’30 Rock’ Actor Maulik Pancholy Talks His Indian Heritage and Diversity in Hollywood
Maulik Pancholy grew up watching television and seeing characters that didn’t quite look like him.
Pancholy recalls always seeing white characters on the small screen, and when he did ever so often catch an Indian character on TV, they were often the butt of the joke. But Pancholy has carved out an acting career playing roles that make people laugh, and it’s not because of his ethnicity: he’s played Jonathan on 30 Rock, Sanjay on Weeds, and even voices Baljeet on Phineas and Ferb.
When he’s not acting, Pancholy is advocating for change with his activist work, openly talking about being Indian American, being gay, and being bullied growing up. He’s currently on the White House President Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and he’s recently teamed up with Rebtel, an internet-free, international calling app that’s calling out Indian telecom companies for their high rates.
Pancholy spoke to Celebuzz about keeping in touch with his family in India with Rebtel, the need for diverse representation in Hollywood, and what he loves about the popular roles he’s played on TV.
Celebuzz: You’ve taken on a lot of projects in the past year. What has this year been like for you?
Maulik Pancholy: I feel like the last year has been so busy. I did a Broadway play at the beginning of last year, I did a Chevy Chase pilot, I’ve been recording on two cartoons: Phineas and Ferb for Disney channel and Sanjay and Craig on Nickelodeon, and I just an all-male production of The Taming of the Shrew in D.C. I just got home like four days ago to New York, so I have a little bit of down time which is really, really really nice.
CB: You’ve done a lot of activist work for minority representation, like working on the White House Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. What made you want to be active in discussing diversity issues?
MP: I had this sense when I was growing up, of being aware that I was a person of color and I didn’t know how I fit in, and then going to India and then also feeling like I didn’t quite fit in there because I was pretty American. So growing up, a part of me almost put aside my ethnicity. I think I spent so many years wanting to erase that, that I actually came to realize that owning who I am just made me a better person. Taking control and saying I’m going to be in control of the message I put out there has actually given me a lot of empowerment, and being able to empower other people is a nice gift to give back.
CB: Can you tell me about Rebtel and why you decided to team up with them?
MP: It’s a free app you can download on your phone and it offers international calling from phone line to phone line like Internet calling, but it doesn’t use your data plan. I love it, I’ve already been using it for a while. They’ve also been highlighting this issue with telecom companies in India and how they raise their prices inexplicably every summer and those companies make I think 100 million dollars in profits during that time. It just felt so unethical in a way, and what I love about Rebtel is that they’re super transparent, the price is the price. They reached out to me and it just felt like a no brainer to help them get the word out about what they’re doing.
CB: How has Rebtel helped you keep in contact with your family in India?
MP: I have a lot of cousins over there and family friends. I took a trip back to India 3 years ago, I actually got engaged there, and when I was there on that trip I reconnected with so many family members who stayed in touch with over the years through text messaging or social media, but after you spend a nice amount of time with people and really reconnect, it’s nice to be able to hear their voice every now and then. I just think that if you’re calling a lot overseas, and particularly for me calling a lot to India, Rebtel is such a great, great service. Their call plan to India is 10 dollars a month for unlimited phone calls.
CB: How has working with Rebtel following the line of work with the activist work you’ve been doing for Asian Americans?
MP: My heritage is really important to me, and I do a lot of work with nonprofits. I guess the tie for me would be that being able to communicate with India and other parts of the world, like communicate freely and communicate inexpensively, is certainly really important to me. There’s no reason that you shouldn’t be able to call your loved ones in another country, easily and inexpensively.
CB: How has being Indian American affected your acting career?
MP: I feel like growing up everyone I saw on TV was white and there was just this sense that I needed to be more white to fit in. I’ve actually come to learn that owning who I am and celebrating who I am has allowed me to bring more of myself to roles. I think that’s why I speak out so much on the need for diverse casting and the need to tell stories of people whose stories don’t often get told. TV, and theater and film, should represent the country and the world we live in, which is actually quite diverse.
CB: Has embracing your ethnicity affected the roles that you’ve chosen to play?
MP: I do think one of the great things about playing Jonathan on 30 Rock was that he was Indian American. I spoke in Hindi in one episode and at point they flashed to my family and they were all from India. But it wasn’t the essential part of that character. For so many years if you played a minority character on a television show, the entire joke was around you being a minority and all they really wanted to write about was your ethnicity. So I think one of the cool things about playing Jonathan was that we were really exploring the relationship between this character and Jack Donaghy [Alec Baldwin], not this character’s ethnicity.
CB: How has this effort to play better representations of minorities affected other roles you’ve played as well?
MP: I feel like when I played Sanjay on Weeds it was one of the first times we saw a South Asian character come out of the closet. I remember getting a lot of like fan feedback on how that meant to so much to people, to see a South Asian character breaking boundaries. I also voice a character also named Sanjay on Nickelodeon’s Sanjay and Craig, and to me that’s been really important too because when I grew up I knew I wanted to be an actor from a very young age, and I would turn on the TV and I would never see anyone who looked like me. So to play a young character on a cartoon who likes to have fun, who likes to go on adventures, but also happens to have an Indian dad and a Caucasian mom, has meant a lot to me.
CB: You’ve just finished doing an all-male production of the The Taming of the Shrew in Washington, D.C. What was that experience like?
MP: It was really cool. I played Kate, the lead of the show, who is obviously a woman, so that was very interesting to have to step into that. It was really interesting to see what it was like when you take the gender battle that everyone thinks is written in the play, and say, well, what if it was one gender speaking these words, what does it do for the play. I feel like I got so many different responses from audience members. Someone forwarded me a Facebook post from an Indian American transgender kid who wrote paragraphs and paragraphs on what it’s like to see an Indian person on stage, in drag, falling in love with a man. I think a lot of people got different things out of it, so it’s kind of cool we opened up the play in that way.
CB: You’ve done a good amount of both theater and TV, do you have a favorite?
MP: I love both of them so much and for very different reasons. A network TV schedule is so hard to fit theater into, so post-30 Rock, and Whitney, and having gotten to be on broadway and do The Taming of the Shrew, it’s been nice to get a little bit of theater back. But I love doing TV and certainly want to keep doing it.
CB: What other projects do you have in the works?
MP: I want to put this time into writing and producing some of my own projects, which is something that I haven’t done a lot of. I think it’s important to get your own voice out there, as an artist make your own work in a way, so I’m focusing on that with some writer friends. And I’m always open to the next theater, film, or TV project, but I have a little window, which is nice to be able to focus on my own voice in a way.
CB: We’ve talked a lot about your family in India, but do you plans to start a family of your own with your husband [Ryan Corvaia, founder of NYC’s Dish Food & Events]?
MP: In September we’ll be married 2 years, but I don’t have any plans right now. We have a huge family and a lot of siblings and cousins so there’s a lot of kids in our life and we love them. But no, we don’t have any immediate plans to have kids.