A Conversation with Rizwan Manji and Aneesh Sheth from OUTSOURCED

As luck would have it, Rizwan Manji was on my flight home from Dallas, and I met him in the SFO baggage claim. No, really, sometimes these things just happen to me. He invited me to attend the event he had flown in for, a talk with Sanskriti, the South Asian student organization at Stanford University. The talk was moderated by member Elahe Popat, who focused the discussion on his experiences as a South Asian actor.

Manji began by recapping his acting career, which began at a middle school in Calgary. He got a laugh in a one-act play, and he realized that was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. So he continued doing theatre in high school and ignored his other classes at the University of Alberta in favor of his drama classes. When he was unable to attend the Seattle auditions for the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York, he sent in a taped audition, which garnered him admission to the program. His parents were understandably concerned about his career path—they wanted him to be a lawyer—and Manji, now a parent himself, was able to see their perspective. As a concession, he did complete a regular bachelor’s degree (online, he kept reminding the Stanford students), but come 1995, it was time to try to make it as an actor.

His first role of note was one line on ONE LIFE TO LIVE. He had a series of small roles, but he had to keep a day job at Merrill-Lynch to make a living. Reflecting back, Manji noted that life will often push you in the right direction at the right moment. Just when he was considering leaving acting to take a permanent position at Merrill-Lynch, he was cast in AMERICAN DESI—which paid him a whopping $75 a day, more than he sometimes made in a week for some roles. It was an independent film about an Indian-American boy who goes to college and gets in touch with his cultural identity. The film was unexpectedly successful, which encouraged Manji to continue his acting. Ironically, this was 2001, and after September 11, jobs for people with brown skin quickly dried up. And so it was that after a few years, Manji once again began to reconsider his career path, even taking the LSAT in preparation for law school. But then life sent him a role on LAW AND ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT and a fulfilling experience in a New York play, which kept him in the acting game. He moved to Los Angeles, where television roles abounded, and by 2006, he was finally making enough money as an actor to sustain himself.

Despite his experience post-September 11, when asked whether it helped or hurt him to be Indian, he responded, “100%, being Indian has helped me in this career.” Looking different made him memorable: casting directors would remember the Indian guy in a parade of white men. In addition, the acting pool for South Asian actors was smaller; a white actor would have a 1 in 100 chance of being cast, whereas a South Asian actor would have a 1 in 5 chance. Although the number of Indian actors has gone up over the years, it still remains small in comparison. He praised OUTSOURCED for providing so many roles to South Asian actors, mentioning a Hindi-speaking boy in “Training Day” who was just a college kid who now had a speaking role on a network television show to put on his résumé. Regarding the types of roles available to South Asian actors, he noted that he had no qualms playing “stereotypical” roles such as New York cab drivers: after all, in New York, you will find Indian cab drivers. And he had to eat. Where he drew the line, however, was terrorists. He, personally, chose not to perpetuate that Muslim stereotype, and he turned down terrorist roles without even an audition (in some cases, like with SLEEPER CELL, he would be offered a non-terrorist role instead). He did play a terrorist in the final season of 24, however, since Anil Kapoor was playing a “semi-good” Muslim character, which provided balance and indicated that the show was trying not to portray Muslims in a negative light. Always concerned with the opinions of the people at his mosque, he was delighted that their focus was on the fact that he got to act with Bollywood star Anil Kapoor.

And how did OUTSOURCED come about? His agent sent him the pilot, saying he would be good for Rajiv, and he thought it was really funny. After his audition, however, he was told that he was not right for Rajiv and they were going in a different direction, which, in casting-speak, generally means you’re not attractive enough. Could he read for Gupta, though? Manji noted that the casting call specifically asked for “interesting body types.” Although he hadn’t seen himself as Gupta, he re-read the script and ended up giving a great audition. Within two hours, he had received a call informing him that he would be screened for the network. To his surprise, it was down to him and Parvesh Cheena, whereas there were five Rajivs, along with various options for the other Indian characters. He didn’t feel confident about this audition, however, and of course Cheena got the role of Gupta. He thought it was over, but one night he received a call: the network didn’t like any of the Rajivs, and they wanted him back in the next morning to read for Rajiv. He prepared madly and this time got the part.

As an unexpected bonus, we had Aneesh Sheth, who plays Kami Sutra, the hijra stripper in the two-part finale. Sheth—who is transgender, though you wouldn’t know it to look at her—grew up singing, but she was encouraged to pursue acting as well. She studied musical theatre at NYU. In contrast to Manji, she stated—often, to his dismay—that she was lucky enough to have been asked personally for her roles rather than having to seek them out. Of course, it’s still not always as easy as that. A colleague asked her to workshop the role of a hijra in the London production of BOMBAY DREAMS, but she didn’t get the final role. A couple years later, when the show came to Broadway, she was asked to audition, but she didn’t get the final role. A couple years later, when the show embarked on a national tour, she was once again asked, and this time, she got the role. She was fulfilling her life’s dream to be onstage singing in a sari! She didn’t know where to go from there, however, and she began to work with LGBT youth instead.

Like Manji, however, she was given an opportunity when she needed it. A fellow cast member from BOMBAY DREAMS—Anisha Nagarajan’s husband, coincidentally enough—recommended her for the role of Kami Sutra, and she sent in a taped audition (this one was not on VHS). The role has made her the first South Asian transgender actress on television. She received some criticism from the trans community for playing a stripper, but Sheth saw the role in terms of increasing trans visibility in general. She pointed to the development of gay characters over the years; initially, they were simply used as jokes, but then shows like WILL AND GRACE came along, and now many shows have actual gay characters. Sometimes the way to the bigger roles is through the jokes.

The jokes do make the job more fun, after all. “Rajiv is by far the most fun character I’ve gotten to play,” said Manji, self-conscious of his grammar in front of the Stanford students (“‘Most fun’? Is that right?”). The key note he received was that there is a difference between the way Rajiv speaks to Todd and the way he speaks to his Indian employees. It’s playing these two Rajivs that informs his performance. When the writers began showing the softer side of Rajiv, however, he was initially resistant, not wanting them to make Rajiv nice, but he then understood that these softer touches showed why Rajiv was the way he was.

The cast gets along very well, and he attributed this to the fact that they were all in their first major roles on a network television show, all learning together. There was no diva-ish behavior from anyone. That didn’t mean they didn’t play pranks on each other constantly. Manji related the story of when Ben Rappaport broke a statue of Ganesha and Sacha Dhawan gravely told him that what he had done was sacrilegious, and it was required that he go outside and perform a special ritual. This ritual was likely to consist of silly dancing and would be filmed. Sadly, though Rappaport was near tears, he was so ready to commit himself to this ritual, Anisha Nagarajan told him it was a joke before he went too far. The cast also had an obvious bond in their shared heritage, although Rebecca Hazlewood, not having been raised in an Indian culture, couldn’t share the many inside jokes. Of course, Rappaport was also not raised in an Indian culture, and now he sings Bollywood songs! Manji said he’s quite good.

Be sure to watch the season finale of OUTSOURCED on NBC tonight at 10:30/9:30c and come back tomorrow for our exclusive interview with Rizwan Manji and Aneesh Sheth!