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March 26, 2020

Sync and Swim

Actor-writer-comedian Aasif Mandvi found his rhythm in New York City, where he’s on the move on many fronts.

Mike Flaherty
  • CBS Watch Magazine/Williams + Hirakawa

It's been a long, strange trip that's brought Aasif Mandvi to his current gig as Ben Shakir, a skeptic of the supernatural on Evil, the CBS drama from Michelle and Robert King that debuted last fall and was quickly picked up for season two.

Born in Bombay (now Mumbai), Aasif Mandviwala spent his childhood in northern England, then emigrated as a teen with his family to Tampa, which he left in his 20s to pursue an acting career in New York.

That's where emmy's Mike Flaherty caught up with him for a chat about his Evil doings, his nine years as "Senior Muslim Correspondent" on The Daily Show and the travails of being a South Asian actor in the biz.

Q: What drew you to Evil?

A: You read a lot of pilots, and sometimes you go, "Okay, this is going to be a money job… [but] because this was from the Kings, and I was a fan of The Good Fight and The Good Wife and I know they're really smart writers, I thought they'll take on issues in a very subversive way.

Q: Ben's an interesting character. Asked what he believes about work, he says: "I believe it pays the rent."

A: He grew up in a Muslim family, is an atheist and winds up working for the Catholic Church, debunking these mysteries. He's the pragmatist, the empiricist of the group, a bit of a MacGyver character. David [Mike Colter] is the true believer, and Kristen [Katja Herbers] is a bit more of an agnostic and can get swayed a little, but Ben is planted in his [scientific] certainty.

Q: He has an intriguing speech in episode five about how the digital world has encouraged superstition, conspiracy theories and illusions — the exact opposite of what we think science and tech are supposed to do.

A: Ben is skeptical of any kind of superstition or fervent religious belief that's not based in some kind of evidence, even toward the way that technology can become a religion.

Q: Ben lives with his sister and his dad…. Given television's history of clichéd, clumsy depictions of Muslims, the portrayal of the Shakirs is refreshing.

A: They live in Queens in a normal house, like I did. A normal family living in the outer boroughs and whose kids probably grew up in a very normal American way. Which seems a kind of progress.

Q: And Ben is, at most, a "cultural" Muslim.

A: I wouldn't even say that. I think he's really rejected the whole thing. Ben's main passion is science. I'm curious just as an actor to see how, why, Ben became so focused on this one thing; if there's a trauma in his past that he's running from, something that was painful for him.

Q: Speaking of "progress": Ben is yet another South Asian character who's the "tech guy," but he's also gotten the girl — a very beautiful girl, in fact, in Vanessa (Nicole Shalhoub).

A: Yeah. Often male South Asian characters don't get to be sexual, [but] I don't think the Kings ever wanted to write to any clichés, so it's nice that they've given Ben a sexual component.

Q: You were the first non-Caucasian correspondent on The Daily Show, and you received the Courage in Media award from the Council on American-Islamic Relations for your work there. Do you feel like you made a difference?

A: I never expected to be a standard-bearer of any kind, and I don't now. But at the time, Muslim Americans were not being represented in any way other than as terrorists on 24 or whatever Fox News showed.

It turns out that a lot of Muslims and South Asians were watching [The Daily Show] and told me they'd never seen someone like me just being himself. I got to sit on the fence between cultures — the outsider and the insider at the same time.

Q: Most people first saw you on The Daily Show and, like me, assumed you were a native New Yorker. As you put it in your memoir (2014's No Land's Man), "The coalescence of my West Yorkshire and Florida accents made me sound like I was from Brooklyn."

A: A lot of people have thought I was from New York, even before I moved here. Something about New York and me, we just fit. Sometimes you just find a place that matches your internal energy and rhythm.

Q: That show, especially during the Jon Stewart years, was the place to be if you wanted a career in comedy. It must have been an exciting time.

A: Yeah. I got to work with some of the funniest, smartest people in comedy. Being immersed in that world, learning everything I could, benefited me as a comedian and an artist in many ways.

Q: One of the many ways you're branching out is with a pilot for Apple TV+. What can you tell me about it?

A: It's a nonscripted show where we take some of America's most polarizing issues and go to other countries that are struggling with some of the same problems — or have historically struggled with the same problems — and find out if we can learn anything. Or if it's just that misery loves company.

Catch up on season one of Evil on CBS All Access

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 1, 2020

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