Category Archives: International Interviews (TV)

Interview: Michael C Hall for Open Magazine

Darkly Dreaming Dexter: Michael C Hall, the fascinating serial killer of Dexter, the hit American TV show, talks about dealing with his inner dark passenger, on and off screen

If you are a fan of American television, you are a fan of Dexter, period. The show, about a police blood spatter analyst who leads a secret double-life as a serial killer, has captivated the collective American consciousness since it launched in 2006. One of the highest rated cable shows ever in the US, Dexter has got its lead actor Michael C Hall—who plays Dexter—a Golden Globe award, a Screen Actors Guild Award and multiple Emmy Award nominations for his portrayal of a man who, incapable of human emotion, turns his homicidal urges into meting out justice to other murderers.

In an interview over the phone from Los Angeles, Michael Hall talks about Dexter’s ‘Dark Passenger’ and his own deliberations on life and death: Excerpts:

Q Having earlier done five seasons of Six Feet Under, which dealt with the morbid as well, what was it about Dexter that attracted you?

A Initially, I think it was the challenge of breathing a sense of authentic life into a character who claimed to be without the capacity for authenticity, or life. I think playing a character that wasn’t affable or relatable or attractive enough for viewers to understand or identify with, or even root for, was a challenge that I welcomed as an actor, and was excited about, personally. Because after playing someone like David Fisher (Six Feet Under), who struggled with a sense of self-loathing and… a sense of being a doormat in his relationships, to play Dexter who is, ultimately, a man of action and a very decisive character, was an appealing change of pace.

Q You’re known to be a method actor. So was the preparation for Dexter? Did you practise murdering dolls and stalking people?

A Oh yeah, I did a bit of that! I was living in New York and followed some people around, just to see if I could do it. I, of course, didn’t follow them into their homes (laughs)… but yeah, it just gave me a sense of that lone wolf, [the] solitary place that Dexter spends a lot of time occupying.

Apart from this, there were some books that I read by FBI profilers who dedicated their careers to identifying the characteristics of serial killers. I imagined that Dexter himself would familiarise himself with things like that. I read transcripts of interviews with different serial killers, I sat down with the head of the Blood Splatter Analysis Department of Miami-Dade County and got a sense of what he did. Ultimately, though, I think it was a character that required an imaginative leap, you know, unless you are willing to commit felonies to see what it’s like. But, it’s not really my inclination to want to do that, so I didn’t think that would really serve me in any way.

Q Were you worried about the responsibility that comes with playing a ‘likeable’ serial killer? There have been stories of life imitating art—how do they affect you?

A Yeah. It’s (pauses)… yeah, it’s a very troubling thing to hear that someone used the existence of the show to sort of contextualise some darker impulse that they might have. But I in no way think that the show is an instructional manual or advocating force for serial murders, or anything like that. I think it’s more a meditation on the nature of morality, family, love and the male psyche. The fact that people see it that way or use it to justify murderous impulses is certainly troubling, but at the same time, I believe, in this case specifically, and even generally, that to censor something because of an individual viewer’s association with it is fundamentally wrong.

Q Did it surprise you that people like Dexter so much, given the fact that he is a criminal? Personally, do you at all judge Dexter? Do you look at him as a vigilante, a hero, a sociopath or even just a little crazy?

A Yeah, I knew going into the show that Dexter was only going to work if people managed to like and identify with the character, and that was sort of the fundamental tonal and performance-wise challenge that we were facing. I thought it would appeal to a certain taste and to a certain viewer. As far as the number of people it’s appealed to, or the different kinds of people who found something to like, it wasn’t something I necessarily anticipated, so it was a pleasant surprise. But no, I do not think that it’s my job or my inclination to judge the characters I play. It’s not something that I really struggle against doing, something I’m not really inclined to do. I’m more inclined to just understand what’s motivating them and act in accordance to that.

Q Does playing Dexter ever get to you? How do you offset the ‘Dark Passenger’ after the show ends? Do you have a routine like watching mindless comedies to get over it?

A Mindless comedies are nice, exercise is good, hot showers are great, vacations and travelling is always nice. So, just getting some distance from the day-to-day constant preoccupation with the character does the trick for the most part. Because, yes, the show does get to you, to a degree… probably, in subtle ways that affect [not] just my mood. Simulating someone who feeds on impulses that dark, and manages a level of stress… takes its toll on the subconscious. But I guess that kind of goes with the territory if you are an actor.

Q What have you learnt about life and death in the past decade, given that both Six Feet Under and Dexter have had these as their central themes?

A I don’t really know how much there is to learn about death, except that it’s inevitable. But as far as life goes, both Dexter and Six Feet Under have been very significant and enriching parts of my life, and I’m thankful for that… it’s definitely cultivated in me a sense of gratitude—gratitude to be working with talented people, gratitude to be working in general, and telling a story that I feel strongly about, probably the biggest thing.

Q You also underwent treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma—successfully—during Dexter. Did that, in any way, change the way you play Dexter?

A Well, you know, when something like that (Hodgin’s lymphoma) happens, you wonder, ‘Did I will this to happen in spite of myself?’ or ‘Am I behaving in ways or treating myself in ways, whether in my habits or in my mind, that contributed to this happening?’ And I was encouraged by most people to believe that wasn’t the case, but maybe it helped me do a better job of putting my work down when I was done with it (chuckles).

Q As a producer on the show, you must be involved in the writing of the show. Do you see Dexter having a happy ending?

A Yeah, I’m a part of that conversation (writing), but I appreciate the fact that if a television series is successful, it’s a miracle of sorts, in as much as it requires so many people to do their jobs well. So I trust our writers and the process that they go through to come up with what happens and I don’t aspire to write the show. I think I ought to weigh in, in terms of how things happen, if there’s a story development that I feel has been executed in a way that doesn’t honour my sense of Dexter’s identity, I might talk about different ways to get there. But, thankfully, we have [such] amazing writers that I can primarily focus on doing my job as an actor.

And as far as the ending is concerned, I do fantasise about a happy ending on Dexter’s behalf, you know, because it’s something that he perhaps deserves, though I honestly don’t know if that’s the way it’s going to pan out.

Q Will we ever see Dexter as a movie?

You know there’s been talk about that possibility, but I struggle to see it being worthwhile. I mean, if somebody can put something in front of me that was compelling, I would be excited, sure, but I have trouble imagining it.

Q Have you ever used Dexter to your advantage… scared someone off in real life?

A Yeah, if anybody cuts me off in traffic, I just give them a little glare and they usually back down. (Chuckles) No, I try not to use that, I try to be responsible.

Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on January 26, 2013
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/international/darkly-dreaming-dexter
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Interview: Aasif Mandvi for Open Magazine

Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World: Aasif Mandvi, ‘Brown Correspondent’ of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show that airs in America, on satire, pop culture and bigotry

Aasif Mandvi is everywhere. He’s on your television screens as The Muslim Correspondent or The Brown Correspondent on one of the most watched political comedy shows in America, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. In 2012 alone, he was in four movies—Premium Rush, Ruby Sparks, The Dictator and Dark Horse. He is now back to his first love, theatre, starring in a brave new play on racism in America, post 9/11, called Disgraced. And although he’s been around for 20 years now, having worked with the likes of Robert De Niro (Analyse This), Bruce Willis (Die Hard with a Vengeance) and in blockbusters like Spiderman 2, it looks like he’s just getting started. Named as one of the most influential global Indians by GQ magazines, Mandvi gets serious about comedy in an exclusive interview:

Q Since you started working on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, you’ve been widely acclaimed by the American press as a representative of the ‘moderate Muslim voice’. Do you think of it as a responsibility now?

A (Thinks) Let me answer the question in this way: having been raised as a Muslim in America, after 9/11, in some way, I was politicised, because you couldn’t help being politicised at the time. Then I got The Daily Show, which is a huge platform, of course, and because of my role in it and because of my ethnicity, I get talked about on both sides of the fence. On the show, I satirise something that then has its effect out in the world, as it makes some people get up and use it as a way to represent the Muslim community. And this stuff that I satirise isn’t entirely created by me; there is a team of writers that works on it along with me. So even though I understand—and this is important—why I’ve been called that, and I understand the need of a representative, and I also understand why it’s happening to me, I can’t worry about it and I can’t think about it. Because that’ll limit you as an artiste, or a writer, actor or creator… if you worry about it.

Also, (chuckles) I reject the notion of being the face of any kind of ‘moderate Muslim’, because I shouldn’t be the guy representing Islam anywhere at all, you know. I’ve been inside more bars than I’ve been inside mosques.

Q Clearly, the community thinks different. You received the prestigious Freedom of Expression Award from The Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in 2011 for your ‘comedic body of work that has played a significant role in exposing anti-Muslim bigotry in America’.

A The CAIR award is certainly an honour, but it’s also absurd (chuckles), if you know what I mean. I mean, it’s more of a reflection of the lack of moderate Muslim voices in society as a whole that I was given the CAIR award. You know, when I got the CAIR award, a Syrian composer, Malek Jandali, was also given it along with me. And he was given it for composing and performing a song (Watani Ana), which served as a backdrop for the Syrian revolution, at a rally in Washington DC. His parents were beaten up brutally by Assad’s security forces in Syria as retaliation. It’s a very tragic story. So he was getting the CAIR award for all that, and I was getting it; and I do sketches and I do jokes. I don’t want to sound full of it here—I greatly respect the fact that I was given the award and I’m extremely grateful for it—[but] I just think it speaks about the larger vacuum of moderate Muslim voices within society, that they gave me the award.

Q But don’t you think that your satirising the paranoia against Islam on The Daily Show has helped alleviate the ignorance of Islam in America?

A See, I think that in terms of what I do on the show, and because at the end of the day we’re a comedy show, there’s a certain level of catharsis that has been achieved, about the fact that I get up there and I say stuff that lands on people. But the reality is, that as far as America goes on a larger level, only 3 million people are watching The Daily Show every night. Compare that to the 22 million people that watch Fox News, for example. So has the conversation about Islam changed? No, not really. Because, for being a highly acclaimed, highly received and highly critically placed show, The Daily Show has a very specific impact on a particular section of society, but there’s a whole slew of people in America who never watch it.

See, when 9/11 happened, there was a definite conversation about what is Islam, who are Muslims, and what is the Quran? But in the 12 years since then, Americans have taken this curiosity and politicised it. The mainstream media and politicians have turned this curiosity into fear. So now, unfortunately, most Americans think that they know the answers. That they understand Islam. And the answer is that you have to be afraid. That Islam is dangerous. That it means ‘jihad’. And unfortunately, as we go into the future, this politicisation and sensationalising of the entire relationship of America with the Muslim world will only take us back a few steps instead of forward. I mean, when Obama came to power and they started calling him a Muslim, it was supposed to be a demeaning thing and was supposed to undermine him; that if he were a Muslim, it would somehow be bad. And that’s the unfortunate trajectory the American consciousness has taken after 9/11, and it’s a tragedy.

Q What do you think the role of pop culture should be in changing this?

A Now here’s where I reverse the same argument: 3 million is still a relatively large audience that The Daily Show reaches. And satire, by nature, helps get a certain level of influence within the zeitgeist and collective consciousness. So I think if pop culture keeps at it, there is an actual effect of change [that] shows like The Daily Show can have by [getting] people to think in ways they haven’t thought before otherwise, and to [experience] catharsis.

But on the other hand, it can all only change to a certain extent. For example, we once covered a protest against the proposed construction of a mosque in Tennessee, two-three years ago. I interviewed the leader of the opposition, Laurie Cardoza-Moore, and her reasons for trying to close down the construction was that… it was a mosque. So while that segment generated a lot of conversation, ultimately it didn’t matter and the construction was shut down. So again, the conversation has gone from a dialogue to basically shutting down and burying the conversation altogether. But, you know, even if there are times we lose, we are also on the winning side a few times, so we’ll certainly keep at that.

Q You’re now doing a serious off-Broadway play about racism and cultural identity in America called Disgraced. Is that also an attempt at keeping the conversation alive?

A Yes, doing the play was a no-brainer for me. It is brilliantly written by a Pakistani-American, Ayad Akhtar. Apart from the fact that there’s probably never been a serious role or play like an Othello on the New York stage for South Asian American actors, especially Muslim actors, I really thought it was the best thing written about this conversation in a long time. It’s honest, brutal, brave and very provocative. In theatre, people sit in a dark room with the actors on stage and are forced to wrestle with their own personal demons and prejudices, so it’s a very different beast than a political comedy at 11 o’ clock at night on Comedy Central. People have come out of Disgraced crying or in deep conversation or deep thought, you know.

I come from a much more liberal and secular Muslim family than the protagonist of the play, Amir Kapoor, who comes from a very conservative and traditional family with much more dogmatic opinions and a dangerous perspective of things. But I could still relate to him in many ways, specially to the disassociation from the culture and the clash of East and West values. I understand the difficulty in trying to find your identity and in growing up as a South Asian in America, especially post 9/11. And so I thought it was important for me to be a part of such a play, and I hope it is making people uncomfortable.

Q A while ago, in an article on Salon.com, you wrote, tongue-in-cheek, about the ‘whitewashing’ phenomenon in Hollywood, where America thinks of South Asian actors as White actors in Brown makeup. Now that we seem to be breaking out of the stereotypes of a cab driver, infotech engineer or a deli owner, do you think this is changing?

A Well, I think while the conversations on Islam may not be improving, South Asians, in general, are becoming a part of the American conscience now. Although I don’t think we have broken out of stereotypes entirely, I just think that as time has gone by, the new generation of South Asian comedians, writers and actors are a part of the American existence. Be it Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn or Mindy Kaling, there are certainly a lot more South Asians on TV and in movies than there used to be since I started in the business back in 1991. So yes, America is changing to that extent. But does that mean that Hollywood is comfortable casting South Asian actors without accents? No, it’s not. I just did an Owen Wilson-Vince Vaughn movie called The Internship, where my character has an Indian accent.

But it’s a very different kind of thing at play here, because there are people with accents. There’s nothing wrong with playing a cab driver or a deli owner or even a terrorist, because those people exist and are real. It basically comes down to the writing. Are these written as one-dimensional jokes for White people, or are they written with some level of nuance, sophistication, thought and an arc or story of some kind? And that’s what’s really changing for South Asian actors, you know. The writing and the roles are getting better, not that the characters now don’t have accents.

Q Apart from movies, you are also writing a book about your experiences in the US.

A Yeah, it’s been in the works for some time now. It’s a series of essays and short stories about my life growing up in England and working in America. It’s semi-autobiographical with anecdotal stories along the way, which are funny and amusing and relevant in some way, but some that are also serious. Then there are a few movies lined up, and there’s Disgraced and there’s The Daily Show. At some point in the future, I may be creating a TV show for CBS. I actually don’t know exactly where I am going from here, but I would like to continue writing, acting, and creating more stuff and putting it out there, and hoping it lands on people in a way that makes them feel. But I don’t have a larger agenda or a political one, and the only reason it’s working or has worked in the past is that (chuckles) I never had a plan B either.

Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on January 5, 2013
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/international/looking-for-comedy-in-the-muslim-world
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).

Interview: Hannah Simone for Open Magazine

She could have fell, fell out of the sky;/She could have fell right out of the sky./Who’s that girl? (Who’s that girl?)/Who’s that girl? (Who’s that girl?)’

The answer to these lines, from Hey Girl, the catchy theme song of the Golden Globe- and Emmy Award-nominated American TV sitcom New Girl is, “It’s Jess.” Zooey Deschanel, who plays ‘Jess’, the show’s lead actress, doubles up as singer-composer of the song, and sings this answer herself.

But for many fans of the show, for the local American media fraternity, for the international desi Indian community, for hot-blooded males forever on the lookout for their next pinup girl, for young hip females eternally in search of their next style icon, and for the ever-curious social media enthusiasts at large, the refrain could very well refer to the other ‘new girl’ on the show—the stunning, funny and gifted young actress of Indian origin, Hannah Simone, who has come right out of nowhere. And if reactions on the internet are anything to go by, she has been stealing hearts of audiences and critics alike.

It is a testament to Hannah’s talent that within a year of moving to Los Angeles to follow her dreams on a much larger platform than her earlier country of residence, Canada, could provide, she secured a hosting gig on a reality show WCG Ultimate Gamer on the cable channel Syfy. Immediately after, she won a parallel lead role on Fox’s New Girl, as Cecilia ‘Cece’ Meyers, Jess’ childhood best friend and an upcoming model. The show is only in its second season, but Hannah has already landed herself a part in The Usual Supects and X-Men director Bryan Singer’s digital series, H+, and a role in Oscar-nominated director Spike Lee’s remake of the 2003 South Korean film Oldboy.

“My life right now is probably the best example of a dream come true,” says Hannah with a slight, throaty laugh over the phone from Los Angeles, where she now lives. “When I was in school in India and was doing these little theatre productions on stage, if you told me that this is what I was going to be doing a few years later in my life, there’s no chance I would have believed you.”

Simone graduated with a BA in international relations and political science and then worked for the United Nations, in its human rights and refugees office. She has also worked as a researcher for a Canadian statesman and as a social news VJ for MuchMusic, a Canadian TV channel, for which she interviewed world leaders and discussed issues like AIDS, climate change and bullying. With a résumé like that, she could not have seen this coming.

At the same time, having first started modelling at the age of 13 in Cyprus and then earning a degree in Radio and Television Arts in Canada before moving on to theatre, VJing and acting, in a way, Hannah also had a career in the glamour world laid out.

“I’ve been really blessed to have a mother and father who would tell me that it’s fine to have several passions in life all at once, and that none of them has to fit in the same box,” says Hannah. “Because that’s essentially how life is—we are who we are, it’s other people who try to put us in a box. So growing up in countries like Saudi Arabia, Cyprus and India, I kept my eyes open to the human rights issues around me, especially women and children’s rights, and have been very involved in making people aware of the same. At the same time, I love theatre, I love ‘improv’ and I love making people laugh, and I need both these parts in my life at all times.”

Over the course of the conversation, it is evident that Hannah’s intelligence runs beyond her résumé, and it is not merely chance that in an industry that’s quick to pigeonhole Indians into exotic and accented call centre employees and models into catty and ‘hot’ bimbos, in New Girl, Hannah plays the character of a hot Indian model who defies all these stereotypes and is completely her own person—a funny, confident and loyal friend who makes decisions both good and bad.

The former VJ attributes such a role to both a sign of changing norms in Hollywood as well as her responsibility as an Indian artiste to make the right choices. “That’s one of the things that attracted me to my character of ‘Cece’ in New Girl,” she says, “The showrunners were only looking for someone funny for the role, and not someone ethnically specific, and that gave me the freedom to play the character the way I wanted to play it.”

And that is the reason, Hannah goes on to explain, that the only time the topic of Cece’s ethnicity comes up is when Schmidt, played by Max Greenfield, needs to flatter her and rolls out his knowledge of all things Indian, from Slumdog Millionaire to Deepak Chopra. “And that’s the right way to do it,” says Hannah. “Those lines are written because they cast someone Indian and not because they wrote an Indian stereotype and cast someone who fits the mould. I find that very refreshing—to be on a mainstream network comedy and not have to play into any ethnic stereotypes.”

“I also think it’s really important, for us as Indian actors, that we choose roles and play characters that are not defined by their ethnicity,” she continues. “I believe that’s precisely how we will slowly start to open up that door of being seen just as a girl or guy instead of being seen as an Indian girl or guy.”

But Hannah isn’t opposed to playing characteristically Indian roles either. In fact, on Bryan Singer’s digital series H+, she plays Leena Param, a young Indian girl who has grown up in the Mumbai slums, dreams of going to Bollywood and even has a ‘filmi’ dance sequence on the show. And in this case, it was the challenge of playing the stereotype responsibly that got her interested.

“I find that a lot of times people want to play these… Indian characters as victims,” she says. “But I didn’t want to keep perpetuating the idea that you are a victim just because you are poor. So I approached Leena as an empowered, ambitious woman who was choosing to become a surrogate in the story because she saw that as a means to taking a step up and a step forward in her life, and not because it was some kind of sentence. I was very protective of the character because being an Indian woman, living in and going to school in India, and always being surrounded by so many strong Indian women, you tend to become strong yourself.”

This strength of character is something Hannah sees in herself too, she laughs, and is among the things she believes she has inherited from the Indian side of her heritage—her father, Narendra Simone, who is originally from Mathura and is now a prolific author with over seven books to his credit. Her mother is of German-Italian-Cypriot-Greek descent.

“My father’s such an amazing inspiration to me,” she enthuses, “My proudest Hollywood moment was when I took him as my date to the Golden Globes, where New Girl was nominated, and I shared that huge moment of success with him. My father’s always been the greatest storyteller for me and has taught me how to use my imagination, which has been the basis of what I’ve learnt about acting. That, and the fact that Indians as a people take such good care of each other and [their] families, has been the core of who I am as an Indian.”

“And of course,” she adds with her distinctive happy laugh, “food, food, food, food, food! I’ve inherited my love for great Indian food too.”

Like every other Indian, she also loves “classic Bollywood films” but Hannah’s unique sensibilities are resonant in her choice of favourite Indian films too. The self-confessed Madhur Jaffrey, Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair fan is more an admirer of movies like Monsoon Wedding, Fire and Earth than of mainstream commercial ‘Bollywood’ cinema.“It’s so inspiring that Indian directors went back to their homeland to make great independent films that dealt with issues that are usually difficult to talk about,” she explains.

Ask her if she’d like to follow in their footsteps, and she chuckles, “I have no idea. Cece and I are in the same boat in that sense, because we both don’t know what’s coming up next. And that’s what I love about life, you know? My love for the performance arts and for social work will continue forever, but beyond that, I’m just excited to roll with it and live in the moment.”

And at the moment, it is a great time to be Hannah. The new Indian girl on the block gets calls for Indian projects because she is of Indian origin, and at the same time, gets noticed by the likes of Spike Lee for roles in mainstream American projects because she is TV’s latest breakout star. “I’ve strived to be ethnically ambiguous throughout my career. My ethnicity is now an advantage and I have the great fortune of playing anything,” she smiles. “It’s really the best of both worlds.”

Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on November 17, 2012
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/art-culture/who-s-that-girl
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).