A correspondent for Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," Aasif Mandvi is now reporting live from Off-Broadway. In Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced, which begins Oct. 7 and opens Oct. 22 at LCT3/Lincoln Center Theater's Claire Tow Theater, Mandvi, 46, plays Amir, an ambitious Pakistani-American lawyer distancing himself from his Muslim background. Having explored similar themes of cultural identity in his 1999 Obie-winning one-man show, Sakina's Restaurant, the Indian-American actor explains why it's more satisfying than playing a cab driver.
On top of "The Daily Show," you work steadily in TV and film. What keeps bringing you back to theatre?
Aasif Mandvi: I first fell in love with acting in the theatre. That's where I started out, that's where I discovered acting, and that's where I first began dreaming of becoming a professional actor. There's nothing like that interaction of telling a story to people in the dark, and I love how it's a different experience every night. But let's face it: It doesn't pay much, so the part has to be really compelling for me to come back. [Laughs.] I love that Disgraced is political, controversial, and provocative, and it provides commentary from a perspective that isn't often represented.
The play gets very dark and intense. Does this role feel like a departure for you?
AM: The wonderful thing about being on "The Daily Show" is that it's changed my career and my life in a lot of ways, and it's made me much more well-known. The downside is that people think of me mostly as a comedian. Prior to "The Daily Show," I did a lot of dramatic work; most of my TV work and a lot of my film work has been dramatic, and I've had a nice balance. So it doesn't feel like a departure for me, but it might seem that way for the audience, and that's actually exciting for me.
Fans familiar with you solely from "The Daily Show" might be taken aback by your performance.
AM: Yeah, I'm curious if "The Daily Show" fans will like seeing me this way or not. But for me it's all about doing work that I find interesting and fulfilling. This is a great play, and I think it's going to provoke a lot of people.
You notably appeared as Ali Hakim in the 2002 Broadway revival of Oklahoma! Are there better parts for South Asians and Muslims onstage than onscreen?
AM: Not necessarily. In general, it's hard to find a great part if you're a South Asian or Muslim actor. I started writing Sakina's Restaurant in the early '90s, when I was playing deli owners and the occasional cab driver in TV and film. There was nothing substantial anywhere, including on stage. On stage I could get away with Shakespeare because they often do non-traditional casting, but I wanted to write characters from a South Asian perspective that were nuanced and had layers. It's still rare for a complex role like Amir in Disgraced to come around.
Tell me about Amir.
AM: The play is inspired by Othello in that Amir undermines himself with his inability to reconcile with his own identity. The character's Muslim-American, but he doesn't have to be; you can be of any cultural background and have contempt for your identity. Through Amir's identity crisis, the play explores how someone can become fragmented and disassociated in a way that's psychologically dangerous. But all of the characters are in some way dealing with identity — projection of identity, how we label people, what we think about someone based on things like ethnicity or religion, and the inability to reconcile where you come from with the person you want to be.
Although you were born in Mumbai, you were raised in northern England and later Tampa, Florida. Can you relate to Amir's cultural disassociation?
AM: I grew up as a Muslim Indian kid, but yeah, most of my friends were white. When I moved to New York in 1991, I became exposed to more people of my own background, but doing Sakina's Restaurant is what really strengthened my connection with my own culture. I felt I was speaking something about my own cultural heritage, and people from that background began coming to see the show and relating to it, which I hadn't really anticipated.
Does that connection remain strong?
AM: At the end of the day, I don't consider myself that good of a Muslim. I'm not a Muslim role model of any kind. Where I fit now — "The Daily Show" helped me realize this — is a place between cultures. You can be of Eastern background and Western mindset, and those two things rub together to create another thing. A lot of people of my generation and cultural heritage sit on that fence. It's a great place to be as an artist, writer, and comedian, because you can comment on both sides equally. Most people don't have that kind of perspective.