Aasif Mandvi is probably best known in his guises as "Senior Muslim Correspondent" or "Senior Foreign-Looking Correspondent" on "The Daily Show." But the 49-year old actor-comedian -- born in India, raised in Britain and the States -- has an extensive list of credits in TV ("Law & Order," "Person of Interest," "CSI"), film ("The Internship," "Million Dollar Arm") and theater (an Obie winner for "Sakina's Restaurant"). Currently he's starring in the Web series "Halal in the Family," a parody show about an all-American Muslim family, and will be seen as a Pakistani chauffeur caught up in politics in the HBO comedy "The Brink," premiering June 21 at 10:30 p.m. Lewis Beale spoke with the performer by phone from Los Angeles.
What was it about the HBO show that interested you?
The idea of doing a satirical geopolitical comedy. I thought the concept was really funny, and I love the idea of taking this "Strangelove" and "M*A*S*H" idea, there hasn't really been a show about geopolitics in this way. I've been swimming in these waters for several years now on "The Daily Show," so this felt like a natural evolution for me.
Because this show centers around a military coup in Pakistan, are you worried that it might reinforce negative images about that country?
It also plays into the idea that everyone in the American government is kind of messed up as well. And it was important to me that my character's family, and the character himself, not be a stereotypical Pakistani guy. He is an educated guy who has this job because it's all he can get. The show is an equal opportunity offender. The Americans on this show are as dysfunctional as anybody else.
Your Web series "Halal in the Family" seems to be another attempt to subvert stereotypical images, this time with the look of a typical cheesy sitcom. Is that what you were going for?
What we tried to do is create something funny, entertaining, and insert a message about bigotry. I felt the context of an all-American sitcom family, a la "Cosby," "Growing Pains," that was a world Americans could enter. At least if people watch this, they laugh, and maybe they think about that issue in a way they haven't thought about it before. Obviously there are always going to be haters -- "I don't want to see a portrayal of good Muslims." But there's a huge swath of people who I think get it.
You seem to have become a semiofficial spokesman for the American Islamic community. Did you seek that out?
I never set out to be a spokesman for this, and I don't consider myself a spokesman. I'm an actor and writer who happens to be an American Muslim. Once I got on "The Daily Show," I felt there was a platform to say something. I'm not a particularly religious Muslim, and America changed for me after 9/11, the ways Americans saw Muslims. I couldn't help being defined by it, but it's not everything I do.
You've been in the U.S. since you were 16, but I'm wondering if there are still aspects of American culture you just don't "get."
American football. I don't get that. I've never been able to be a fan. On a serious note, I think because I was raised in another country, there's that sense of always being a little bit of an outsider.
Do you feel you're stereotyped in any way? You seem to be the go-to guy for South Asian roles. Does that bother you?
The reality is on some level, "The Daily Show" was a phenomenal thing for me, it satirized the ethnicity, but it wasn't about the ethnicity. But in Hollywood, it goes both ways. I don't mind playing an Indian or a Pakistani. There is a space for that in our culture without Orientalizing those characters. In "Million Dollar Arm" I got to play an actual guy who is Indian-American. I didn't have to do the accent and be the other. I was inside the culture, and that I think is progress, and hopefully more roles are coming down the pike like that. When you are a brown actor in Hollywood, you are first and foremost a brown actor, but that's changing.
My guess is you get some amazing hate emails. Am I right?
Twitter is now a perfect hate vessel. People let me know how much they hate me on Twitter. But the most hate mail I get is about Israel-Palestine and guns. Everything else, people are pretty much "Oh, OK." I think I'm like the friendly Muslim, maybe that's what it is. And that's OK, if I can embody an American Muslim accessible thing, that's OK.