Actor, director, comedian and granola bar CEO Ravi Patel is making a career out of falling in love. The buzzed about documentary Meet the Patels follows Ravi as he navigates a heartfelt and hilarious love triangle between the woman of his dreams and his parents (whose breakout performances are more than worth the price of admission). In addition to the documentary, Patel is a regular on FOX’s Grandfathered and as of last Friday, can be seen alongside Aziz Ansari in the brand new Netflix series Master of None. Much like falling in love, Patel’s path to entertainment success has been unexpected, unpredictable and full of valuable lessons. We talked about his unusual entrance into the entertainment world, his reluctance to sign on for Master of None and how Hollywood shapes our ideas of love.
You had a pretty typical Indian-American upbringing. You eventually got into the business world: start-ups, non-profits, publishing. You were a successful businessperson and then acting happened. What was the thing that got you into entertainment?
I was never particularly committed to any path. I was never a great student and I’m not sure I ever would have been any good as an investment banker. Investment banking I was bad at. I hated it so much. I was never as good a student as it seemed. I was just good at taking exams at the last minute. I was more like a Ferris Bueller type, fairly rebellious. I inevitably would have ended up doing something entrepreneurial. Acting came right after I started a poker magazine. I think acting was just another entrepreneurial attempt at a game. The magazine was very successful. My partners and I were fighting over money and I left. I thought I would go to law school and right around that time I got asked to fill in as an MC for this arts festival that was happening in LA. Aasif Mandvi was the host of it. He had to take off at the last second to do a movie or something. My sister was a producer of the festival. All of the producers knew me and thought I was funny and were like, “We need you to replace the MC for this evening’s show.” I ended up doing 30-45 minutes of improvised standup. I got a lot of calls in the next week.
That was kind of the beginning. My sister’s friend brought me in to audition for something and the next thing I know, they’re getting me an agent. It was interesting because I actually didn’t want to do it. In a sense I thought I was above it. Like, “Acting is for losers.” I still look at it and think, “This is a stupid career.” You’re lucky if it happens to you but it’s such an abusive relationship. I don’t know why anyone would pursue it. I think I booked a lot because I didn’t give a shit. I started because it’s not the kind of thing you turn down. Everyone wants it. I thought I would do it for a year. Then I was like, “I’ll do it for a few more years.” I was making a lot of money too. Then somewhere in there I started to appreciate it and care about it. I started to want to get better at it from the perspective of craft. Too, for the first time in my life I started to care about art. Once you start to give a shit about acting and art it becomes increasingly difficult to pursue as a career because the career of an actor requires you to go audition for things you don’t want to do. You get a lot of rejection. 99 percent of the time you’re doing things that are artless. You have to keep reminding yourself that you’re doing it so that in five years you’re in a position where the ratio is much, much better. But you have to go through it to get in that position.
What’s interesting to me is that you said that when you first started off you looked at it from an entrepreneurial standpoint. Creative fields don’t really have the same tangible elements that traditional business has. How were you able to draw a correlation between what you know about business and acting as a career?
First of all, when people become actors or comedians it’s about pursuing this thing that you’re really passionate about. Obviously there are a few people who do it because they just want to become famous, but I think in an ideal world people do it because they want to have some sort of voice. I didn’t really have a voice when I started. It was more like, “Oh, this is really fun. I get to do all of these cool things, pretend I’m other people, make people laugh, meet interesting people.” It was a cool thing to do that didn’t have much impact beyond that. It was a thing I could be successful at. The entrepreneur in me was like, “What is the best way to approach this as a career?”
One of the things that people are told when they’re coming out of conservatory is that if you ever create a backup plan as an actor, you’ll never succeed at acting. I think that’s complete bullshit and I continue to think it’s bullshit. I understand the psychology of it, but I think it assumes that all of these people who pursue art are dumb, that they lack the ability to reason, the ability to work hard on something without it being life or death. We as human beings are not actually like that. We tend a balanced spectrum of priorities in life. I have a granola bar company that I’m the CEO of. I have a documentary. I tend to balance a lot of things. I think it improves my ability to act. In terms of craft, it’s given me a spiritual diversity. It’s also reduced the degree to which I rely on acting to book a certain job in a given moment. As a result, I can be more artful about it, as opposed to desperate. I think I went at the whole thing kind of opposite. It was a business first, as opposed to pursuing a passion and figuring out how to make it work. As a result of that, I realized its spiritual importance. I have a voice, things I want to say. It matters to me.
You have two big things going on right now. Last week was the premiere of Master of None on Netflix. Did you know Aziz prior to this?
We’ve known each other for years now. We got introduced by this comedian Dan Levy, who used to open for Aziz. We were at a party and Dan was like, “I thought you guys should both meet because you’re both funny and uh…” I’m like, “Because we’re both Indian?” It was really awkward. But we’ve known each other for years. I’m actually closer with Alan Yang, who created the show with Aziz. They wrote this role and reached out to me. I originally didn’t want to do it, but we talked about it and it ended up being such an incredible experience. What they need to turn an episode into is the first big night I had with Aziz. It was me, Dan, Aziz, and Alan. We were in Vegas. Aziz had a show at The Pearl. We went out and I think at the time Aziz was the only one who was single. We were all trying to pick up chicks for him. We’re up in this suite, packed with all of these girls. I look at this long sofa full of super hot girls sitting there, one after the other, not talking, almost just waiting for Aziz to come make out with them. I scrolled the sofa from left to right and when I got to the right, there was Aziz, leaning away from the girl sitting next to him, falling asleep. I’ll never forget that image.
You said you didn’t want to do it at first. What were your reservations?
When I first read it I thought it was kind of condescending to Indians and Indian actors. He was talking about why he doesn’t do the accent and why people shouldn’t do the accent. The way he was saying it felt very superior to me. He and I have actually debated it. As a guy who has worked his way up the ladder, I’m friends with all of these guys and I’m also one of them myself. I didn’t want to play a role that basically says these are bad people. I don’t think that. I think people have done roles with the accent even when it’s not ideal because that’s the career of an actor. You work your way up until you have a voice to do better. I also don’t think that doing an accent is always offensive. A lot of times characters make more sense when they have an Indian accent. It was things like that that we would debate. He was really cool. He called me up and was like, “Dude, I really want you to do this. I get what you’re saying. I don’t want to offend people. If anything, all the stuff you’re saying is exactly why I want you to play this role.” I admired that response. I thought it was really sweet and mature. I really enjoyed the experience. It was truly collaborative. I felt that both of them were so humble in the way that they collaborated. It felt like all of us were there making our own student film together. We improvised a ton. It was one of the better experiences I’ve had.
Let’s move on to Meet the Patels. This thing is blowing up and it deserves to. It’s really amazing. It took six years to make?
When it started, you didn’t team up with your sister (co-director Geeta Patel) and say, “We’re going to make a documentary about my love life and the culture of arranged marriages.” You were just filming a family trip, right?
That’s right. I had just broken up with my white girlfriend who I had never told my mom and dad about. Geeta and I are on this family trip, stuck on a plane for 18 hours, having these conversations about how insane it is that at this age I hid this relationship and that my mom and dad – I’m American born – are begging me to get an arranged marriage. Even the way we do it in America is crazy with these bio data things, matrimonial resumes, and the fact that we’re supposed to marry someone with the name Patel. It’s this secret life that every Indian knows about but we don’t really talk about it.
I had no idea how deep the culture of arranged marriage went.
It’s wild right? I mean, we’re not attempting to represent every Indian in the movie. It’s really my story. But I know that every Indian in some way will get pieces of it.
At what point did you know that you had a film on your hands? When did it click for you and Geeta that you needed to do something with this?
This goes back into the standup thing. That one set was the first experience for me doing standup. I entered a comedy competition at the Laugh Factory a week later and got to the semis. I kept doing standup for the next six months. As a result of that period, I would still get asked to do charity events and fundraisers. I was doing a 500 person Indian lawyers association convention in LA. I did 15 minutes and they said, “Can you do some more?” I was like, “Sure.” I just started talking about my mom sending me these pictures and resumes of Patel girls and how I was supposed to cold call them. I was killing in a way that I had never killed before. People were dying laughing. Behind the laughter you could feel a sort of emotion, in a tragic sense almost. I stopped in that moment and said, “Hey, how many of you are single?” They all raised their hands. I realized that the reason they were laughing so hard is that they were all identifying with this. We had all gone to the same war. Afterward people were saying, “You should write a book about this. You should do a comedy tour on this.” That was the seed of the whole thing.
Maybe a year later this whole trip to India happened. We’re having all of these conversations that were really funny, meaningful, but funny. I think I was looking for some purpose career-wise. It really appealed to me to become some sort of funny Michael Moore type of person. On the way back from India I told my sister that – she had just finished a previous documentary, which was also for PBS – maybe we could do a documentary on this, like a funny, journalistic, Michael Moore thing. She didn’t really want to do it, but I was really passionate about it. “We could call it One in a Billion!” It was actually called One in a Billion until about a year and a half ago. When we got back we applied for funding at PBS. They were such big fans of my sister. They were really excited about doing something funny. They jumped in big. At that point I was committed and had to make this movie.
How are you parents handling the newfound fame?
In the cutest way you could imagine. It’s been really adorable. They’re such naturals. It’s almost like they were born for it. They’re relentlessly authentic. Crowds go nuts for them. They got a standing ovation just last week in Savannah. The crowd didn’t know they were there and they walked in and people were on their feet going nuts. They’re getting a lot of offers for various projects: acting, reality, anything you could imagine. People are excited about mom and dad. Did you see the Searchlight news the other day?
Geeta and I are writing and directing a movie based on Meet the Patels for Fox Searchlight. I’m really excited. It’s not going to be a direct remake. It’s inspired by the documentary. We’re going to cast mom and dad to play themselves. We’ll see if we can get a performance out of them. I think it will be a good experiment.
I want to talk about the idea of romantic comedies in relation to a conversation that you have with your parents in the film. You say that things are changing. Culture has to change…
Yeah. The way that they got together and their parents before them and their parents before them, each generation is going to bring something to the experience that will change it a little. A lot of the ideas that you had about romance and the search for love felt like they were taken from an old-fashioned Hollywood love story. How much do you think the culture of American movies, especially romantic comedies, helped shaped your ideas of finding love?
I think significantly. I think we in America are conditioned to believe… we have an elevated expectation of romance in every facet of our lives. It’s this Hollywood version of life that we’re conditioned to believe exists, specifically in love and relationships. We’re conditioned to believe that relationships are completely reliant on love. You find your wife based on when you fall in love and that falling in love is a passive experience that just happens to us. Like, you’re walking in the French Quarter, some girl trips, falls into you and the next thing you know you’re making out and you’re married. That was the most fascinating thing about making this documentary with mom and dad, seeing their model of marriage, which almost entirely ignores love and relies heavily on two other pillars of a relationship: commitment and compatibility. To see commitment and compatibility alongside chemistry, seeing those three pillars stand together, really changed how I look at relationships. To know that love is something that doesn’t have to happen up front, something that isn’t necessarily always going to be there and something that you have to work for is significant.