asif Mandvi won’t soon be forgetting August 9, 2006.
That’s the day the actor landed a spot on Comedy Central’s late-night hit The Daily Show.
“I went down there at 12 o’clock and auditioned for Jon Stewart,” Mandvi remembers. “It was the bizarrest thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Strange, because he was hired on the spot: “You just don’t get jobs like that,” Mandvi explains. Stewart offered his congratulations then asked, “Are you ready to go? We rehearse at 4:30.”
Mandvi admits to being a bit tongue-tied. “I’m such a big fan of The Daily Show all I could say was, ‘Awesome.’”
And awesome it is.
From Mystic Masseur to Alcoholic MD: More on Mandvi
Birth Name: Aasif Mandviwala
Inspiration: Seeing Omar Sharif in Dr. Zhivago helped a young Mandvi realize there was space in Hollywood for brown actors
Favorite Superhero: Spider-Man (and no, not just because Mandvi plays Mr. Aziz in the sequel)
Hanging on his apartment wall, you’ll find a framed picture of former President Bill Clinton. Clinton, in a pink tie and enormous smile, poses with Mandvi’s proud parents at the premier of the Merchant Ivory production Mystic Masseur. Mandvi played the title character in the film based on V.S. Naipaul’s eponymous book.
On the small screen: Check him out this season in ER, and the CBS drama Jericho—where he plays Kenchy Dhuwalia, an alcoholic doctor “who sits at the bar all day.” Says Mandvi: “Now that’s a really interesting character.”
The Emmy and Peabody-winning show, a half-hour of infotainment billed as a “satirical news program,” has become a cable television institution, launching the careers of comedians like Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell. Mandvi feels “proud” to walk in their steps.
Clever and politically relevant, Stewart and company routinely court controversy. That’s something Mandvi had a chance to do early on, ruffling feathers with his debut appearance as the show’s Middle East correspondent. In his segment, Mandvi deadpanned that September 11 was ultimately a “bad day, great opportunity” for the United States. People were up in arms, but he was “surprised” to see so many offended (“Even now, I don’t really know why that 9-11 line was so controversial”).
But getting under people’s skins is something the actor is willing to do if it means drawing attention to issues of social injustice. That’s why, when the opportunity to star in the politically-charged play Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom arose, Mandvi jumped at the chance.
Based on the real-life experience of four British Muslims imprisoned for war crimes it’s unclear they’ve committed, Guantánamo is a terrifying and true account of what happens when the legal system fails miserably. The New York Times has called the play “deeply moving,” saying the men’s stories were told with a “bafflement that shades into gut-level despair.”
Says Mandvi of Guantánamo: “You can’t get over the illegality of the situation. No matter how you dress it up, saying ‘it’s about terror or security’ or whatever, it is just illegal to hold people without trying them. These men need a chance to defend themselves.”
Nobel Peace Prize recipient Desmond Tutu saw the play one evening, and spoke to the audience afterwards about the power of apology. “I’ll never forget it,” Mandvi says. “Guantánamo was an intense piece. I felt very close to it. For me, it’s all about what the character stands for and what the message is.”
The message in Mandvi’s latest project is considerably easier to digest. In the upcoming romantic comedy Music and Lyrics Mandvi plays “Khan,” the likeable doorman of a New York City apartment building—a character based on director Marc Lawrence’s real-life concierge.
The role might be a small one, but Mandvi is pleased: “I read it and thought, ‘This is so funny. I have to do it’,” he says. Music, starring Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore, is scheduled for release on Valentine’s Day.
On set Mandvi spends down-time with Jason Antoon, his Californian co-star of Lebanese descent. Having responded to the same casting calls “for years” the two have become close friends. Over lunch, their conversation bounces from the personal (ex-girlfriends) to the professional (how to improve a particular scene). Antoon does a comic imitation—complete with ambiguous accent—of the Sacha Baron Cohen character Borat. But when the topic shifts to using accents on screen themselves, things become more serious.
Mandvi says he is often expected to “do an Indian accent” during auditions. That can be frustrating, and it’s something he actively challenges. Recently, when reading for a role in the NBC drama ER, the script called for his character “Manish,” a hospital transplant coordinator, to have “accented English.” Mandvi wasn’t convinced Manish “needed” an accent, and suggested it be dropped altogether. The producers agreed.
“If the role is just a stereotype, then I have a problem. I have to feel like there’s something to it,” Mandvi explains. “I judge each character on its own merit.”
“There are characters I won’t play because they are stereotypes,” he continues. “There is subject matter that I don’t want to promote—like a terrorist plot: I won’t do it.”
Mandvi means what he says. He once turned down a role in the film Hidalgo—over a line about “kicking some Arab ass.” And when asked to audition for the role of a snake-charmer, he declined (“They wanted to know whether I owned a snake, and if I could bring it with me”).
He may have lost the part, but he did keep his integrity.
And for that, Aasif Mandvi is just fine by us.