Russell Peters started doing standup in 1989 and he has built himself an incredible career in the three decades since, including sold-out international tours, several major televised specials, and regular mentions on Forbes for his annual income – something Peters says is a natural “curiosity” for people. But perhaps none of it would have come to fruition if not for Peters and the acting bug.
It was a profession he had interest in, but after someone told Peters that he did not have “the looks” to be an actor – and he reluctantly agreed – he knew he had to focus on a special skill like honing his comedy chops. That’s where standup became his path towards acting, but along the journey also opened up tons of doors for Peters in other ways. Now, 28 years later, he’s acting more than ever, including in the titular role of Indian Detective, which premieres on Netflix today. Like Peters, the Indian Detective may also be a person of Indian heritage who was born and raised in Canada, but that’s about where the biographical similarities end.
Unless you include that Peters and his character are both more than happy to crack a joke at an inappropriate time.
Your character travels to India in the pilot episode, which he’s very averse to; is that stuff taken from your real life, and do you have a strong personal connection to India when you go back?
I always say “Racially you are what you are, but culturally you are where you’re raised.” Ethnically speaking I’m an Indian man, culturally I’m very Canadian or North American, so to speak. When I go to India I do feel a very certain connection to the place when I’m there. I’ve been going there since I was a kid because my parents would make sure we’d go back every couple of years so we understood where they were from, so unlike my character – he has a certain disdain for India – I personally love India.
How often do you go back, and is it a much different experience when you do your standup material in India?
Every year and a half, two years, maybe. They love it over there. As a matter of fact, they’re probably some of the best audiences I perform to. They’re really smart and astute to what’s going on around the world. The funny thing is that when I do the Indian accent onstage over there, the people that come to the shows are the wealthier or more educated people there, and when I do the accent they laugh extra hard because for some reason they don’t think they have that accent and I’m like, “No, no, you do. You just don’t hear it anymore.”
I was curious if the accents you do onstage are something you work on for the show or just a fun thing you’ve always done. Do you practice accents?
No, I either do it or I don’t do it. When I hear something that tickles my eardrum, I tend to keep repeating it because it makes me giggle like a child and that’s how it ends up onstage. It stems from immaturity.
How do some of your Canadian or North American comedian friends do in India? Do you bring them there with you when you go?
Oh absolutely, whenever I go I take my opening act with me. I’ve taken Gregg Rogell over there, who is a very Jew-y guy from New York, I’ve taken J Chris Newberg over there, who’s a guitar act from Detroit, I’ve taken all kinds of guys out there and it’s always cool to see. That’s how I know audiences are quick, and smart, and with it – because those guys kill and they’re not doing anything like what I’m doing.
Did you have designs on becoming an actor when you got into standup and entertainment initially, or is it something that just sort of happened along the way?
No. I started doing standup 28 years ago, and one of the reasons that I got into it was because I wanted to get into acting. Somebody told me early on that I wasn’t good looking enough to be an actor and I was like, “Wow, well that sucks that you’d say that to me … but it’s a fair assessment.” I figured I would need to have something more to offer them. I don’t think I’m that dedicated to anything that I could show up and be a big, old thespian, so I got into standup and I loved it. I was hoping that acting gigs would come. My first acting gig was in 1994 in an independent film called Boozecan – it was out of Toronto, and the bug bit me then. I play a crackhead freebasing in a car and I burnt my crotch or something in it; it was a serious dramatic film about illegal boozecans (underground nightclubs) in Toronto, but I had no business being in anything at that time. I had no clue how to be on a set and I knew nothing about anything. Nobody in my family was involved in that world at all.
Speaking of dramatic roles, some people may be surprised to spot you in the thriller Source Code.
Duncan Jones was coming hot off of Moon and stuff like that, and being a big David Bowie fan, to get to work with “Zowie Bowie” was pretty cool. I auditioned for that role and I got it, and that’s probably the first role I ever auditioned for and won. I call it “winning” an audition because it’s like the lottery.
You once said that you have a “phenomenal memory” for people who were and weren’t nice to you as you were coming up in the entertainment business. Do you often come across those people who weren’t all that great to you in the beginning?
No – I still see it happen, but I think at some point you have to let go of it. I give everybody at least a couple of chances. If it’s two or three times, I understand that’s just your nature and you’re just a shitty human, but anybody can just be having an off day. Somebody stops to talk to me, wants a picture or an autograph or something, I take time to find out their name and say “hello” and maybe not get to know them, but pay attention to what they’re telling me.
If you type the name of a notable comedian on Google, one of the top suggestions always seems to be about their net worth. Do you find it uncomfortable that people want to know what you make, or that you might have public financial information out there?
I mean, it’s a curiosity for people. I’ve often googled people’s net worth and then having googled mine and seeing how far off the mark they were with me, I look at other people and go “Well, they gotta be off the mark by about this much on them too then.”
In a lot of your specials, like Notorious, you may do some crowd work right from the very beginning. To someone like me who doesn’t do standup that seems like a potentially risky move, but is that just one of your favorite things to do on stage?
It’s my favorite thing to do and it’s what I do during my act all the time anyway, so it’s really just me doing me. Yeah, it’s risky, as in the sense that it could go nowhere, but if you’re recording you can edit that out. You have to always have your act anyway, so the crowd work is bonus material for the audience.