Inside ‘Atypical’ with Nik Dodani

Best known for his role as the foul-mouthed friend and dating advisor Zahid on Netflix’s recently renewed comedy Atypical, Nik Dodani is on the cusp of a breakout year. The 22-year-old actor and comedian has been acting since age 12 and is now starting to get some serious recognition. As a standup he’s only about two years in, but has already gone viral with his take on being a young, gay Indian living in America. I talked to Dodani about the challenge of a show like Atypical, his upcoming roles in Alex Stranglove and Behold My Heart, and why he prefers comedic acting to dramatic roles.

Atypical has been getting a lot of buzz. What kind of feedback have you been getting on the show?

It’s been overwhelmingly positive. Personally, I’ve been having a lot of teenagers online reaching out telling me how much they like the show, asking me for dating advice. I just tell them to do the exact opposite of what my character says and you’ll be okay. I’ve had a handful of friends reach out asking me to connect them with Brigette Lundy-Paine as she is by far the most sought-after one on the show apparently. It’s been really cool to see people connect with it. There are a lot of people online who are on the autism spectrum who are saying they relate to it and that they’re happy to see something they can connect with that they’ve never seen before, so that’s been pretty cool. And of course there are also some people who don’t like it, which is to be expected especially when you’re doing a show about a serious issue. Which is also valuable, because I think listening to those criticisms is super important.

We live in a culture now where we are getting more shows like this, shows that come from a different standpoint, put together by a diverse team of writers, producers, and actors. That’s really good, but the negative side of that is that because we haven’t seen a lot of shows with really nuanced looks at certain lifestyles and cultures, a lot of the groups that advocate for those things in the real world can be especially critical of the attempt to do right by it in the media. There’s also the outrage trend where people are looking to pick apart things and find flaws. I imagine it can be kind of bittersweet. Do you mind sharing any of the negative feedback you’ve heard about the show?

Yeah, some people have said that the representation of autism is inaccurate or stereotypical. I think that’s something we need to listen to. For me personally, I’m Indian-American, so representation is something I think about all the time. When I see characters misrepresented or represented in certain ways it’s something that I take personally. Robia Rashid, who created the show, had her own personal experience with autism and had a lot of research that she had done in working with experts and consulting with people. She has created a character that I think a lot of people can connect with. I’m hoping it’s going to be something where if we’re lucky enough to go to season 2 we listen to this criticism, take it in, and approach our work a little differently.

That’s a nice, humble attitude to have.

We’re talking about a community that has been underrepresented onscreen. Everyone on the show just wants to do good. There’s no one on the show that is intentionally trying to mess up here. The creator – and I know the actors for sure – hear the criticism.

Your character brings some levity to the show. When things get a little tense it’s nice to see Zahid pop onscreen so that we can breathe and have fun in between the more serious stuff.

Yeah, Zahid’s goal in this season is definitely just to get Sam laid and make sure that he’s happy. I think it’s fun. He’s one of the characters that just treats Sam like anybody else and is just himself, weird, and quirky. I think that adds some comic relief to it.

There are two other new projects I’ve seen your name attached to. What can you tell me about Alex Strangelove?

Alex Strangelove is a Netflix movie that is written and directed by Craig Johnson of Skeleton Twins acclaim. It’s coming out sometime next year. We just finished shooting in New York in June. I’m really excited about this one. It’s about a teenager who is struggling with his sexuality. It’s kind of a raunchy high school sex comedy about that. I play Blake, who is just a deadpan, dry, judgy dude who is a little pretentious. He’ll probably experiment with poetry in college, that kind of guy.

So is this a raunchy sex comedy that is more queer-focused, or at least experimental in that way?

Yeah, I think “experimental” is a great way to describe it. I’m not super allowed to talk about the part because there are spoilers in some of it, but it’s definitely a story we haven’t seen. If you’ve seen Craig Johnson’s other work, the themes that he touches on definitely continue into this movie.

That genre has been, since the late ‘70s and early ‘80s with movies like Animal House and Porky’s,  so largely hetero male driven.

I think people are seeing with the emergence of places like Netflix that people can relate to other stories too. They can relate to a story even if it’s not directly from their eyes. There is a desire for diversity. People want to open their eyes and their minds and not just see the same things over and over again.

And how about Behold My Heart?

That one is a really, really intense drama starring Marisa Tomei, Timothy Olyphant, and Charlie Plummer. It’s about this family where the father is killed intervening in a domestic violence dispute. It’s about how the mother and son react to that, how their lives fall apart, and how the community comes to their side. I play Marcus’s friend Shamus, who is this kind of wannabe punk rocker dude who is actually very sweet and kind of takes Marcus in after his father dies. It’s a really sweet, pretty intense film and very different from Alex Strangelove and Atypical.

You’ve been acting since your early teens, right?

Yeah, I started acting when I was 12 years old.

Do you have a preference between comedic and dramatic acting?

I definitely love the comedy roles more. I mean, I love the drama, but there’s nothing more fun than being on set and goofing around, improvising. Every comedic role I’ve done has been such a big learning experience. I never want to stop getting better at timing and presence and all that kind of stuff.

Season 1 of Atypical is currently streaming on Netflix.

Photo by JSquared Photography; grooming by Stacy Bisel.

Inside ‘Atypical’ with Nik Dodani