Ravi Patel’s first role as a call-center operator in Michael Bay’s Transformers had him working the notorious “Apu” accent. Eight years on and the actor is in the midst of his own transformation, from token Indian to charming disruptor. Patel’s splashy 2015 documentary (and soon, feature film) Meet the Patels features his actual family weighing in as he tries to find a wife the vintage, arranged way. He parlayed that naturalism into TV ubiquity of a kind typically elusive to brown men in Hollywood: as an unaccented sous chef on the ABC comedy Grandfathered, and a struggling, lovable — and very real — Indian-American actor on Aziz Ansari’s bingeable new comedy, Master of None.
Vulture recently talked to Patel about working with Ansari, marriage, and his conflicted relationship with the infamous accent.
Ravi Patel: From your name, I’m guessing you’re Indian.
It’s true. Meet the Patels is real for me.
Do you have any thoughts on arranged marriages?
I actually wrote about my parents when the first episode of The Mindy Project’s fourth season premiered. I argued that arranged marriages are more romantic than traditional American courtships because they’re about fate.
That’s interesting. I think about them less so now than when I was researching for Meet the Patels. Four or five years ago, I read everything I could get my hands on and spoke to every major relationship expert in the country.
Any surprising findings?
One of the things some expert told me was that there are these three pillars of a successful relationship, and you put emphasis on different pillars depending on how you’re raised. If you’re raised like us, with Indian parents, you put emphasis on compatibility and commitment. You also have a higher probability of success. In America, we’re conditioned to believe that the main thing that matters is love. We’re raised with these concepts of romance, like you see in the movies. Love as a kind of passive experience that you don’t really work for. We’re raised to believe that you’re going to one day be walking into a Starbucks, have coffee spilled on you by some cute girl, and the next thing you know, you’re having kids. But love, like anything that’s good, requires a work ethic. Learning that actually changed how I looked for love. Previously the No. 1 thing I looked for was spontaneity and the ability to have fun. These three pillars reframed how I looked at people in general. All of a sudden, the No. 1 quality becomes kindness. You look for good people.
Speaking of good people, Aziz Ansari. Have you two known each other long?
When you’re an Indian in entertainment, eventually we all meet each other. I’m really close friends with most of the guys from “my class.” All the Indian actor dudes, we’re all buddies. We know each other. Aziz is not necessarily in that group. He kind of came in from the top. He was immediately successful on Parks and Recreation.
How did you meet?
Through a mutual friend, a comedian. He was like, “I want you to meet my buddy. He just moved to L.A.” The next thing I know I’m standing in front of this Indian guy. It was obvious that’s why we were meeting. But he was like, “I think you guys should both meet because you’re both funny.” It was so awkward! I was like, “You’re Indian too. Great.” I had no idea what to talk to this kid about.
Oh, the stealth Indian setup.
I know. I was like, “Okay, cool. You’re a stand-up comedian. Do you do Indian stuff?” He was like, “No. I don’t really consider Indianness to be any part of my experience. I don’t really talk about it.” Now he talks about Indian stuff, which I’m really glad that he does.
You and Aziz are so fun to watch on Master of None, I assumed you were great friends.
We are now, and we have friends in common, but we’ve never been best buddies. [Master of None co-creator] Alan Yang is a buddy of mine. We play basketball together, we’re friends in the comedy scene. They called me up and wanted me to do the role.
Initially I was concerned that the way it was written was really condescending to blue-collar Indian actors. The whole like ... basically you shouldn’t do an accent or anything that’s stereotypical. So [Ansari] and I debated about it. I wrote this really harsh email. I was like, “Hey, man, congrats on the show. I’m flattered, but I can’t really do the role based on the way I’m seeing it right now. I understand why you don’t want to do an accent and think it’s wrong, but from my perspective, I’m one of those guys who’s done a lot of stereotypical roles and I’m friends with a lot of guys who continue to do it. I have a lot of sympathy for the grind, working your way up as a blue-collar actor.”
That’s such an intriguing point. I never thought about the flip side of the accent.
I think it’s amazing that Aziz has taken the stance he has. That’s exactly the kind I would hope that anyone in his position feels and takes on. But whether you’re Indian or not, when you start off, you’re only given access to the most stereotypical roles. The same rules apply to a blonde with big boobs — she’s only going to get these bimbo roles. If you prove yourself and people can see you have range beyond what you might play based on your looks, you might break out. Everyone has to work out of that. When you do get to a place where you can do broader roles you take advantage of them. You see that as an opportunity. You have to have some degree of respect for these opportunities to have a voice and empower the people who can benefit.
I got Transformers before I was an actor. I didn’t have a head shot. I didn’t know who Michael Bay was. The whole thing happened because I got asked to replace Aasif Mandvi as an m.c. at this big arts festival. My sister [Geeta Patel, who co-directed Meet the Patels] was one of the producers. I did like 30 to 40 minutes of improv, and they thought I was funny and needed someone onstage. I got like 15 calls the next week. People wanted to cast me in things, but not being an actor, the only impression I could do was this Indian call-center guy. That role was serendipitous because it really catapulted me. Before I had a career, I would have never been in a place to do a film that creates an important dialogue like Meet the Patels.
So you initially turned down the Master of None role?
I did turn it down. He called me up, he’s like, “Dude, I don’t want to insult people. That’s why I want your point of view.” I think that was his purpose.
You seem to have broken out of the accent’s grip.
My role in Grandfathered has no accent. They wanted a guy who was 50 years old, not Indian. I was auditioning for a different show and [the casting agent] was like, “We’re just looking for someone funny. Do you mind coming in? You’re not right for it at all, but maybe they’ll change role for you.”
I don’t know if you caught this recent Twitter debate on the critic Emily Nussbaum’s account, about how Aziz has made an about-face in talking about these things.
It’s really easy as a fan or someone in the media to look at someone like Aziz and be really critical of what their stances are or any lack of action that might be taken in terms of race. I’m all for it. I think that’s what creates change. Celebrities deserve some degree of pressure and accountability.
It seems like Aziz is responding in part to the specific challenges he faced landing good roles after Parks and Recreation.
All of us have different complexes when it comes to how we deal with our identity. He’s a young Muslim kid who looks very Indian from South Carolina. I guarantee you being Indian has had a massive influence on his life. We all evolve and become increasingly introspective. I have to imagine that Aziz is getting older, and he's in a relationship. He’s acknowledging that he doesn’t have to ignore being Indian to be recognized as a guy who is talented in America.
Pigeonholing works both ways, right, where self-identification can limit success. Mindy Kaling has talked about not wanting to be the sole representative for an ethnicity because it detracts from the mainstream spirit of what she does.
I think Mindy takes an extreme stance. What you see a lot of is a very extreme point of view between Indians who only hang out with Indians, and conversely Indians who don’t really don’t want to be around any Indians. For whatever reason, I see this play out more in South Asian females with dating — I can’t tell you how many Indian women say, “I don’t date Indian men. I don’t like Indian men.”
In a perfect world, would you prefer there not be these roles with accents, so Indians don’t have to make these calculations?
Here’s the thing. I love being Indian. I have no issue with being Indian. I aspire to do a random redneck role — I would love to do my version of an Eastbound and Down guy. At the same time, these people with Indian accents, there’s creativity infused in all these things. It’s not like they’re based on real people, but they’re based on realities. Those are going to continue to evolve as South Asian Americans continue to become ubiquitous. We’re crushing it right now. The roles aren’t ideal, but we’re headed in the right direction.
Meet the Patels was just picked up by Fox Searchlight to become a feature film. How is that going to work? Will you be casting Indian actors and actresses?
It’s not going to be a direct remake, it’s just going to be a story based on the documentary. At this point, it might be entirely different. I’m beyond excited to work with Fox Searchlight. It’s such an artist-friendly studio, and we want to do what we did with the documentary, which is just be super loose in how we shoot it, do all these experimental things. All we know for sure is we’re going to cast mom and dad.
One unique aspect of yours and Aziz’s rise is how you’re bringing your parents along with you by casting them in these prestige productions. From what I understand, the Patels are as popular as the Ansaris.
It’s exhausting. It’s insane. I get calls every day from people wanting to cast them in all kinds of things. I’m excited to talk to Aziz about that. I think his experience is similar to mine. What an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do this, and make your family closer.
It strikes me as a very good Indian boy thing to do!
Totally. That’s one of the things I love about being a Patel. Family is number one.