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What We Do in the Shadows’ Anoop Desai Understood the Assignment

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo: Getty Images

When What We Do in the Shadows introduced its latest mythical addition — the Djinn — there was never a chance it would end up a cartoonish trope. The writers were very specifically looking for someone who could offer the opposite of the sort of flashy wish-granter we’re used to, something more like the dry, cold demeanor of a particularly intimidating accountant. They’d find what they were looking for in Anoop Desai.

Though Desai himself is about the furthest you could get from a dull bureaucrat — he’s an American Idol finalist, after all — his experience visiting India gave him plenty of references to draw on: “When you go there, if you want something fixed or you want to get a cell phone, or anything that we take for granted here that we can do online, you have to go somewhere and ask someone to help you. And it’s a to-do, everyone is busy, like, ‘Okay, I don’t really have time for you.’

That specific image was the one Desai kept returning to in bringing this matter-of-fact agent of chaos to immortal life, with an assist from the Djinn’s signature glasses and click pen.

How was the Djinn character first described to you?
The character first was described to me as very dry accountant vibes. I was familiar with the show, and so as soon as I had that description, the character was fully formed in my mind almost immediately, with the glasses and the deadpan and all the things that have been hallmarks of the character this season.

The script was hilarious, I was laughing out loud just reading the sides. It was the penis enlargement scene, so it was pretty funny, and I just love that they encouraged improv in the self-tape that I sent in. Originally it was going to be two episodes, and then over the course of the writers fleshing out the season and me being on set, the chemistry obviously worked really, really well. Yeah, so just a happy circumstance where I got to audition for one of my favorite shows and it went my way.

Building this character, where did you draw inspiration from?
My family’s from India — my dad’s from Bombay — and when you go there, if you want something fixed or you want to get a cell phone or anything that we take for granted here that we can do online, you have to go somewhere and ask someone to help you. And it’s a to-do, everyone is busy, like, “Okay, I don’t really have time for you.” I just have in my mind this guy in Bombay and he has his glasses down, he’s busy doing something, and even though you want to pay him for something, it’s like you’re bothering him. Like, God, haven’t we all gone through that in tax season? Pinging your accountant and being like, “Hey, just want to follow up, is there anything going on here?”

And I think the idea of him being busy with nothing is kind of where that comes from. The idea that I’ve been sitting in this lamp for who knows how many years, I’m not really doing anything, but still it’s like, I’m put upon by the fact that I have to do something for you. Making Nandor feel guilty about using the wishes, even though I want him to use them up as quickly as possible.

The glasses are a huge part of this character. How did you find that? 
The glasses and the pen were two things that I brought from my original audition, I was just very clear about those being the tools that this guy has. And then as we started shooting, the idea of the pen being the granter of wishes came into play. Again, that image of someone looking down doing something and you’re disturbing him, and just him looking over his glasses at you … It’s really just that image and luckily enough, they stuck with it.

One time we were shooting a scene and I had taken off the glasses for some reason, and Kyle Newacheck, one of our directors, was like, “No, just keep them on the whole time.” So I had planned to take them off and maybe do something with them, but I think it’s funnier the way it is, where it’s just permanently right there on my nose.

Were there different types of glasses that you tried?
The ones that I used originally were my wife’s reading glasses, and I think because of that, props already had something in mind. So I was like, “Yeah, these are perfect.”

And then the pen, was there a certain type of pen that produced the best click?
Oh man, I wish it was. I’m sure props did that research, but when I was handed the pen, I was pretty happy with it. There’s something just funny about that click. It’s something that is an indicator to the audience that something is going to happen. But it’s nice to have that little bit of breath where you’re not necessarily saying something, especially because we do so much improv, it can feel like it’s just back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. There’s a droll formality with it that’s nice. It’s almost like a rubber stamp on something.

You have a lot of scenes with Harvey and Kayvan, and they’ve obviously been working together for a while in that capacity. What was it like joining that little duo?
It was really obvious early on that they have chemistry that they’ve been working on for four seasons. But because their chemistry is so great, it allowed me to come in and do my thing and fit into where they were. I already had in mind what my assignment was, so I think that helped things a lot.

It was a great experience to be around them because they are so used to improvising off of one another. It made my job easy in that way, because the beats were already defined in their relationship. And then as I got more time on set with them just to explore — I think actually in episode six, the wedding, by that point I had figured out, “All right, where do I have room to do things? Where am I going to be compelling?” Because there’s a dynamic of, “Am I getting in between this master-familiar relationship? Am I friends with Nandor? Is he my master?” Just kind of figuring out those things helped immensely.

I’m glad you bring up the wedding episode, because there’s so many interesting reveals. I’m curious how you think Djinn feels about Nandor? Is he pitying him? Does he resent him? Is he happy because he’s burning through these wishes so quickly? 
I think that there was a turning point where Djinn knows that this guy is just hopeless. He’s seen a lot of people make some really stupid wishes, but I think the angst with which Nandor makes his wishes is evident to Djinn. So there is the beginning of a soft spot for him. A beginning of, like, “Man, this guy is trying really hard and he still is messing it up.”

So there is pity, and at the same time, at the end of the penis-enlargement episode, there is this idea of, “I told you what I’m doing, I’m trying to screw you over and you keep just not seeing it.” So I’m not sure if they’re friends necessarily, but I think that it’s more than a master/genie relationship.

So there’s Djinn on What We Do in the Shadows, Djinn on Ms. Marvel, are there any other shows that you would like Djinn to pop up on to create a trend?
When it’s not NBA season and it’s not British Baking Show season, I just don’t know what’s on TV. If there was Djinn that could help out the Charlotte Hornets, that would be nice. They don’t need it as much as they did in seasons past, but they could still probably use it. We’ll see who they trade for.

I’m sure you’re sick of talking about it, but you’re obviously very well known from American Idol, and I wonder, coming from that to this, what made you want to be a part of the kookiest show on TV?
I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot. There was a part of me that was uncomfortable with the notoriety that surrounds a show like American Idol, because it became very clear, people are fans of the show, they’re not necessarily fans of you. And through my experience in the music industry, I feel like there was always this assumption of acting, really. I felt like I was acting in order to play a person or a musician/artist that people could get behind.

I think that in my heart of hearts, I have always been an actor. It’s part of the music industry, and it was exhausting in the music industry and during Idol. And as I began exploring acting a little more and reconnecting with my improv roots, my theater roots, everything that I grew up on, it became really apparent that I love acting, just not as it pertains to my everyday life. So the ability to come on a show like this and just play around and know that does not affect the way that people are going to see me as a person, is very freeing. Because as an actor, no one expects that you’re going to walk around like your character all the time. So that’s very freeing, and not having to feel like, “Oh, I need to live up to some image of what people saw or what people expect.” A lot of that is just getting older, too.

In some ways, comedy and music are very intertwined, and this is a very musical show — in the wedding episode there are a couple memorable songs. Was the cast aware of your musical background and did that factor into any of those performances?
Kayvan was, just because the first day that we were working together we were asking each other about ourselves. But there was a late-night, I don’t want to call it karaoke, but there were a bunch of us listening to music. And one of my karaoke songs came on and so I was singing “Pony” by Ginuwine into a wooden spoon. That was really where I think a lot of people realized that I was a singer, and unfortunately it was after they had shot “Who’ll Come First on the Wedding Night,” which I would’ve loved to have been a part of. What a bop.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Shadows’ Djinn Anoop Desai Understood the Assignment