Aasif Mandvi’s got a full plate these days. The Daily Show contributor has a full-time gig as a co-star and writer of HBO’s new political satire The Brink (debuting June 21), playing a Pakistani driver who becomes the unwilling assistant to a low-level U.S. diplomat (Jack Black) during a nuclear crisis.
He’s also working on a second season of his Web sitcom Halal in the Family and promoting the paperback release of his book No Land’s Man. Yet he somehow found time to talk with us about all this, plus his early roles in Miami Vice and Die Hard with a Vengeance, and answer our Lucky 7 questionnaire.
How’s it been sharing so many scenes with Jack Black? He seems like he might be kind of unpredictable as a co-star…
He’s great. When I went into this situation, I was thinking, “Jack Black, movie star; who knows how he’ll be?” But right off the bat, he was a real collaborator and interested in rehearsing and improvising. We ended up becoming good friends in the process. The great thing about Jack is we’d have some late-night shoots, and he’d order Chinese food for the entire crew at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning, because that’s when he loves to eat Chinese food.
The show deals with real-life conflicts between Pakistan and India and in the Middle East in a satirical way. Did you have any hesitation to wade into such troubled waters?
No, because we satirize everyone on the show. It’s not just the craziness of what’s going on over there, but also the craziness of what’s going on here. Our satire is leveled as much at the American government as it is anybody else.
Is it hard to make situations involving nuclear war and torture funny?
The balance is the hardest thing. You’re playing with high stakes, and you have to find the comedy in it. But I don’t think it’s that far off from the way the world really is. The absurdity comes out of the people involved in managing our world. There is an element of “The Emperor Has No Clothes!” where you pull back the curtain and say, “These are the clowns that are supposedly running our show.” We put these people on a pedestal and think, “These people must be smarter than us.” And my years on The Daily Show has proven to me that is absolutely not true. The Brink is an extension of that.
You’ve come a long way from your first TV gig on Miami Vice in 1988. What do you remember about that experience?
I played the doorman outside the Biltmore Hotel and had a scene with Don Johnson and Phillip Michael Thomas. It was super-exciting. It’s how I got my SAG card, actually. I was in college at the time and the casting director came and did a workshop in Tampa, where I lived, and she said, “We might have a role for you.” She probably thought I could look Cuban. I just jumped in my car and drove down to Miami to audition and I got it. I shot it and I remember having a huge viewing party for all my friends when it aired.
You were also in Die Hard with a Vengeance as a cabbie in 1995. You also played a cabbie on The Cosby Mysteries that same year. Was that your cabbie phase?
Die Hard started my cabbie phase. That was another role where if you blinked, you missed me. That was my first big-budget Hollywood action movie. Bruce Willis steals my cab, and I’m wearing the most horrendous yellow polyester shirt and shorts, right there on the corner of 72nd and Broadway.
What was your first exposure to Playboy?
It was probably at my dad’s corner shop in Bradford, England, where he sold candy and pornography to racists. He had a big stand of all the classics, including Playboy.
What movie scared you the most when you were a kid?
The Exorcist. I’m sure a lot of people say that, but that’s just a fucking scary movie!
If you ended up on death row, what would your last meal be?
A full-on, 23 oz. steak and a banana split with a cherry and chocolate syrup. I’m going out big.
What was your first car?
A red VW Rabbit. I forgot to put oil in it, and it just evaporated on I-4 in the middle of Florida. The car seized up on me, because I didn’t realize you had to put oil into it on a regular basis.
What was the first song you knew all the words to?
“Crocodile Rock” by Elton John.
Do you have a pop-culture blind spot?
Video games. Everyone references them, and I’m just sort of like, “Yeah, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
What was your favorite mistake?
I turned down The Daily Show when I was first offered an audition. I thought it was going to be some cheesy thing where I’d have to go in and put on a turban and sit on a carpet and pretend to fly. Then they called me back and said, “No, it’s for a correspondent.” And I’m so glad because it’s turned out to be one of the most seminal, tremendous jobs I’ve ever had.
Currently Senior Articles Editor for Closer Weekly, Bruce Fretts has written for the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, TV Guide, Emmy Magazine, Fast Company, and Vulture. You can follow him on Twitter @brucefretts.