his season has brought a steady stream of new desi faces to the TV lineup, with actors like Sendhil Ramamurthy joining Naveen Andrews on the small screen. Even Kal Penn is set to appear on 24 in coming weeks. Let’s just say that when it rains, it pours: Meet Maulik Pancholy.
Pancholy’s first big break came last year in Showtime’s Golden-Globe-winning comedy Weeds. He plays Sanjay, a love-struck, seemingly dorky Indian guy who gets involved with a suburban drug-dealing business thanks to his affection for the lead character. And while he’ll be back on Weeds next season, he’s added another small-screen credit to his list: Tina Fey’s brainchild, 30 Rock, the sitcom about what goes on behind the scenes of a late-night sketch comedy show. In it, Pancholy goes toe-to-toe with some of the most famous names in comedy, including Fey, Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan. Pancholy plays Jonathan, the assistant to Alec Baldwin’s character.
But get ready to see Pancholy on the silver screen, as well, where he’ll appear next year in Charlie Wilson’s War, starring Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman. The film is about a Texas congressman’s covert dealings in Afghanistan.
Things are taking off for the budding actor, but Pancholy remains endearingly down to earth. He came to our photo shoot prepared, and momentarily forgetting that he was the “talent,” even offered to help us pack up and move our equipment. Here’s what he told Nirali about marijuana, working with legends and living the dream.
So, first things first. How does a good Indian boy get into acting?
Well, my mom says when I was five I was telling her that I wanted to be an actor, so I don’t think they were very surprised. They did tell me to study something as a back up, though, so I minored in business at Northwestern. We did all that forecasting and projecting stuff and I knew instantly that this was not going to work out. And I dropped it. But in the end, my parents were just really supportive; they just want me to be happy.
Every now and then my mom will ask, “When will she learn? When will she stop dealing drugs?” I just tell her, “Um, maybe in season three?”
So, you didn’t fulfill your parents’ wish about having a back-up career but you did fulfill another desi parent’s dream—having a son who has a Yale degree. How did that come about?
Yeah, I was living in LA, doing a lot of guest star spots and commercial work but I just wanted to make sure that I had a career that would work. It was a tough decision at the time because I had a lucrative career going. Going to Yale (to study acting) was really important to me on so many levels. The training is so intense—I learned a lot about myself.
OK, so you have all this training and your parents say they just want you to be happy, but really how did they react when you told them that you were going to be in a show about marijuana? Did you tell them that Weeds was a just a gardening show?
[Laughs] Well I sort of just told them that I was doing this show and not much else. Weeds filmed entirely before it started airing so it had been months since I shot it and I just kind of forgot to warn my family. Anyway, apart from the “weed” aspect of it, there are some pretty graphic sex scenes in it as well. So, I usually get a lot of congratulatory phone calls after I appear on TV. Let’s just say I didn’t really get that many phone calls that night!
My parents are pretty hip to American culture but every now and then my mom will ask, “When will she [Mary-Louise Parker’s character, Nancy] learn? When will she stop dealing drugs?”
Panch for Panch(oly)
Five fast questions for Mr. P, answered rapid-fire.
What was the last song you played on your iPod?
Oh no, I think it was some James Blunt song. I just have the whole album on there and it came on randomly. Are you horrified now?
Do you have a dream director you want to work with?
Definitely Mira Nair.
If you weren’t in New York right now where would you be?
I would love to go to Montana … just go to a ranch. To go through the mountains and just be out in nature. When I first went out to LA I did a cross-country drive, through Utah and all that. It gives you such a different sense of yourself—so humbling and cool to experience.
If you weren’t an actor what would you be?
I have no idea, really. My parents didn’t quite get their wish that I have a back up, I guess.
What’s next for you?
Actually, I’m just getting ready to film a guest spot on an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. I’m playing a Pakistani American kid who may or may not have been involved in the murder of his sister. The episode revolves around some of the racial tension in Queens. I’ll let you watch it to see what happens, but yes, my character is a suspect.
Won’t that kind of end the show?
Yeah, kind of. I just tell her, “Um, maybe in season three?”
Now you’re on 30 Rock with a fabulous ensemble cast including Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan. That has to be at least a bit intimidating, no?
Actually the set has a really relaxed, fun atmosphere; it doesn’t feel like that at all. It’s such a cool group, all these veteran comedians. The way Tina Fey approaches everything, there’s such a good heart behind it. And I really think Alec [Baldwin] is a comic genius—it’s so fun and everyone’s laughing, even the crew is always laughing.
So, you’re an Indian guy in Hollywood, and there aren’t too many South Asians in show biz at all. Do you feel uncomfortable taking a role that’s funny because the character has an accent? What about a terrorist role? Do you feel a need to portray a positive image?
I do definitely feel that I do. I lived in LA for a while, and there I was definitely auditioning for and playing parts where the basis of the comedy was that one person was different, or foreign, or had an accent or something. But I realized that I do feel a responsibility to have a positive image. Young kids kind of pick up on these cues that these roles present, that because people are different, [they] should laugh at them. I feel uncomfortable with that.
I’m not as wary of say, a terrorist role, depending on what the role is. Especially right now in our current political climate, there’s a ton of stuff being written about that. You have to think, “Is this person an evil maniac or someone who’s being demonized? Is it about some truth that’s happening in the world?” You have to walk the line between truth and representation.
Do you feel that the success of other Indian men in Hollywood has helped your career blossom?
You know, anytime a network sees a [South Asian] character that works, it helps. Having people do well in their parts is really important. For a long time there weren’t as many Indians doing acting and it was really hard to prove that an Indian person could do something like open a movie. Then someone like Kal Penn goes in and White Castle is a big hit, so it helps.
On the other side, it’s great that a lot of South Asians are now going into things like writing and directing. We need those voices out there. The indie film scene is full of them.
Do you ever feel pigeonholed by your ethnicity? Do you worry that you’ll only get to play roles that play into your background?
Well, obviously I think that any actor should get to play anything they want. But I do sort of revel in getting to play certain South Asian roles; there’s so much great stuff out there that’s being written now. There are great roles that I got to play and I got to play them because I’m South Asian.
Like, in Weeds, my character is specifically Indian but he plays on race in subversive ways. He’ll surprise you because he fits a certain mold of what you think an Indian person would be like—and then he f*&@s with that. I mean, he’ll never give you a foothold for the racial stereotype that a person may try to pin on him.