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Aasif Mandvi on Evil season 2 and exploring South Asian folklore through horror

The actor on his storyline in season 2: “I often feel like I am the poster child for why diverse casting can open up opportunities for writers”
Center photo: Gregg Delman; Background photos: Evil (Elizabeth Fisher/CBS)
Center photo: Gregg Delman; Background photos: Evil (Elizabeth Fisher/CBS)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples
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Aasif Mandvi’s charted an impressive career in the last three decades, with numerous roles in films, TV shows, and plays. He established his comedic chops during his nearly 200-episode tenure as a correspondent for The Daily Show, which he brings to the Paramount+ horror drama Evil. Mandvi shows off his dry humor and a grounded sensibility as the skeptical Ben Shakir, a technology expert who works with priest-in-training David (Mike Colter) and psychologist Kristen (Katja Herbers) to determine if supernatural possessions or miracles exist. In the second season, Ben is being haunted by a hot succubus. Or is it just a hoax?

Created by The Good Wife’s Robert and Michelle King, Evil examines a fascinating faith vs. science debate through well-written characters and storylines. In season two, the show amps up its scare factor while delving further into Ben’s, David’s, and Kristen’s backstories. In the eighth episode, “B Is For Brain,” the trio has to determine if a fancy new brain-mapping machine causes divine visions. Ben volunteers to go first, and is transported to a version of India where his dead mother visits him and they are briefly haunted by a witch-like creature. With Evil fleshing out how Ben’s culture and upbringing shapes his distinct point-of-view, The A.V. Club spoke to Mandvi about adding specific cultural elements to the show, the lack of South Asian representation in TV horror, and the technical experiences of making terrifying episodes.

A.V. Club: Did you get to contribute any details to “B Is For Brain,” like when Ben has a vision of meeting his mother in India and then they spot a mythological creature? 

Aasif Mandvi: The writers came up with the storyline of Ben, Kristen, and David having these visions. For Ben, his vision of going back to India and seeing his mom was their idea. Weirdly enough, I had spoken to Robert King about a story that my grandmother used to tell me when I was a child, about growing up in her village in India. She talked about how, at night, while walking on the street, there would be these beautiful women but if you look down at their feet, they were backwards. That’s how you knew they weren’t human, they were demons.

I told Rob that story over dinner and drinks once because he asked me if there was anything in my religion or faith of this nature. He remembered that and put it into the storyline for this episode. I actually called my dad when I read the script to tell him they’ve incorporated my nani ma’s [grandmother’s] stories, and he was like “Yeah, they’re called chudails.” I didn’t even know there was a name for it. I googled it after and its proper folklore in Asia, it’s very common and well-known. I figure it’s a way to keep men from wandering streets at night and stop them from picking up women.

AVC: I grew up listening to the same stories from my grandmother and other relatives, so it was cool to see that on Evil. Do you think they get to write more around your performance and background for the show?

AM: Ben was written as a white guy and not a Brown character initially. When they cast me, it opened up a lot of opportunities for them to tell different stories. I often feel like I am the poster child for why diverse casting can open up opportunities for writers. Even on The Daily Show, I was the first non-white correspondent in 2006 and it opened up room for a whole bunch of stories we could tell and explore perspectives they hadn’t before. This applies to Evil as well. They cast me and realized they could lean into the truth of who I am. The story with my grandmother is the perfect example. We can tell stories we haven’t thought about before. It’s why diverse casting and looking at a story through different lenses is powerful and can lead to different ways to tell it.

AVC: It’s rare to see South Asian representation in the horror genre on American television. Do you think it’s evolved since you started your career?

AM: I don’t know if we’ve seen a lot of representation in this genre. We’re definitely seeing that change now. I think in Evil, it’s a great opportunity because there’s no reason all those characters should be white. Once they cast Mike as David, I think it allowed them to go “Okay, we can explore more diversity here.” I’m not necessarily familiar with other TV shows of the genre with South Asian representation, but there’s so many rich stories from the subcontinent in the world of horror, there are stories even you might’ve grown up with. Clearly, there’s a rich world to explore and I hope we see more horrors and thrillers indicative of those experiences.

In episode three of Evil, “F Is For Fire,” we had a djinn. The beauty of that was we got to explore a different side to what a demon is. In Islam, a djinn isn’t necessarily a demon like it is in Catholicism or Christianity. A djinn is a trickster that can do good and evil, so there is a nuanced way of looking at these subjects but you don’t see much of it because so much of the supernatural genre, with The Exorcist and such, it’s based on Judeo-Christian mythology. I’d also love to see more Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist stories around the genre.

Brian Stokes Mitchell, Mike Colter, Katja Herbers, Aasif Mandvi, Zuleikha Robinson, Ben Rappaport, Seven in Evil season two
Brian Stokes Mitchell, Mike Colter, Katja Herbers, Aasif Mandvi, Zuleikha Robinson, Ben Rappaport, Seven in Evil season two
Photo: Elizabeth Fisher/CBS 2021 Paramount+ Inc.

AVC: Do you feel like compelled to bust stereotypical myths because you’ve been part of the industry for so long now?

AM: It’s not something I think about consciously, but yes, I think so. Having come up in this business for three decades now, when I first started out professionally in the early ’90s, there were no Brown roles so when I went in for parts, I’d see stereotypical things only. Sometimes writers hadn’t even met a South Asian person before but were writing characters based on the idea of The Simpsons’ Apu. Luckily, that has evolved now because we have different creators, writers, and actors who are much more tapped in.

AVC: I read that after Evil season one, you had a chat with the creators about wanting to see Ben more involved in the show’s spirituality vs. science conflict. What motivated you to do that?

AM: It was mostly because the Kings are open to hearing from their actors about what is working and what isn’t. They do this with all their shows, probably. They had meetings with us after season one for a post-mortem of sorts and asked us how we feel, what we think our characters journeys should be. I knew Katja had also spoken with them and had said something about wanting to see Kristen as more of a badass. So I said I want Ben to be part of the central conflict of the show, the whole faith vs. science thing. He could be more challenged in his certainty, we could know more about him, where he comes from, how this guy from a Muslim family started working for the Catholic church. As much as was possible, I feel they took that to light in the directions they could go in. It’s great to see the writers and be able to speak with them and pitch them.

AVC: Episode seven, “S Is For Silence,” was filmed mostly in silence. Did you have any takeaways about the craft of acting without dialogue?

AM: When they originally said we’re doing an episode where there’s no dialogue, we thought it’s amazing, which it was. I quickly realized dialogue takes a big deal of screen time and page numbers. When you write a script that is 50 pages and there’s no dialogue, it’s like writing a two-hour movie. They usually say one page is one minute of screen time. This was very different, it was an incredibly dense episode full of stuff. It was great to not learn any lines and be in the moment, perform, and really live in this thing. It was freezing when we were shooting, though. I remember being out in the middle of the forest for the few scenes with dialogue and it was 10 degrees. We were so cold.

AVC: The show never specifically answers the questions it raises. Do you guys have conversations about it, and how much to embrace or disprove the supernatural?

AM: You’re right. It’s not as much about embracing or disproving the supernatural. What’s great about the storytelling is that the answers raise more questions. It’s like that thing where the door opens and there’s another and another, so you keep going on. The more you think you have an answer, the more you realize you’re in a hall of mirrors. That’s what keeps the audience from getting bored or complacent. If it always got neatly wrapped up, people wouldn’t stay with it as much. That’s what I admire about the Kings’ writing. It inspires me for my own writing. They’re not in a rush, they want to keep the audience guessing and in a place of uncertainty.

AVC: Do you think Ben’s predicaments in season two—his visions of Abby the Succubus or his mother, and his belief system overall—stem from the nature of his work alone, or is there more to the story?

AM: There’s more to the story in terms of Ben’s background and what led him to this work in the first place, and why he left something else he was doing before this. I always feel like Ben could be working for NASA. He’s super smart, he’s a MacGyver type of character. There’s a reason he gave a lot of that up and decided to do what he is doing right now. There’s been some rejection of what his path would’ve otherwise been. I imagine that as an immigrant kid, his parents were like “You could be doing great things.” There was pressure on him and he became disillusioned by it. It’s almost like Ben, and I don’t know if this is true, but he’s kind of in a place in his life where he’s expunging the past for himself.

AVC: You’re known for doing mostly comedic roles, but what’s the experience been like on Evil? I notice you are able to bring in moments of levity to some of the intense or scary scenes.

AM: I’ve done a lot more drama than people realize. I think being on The Daily Show for so many years has made my brand synonymous with comedy. But prior to and even while I was on The Daily Show, I was doing dramatic work. Evil wasn’t too much of a departure for me in that sense. And I think we did intend to find absurdity and humor in the storylines. There’s always something a little bit absurd going on. It’s not full on comedy but there’s just enough weirdness, like Abby having a retainer. She doesn’t need to have one but she does, so you know it’s not your average demon. They often cut to Katja and me sometimes to end a scene, and we’re not consciously making goofy faces, but our characters are often the incredulous ones. David is the true believer, so we get to make more faces that go “What!” In season one, every episode script said “cuts to Ben incredulously” or “Ben incredulously says….” If that word came up one more time, I wouldn’t be able to take it. But we get to play around with that.

Aasif Mandvi, Michael Esper, Katja Herbers, Mike Colter in season two
Aasif Mandvi, Michael Esper, Katja Herbers, Mike Colter in season two
Photo: Elizabeth Fisher/CBS 2021 Paramount+ Inc.

AVC: You must work with a green screen a lot, but have you experienced anything scary or terrifying while filming Evil?

AM: When you shoot these projects, it’s never quite the same as what audiences experience, so we use our imagination a lot. The one moment when I was freaked out was not even on set. It was while shooting the pilot. I walked into the makeup trailer, and the actor who plays George [Kristen’s nightmare demon] was just standing there in full costume. I guess he had just his makeup and no one else was around. I didn’t expect to see that when I walked in. He just said hi or something and I freaked out.

At this point, like when I’m doing scenes with Abby the Succubus, it becomes so technical that you forget the scary part of it. She’s straddling me but we’re working on where her leg is going to go, she’s wearing an uncomfortable costume, a mechanical tail is behind her with three guys operating it, she’s wearing massive boots. It all ends up feeling incredibly technical. I also think a green screen is not too different than performing theater. You’re just told, “Okay, there’s going to be a giant 50-foot-tall angel here.” You just have to use your imagination and make that what it is for you. That’s the fun of it. It’s what we all used to do as children playing in the backyard, right? Just pretending to be Godzilla or a soldier or whatever it was.