Aasif Mandvi has done nearly every job in Hollywood, paving the way for South Asian and Muslim actors in the process.
Mandvi, who became a first-time father last year, began his career on the stage, performing in various off-Broadway productions, eventually starring on Broadway as Ali Hakim in the 2002 revival of Oklahoma. After a series of small parts in numerous television series, he landed his first notable role as a regular correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Mandvi has had roles in films such as Spider-Man 2, Analyze This, The Proposal, Ghost Town, The Last Airbender and The Internship, and has appeared on series such as A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Brink, which he also produced. His book of short essays entitled No Land’s Man was released in 2014. He can currently be seen on the Paramount+ series Evil and on Hulu’s This Way Up, and he can be heard on the Disney Junior series, Mira Royal Detective. Mandvi will also be producing an adaptation of the UK comedy panel game show Would I Lie To You? for the CW.
We spoke with Aasif about his diverse career, his role in the supernatural thriller Evil and whether or not he’ll be returning to the Spiderverse.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. You’re a pretty busy guy these days. What has your schedule been like between Evil, This Way Up, being a new parent and everything else you’re working on? It seems like it would be a bit chaotic.
Yes, it’s very scheduled. Just having a kid in itself forces you into a schedule. “This is when I’m taking care of him. This is when I get an hour to work on this. This is when I have an interview. This is when I have to make a phone call.” Then I’m on duty again as a dad and then my wife tags back in. You just have to get very organized in terms of your time.
Babies don’t necessarily follow a publicist’s schedule, so that can be tough, I imagine.
True, but he’s very good. There at days when you realize that he’s just not going to cooperate, though.
I was a little older of a father myself. I was in my late thirties when we had our second child, and that wasn’t necessarily easy.
(laughing) But you weren’t nearly as old as I am, is what you’re saying?
Well, I also wasn’t nearly as busy as you are, so I imagine that must add to it.
You know, here’s the thing. When you choose to not only be a middle-aged father, but a late-middle-aged father, you realize there will be some limitations. He’s just started walking, so we’ll how I do. I see those dads in the park running around in the park and they’re exhausted, and I think, “Am I going to be that guy?” I’ll say to my wife, “I just can’t just keep getting up and down.” It’s exhausting. My knees don’t quite do the same things as they used to. I just have to try and stay in shape and just be healthy as much as I can.
Trust me, I understand. I have a ten-year-old running circles around me.
There’s also another side of it, in which I am glad I waited to have a kid. I don’t think I could have had a kid in my thirties just because I wasn’t in the right place, emotionally or psychologically. I had a kid when I was ready to have a kid and I feel like I am present with him. I actually enjoy spending time with him, rather than being resentful of all the other stuff that I don’t get to do. I don’t want to go to clubs anymore.
Well, your career isn’t really a struggle at this point either. It’s pretty well established, so you don’t have the same concerns as you did when you were in your twenties.
I do feel like I’ve achieved a fair amount of success, but this business is very fickle, so you never know what’s going to happen. Knock on wood, but everything’s good, so I’ve been able to be with him and be present. Also, he was born in the middle of a pandemic, which had its pros and cons. I got to spend a lot of time with him because we weren’t going anywhere, but he didn’t get to see the outside world until he was two or three months old.
I think that I would be sad if I hadn’t done this and didn’t have this chance to experience what I experienced by being a father. I would have missed out, and I wouldn’t even have known that I missed out.
I’d like to talk about Evil. What is interesting about your character is that he could have been written as very one-dimensional. He’s the tech guy. He’s the skeptic. But I feel that they’ve given you a lot to work with, particularly this season. Ben has some personal demons, and he’s got his own Night Terror now, so that’s fun.
Yeah, initially, I think he was probably written a little bit more one-note, but I think once they hired me, they just realized what an incredible actor I am (laughing). No, but I think [creators] Robert and Michelle [King] always had the idea of exploring him a little bit more as time went on, but it just becomes a question of real estate on the show. When we were originally on CBS, we only had 43 minutes. I spoke to the Kings, and I was always pushing them to explore Ben’s character more because he’s an interesting guy. He comes from a Muslim family, but he is an atheist, yet he decided to work for the Catholic Church. The Kings hadn’t originally intended for Ben to be a brown guy or to have that background, but that gave them a lot of material to play with.
Bringing another religion into a show that is so centrally focused on one particular religion was an interesting decision.
Well, we did an episode this season in season two where we actually had a Muslim mom and a Catholic priest doing an exorcism, together, which I thought was really cool and interesting. I think a lot of people were asking what Ben’s deal was after season one? We really didn’t know how he ended up in this world, and I think that is opening up slowly, more and more. I like it now because it’s a little bit of a mystery. What happened in Ben’s past that made him end up working for the Catholic Church?
What kind of impact did the move to Paramount+ have on the show?
We’re going to shoot season three soon and I can’t wait because it’s really going to open up. The audience is going to get stuff that they never could before because of standards and practices.
Do you have a no-nudity clause in your contract, or is it something that’s on the table now?
(laughing) Oh, I had it taken out. I said, “Get my ass on the screen!”
I have to ask; do you enjoy good margarita in a can?
I don’t know, but I would definitely try it! That’s the sort of the quirkiness that the Kings love to play with. Many people might have just written that Kristen has a beer or some kind of beverage that most people drink. But no, it’s a margarita in a can.
The show seems to be leaning into the absurd a bit with season two, like the fact that [Night Terror] George has become kind of like the Crypt Keeper of the show now.
Yeah, they’re playing with the genre quite a bit, which is great.
I’d be curious to find out what goes on the Kings’ heads. I feel that they may need therapy at some point down the line, if they’re not already going.
What’s odd is that they are that the nicest, most normal people that you’ll ever meet. I’m sure at home that they’re dark and weird and incredibly off-putting, but not the people I’ve met.
You’ve done just about everything in entertainment. You’re a playwright, screenwriter, novelist, trained stage actor, you’ve worked in dramas, comedies, worked on film, on television, you’ve produced, you’ve worked as a voice actor. You’ve worked at theme parks. You’ve literally done everything. Out of everything you’ve done, is there any particular area that you feel best represents you as a storyteller?
You know, when I look at my career, I’m always kind of amazed at how many different things I’ve gotten to do and how diverse my career has been. And part of it is sort of the necessity coming up in this business at the time that I came up. I was a brown guy trying to make it in entertainment and to be an actor in New York theater in Hollywood in the 90s, there were no roles. I just had to start inventing myself and try to fit into wherever I could. So, I was doing Shakespeare, and I was doing stand-up, and I was doing theater, and I was doing Law & Order. I come from an improv comedy background, because in Orlando, before I got to New York, I was working at Disney, doing improv comedy. I was even a mall clown for a while when I was in college in Tampa. I was making my living making balloon animals at birthday parties.
There was no niche for me. This business is incredibly reductive. It wants to put you into a box and then say, “Okay, you’re a handsome white man, or black man or whatever, whatever.” But there were no roles for brown actors at the time. So, I had to be everything to everybody all the time. I was just juggling a lot of the balls. And it just so happened, that that’s how my career kind of went, and I kind of loved it because I got to do so many different things. I did a Broadway musical in 2002, and then I also did a Merchant Ivory film. But I think my one-man show that I wrote and starred in felt like the truest example of my artistic expression. I started in theater and that’s the training that I had.
Do you enjoy that process more, as far as rehearsal and just being in front of people and tweaking a role night after night?
I do love that process of working on a play and discovering a character over time. TV and film is a different animal. You’ve got you got to make choices and figure things out as well and that’s fun too, but you can’t get the live experience of theater anywhere else. There’s a live audience every night and you go home that night and you come home and you think, “I really shit the bed in that scene. I should have done it differently.” The beauty of it is that you go back tomorrow and try something else.
Before I let you go, I do have to ask the elephant in the room question. Can you confirm if Joe’s Pizza owner Mr. Aziz will be part of the multiverse in the upcoming Spider-Man: No Way Home?
I could I wish I could confirm that. I would love that to be the case. This is how out of the loop I am. I wasn’t aware they were doing a multiverse film. I’m going to have to call my agent.
It may not be too late. I’m sure Spider-Man still has to deliver pizzas.
You know, I turned down that role initially when they offered it to me. I had just done a Merchant Ivory movie and I was back in New York, and they offered me the part. I met with Sam Raimi, but it was only a couple of scenes, and I didn’t really want to do it. I thought, “Well, I just starred in this film,” which ironically, no one saw. The casting director said, “But it’s Spider-Man!” I finally said, “OK, I’ll do it, but you have to give me a credit in the beginning of the film,” which was not part of the deal at all. She said she didn’t know if they could do it. I said, “I’m not asking for more money. I’m not asking for anything else. Just put my name up there on a shared title card because that’s a big deal to me. I’ve never had that before, and that will set a precedent for me in my career. Long story short, they ultimately agreed to do it.
Were you on The Daily Show by then?
No. Nobody knew who I was. Nobody. The Daily Show came along in 2006. I shot this in 2004. Once The Daily Show happened, people started knowing me as that guy from the show, but at that time, no one knew me. I was just at some off-Broadway theater actor, and I was like, “Put my name on the front of the film! Tobey Maguire and Aasif Mandvi!” I remember the casting director saying to me, “Even Cliff Robertson doesn’t have his name in the front of the film,” and I don’t know where I got the cohones to say this, but I said, “Well, in all honesty, Cliff Robertson doesn’t need it. I need it.”
Well, it worked out for you. Your character is even in the video game.
Yes, and it’s still one of the most popular Spider-Man movies. I still think, and I and I say this without any prejudice, that it’s one of the best Spider-Man scripts that was ever written. It’s just really a great movie and I’m honestly very proud to be part of it. So yeah, maybe they’ll have me back in the multiverse.
We’ll make that happen. Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us. The first half of season two of Evil is currently streaming on Paramount+, with part two of season 2 premiering on August 29th, and season one is also on Paramount+ as well as Netflix. Season two of This Way Up is currently available on Hulu, and No Retreat, No Surrender 3 is currently available at your local Blockbuster, so go pick that up.
(laughing) So that’s what you’re going to close with?
Thanks a lot. You know, I’ve never even seen it.
(laughing) I think you’re in the majority. Thanks, take care.
Thanks, bye now.