Aasif Mandvi on Leaving The Daily Show for The Brink

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Photo: Barry King/Getty Images

Spoilers ahead for Sunday night's premiere of The Brink.

Regular viewers of The Daily Show may have noticed a sharp decline in appearances by “Senior Middle East” correspondent Aasif Mandvi over the past year. The absence was largely due to Mandvi’s acting, writing, and producing work on The Brink, the new Dr. Strangelove–meets-Veep comedy that premiered tonight on HBO.

Mandvi joins a cast headed by Tim Robbins, as a philandering U.S. Secretary of State, Orange Is the New Black’s Pablo Schreiber, as a pill-popping fighter pilot; and Jack Black, as a low-level State Department functionary — stationed in Pakistan — with outsize ambitions to be a major player. Mandvi’s character, Rafiq, is the driver for Black’s Alex Talbot and provides an arch, non-American perspective on the unfolding story of the American response to the military coup in Pakistan. In the pilot, when Black and Mandvi get cut off from the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad by riots, Rafiq has to hide Alex at his family’s home.

You play a big part on The Brink, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. How far along was the show before you got involved?
As I writer, I was pretty much a part of the show from the beginning … after the pilot. I had auditioned for the pilot, shot it, and then, once HBO picked up the series, [Brink executive producers] Jay Roach and Roberto Benabib asked me if I would like to be a part of the writers’ room. So I packed up my stuff and moved to L.A. and became a writer — and a co-producer — on the show as well.

How’s relocation to L.A. treated you? Do you like it there?
I do like it. At heart, I’m still a New Yorker, and I do miss New York, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to appreciate L.A. for the things you’re supposed to appreciate L.A. for: the hiking and the weather and the real estate. But I go back and forth a lot.

Are you going to make it back to The Daily Show before Jon Stewart wraps up as host?
I haven’t had time to be on The Daily Show for a few months, and I’ve really been part-time for the past year since I came out to write on The Brink. Jon has always been terrific about letting me go off and do other projects, but this one was a little different because it was such a huge time commitment for me out in L.A. But I will be back, especially for Jon’s last show.

After the immediacy of The Daily Show, doing a series with so much lead time must have been a big adjustment.
It’s been frustrating … we shot the pilot in January 2014, and the series last summer, so I’m really excited The Brink is coming out. But I’ve had other projects that have kept me busy: my web series, Halal in the Family, a parody of the all-American sitcom, debuted in April and is a way to talk about anti-Muslim bigotry and Islamophobia; and my book, No Land’s Man, came out at the end of last year.

With such a long wait, did you and the other producers ever second-guess yourselves about ways real-life events might overlap uncomfortably with Brink plotlines?
Not really. Look, shit is going down in the world all the time. For us it was really about telling the most interesting story and using not real-life events, but things that could happen in the world. The absurdity of the show comes from satirizing the people in our world who are in charge of the world. The situations they’re dealing with are potentially real situations, but how they deal with them is where the humor comes from.

Some of the biggest laugh-out-loud scenes in the pilot involve you and Jack Black in Pakistan. Where did you guys film your scenes?
We shoot pretty much everything at Sunset Gower Studios and other locations in and around L.A. We turned Fountain Avenue into Islamabad. It was pretty amazing art decoration and set design.

It must have been, because those Middle East scenes seemed awfully real …
I watch it, and even I forget that — those scenes when Jack and I are running through the streets of Islamabad — we didn’t actually shoot those scenes there. It’s bizarre. If you just cut out of frame a little, you’ll see a Burger King. [Laughs.]

With the show being shot in L.A., did you get to talk to the actors from the other story lines much?
We didn’t get to interact a lot when we were shooting, [apart from] at the table read. Jack and I were so much in our own world shooting the Pakistan stuff. Then you’ve got Tim and Maribeth [Monroe, from Workaholics], and Esai [Morales] and Geoff [Pierson, from Dexter] in the Situation Room, and Pablo and Eric [Ladin, Boardwalk Empire’s J. Edgar Hoover] shooting their stuff. Since we never really got to be on set with them all that much, two-thirds of the show was completely new to us when we watched it.

In the first episode, the Army comes to your family’s door in the midst of a military coup. At the same time, you’ve just learned that Jack Black is interested in your sister. Which of those makes you more nervous?
[Laughs.] In Rafiq’s mind, I think they both probably live in the same place. The Army coming in and arresting everyone [versus] Jack trying to make time with my sister … I think Jack trying to make time with my sister. Ultimately, they’re going to come in and they’re going to arrest Jack, and even though the family might also get tied into that, Rafiq is still probably more upset that Jack wants to make time with his sister. Alex, I should say, not Jack. I’m totally okay with Jack Black making time with my real sister. That’s totally fine.