'Daily Show's' Aasif Mandvi: Snake-Charming My Way to the Top (Guest Column)
This story first appeared in the June 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When I first started auditioning and working as a professional actor, I quickly became aware of a unique position I held in the consciousness of ad executives and TV and film producers. No matter what the role, no matter what the project, the thing that defined my work above all else was my ability to be Brown. I realize this unique gift may have given me an unfair advantage over my Caucasian counterparts, who ended up playing generic white people, while I on the other hand possessed the ability to effectively embody a racial quota.
One of the first auditions I got as a young actor in New York was for a commercial. I was up for the role of a snake charmer, and they wanted an Indian accent. Even though I was born in India, I had grown up in the U.K. and the U.S., and the only Indian accent I had reference to was my parents'. The last thing you want to sound like as an immigrant kid is your father, but my Indian need to make money trumped my Indian need to sound British, so I decided I would learn. Not my father's accent, though. Instead, I would learn the accent of the stars. I watched Peter Sellers in The Party over and over again until "Birdie Num Num" was coming out of my ears. I watched the brilliance of The Simpsons' Apu and learned from him how to play the quintessential Indian immigrant. By the time my audition came around a few days later, I was ready. I was bobbing my head from side to side and saying "deary, deary me" as loud as I could. The producers of the commercial were laughing. I saw the brown cash cow before me, and I had come with milk bucket in hand.
Naturally I got a callback, and my agent called to ask if I owned a turban. I said -- a little defensively, I admit -- that if I owned a turban, I would probably have worn it; it's not something you leave home without. She laughed, saying, "Yeah, that makes sense -- but the producers want me to ask you, and I hope you are not offended, but have you ever been a snake charmer?" I paused, not knowing what to say. I had been so confident about my accent that I had forgotten the details of being a brown actor in Hollywood. Learning to snake charm, flying a carpet, wearing a turban … ugh. I said sadly, I had not. Alas, I did not get the job. Some other brown actor, I was sure, had been more prepared than I. A few months later when I watched the commercial, I saw that they had actually cast a swarthy-looking white guy who was bobbing his head and doing my accent and charming the shit out of his snake. Damn, I thought, if white guys can master snake charming, I don't stand a chance.
I knew I had to up my game. I decked myself out with a turban, a rubber snake in a basket, a license from the Taxi & Limousine Commission, a basic knowledge of the workings of a hospital and a deli and an overview of dentistry and tech startups. I even practiced saying things like "Death to America" and "Shut up, woman!" with an Arabic accent because I was determined to be no more than one beard away from playing Terrorist No. 3 in the next Middle East bad-guy blockbuster. I had all the ingredients I needed to get work in Hollywood as a young, brown actor.
Playing the game had never been easier. I worked constantly, made a living and paid my rent -- and then something remarkable began to happen: I began to gravitate away from playing the Indian cab driver or doctor to more ethnically ambiguous characters and sometimes roles that were not even brown. Instead of Indians, I was playing Indian-Americans, and it felt good.
But the more successful I became, the less willing I was to take on the ethnic-stereotype roles that had gotten me where I am today. I found myself refusing to play the terrorist, the deli owner and the nerd in search of more nuanced roles that challenged me more. I grew contemptuous of the ladder I had climbed. I no longer related to those actors forced to bob their heads and pretend to drive a cab. I had given up my cab license for a seat in the back of the limousine.
What I didn't know was that I had forgotten who I was; the emptiness inside became apparent when I was offered a role after many years that required an Indian accent again. Initially I refused but then finally agreed.
After a successful audition, the studio decided they wanted to hire me a dialect coach because my accent, according to their Hollywood ears, was not authentic enough. I was horrified. Had it come to this? After playing every Indian stereotype known to Hollywood, I now needed Hollywood to teach me how to sound like an Indian? I refused the coach and decided that I would venture forth on my own. I would not do the stereotypical Indian accent they wanted; I would not look to Sellers or Apu. Instead, I listened to myself and the Indian accent inside of me. I didn't care what Hollywood said, I would incorporate all that I had learned and all that I am, and I would speak with the accent that many proud Indian immigrants speak with every day, the one that is my birthright. And that was the moment that I finally owned my Brown.
Aasif Mandvi is an Indian-American actor-comedian who co-stars in The Internship, where, yes, he has an Indian accent.