Manish Dayal on Joining Halt and Catch Fire and the History of the South Asian Programmer


When you meet Ryan Ray, played by Manish Dayal, in Halt and Catch Fire's season-three premiere, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was always on the show. Even if he has trouble communicating his brilliant ideas, Ryan speaks with the same enthusiasm that marks the rest of the show’s characters, a bunch of outsiders trying to strike out on their own in the brave new world of Silicon Valley. But while Dayal might be gifted with CW-ready leading man looks – and far better communication skills than his character – Ryan is more of an outsider than most, especially as he is entering uncharted territory for an immigrant in the nascent tech world of the early 80s, far before “South Asian programmer” was a recognizable type. In an interview with Vulture, Dayal talked about finding insights into his character’s immigrant experience, other projects he’s trying to develop, and whether he can still make his character's trademark omelet from The Hundred-Foot Journey (he can).

What was it like for you to first audition and come into the show mid-series?
I didn't know too much about the character when I got the sides. I just saw him as this crazy guy who goes in so many different tangents. He really has trouble articulating himself. And I thought that was really interesting. That's what first interested me in the character. His brain was going a mile a minute and he was unable to catch up with the words that were coming out of his mouth. I thought the script was dynamic, because he was introducing some very new ideas and forward-thinking technology to Mutiny. He has this bravado and confidence, and at the same time he's also vulnerable and reserved and withdrawn. He goes to so many different extremes in the show.

He anticipates a lot of things about the internet and the way we use technology now, but he can't get it across.
He sees the future of a world and a new way of life, really. And he sees it before anybody else does. He's gifted and he's brilliant and he really believes that this technology will make the world really, really small, but also really dangerous. He's trying to communicate that to the cast in the show. It falls on deaf ears and some people get it and some people don't get it, but the person who ultimately gets it is Joe. It's a bold and blurry concept really for the 1980s, to predict the dangers of online privacy. Not many people did. But it's a real struggle for this guy, because he can't articulate his off-the-wall ideas that buzz around in his head all day long. This is why he needs Joe. Joe is a master communicator, the salesman, this man of the people. Ryan isn't that guy. He's the brains of the operation. He needs to join forces with him because there's no other way he's gonna be able to get his technology to the world. 

Joe has the reality distortion field around him, but he has a lot of flaws and he's not a coder himself.
Ryan is mystified by this figure who has been such a huge and influential person in the world of technology. It's only when he realizes his abilities that he can figure out how Joe can be useful. They both do that with each other. It's about using your strengths. And I think Joe needs Ryan's abilities just as much as Ryan needs Joe's when they're about to launch this new technology.

Interestingly, Ryan sort of appears out of the blue. In the premiere, he's already part of Mutiny. Did you talk much about his backstory or where he came from?
That's something I really thought about after I had joined the show and right before we started working, because I really understand where this guy is. He's unique for the 1980s. To be a South Asian immigrant, a first generation South Asian that age in Silicon Valley, there has to be a very specific backstory to this guy. I imagine that his parents immigrated, and I imagine that they were working-class people. Ryan has the blood of a working-class man. I think that he's trying to navigate himself, figure out his way in this territory where not many people have been there before. This is a guy who's highly intelligent and he's just not always able to relate to everyone around him. He has trouble socializing with people, and that's part of his backstory. He doesn't really get social cues. He can't figure out if somebody's upset with him or happy with him. He acts in his own interest, without understanding social etiquette. I imagine he's an only child. I imagine he didn't grow up around a lot of people like him, or many people his own age. 

When I talked to the showrunners, they that when they came up with the character that they wanted him to be Indian-American, because that would be someone specific to the tech world in California.
He has a chip on his shoulder. Not because he's born that way, but because he's succeeded so far. And he's succeeded in a territory that is somewhat uncharted for people like himself. And that's ultimately what gives him the chip on his shoulder. It's deserved to some extent. It's a unique place to be as a South-Asian first-generation immigrant. In Silicon Valley it wasn't very popular in the '80s and he didn't see very many people like that. 

He's paving his own way, which is interesting in the show because Cameron and Donna are also, as women, trying to figure out how to live in this world.
Yeah. And that's what makes it so interesting. Because everybody has to find themselves in this really competitive, brilliant world. And everyone has to stand out and be unique and provide something, have a skill. 

Do you find many roles that are written specifically for Indian-American men, or is this a rare thing to see?
I would say it's a very rare thing to see. You can always hope that producers and writers become open-minded in the development process and include South Asian people and South Asian actors. For me, it's always been a conversation. It's always been a part of my figuring out what roles could be mine and what roles would never come my way. It really has a lot to do with the makeup of the show or the material. I have tons to say on it. A lot of South Asian actors have plenty to say on it. That's why I'm in the process of developing a film at the moment with a South Asian leading man role. That's something you don't see all the time. And that's why it is important to try to make your own things. It's important that we do that in order to bring about a larger presence for South Asians in film.

If you want to see the character you have to find a way to either present a story that isn't being told or to open someone's mind, which must be a challenge to have to do over and over again.
This film that I'm working on now, it's basically a story that has very specific South Asian ties to it, but it's not about the character being South Asian. It's about a young, ambitious journalist who goes to the Congo to cover the first democratic election and the industry, and what he uncovers along the way. He meets a band of people and they all come together and discover this very dangerous war crime that also touches boardrooms in the West. But ultimately that's a story about a South Asian. It's a true story.

So you have been looking into producing and finding your own projects that way?
This one in particular is sort of my first big effort. I'm gonna be playing this character. His name's Anjan Sundaram. I'll be producing it as well.

Coming off of The Hundred-Foot Journey, do you still know how to cook?
You know, Hundred-Foot Journey, obviously I had to learn how to cook. I had to learn how to navigate a kitchen. I had to learn how to make certain dishes really well and how to prepare all of the vegetables and all of the different foods before they are cooked. And there were a few things that I retained pretty well, like that omelet. I'm able to still make that.

You talk a little bit about considering his experience as an immigrant. You grew up in South Carolina, is that right?
I did.

Could you channel that experience in playing Ryan, or was it a whole different world for him?
It's different and similar. Growing up in the South is an entirely different experience, because you are ethnically isolated entirely. Those things did carry over in terms of his own isolation as a person and his ability to connect with other people. So he is isolated in that way. But what I think is unique for him is it's like he's an Indian guy in this world of technology dominated not by people like him. The show doesn't touch on that too much, but it's definitely clear that this is a unique young man who is breaking new boundaries with this world that he is essentially pioneering. Pioneering as an Indian. And now we know that many South Asians dominate the technology space. But this is right when it was first starting. Coding is a language that he understands, he knows how to speak, he knows it so well. Almost better than he does English. That's how he communicates himself, through this language he's developing.

That's what's going to get him where he wants to go.
Exactly. Where he wants to go. And he's smart enough to know that he needs a few other things that he doesn't have in his personality to get there. So he enlists the help of other people. In the beginning you'll see that he and Cameron butt heads a little bit, because they're very similar in terms of their aptitude, but her head is in a different space.

She's territorial in her own way. In her mind, it's like, "I wrote this code. This is mine." 
Yeah. And similar to Gordon, Ryan is a man of ideas, who has all of the skills and brains to get there but lacks the salesman approach. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.