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Utkarsh Ambudkar’s brief but spectacular take on avoiding ethnic stereotypes

Actor and singer Utkarsh Ambudkar has appeared in the movie “Pitch Perfect” and television’s “The Mindy Project.” This fall, he’ll star on Broadway in Lin Manuel Miranda’s “Freestyle Love Supreme.” But despite these high-profile performances, Ambudkar, who is South Asian, hasn’t found it easy to avoid casting cliches. He shares his brief but spectacular take on making up his career as he goes.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    Finally tonight, a Brief But Spectacular on taking on stereotypes in Hollywood.

    Actor and singer Utkarsh Ambudkar's latest film is "Brittany Runs a Marathon."

    Once again, as part of our Canvas series, he reflects on how he has adopted to Hollywood and Hollywood has adopted to him.

  • Utkarsh Ambudkar:

    As a South Asian man, the roles that we get are very finite.

    And I say no to quite a few things. Like, we don't do computer nerds and we don't do sidekicks.

    So, music and acting have always gone hand in hand for me. I was in a hip-hop group, a trio, much like the Beastie Boys.

    How did "Pitch Perfect" happen? Let's rewind, guys.

    Mindy Kaling saw "Pitch Perfect." I got offered the role of her little brother, Rishi, on "The Mindy Project."

    "White Famous" was for Showtime. That role was written for a light-skinned black actor. I improvised an Indian South Asian spin on that role in the room.

    I have been acting professionally since 2005. Around 2018 is when people realized, asking me to do an accent when it wasn't period or geographically appropriate was offensive.

    Now I can walk into a room and call it out, and people kind of have to — they accept it.

  • Question:

    What does that conversation sound like in the room?

  • Utkarsh Ambudkar:

    So I have been in auditions where they wrote a line in their show about an Indian teacher with a strong accent saying that he would sell 10 goats to get a woman like that in his classroom.

    So this is offensive. And I told my manager, no, there's no way I'm going to do this.

    My manager said, OK, go in. You can put your own spin on it. They're fine.

    So I go and I do my no accent and my improv.

    He said, "Can you just do it the way that I wrote it?"

    "You want me to do it the way you wrote it, like, even this line about the goats?"

    The sauce on what I said was so thick that there was only one interpretation to take from it. And that's not how you do business and it's not how we should communicate with each other.

    In any case, that's my responsibility, but his responsibility is to not write a piece of (EXPLETIVE DELETED) that's offensive, right?

    Now, when I walk into a room — and it just happened on "Mulan." I just went and did this Disney movie, and there were some challenges with sort of the way that our ethnicities were being portrayed.

    And I was able to go into the room with Disney. I mean, it's a giant conglomerate. And the script was changed and moved around and built and enhanced to sort of speak to some of the concerns that we had.

    You would think that's just how it's supposed to go, but it's one of the first few times that it's starting to happen for me where I can be like, hey, I see a problem here, and people actually listen.

    My name is Utkarsh Ambudkar, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on making it up as I go along.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You can find additional Brief But Spectacular episodes on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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