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It’s not often in entertainment journalism that your subject can only talk between seeing patients. But then, Shoukath Ansari isn’t your typical subject. The India-born, South Carolina-based gastroenterologist (with a stellar HealthGrades score, by the way) became a surprise pop cultural star last year with the release of Master Of None, the celebrated Netflix show loosely based on the life of its creator and star, Aziz Ansari: aka Shoukath’s son.
Along with his wife Fatima, Shoukath charmed precisely because of his naiveté in front of the camera. He was a type at once familiar and new to American audiences, his dad jokes delivered in a genuine South Indian accent. Casting his parents as themselves paid off for Ansari, who drew huge praise for bringing attention to the stories of some of America’s newer immigrants, as in the episode “Parents,” whose scenes took from Shoukath’s actual life: from working in a zipper factory in an Indian village to becoming an outsider in a mostly white medical practice in America.
Pulling it off had as much to do with Shoukath’s unusual charm as it did the novelty of the casting. And so it was that during a recent hospital break the accidental star gave his first true interview. Vulture spoke with Mr. Ansari over the phone about how he auditioned against more than a dozen actors to play himself, all the selfie requests he gets now, and Donald Trump [Editor’s note: After this interview was conducted, Aziz wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about how Trump makes him fear for his family].
Let’s talk about how you got to the screen in the first place. I’d read that you were interested in acting even when Aziz was on Parks And Recreation.
Yep. When Parks and Rec came into production, I saw that in one of the seasons they wanted a father to come in to play a role. I was just joking with Aziz, “Can I play that role?” He said, “Are you serious about it?” I said, “Yeah, give me a chance. I will work on that.” So in fact, I was having a conference in Chicago when he called me and said, “OK, they want you to play the role of one of the actor’s fathers.” I was supposed to go in [to the studio] but the next day he called me and said, “No they gave it to somebody else.” Henry Winkler or somebody came into that role.
Tough to beat the Fonz.
Welcome to Hollywood! The changes are so dynamic.
How did Master of None happen?
I never thought I will be coming in Master of None. [It takes from] my life story in a sense, you know, how it’s a story of the immigrant and how they come here. What the immigrant’s children, the first generation, do for them. That is the theme behind it, and some of the incidents — like how I went to medical school and worked in the zipper factory — most of them are real.
But you weren’t immediately cast.
[Aziz] said, “Why don’t we audition you for that role?” Initially I was called. About 18 of them were auditioning. He gave me a few lines. I read it and then he said, “You would be the right person to do that.”
You beat 18 people to play yourself?
About 18 people. Because it came natural to me. In fact, my first scene starts with me playing with — what do you call that? — the iPad. I always have a problem in getting the computer in positions and all these things. As a child, [Aziz] used to help us. That thing really happened at home. So the first thing he said, “Dad, you don’t need to do anything. Be yourself. You don’t need to act.” That’s the way it is. I don’t know whether I did the right thing or not, but he came a couple of weeks after the editing and said it came out good.
You were convincing.
I was myself!
Was it a fun experience?
Oh yeah. The best part of it is, you know, you go there. Day one I went there the first time, I had to go by myself, without my wife [who wasn’t cast yet]. [Aziz] said his agent will arrange everything, and I [fly] there at 11-o-clock in the night. At almost 12:30 we are in the hotel. My name is not there. Somebody messed it up. [Aziz] said if anything happens wrong, call this man. I called somebody, they called another hotel they put me there. I went there at 2 in the morning. At 5:30 or 6, [Aziz] called me and said, “Daddy, how was the trip? I’m sorry they messed up.” Aziz had a thing, some 5 o clock pickup for me scheduled. He said, “If you’re up, why don’t you come to the set and we can rehearse some of the scenes?”
The best part for me is, I’m on the set, but I’m with Aziz and I’m with my wife. It’s all at home.
So it was natural to do the filming. Was it strange later, when you saw the final product?
Oh yeah. First time when I saw it was [at the premiere]. Unbelievably, you are seeing it on a big screen and the first word I use is, “shit!” It was fun. But the best scene was the scene we had with parents night, where they’re two families. We all got a kick together. We talked about it. We were in a Chinese restaurant. I really, really enjoyed it.
That scene is about giving back to parents’ who quietly gave so much to their kids. It seems like Aziz took the imperative to heart, even in making Master of None. It feels almost like a gift to you and your wife.
Definitely. See, the tradition where we grew up, in Indian society, the children have a moral obligation to take care of their parents, no matter what. So they give them the financial support and everything. They help them out. They take care of their parents. As we migrated to America, the children all have a different sort of life and different things. That kind of the love for the parents is still there, but the moral obligation is not.
The show was a gesture towards that obligation.
That is the whole idea of the second episode. The parents night is to emphasize that your parents are coming from hardship and they worked hard to give you a better life, so it’s your turn to keep them happy and in comfort.
In making that point, Aziz has became kind of a torch bearer for South Asian first-generation kids in the U.S. Does it make sense to you that he’s breaking ground in terms of representation of Indian-Americans on TV, talking about things that haven’t really been said before?
It does. It makes a lot of sense.
Did you encourage him to explore his career options? I’m also the child of Indian immigrants, and in my community, so many of the kids are pressured to become doctors. Did you and Fatima see early on that Aziz had an actor’s soul?
The whole thing is, he came and he asked me, “Can I do this show business as a permanent thing?” I said, “If you like it. You have a passion for this, go for it.” If boy comes and says, “I can do very well,” and he’s studying Seinfeld and the other big guys, as long as you can support yourself, go for it. We wished him good luck.
What was it like to watch him perform?
He did a couple of stand-up comedies, and next thing he came in Parks and Rec. And he was doing a lot of stand up-comedy in so many towns, and [then] Carnegie Hall. I was really thrilled to see him in Carnegie Hall. There were about 3,000 audience members. It’s not an easy thing to talk to them for one hour. And then the best thing happened. He took us to Madison Square Garden. It was the second show, and at the end he took us to the stage and introduced us: “Ladies and gentlemen, meet my parents!” We were very proud to see that many people are here to see him and admire him.
Did it make sense to you? Was he funny growing up?
Ah, no. The thing is, in front of us he’s always obedient. “Yes sir, no sir.” He will be very nice. He won’t joke with us. But when he gets out of the house, he’s always surrounded by friends and telling his jokes. His friends only make him try these things. Today Aziz is a famous man but I know how he started. He worked hard and sold tickets in the middle of the night. Zero degrees outside, Times Square and all. He’s always worked hard.
As a child, his goals were different. When he was in the first grade he was moved to the second grade in six months. And when he moved to second grade, they called me and said, “We want to talk to you.” I said, “Did Aziz do anything wrong?” “No, we want him to speak in the Parents’ Night.” He was about seven years old and he gave a small talk. They gave him a paper and asked him to read it. I said, “You cannot read. You just memorize that.” And so he rehearsed it two or three times and he took the mic and just rattled it out.
Has life changed for you since the show?
Yeah. Too many people asking us to take selfies and all these things. We did come into that. It happens. People are stopping us in the middle of the road, in the airport. They’re proud of Aziz. We are recognized in many places. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s a nuisance. But it’s OK. For us, it’s not so bad.
Obviously, you’ve become a symbol of the immigrant story in America. You’re also Muslims, so I have to ask: What do you think about Donald Trump’s rhetoric?
Listen. This country is foundationally strong. The country is built by immigrants, and America is great because of the immigrants. OK? You cannot shake the foundation! [Laughs.]
Especially, he’s trying to say that Muslims should not be allowed in the country. The whole thing is, in every religion there are fanatics. If you take Christianity — Timothy McVeigh went and bombed Oklahoma but we never address him as a Catholic terrorist. If somebody can kill Gandhi — such a noble man — and he was killed by a Hindu. That kind of fanaticism is there in every religion. At the end of the day, we are children of Adam. That’s what the Bible says, that’s what the Koran says. I don’t care how rich he is, I don’t agree with his principles. We are ready for him.
This interview has been edited and condensed.