke about playing a fake journalist, and why John Mayer will probably never speak to him. Edited excerpts:
Not many Indians become comedians. Are your parents okay with it?
Yeah, they are now. I think they were initially hesitant. They were concerned I would end up coming to them to pay my rent, but I think in the last 10 years or so they’ve accepted the fact.
You grew up in England and America. What was that like?
It was what you would expect it to be. I went to a north England boarding school, and then my parents moved to Florida. It was like summer camp. The high
school experience was a culture shock. You didn’t have to wear uniforms, there were girls everywhere. I think at some level England is always part of me because I spent so many years there. I’ve always felt a little bit transcontinental.
People associate you with comedy, but you have done serious stuff earlier.
Yeah, in fact I’ve done more serious stuff than comedy, but that’s come to the forefront because of The Daily Show. I did comedy before as well, I trained in it after I got out of college, and I worked at Disney-MGM Studios doing street improvisational theatre but, on TV, a lot of my stuff has been dramatic. I like doing the dramatic part, it’s good for me. I think I need to do both because if I do one for too long, I get bored.
Is it annoying to be typecast as Indian, Pakistani or Arab.
I think it’s fine. It works to my advantage career-wise. It’s annoying that Hollywood hasn’t come to terms with race, especially when it comes to people of colour who aren’t black or Hispanic. Now, I play a lot of roles clearly meant for white guys. They’ll cast me, but they won’t change the ethnicity. So, it’ll still be a white guy, but I’ll be playing him, which I find interesting. It says to me they attempt at blind casting, but it’s not really an integration of who I am ethnically.
You play a fake journalist on TV. Learnt anything useful?
The whole point is not to learn anything useful. I think real journalists and fake journalists have a lot of common. We might pursue our stories with the same agenda. When I started on The Daily Show, I thought journalists go out and find a story when, in reality, there is a sense of here’s a story and now go find pieces to justify the story. In America, a lot of journalism is like that.
Do you think Indians can laugh at themselves?
Sure. I think Indians can laugh at themselves if they’re funny. Often, the sort of humour that I’ve seen in Bollywood movies is broader than what we’re used to here in the West, but if you tickle an Indian, he’ll laugh. In the US, they say Indians are always laughing.
Do you ever get mistaken for Russell Peters?
By stupid people, I do. He’s really short, he’s 3ft tall. No, I’m kidding. I’ve only gotten mistaken for him once. Maybe we should walk down the street together and people will think they’re seeing double.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Always carry string.
Who told you that?
I don’t remember now, but it’s the best advice because you never know when you need to use a piece of string.
Have you ever needed to use a piece of string?
Not yet, but I live in hope.
At Live Earth last year, you told John Mayer his biggest act of environmentalism was that he recycles old bands. Does he still talk to you?
He never talked to me then, he doesn’t talk to me now, and probably won’t talk to me in the future.
If you weren’t acting what would you be doing?
I’d probably be a writer, or I’d have gone into psychotherapy. I’m in psychotherapy now, but I would spend more time in psychotherapy. I would have been a doctor and a patient. Or, I might have been driving a bus.
What’s the The Untitled Aasif Mandvi Feature Project?
We have a title, but we hated it. But it’s a movie we’re shooting starting in June. I’m in the lead role, and we just signed Madhur Jaffrey and Om Puri.
What’s it about?
It’s actually a comedy about Indian food. So, there you go—Indians can’t laugh at themselves but they can laugh at their own food.