One of the most outrageous running gags on HBO’s “Silicon Valley” involves the rivalry between geeky coders Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) and Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), who trade insults even when they’re on the clock. The pair’s invective knows no bounds, and in Gilfoyle’s case, that includes Dinesh’s ethnicity. Over the course of the show, Gilfoyle has referred to Dinesh as “a Pakistani Mr. T.,” joked that he “might be the first Pakistani killed by a drone inside the U.S.,” and even made a reference to suicide bombers.
But Nanjiani’s unfazed by the offensive nature of the material. “Obviously, on ‘Silicon Valley,’ people make jokes that are racist,” the comic actor said in an interview last week. “So you just have to figure out — is the show saying this is good, is it more about the person saying it? And I think that’s sort of the test. Is the movie making fun of the person who’s ethnic or the person who’s being racist?”
Nanjiani has spent years struggling with these questions. In his early standup years, he wrote a one-man show called “Unpronounceable” about his transition from a Muslim upbringing to secular adulthood. And in “The Big Sick,” in which he stars and he co-wrote with wife Emily Gordon, Nanjiani plays an earlier version of himself as a man constantly forced to wrestle with crude Western perceptions. This includes one dramatic scene that finds the comic heckled by a racist audience member in the middle of his performance, something that Nanjiani based on real experiences. Then there was the time last fall when he and “Silicon Valley” co-star Thomas Middleditch were accosted at a bar by racist Trump supporters.
Despite such lingering problems with society at large, Nanjiani said that the entertainment industry has improved its standards for ethnic characters in recent years. “I’ve seen it get better,” he said. “But there’s a long way to go. It’s not a lot better for a lot of people. It’s still tough. But I think there’s a pressure to tell stories from different points of view, to have diversity. At least, that’s a goal people are going for. Ten years ago, I did not get the sense that people were even trying to have people play non-stereotypical roles.”
John P. Johnson/HBO
Back then, Nanjiani found himself on the receiving end of many stereotypical roles. “There was a lot of stuff that was boneheaded or tone-deaf, parts for cab drivers and 7/11 employees,” he said. “You do the audition and they tell you to play up the accent. That shit that was happening not too long ago and I’m sure it still happens.”
Those experiences led Nanjiani to create one underlying rule: No fake accents. “Sometimes, I couldn’t tell if the character was supposed to be funny or speak in a funny way,” he said. “I’d get asked to do that all the time, so I just started saying, no. That was the one rule.” His standards even led him to pass on one big, star-driven studio comedy (he won’t say its name on the record, but it was a holiday-themed film that was released widely and flopped). Nanjiani was asked to audition for a bit part. “ It was a guy who couldn’t speak English, like he couldn’t even string a sentence together,” he said. “And I was like, ‘I’m not even going to audition for this.’ So there was a lot of that.”
These days, he’s a bit more flexible. “I’ve relaxed my rule,” he said. “Now, if there’s a part where the accent is part of the character and important for his authenticity, then I’ll do the best I can to keep it accurate.”
He’s not totally sold on colorblind casting, either. “In the beginning, we’d have these parts where the character was defined solely by his ethnicity,” he said. “Then, the sort of progressive thing was that their ethnicity wasn’t a part of the character, they’d have names like ‘Ralph’ and stuff like that. Their ethnicity was completely ignored, which was a step.” But it wasn’t enough. “The ultimate step is to have the ethnicity be a part of the character and their history but not their defining characteristic,” Nanjiani said. “That’s how I feel about ‘Silicon Valley’ and ‘The Big Sick,’ where clearly the background informs who they are, but it’s not the totality of it.”
“The Big Sick” is now in limited release.