A week ago you might have caught Aasif Mandvi on television, in one of his regular appearances on The Daily Show, waggishly offering post-debate closing arguments for the Romney campaign. Mandvi has been a regular “correspondent” for the popular Comedy Central program since 2006, filling reports as “White House Correspondent,” “Senior Asian Correspondent,” and “Senior Muslim Correspondent.” You’ll get to see a very different aspect of the actor comedian on stage in Disgraced, a provocative new play currently at the Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center.
Mandvi was born in India, spent his early childhood in England, and in the early 1980s, when he was in his teens, immigrated with his family to Tampa, Florida. He subsequently moved to New York in 1991 to pursue a career as an actor. Faced with a dearth of roles for actors of South-Asian descent, he wrote and starred in Sakina’s Restaurant, a 1999 Obie Award-winning solo work that explored the Indian immigrant experience, in which he played several roles, both male and female. The play served as inspiration for the 2009 movie Today’s Special, which Mandvi co-wrote and starred in, playing the role of a Manhattan chef.
The play Disgraced, written by Pakistani-American novelist and actor Ayad Akhtar, takes place in the tastefully appointed Upper East Side apartment shared by Amir, a successful Pakistani-American lawyer, and his Caucasian artist wife, Emily. Mandvi talked to us recently about the play and his role as the lawyer.
When did you get involved with Disgraced?
Ayad [Akhtar] sent me an early draft of his script about two years ago. We talked about what he wanted to do with the play, some of the things he wanted to change. It’s not an easy play and it deals with very sensitive issues so I had some initial concerns with what he was trying to say. Then we did a bunch of readings and workshops at different theaters; I ended up work-shopping the play while he was also rewriting it. He developed other aspects of the narrative that really helped to make a big difference. I wasn’t able to do it Chicago [when it premiered earlier this year at the American Theater Company] because of my commitments to The Daily Show, but I am really glad that I can play it here in New York.
How would you describe the play?
The meat of the play is a dinner party where these very erudite, smart, intellectual people ultimately devolve into, I want to say, their basest selves. The pretenses come down, the false personas disappear, and pretty soon you have people saying things that makes a heighted, dramatic, and frightening experience. It’s a play about a lot of things, but at the heart it’s a story about identity and a love story.
Would you say that Disgraced exposes the fault lines that run beneath so-called civilized society?
I can’t speak for Ayad, but what the play says to me is that we are all culpable for what happens in the world. Whether you are talking on a personal level at a dinner party or whether you are talking about it on a global scale, about America’s relationship to the Middle East or China, things don’t happen in isolation. We are all responsible for what happens. In some way the dysfunction of the world; it’s just people reacting to perceived fears, perceived threats, to their own prejudice, their upbringing, their racial background, and what they’ve been taught to believe, religion and nationalism. There are no good guys or bad guys. All these things contribute to how we end up misunderstanding, or hating each other, or being afraid of each other. I think the play is a post-colonial allegory. You’ve got a Muslim American, a Caucasian, a black woman, and a Jew on stage. It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but because the play is so well written and is dealing with so many sensitive issues, I think it actually reveals something about ourselves.
You’ve described yourself as being in a place between cultures, where an Eastern background rubs up against a Western mindset. Does Disgraced live in a similar location?
It really does. I think a lot of writers of the South-Asian diaspora deal with this. It’s sort of what I deal with on the The Daily Show as well, but with a satiric, more comedic take on things. In this play, it’s a dramatic head-on sort of way of taking on identity: South-Asian identity, Muslim-American identity. The play is about what it’s like in the 21st century, in this United Colors of Benetton kind of world that we live in. What does it mean to be Muslim in America today? There’s the idea of outsider-ness, being the other. It’s also about the price that you pay to disassociate from your own identity in order to fit it into a larger cultural norm.
Have opportunities for South Asian actors like yourself changed significantly since you wrote Sakina’s Restaurant in order to give yourself multifaceted roles to play?
It’s changed in the sense that you see more South Asians on television now than you did 15 years ago. South Asians have become part of the multicultural tapestry that is America. But it’s rare to see something about actually being South Asian, especially being a Muslim man. The great thing about this play, and the reason why I’m so excited about it, is because it’s rare to see a leading man role for a South Asian that’s written with such complexity and nuance. This role comes from inside the experience rather than looking in from a Caucasian perspective. It’s about the fragmenting of a man’s identity, disillusionment of faith and religion, from the inside the experience. That’s why the role is unique for me as an actor. I get to play a leading man through the identity that I was raised in. Often in Hollywood or even on Broadway you end up playing the stereotype, or something like playing white guy in a brown face. There are no heroes in this play; everyone is flawed, dysfunctional, broken. My character, Amir, is an antihero, a Pakistani American who’s different, and his issues and his problems and what happens to him in the play come out of that experience, not in spite of it.
Are there any similarities between you and Amir, besides sharing a common heritage?
We were both raised Muslim, but I don’t think I have ever been as vitriolic toward Islam as Amir is. But then again, I didn’t have his more conservative, much more fundamental upbringing. His relationship to Islam is much angrier. I had a much more liberal upbringing, so my relationship to Islam is much softer, more sentimental. When he talks about his mother in the play—my mother was never like that. She would never have said those things about Jews or other people, because she didn’t believe that. But I do relate to the disassociation of culture, or when you’re suddenly ashamed of who you are and you hide it in some way. Or when you aspire to be part of the popular culture, without really holding on to yourself. That aspect of Amir—a lot of immigrations, who are not only from South Asia, relate to that. I have been dealing with that in my career all along. The difference here is Ayad takes it on in a much more muscular way and he also takes it on with Islam in the forefront, and that makes it political.
What was it like joining The Daily Show?
It changed my life. When you are a part of something that is so much a part of the zeitgeist, so much a part of pop culture, it’s a very different thing from being in a movie or being on a television show. Also, the character that I play on The Daily Show happens to have the same name as me, and so you get really identified and associated with that character in a way that doesn’t happen often. But the character Aasif Mandvi who’s on the The Daily Show is a very different from me. He’s smarter than I am, much more well read, and he has a team of writers that go around with him.
So The Daily Show fans will get to see a very different Aasif Mandvi in Disgraced?
I think so. I have always done dramatic work in my career, but when you get on something like The Daily Show you get associated with comedy and I enjoy that. But it’s nice to go back and play something dramatic again. People who only know me from the The Daily Show might be surprised.