Fisher Stevens was cooking dinner when I got him on the phone. I had wanted to talk to him for years because, as I recount in my new Netflix series, “Master of None,” this actor played a strange role in my relationship to television and film.
The first time I saw an Indian character in an American movie was “Short Circuit 2,” a 1988 film in which a humanized robot named Johnny 5 goes to New York and bonds with an Indian scientist named Benjamin Jarhvi.
Seeing an Indian character in a lead role had a powerful effect on me, but it was only as I got older that I realized what an anomaly it was. I rarely saw any Indians on TV or film, except for brief appearances as a cabdriver or a convenience store worker literally servicing white characters who were off to more interesting adventures. This made “Short Circuit 2” special. An Indian lead character? With a Caucasian love interest? In the 1980s? What’s going on here? A bold foray into diversity far ahead of its time?
One day in college, I decided to go on the television and film website IMDB to see what happened to the Indian actor from “Short Circuit 2.” Turns out, the Indian guy was a white guy.
The character was played by Mr. Stevens, a Caucasian actor in brownface. Rather than cast an Indian actor, the filmmakers had Mr. Stevens sit every morning in a makeup chair and get painted an “Indian color” before going on set and doing his “Indian voice.”
As a child, I thought the villain of the film was Oscar Baldwin, the banker who tricks Johnny 5 into helping him commit a jewel heist. As an adult, I thought the bad guy was actually Mr. Stevens, who mocked my ethnicity.
And now, here I was, a real Indian man, talking to the actor who played a fake one almost 30 years ago.
After a long conversation, I can confirm Mr. Stevens is not a villain, but was, when he took the role, a well-intentioned if slightly misguided young actor who needed a job during a more culturally insensitive time.
At first, he was remarkably casual, cooking dinner as we talked, seemingly happy to recall his days with Johnny 5.
“Originally, the role of Benjamin was a white grad student, and then the director and co-writer of ‘Short Circuit’ changed the character to Indian,” he told me. They then went to Mr. Stevens and asked, “Can you play Indian?”
It was 1987, so we were all a little less savvy about the things we were doing that were actually hurtful to large groups of people, and the answer, for a 21-year-old struggling actor, was yes.
What surprised me was how seriously Mr. Stevens dedicated himself to “becoming Indian.” He went full Method, studying with a dialect coach, reading R. K. Narayan’s “The Guide” and Hesse’s “Siddhartha.” “I started taking yoga and immersed myself, because I really wanted to be as real as possible,” he said. He even lived in India for a month before shooting “Short Circuit 2.”
Mr. Stevens’s efforts to make the character real, and not a full-on ethnic cartoon, are admirable, despite the underlying insult of his being cast. Toward the end of the conversation, it seemed to fully hit him how insensitive his casting may have been, and he said several times that he believed the role should have been played by an Indian and that he would never take it today.
These days, Indian people, real Indian people, pop up way more in film and television, but fake Indians are still around more than you think. I loved “The Social Network,” but I have a hard time understanding why the Indian-American Harvard student Divya Narendra was played by Max Minghella, a half-Chinese, half-Italian British actor. More recently, “The Martian” was based on a novel with an Indian character named Venkat Kapoor, who in the film became Vincent, a character portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a British actor of Nigerian origin. (The Indian actor Irrfan Khan was reportedly in talks to take the role, but couldn’t because of a scheduling conflict.)
My efforts to get responses from people who made these decisions were unsuccessful. But I don’t want to judge them before knowing the full story, especially because I know that both films made at least some attempts to pursue Indian actors. I auditioned for “The Social Network,” and I was horrible. I tried to improvise and make the role funny. I was a young actor who didn’t understand what he was doing. I was also asked to audition for a part in “The Martian” (not Kapoor), but I skimmed the script and — no offense — it seemed like a boring movie about a white guy stuck on Mars for two hours who gets fired up about plants, so it didn’t seem worth taking a break from my own projects. (I’ve heard the film is fantastic.) So, I know the filmmakers made an effort to cast Indian actors, but how hard did they try?
I had to cast an Asian actor for “Master of None,” and it was hard. When you cast a white person, you can get anything you want: “You need a white guy with red hair and one arm? Here’s six of ’em!” But for an Asian character, there were startlingly fewer options, and with each of them, something was off. Some had the right look but didn’t have comedy chops. Others were too young or old. We even debated changing the character to an Asian woman, but a week before shooting began, Kelvin Yu, an actor from Los Angeles, sent in an audition over YouTube and got the part.
So I get it: Sometimes you’re in a jam. Every time I’ve played a part that required stunts, they’ve been done by a white stuntman who has had to brown up. In those cases, the ethics didn’t seem quite as dubious. Training an Indian to do the stunts wasn’t practical, and a stuntman is not mocking Indian people; he’s tricking people into thinking it’s me, a real Indian. (If there is a heartbroken Indian stuntman reading this now: Dude, I’m so sorry, and you really need to get a better stunt agent.)
But I still wonder if we are trying hard enough.
Even though I’ve sold out Madison Square Garden as a standup comedian and have appeared in several films and a TV series, when my phone rings, the roles I’m offered are often defined by ethnicity and often require accents.
Sure, things are moving in the right direction with “Empire” and “Fresh Off the Boat.” But, as far as I know, black people and Asian people were around before the last TV season. And whatever progress toward diversity we are making, the percentage of minorities playing lead roles is still painfully low. (The numbers for women are depressing as well.) In 2013, according to a recent report produced by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at U.C.L.A., only 16.7 percent of lead film roles went to minorities. Broadcast TV was worse, with only 6.5 percent of lead roles going to nonwhites in the 2012-13 season. In cable, minorities did better, getting 19.3 percent of the roles.
For me, as a modern American consumer, these numbers come as zero surprise. Here’s a game to play: When you look at posters for movies or TV shows, see if it makes sense to switch the title to “What’s Gonna Happen to This White Guy?” (“Forrest Gump,” “The Martian,” “Black Mass”) or if there’s a woman in the poster, too, “Are These White People Gonna Have Sex With Each Other?” (“Casablanca,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “The Notebook”). Even at a time when minorities account for almost 40 percent of the American population, when Hollywood wants an “everyman,” what it really wants is a straight white guy. But a straight white guy is not every man. The “everyman” is everybody.
When we were looking for an Asian actor for “Master of None,” my fellow creator, Alan Yang, asked me: “How many times have you seen an Asian guy kiss someone in TV or film?” After a long hard think, we came up with two (Steven Yeun on “The Walking Dead” and Daniel Dae Kim on “Lost”). It made me realize how important it was not to give up on our search.
But I wouldn’t be in the position to do any of this, and neither would Alan, unless some straight white guy, in this case Mike Schur, had given us jobs on “Parks and Recreation.” Without that opportunity, we wouldn’t have developed the experience necessary to tell our stories. So if you’re a straight white guy, do the industry a solid and give minorities a second look.
And to anyone worried that it may be “weird” to cast someone who looks a certain way to play a certain part, because it’s not what people are used to, I say: Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It’s true. Arnold Schwarzenegger is an unsung pioneer for minority actors. Look at “The Terminator”: There had to be someone who heard his name tossed around for the role and thought: Wait, why would the robot have an Austrian accent? No one’s gonna buy that! We gotta get a robot that has an American accent! Just get a white guy from the States. Audiences will be confused. Nope. They weren’t. Because, you know what? No one really cares.
Aziz Ansari, a writer, stand-up comedian and actor, is a creator of the Netflix series “Master of None.”
Source: the New York Times