CUL­TURE GAP IS HIS COM­FORT ZONE

Aasif Mandvi’s new HBO se­ries ‘The Brink’ finds him in a by-now fa­mil­iar be­tween-cul­tures gap.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Lorraine Ali lorraine.ali@latimes.com

As the se­nior Mus­lim cor­re­spon­dent on Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” ac­tor Aasif Mandvi par­o­died some of the media’s most ab­surd no­tions about Is­lam, the Mid­dle East and es­sen­tially any brown cul­ture that qual­i­fied as “for­eign.”

While “re­port­ing” on a puz­zling amend­ment in Alabama to ban sharia law, he said: “Any­one could see how easily we could go from Alabama to Al-habama.”

The In­dia-born, Amer­ica-raised Mandvi is yet again min­ing ma­te­rial in the ig­no­rance be­tween East and West, this time with HBO’s new com­edy drama se­ries “The Brink.” The se­ries, which de­buted last week to mixed re­views, opened to solid rat­ings.

As Rafiq, a driver for the U.S. Em­bassy in Is­lam­abad, he’s thrust into the mid­dle of a po­ten­tial world war when a mil­i­tary coup in Pak­istan leads to Amer­i­can in­ter­ven­tion in the re­gion. Com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters are a ter­mi­nally drunk sec­re­tary of State (Tim Rob­bins), a drug-deal­ing fighter pi­lot (Pablo Schreiber) and a loutish, low-level for­eign of­fi­cer with high as­pi­ra­tions (Jack Black).

Mandvi, also a writer and pro­ducer on “The Brink,” cites “Dr. Strangelove” as a blue­print for the se­ries.

“You’re deal­ing with geopol­i­tics and all these heavy things,” says Mandvi over break­fast in his Los An­ge­les apart­ment. “But you’re also deal­ing with the in­ep­ti­tude and nar­cis­sism and pet­ti­ness that goes on in the worlds of those peo­ple who are shap­ing global pol­i­tics.”

In a scene tai­lor-made for Mandvi, Rafiq and the ugly Amer­i­can Alex Tal­bot (Black) are caught on the streets of Is­lam­abad in a po­lit­i­cal demon­stra­tion com­plete with burn­ing ef­fi­gies and armed mil­i­tants. Cut off from the em­bassy, they f lee to Rafiq’s home, where his fam­ily sizes up Alex to de­cide if he’s se­cretly a CIA op­er­a­tive.

As they talk in Urdu among them­selves, one of them asks Rafiq if Alex un­der­stands what they’re say­ing. “A U.S. State Depart­ment of­fi­cial ac­tu­ally both­er­ing to learn the na­tive lan­guage?,” he an­swers. “You must be jok­ing.”

Over the past two decades Mandvi has played count­less South Asian and Arab doc­tors, den­tists, cab driv­ers, de­liv­ery boys, chefs, nerds and ter­ror­ists. In at least one old film credit he’s sim­ply re­ferred to as “The In­dian Char­ac­ter.” He’s ap­peared in “Spi­der-Man 2,” TV’s “Sleeper Cell,” and Broad­way’s “Ok­la­homa!” Mandvi also stars in his own Web se­ries “Halal in the Fam­ily,” a Mus­lim ver­sion of “The Cosby Show.”

“I never set off to be iden­ti­fied with any par­tic­u­lar [group or] what­ever,” says Mandvi, 49, of his fre­quent roles play­ing the Other. “I’m an ac­tor. I do lots of things. But it’s just the way peo­ple started to see me.”

In per­son Mandvi is far less for­mal than the suit-and-tie re­porter he por­trays on “The Daily Show” (where he’s still a free­lance cor­re­spon­dent). Dressed in shorts, a Tshirt and san­dals, he talks about his re­cent move from New York to L.A. as he makes break­fast in the kitchen of his Sil­ver Lake sub­let. “None of this fur­ni­ture is mine,” he says of the mod­ern, Hol­ly­wood-themed dé­cor. “Just a heads up — it won’t tell you any­thing about me.”

The scram­bled eggs he cooked are the color of a photo-wor­thy sunset — orangy-red with a tinge of pur­ple thanks to the cayenne pep­per, turmeric and car­damom he added. “That’s the In­dian in me,” he says. “You must put spices on ev­ery­thing. As a kid, when­ever we got sick, my mom would take milk and put turmeric in it. That was our medicine. That was the cure­all. Some peo­ple turn to Ro­bi­tussin.”

Although Mandvi was born in In­dia, he moved to Eng­land as an in­fant and then re­lo­cated to Florida with his fam­ily when he was 16. There Mandvi stud­ied drama at the Univer­sity of South Florida and forged his early theater ca­reer in var­i­ous pro­duc­tions at Dis­ney-World. He even­tu­ally made his way to New York where he be­gan his ca­reer in earnest off-Broad­way and in bit parts for film and TV.

“Ev­ery­thing I have done — stuff on “The Daily Show,” my book [“No Land’s Man”], “Halal in the Fam­ily,” it’s ex­isted in be­tween cul­tures,” he says. “Be­ing Amer­i­can and be­ing an out­sider at the same time, it’s a per­spec­tive I of­ten bring to a char­ac­ter.”

Which brings us back to Rafiq. In “The Brink,” he ap­pears to be one of the only rea­son­able and level-headed char­ac­ters in the fast­mov­ing, for­eign-pol­icy satire. His so­phis­ti­cated com­po­sure is a switch from the usual media por­tray­als of peo­ple from that re­gion.

“If I was just play­ing Rafiq it could have been a much more stereo­typ­i­cal role, but be­cause I was in­volved in the writ­ing, I was able to give voice to that char­ac­ter and give him a per­spec­tive,” says Mandvi. “It’s part of the rea­son they had me come in as a writer — to make sure Rafiq rep­re­sented another point of view that wasn’t Amer­i­can-cen­tric. His fam­ily is wealthy, aca­demic peo­ple who know global pol­i­tics. They know much more about Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy than Amer­i­cans do be­cause they’re on the other side of those drones.”

Mandvi says the show’s co-cre­ators, broth­ers Roberto and Kim Ben­abib, orig­i­nally tried him out for a smaller, non­re­cur­ring role. “Be­sides be­ing a good writer, he also gives us an ac­tor’s per­spec­tive,” says Roberto Ben­abib, who wrote and pro­duced for the Show­time se­ries “Weeds.” “We’ll say maybe this or that could hap­pen, and he’ll stop and say, ‘Yeah, but where’s the con­flict the ac­tor in the scene can play?’ We found that in­valu­able.”

Mandvi also con­trib­uted ad­vice when it came to de­pict­ing Is­lamic and South Asian cul­ture. It’s rather ironic, how­ever, that the ac­tor of­ten ends up play­ing the Mus­lim on screen and stage. He grew up in what he de­scribes as a fairly sec­u­lar home, and be­com­ing some sort of spokesper­son for the faith was never a goal.

“I have a cul­tural iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with it, what­ever that means,” he says. “It kind of comes down to when you see some­one on the news say­ing that per­son is the em­bod­i­ment of ter­ror­ism and evil, and you look at it and those peo­ple look like peo­ple in my fam­ily. My un­cle and my grand­fa­ther. Now you’re on some emo­tional level in op­po­si­tion.”

That ten­sion plays out be­tween “The Brink’s” Rafiq and Alex, each of whom sit on dif­fer­ent sides of the same quo­tient. “Jack’s char­ac­ter ul­ti­mately em­bod­ies the ugly Amer­i­can,” says Mandvi. “My char­ac­ter em­bod­ies the guy say­ing, ‘The world does not re­volve around Amer­ica; you know that, right?’”

Ge­naro Molina Los An­ge­les Times

Ge­naro Molina Los An­ge­les Times

“I NEVER SET OFF to be iden­ti­fied with any par­tic­u­lar [group or] what­ever,” says “Daily Show” vet Aasif Mandvi. “But it’s just the way peo­ple started to see me.”

Merie W. Wal­lace HBO

JACK BLACK is a U.S. Em­bassy blowhard in Pak­istan op­po­site Mandvi’s Rafiq in “The Brink.”

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