The role of Lester on NBC’s Chuck would be nothing without Vik Sahay. The character, who works alongside Chuck Bartowski at the fictional Buy More store, started off as a blip on the radar, but has grown considerably thanks to Sahay’s comic ease. He took a laughably atrocious turn as the store’s assistant manager, then joined up with fellow Nerd Herd-er Jeff for Jeffster, the least glamorous rock duo ever. (Their flare-happy performance in the season-two finale gave the series one of its most memorable moments.) The Canadian-born actor got his start as a kid voicing televised versions of For Better Or For Worse comic strips and has popped up since in Good Will Hunting, the made-for-TV Roxy Hunter kids’ films, and The Rocker. He also landed a part in the 2007 Canadian film Amal, which was nominated for six Genie awards. And thanks to Chuck’s early return and hefty third-season pick-up, there’s plenty of Lester to look forward to this year. Prior to the show’s season première, The A.V. Club chatted with Sahay about chatting with disgruntled computer technicians, how he almost didn’t take the part, and how he can’t watch himself on TV.
The A.V. Club: What had you heard about the show prior to auditioning?
Vik Sahay: Nothing. I auditioned in a slew of… This might sound, what’s the word, disingenuous, but I really thought this was the script I wanted to do. But the big thing about it was that I auditioned for the role of Morgan. That was a whole process. And it came down to me and Josh Gomez for the role. That bastard got it; then it was just a couple of days later when they offered me Lester. I was hurt. I’m a very thin-skinned human. I was upset and howling at the moon when they called. I didn’t know who Lester was. I was, like, barely in the pilot. So I was like, “No, I don’t wanna do that,” being the petulant child that I am. And my manager was basically like, “Who are you to say no to anything?” And truly without joking, it was one of the most incredible experiences just shooting the pilot, even playing this tiny role. I could feel the electricity. And the rest is history—the role kind of grew, I started improvising and playing around, and boom.
AVC: Had anyone told you to improvise?
VS: No, I sort of closed my eyes and jumped. I believe in it; it’s best done when the writing is great, actually, not to fill in any blanks. And it’s not necessarily done to be funny. And most of the time, it doesn’t remotely get on the air, but it gets in the air. It creates an alchemy on the set. It could have been a big risk if the writers or creators had huge egos, but they were like, “Let’s go.”
AVC: Given that this was your first foray into American TV, and you were playing a tiny role, that’s quite a risk, to put yourself out there like that.
VS: You know, when you put it that way, I don’t know what I was thinking. It was a huge gamble, and just, I don’t know. There’s a madness… I’m not “good in the head,” as they say.
AVC: What made you decide to jump into American pilot auditions after acting in Canada for so long?
VS: There is a ceiling in Canada, and for me, it wasn’t just about American television or the American world, but I realized I wanted to live as an actor more internationally. The first line is to go to Los Angeles, because it’s the center. It’s the hub. So I’d worked in Toronto—some of the best actors are still there—and I decided to open it up, see what’s there.
AVC: Was it easier for you to make that leap in TV vs. film?
VS: The pilot season was the place that had the most opportunity to get going. I wanted to jump into the hardest-rushing stream with the most fish, and go from there.
AVC: You’ve been known to really immerse yourself in roles you play. What did you do for Lester?
VS: [Laughs.] A lot of it is creating a background. This is where we get into the really pretentious, precious part of the interview. I like to create the history of the guy from when he was born to the first page of the script. The research I actually did… The first thing I had to decide was whether to go into his computer knowledge or to go emotionally, and I decided to go emotionally and build from there. I went to the Best Buy/Buy More equivalent in Canada and started following around these poor computer technicians who were like, “What in God’s name are you doing?”
AVC: Did you tell them you were following them? Or just… start?
VS: I began going, like, [Adopts begging tone.] “Listen, um, can I ask you a few questions?” And before they knew it, I was following them through their day. It’s a tough thing to explain to someone. “I’m doing research on a show.” “Oh, what’s the show about?” And that alone is an insane pitch. “A guy gets a computer thing in his head.” “Are you the guy?” No. I play his…” So I followed these guys around until I found one guy who would tell me the story about the most common complaint: going to people’s places and them not having turned the computer on. And that was his whole day. What struck me wasn’t what he was telling me, but how… This arrogant, dismissive attitude. So I went, “That’s my boy. That’s Lester.” I have a notebook filled with these kinds of things.
AVC: Supposedly at one point, you decided that Lester wouldn’t ever like Chuck. What brought about that decision?
VS: Like I said, I would encounter these tech guys… and the ones I would focus on had this real slant on life. And I was like, “If this guy was on this Buy More team, there’s no way he’d allow somebody else being the leader of the herd.” I decided to angle it and push it that way. It turned out to be a choice that caused the right kind of friction in that workspace. Morgan obviously likes Chuck, and to go against those whims had a lot of gold in it.
AVC: Let’s talk about Jeffster. Did the writers approach you with a fully fleshed-out idea of what that was going to become?
VS: [Laughs.] A writer came up to me on set one day and said, “Can you sing?” I said, “Move away from me. No, I cannot.” And they were like, “Well, you’re going to.” I didn’t know what the long-term of [Jeffster] was going to be, I think it was supposed to be a one-shot deal, but there’s something about Lester and Jeff jumping with abandon and having this alter-reality. I thought it was awesome.
AVC: Then you went on to perform the act at Comic-Con.
VS: Comic-Con was, indeed, surreal. I’m an actor and I went to theater school, and I envisioned myself doing Shakespeare in little black-box theaters, not singing Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” at Comic-Con. The adrenaline that was going through my system—I can’t watch it, but the little footage I’ve seen—
AVC: Why can’t you watch it?
VS: Because I can’t watch myself, Steven. Stop pushing!
VS: No. I will for educational purposes to see if something worked or what not, but I have not seen a complete episode of Chuck.
AVC: How is that possible?
VS: Well, unless I’m forced to in some sort of audience situation, but even at those, I’m probably at the bar.
AVC: Have you always been this apprehensive about watching yourself?
VS: Yeah, without revealing too much—you’re really getting personal here, buddy—I think self-consciousness is the death of art, of acting. Part of my “method” of immersion is about avoiding having the Vik Sahay part of me going, “I can’t believe you’re doing this…” And part of that is not always watching myself. I like to be in the process of doing it and letting it go. Now, that said, I have watched myself certainly to see if something is working or not. But I haven’t seen the Comic-Con thing at all. I can’t watch that. But I’ve seen portions of the interview after, and you can see me still trying to get out of character, come down from the madness of it—it got the blood rushing, I’ll tell ya.
AVC: What was the moment when you realized the devoted following the show was garnering last season?
VS: Obviously between seasons two and three, the kind of campaigning that began was so mind-blowing. I began to sense during the first season and shooting the second season that there was a rumbling going on. But in the old-school method of counting viewers, we weren’t doing great. Fine, I suppose. Certainly cancelable. But whether our viewership was big or small, it was rabid… I’ve always admired how the writers move boldly forward without apology. Season one was the setup; then by season two, they just started to move. When I was filming it, absolutely you could sense the momentum building to that insane conclusion of season two.
AVC: You told India Currents that you wouldn’t take a part meant for an actor of Indian descent that you find culturally or artistically insulting. Where is that line for you between insulting and not?
VS: I have no problem playing East Indian or doing an accent as long as, artistically, it’s well-written. I’ll play the corner-store owner with an accent as long as the camera then follows him home and tells his story. These people exist. When the accent is the sole joke of the piece, or the fact that this is a brown person is the joke… Forget about culturally insulting, this is artistically insulting. There’s no imagination, and why would I ever do that? I don’t want my grandparents to see me insulting my culture. And that line exists regardless of the culture of the role. If the piece is stupid or poorly written, I won’t do it. But there are more and more [non-insulting] roles. If you’re going to try to accurately depict society, there are brown people. That being said, I’ve been very lucky in playing roles with no cultural identification. Like Lester, actually. They made that choice after I was cast. They had this plan that the character would be Jewish, and I like that they stuck with that, explained it a little, made him mixed-race. It’s interesting, it’s got its own spin and it’s own potential for hilarity.