The actor: Aasif Mandvi, an actor and comedian best known for his work over the past four years as a Daily Show correspondent, though he’s had an active career as a bit player and character actor in movies and on television since the late ’80s. Mandvi’s biggest movie project to date is M. Night Shyamalan’s adaptation The Last Airbender, a big-budget action movie which opens Friday, July 1; Mandvi plays the villainous Commander Zhao. Later this year, Mandvi can be seen in It’s Kind Of A Funny Story, written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (the filmmakers behind Sugar and Half Nelson), and in Today’s Special, a comedy based on a one-man show Mandvi wrote and performed back in 1998.
The Last Airbender (2010)—“Commander Zhao”
Aasif Mandvi: Night called me on the phone while I was at the airport getting ready to get on a plane to go shoot a piece for The Daily Show. He just started chatting about this character, and I had no idea where the conversation was going. I just thought, “Oh, M. Night Shyamalan is bored and wants to talk to me about The Last Airbender.” [Laughs.] It was really just like that. He called me and was like, “Tell me, what do you think about…” as though he were just discussing it with me. And toward the end, I was getting ready to board the plane, then I was on the plane and they were telling me to shut off my phone, and I was like, “So, what do you want to do? We’re having this great conversation, and I love having this conversation with you, but what’s the purpose of this?” And he was like, “Oh, yeah, do you want to do the role?” And I was like, “Yeah! But I gotta go! We’re going to take off!” So it was kind of a bizarre way to get a job. But I find that I get all of my jobs in kind of bizarre ways.
This is my first sort of real… I mean, I did Spider-Man 2, but I had a very small part in it. This is the first time I’ve been really involved in an action film, and it was fun. Movies are always a lot of sitting around and doing nothing, that kind of “Hurry up and wait” situation, and yes, there were days when we sat around, but it was a really fun experience. The cast got along really well. We all became very familial, because we were all in Philadelphia, and when you’re in Philadelphia, there’s not a lot to do. So we all hung out, went to eat together at night. We stayed at the same hotel. It was kind of like a summer camp.
The A.V. Club: What’s your take on the casting controversy? About not having Asian actors in the main roles?
AM: Not to get into it too much, but I think Night’s tried to create a world that’s overall more culturally diverse, and draws from more backgrounds and ethnicities and traditions than the Last Airbender TV show did. It’s an interesting story, because unlike Lord Of The Rings or something like that, where it’s set in an imaginary world with hobbits and gnomes, this is set in a world populated by humans. And so in order to represent humanity, you need to represent all of its various cultures. Even though a lot of the martial arts obviously are based in Eastern tradition, I think over the course of the trilogy, you’ll see that Night’s vision includes the entire spectrum of cultures.
Miami Vice (1988)—“Doorman”
AM: My first screen role was on Miami Vice, yes, that’s true. I was actually in college at the time. I went down and auditioned for this casting director. I was living in Florida, and I drove all the way to Miami from Tampa, which is a three-and-a-half-hour drive, to audition for this one-line role on Miami Vice. And then I got it, and it was great. I remember I had a party—all these people came over, and we all watched it. I got my SAG card, so it was kind of a momentous job for me. It put me on the map. It didn’t lead to more stuff, though. It was a great gig, and then I went off and was doing a lot of theater and stuff like that. Ultimately, I ended up moving to New York, and that was when I started to get more work.
Law & Order (1995-1998)—“Street vendor,” “Technician,” “Professor,” etc.
AM: I don’t even know how many roles I’ve played on Law & Order anymore. I think I was on the Law & Order repeat-offenders website for a while. But it was a great trajectory for me. I started out as a hot-dog vendor on the regular Law & Order, and the last time I was on Law & Order: Trial By Jury, I was a judge. [Laughs.] To me, he was always the same guy. I mean, he had different names, but he was always the same guy to me. I had a little narrative for him. He started out as a hot-dog vendor, then he was selling porn in a video store, then he was a ballistics expert. All the same guy.
Analyze This (1999)—“Dr. Shulman”
AM: I got to work with Robert De Niro. What can I say? And I got to work with Billy Crystal. Working with those guys was an unbelievably great experience. I’m so glad they hired me for that role, because it wasn’t even an Indian guy, it was “Dr. Shulman.” He was totally supposed to be a Caucasian doctor, and then they hired me for the role, and I was like, “Are you going to change the name?” And they were like, “No, we’ll just keep it!” And I was like, “All right, Dr. Shulman!” [Laughs.] There was one moment during the table read where we took a bathroom break, and I had this moment when I was standing at the urinal, and Harold Ramis was standing next to me, and Billy Crystal was on the other side, and De Niro was in the stall. This doesn’t happen every day.
AVC: Did you have a chance to talk with Crystal or De Niro?
AM: I think I was still in awe at that point. I didn’t really discuss the scene. My whole modus operandi was just “Don’t fuck this up.” Again, I remember being at the table read, and thinking, “Oh, I’m watching De Niro work. He’s really good. I like what he’s doing.” I was just watching his technique, and then I sort of snapped to and was like, “Shit, I gotta pay attention! My lines are coming up, and I have to be good!” [Laughs.] So yeah, it was somewhat intimidating, but it was awesome. De Niro was a great guy to work with. I was there on one of the first days of shooting, when everybody was just finding their way in the film. So it kind of worked to my advantage.
AVC: You’ve played doctors several times, along with a lot of cabbies and doormen. You’ve been a doorman at least twice.
AM: That’s just the reality of Hollywood. When you’re brown and Indian, you get offered a lot of doctor roles. I used to get the cab-driver roles all the time, and the deli owner. Now I’ve moved up to the medical profession.
AVC: Did being typecast bother you?
AM: The thing is, it’s always about the role. You can be a doctor, you can be a cab driver, you can be a terrorist, but how interesting is the role? What I found when I was first auditioning—it’s not as true anymore, but when I was first auditioning, there would be these really one-dimensional roles written for Indian characters. And for me, it didn’t matter what the profession was, it was more about how well-realized the actual role was. Was it more of a cartoon character, or an actual person?
Tanner On Tanner (2004)—“Salim Barik”
AM: I got to work with the great Robert Altman on one of his last projects. That was kind of one of those things where they’d hired somebody, then they fired that guy because he wasn’t really an actor, so they brought me in. We shot it very documentary-style. I remember going to the meeting with Altman, and he said, “The thing about this is, I don’t know what it’s going to be. We’re going to go out there and see what we can get. If I get all the footage that I need of the politicians and the stuff I’m looking for, there will be less need for the actors in the film. But if I don’t get the stuff I need, then we’ll have more need for actors. So if you get this job, great, but if you don’t, just consider that you dodged a bullet.” And I was like, “I have no idea what that means.” [Laughs.] That meeting… It wasn’t even an audition, he just interviewed me. And then I left and I had no idea what had just happened.
But then he offered me the role, and it was actually really fun. We got to go to the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston and shoot, very guerrilla-style. People didn’t even know what we were shooting. They probably just thought we were a real film crew; they didn’t realize we were just making a faux-documentary. It was a great crew. And Cynthia Nixon was playing the lead. There was a lot of improv. Altman would shoot with two or three different cameras, so you never quite knew what was on-camera and what wasn’t. It was a freeform kind of thing.
AVC: Was Altman fairly on his game at that point in his career? Did he seem frail to you, or did he still seem like a pretty lively guy?
AM: No, he seemed like he knew what he was doing. I mean, he was an old guy, but he knew what was up. He would sit there and have different cameras going, different scenes going on at the same time, and he would turn up the volume of some scenes, and turn down people’s mics, and turn up other people’s mics, and he would almost conduct it in that way, like a piece of music. From my perspective, he seemed pretty much on his game.
Jericho (2006-2008)—“Dr. Kenchy Dhuwalia”
AM: Oh, Jericho was a blast. I got to play a drunken doctor. A doctor again, but he was drunk all the time, and really depressed. Which is fun for an actor, because you just get to do whatever you want, really. It was kind of like a lot of the shows and plays and things that I’ve done that have been depressing and heavy, but everybody’s goofing around offstage, off-camera. And that was Jericho. Skeet Ulrich was a lot of fun. Everyone was a lot of fun. It was a blast just hanging out with the cast. Again, it felt like a real, familial experience. I was so sad that it got cancelled, because it was a really fun show to do.
AVC: Do you think of yourself as a comic actor, generally? There’s a lot of drama on your résumé, but you’re best known for comedy.
AM: That’s an interesting question. My whole career, I’ve been doing drama and comedy side by side, and I’ve never thought much about it. It’s just two sides of the same coin to me. I guess I think of myself just as an actor, really. But since I’ve been on The Daily Show, I feel like people consider me more as a comedy character, which I don’t mind. I love doing comedy, and want to continue doing comedy. But now that Airbender’s coming out, people may see me in a dramatic role and change their opinion.
The Daily Show (2006-present)—Correspondent
AM: I originally turned down the audition, because I’d had those kinds of auditions before, for Letterman and stuff like that, where they’d ask you to come down and put a turban on and pretend like you’re flying around on a carpet and doing a funny Indian thing, and I thought, “You know what, I’m not really interested in doing that.” So I turned it down, and then they called back, and they called back again, and they said, “No, it’s for a correspondent role, and they are really interested in having you come in for this one thing they have written.” They’d written this part for this Middle Eastern correspondent. So I went in, auditioned, and met Jon [Stewart], all on the set of the show. And right after I auditioned, Jon turned around and said, “Welcome to the show. You’re hired.” So I was like, “Whoa, this is surreal.” I mean, it was a one-off gig. He hired me for that day. I got the gig, and then I was on that night for that piece. But I have to give it up to Jon, he was the one who said, “I like this guy, I want him back.” He just kept inviting me. At the time, I was doing Jericho as well, so I was flying out to L.A. a lot to do that. But every time I was in town, he’d be like, “Hey, are you available?” and I would come in, and after three or four months of that, they offered me a job. And now I am their slave. [Laughs.]
AVC: What’s been the biggest challenge of that job?
AM: The field pieces are the most complicated to put together sometimes. They’re difficult, but they’re also very rewarding when they work out. As a correspondent, the most that we get to play and sort of bring our own fun is when we do field pieces. Because we’re actually out there, interviewing people, improvising, doing things on the fly. And they’re always fascinating to put together, because you never know what responses you’re going to get. You think you’re going in to get one kind of opinion, and somebody says something else. Or somebody says something outrageous, and suddenly that becomes your piece. It’s really not a fixed thing at all; it’s a living organism. Even through the edit, as we’re editing it together, we realize sometimes, “Oh, this is the actual story, here. We need to go shoot more stuff.” That’s definitely the most challenging part, and the most fun.
AVC: You mentioned being able to play an active role in shaping the field pieces. What’s your level of input on what you do on the show, generally?
AM: I’m not hired as a writer, so what I do mostly is pitch ideas. Sometimes they write stuff for us, and sometimes we pitch. Then usually you’re paired up with a writer or a couple of writers, and they shape the piece, especially if it’s like a chat with Jon on the air. Nothing on The Daily Show is created by one person. It all goes through the process of the show, so sometimes you can pitch one idea and it can evolve into something completely different. But they’re always open to pitches. Maybe some ideas just don’t have a place on the show, or there isn’t enough time to do it. The thing is that the show is so shaped by what’s happening on the news that sometimes you’ll pitch something and it’s just not current enough, or there are five more things on the plate that are much more important right now. But I’m always looking for stuff to pitch.
AVC: With so many correspondents, is there a struggle to get airtime? Are they pretty fair about making sure everybody gets a chance?
AM: I think a lot of it is determined by what’s going on in the world, and what’s going on in the news. Certain correspondents are better for certain stories than other correspondents. I don’t mind. I don’t get to be on the show all the time, but I feel like I get to be on it enough to where I can say, “I’m participating in this.” And I also get to work on my own stuff. They’ve been really great to me, obviously, to let me go off and do other work as well. It’s not really a competition. The kind of story Jason Jones or Rob Riggle would do is not the kind of story I would do.
Today’s Special (2010)—“Samir”
AM: Today’s Special was inspired by Sakina’s Restaurant, a one-man show I did Off-Broadway many years ago. That was a labor of love for me. It took a long time to make. It’s a small indie film, but it’s got a big heart. And it’s full of delicious Indian food. It’s a tandoori comedy, I like to call it. It’s coming out in October.
AVC: Had you wanted to make a movie out of your play from the beginning?
AM: Well, the idea came along pretty quickly. I was involved with a sketch-comedy group back in the ’90s called The Associates, and my co-writer on Today’s Special, Jonathan Bines, he was a comedy writer with that group, and he was also a food critic. So Jon had a feel for the food, and I had this funny little world that I’d created of an Indian restaurant with Indian characters, and at the time, a producer came to us and said, “You should combine the idea of comedy and food and create a film.” So we started writing a script just to see what we could come up with. No one had written an Indian-food comedy, so that’s what we attempted to do.
AVC: At any point did you consider directing the movie?
AM: I did consider directing it, actually, but I’d never directed a movie before, and I’d already written the lead role for myself. My own vanity of playing the lead role trumped my vanity to direct. I had to choose one or the other.