What "Master of None" Has Taught Me (And It’s Not What You Think)
"We'll be in touch!" the casting director brainlessly concludes with forced enthusiasm after Aziz Ansari's Dev Shah argues against using an Indian accent in an audition for a second-line role as a cab driver.
"OK. But, sounds like you won’t be, because of the whole 'accent thing'," Dev replies. “Yeah, no. Sorry," the casting director responds, mercilessly releasing Dev from the casting studio.
I'm sure I'm not the only actor in NYC drooling over Aziz's new show "Master of None" for any number of reasons, including its superlative music, set decoration, locations, authentic every-day-2015 date and friend-speak. And as an actor, I can really relate to this nightmare scenario casting. Though I have never been asked to provide an Indian accent to add authenticity in the eyes of the white casting director for cab driver or deli owner characters, I have seen countless audition calls and character-breakdowns which, in one way or another, ask actors to neglect their principles in exchange for a shot at the part.
As a white male, my principles (and, let's be honest, I do not really have any) are not threatened often, but I know many incredible actresses - of all ethnicities - who face disgusting prejudices every day, whether they're asked to arrive "looking hot" to an audition, perform fully or semi-nude for the casting team, or reinforce very dated stereotypes of their ethnic communities. Their stories always make my spine shiver.
So, when Dev is asked to perform an accent, and the casting director weakly defends "[Ben Kingsley] won an Oscar”, he decides to stand up for himself. This is the part of the narrative that SHOCKED me, and made me want to take my shirt off and dance around. An actor?! Standing up for himself?! And essentially turning down the opportunity to work because it interfered with his beliefs??? I LOVE THIS GUY.
I love Aziz because "Master of None," - an audience and critical favorite since its release - is actually teaching me how to be a more self-assured actor. Though MON (that's what the kids are calling the show, right?) is one of those lightly-fictionalized-version-of-the-comedian's-life shows, I'm watching Dev as if he were an actor in the real world, keeping his beliefs close to his chest as he navigates the already difficult acting "industry." I honestly think Dev's attitude about himself, his responsibility to his moral code, and his good humor about the whole thing, will permeate my own psyche.
Dev's perspective on his acting work is so amazing! He expresses genuine excitement when his friend Ravi (played by real-life Ravi Patel) is at the same audition as him. He even fills Ravi in on another upcoming audition, at which they'd be competing for the same role. That kind of friendly selflessness is always a quality I hoped to embody, but felt like it was ultimately at odds with my career path: in order to succeed, I had to steel myself against friends and colleagues, because at the end of the day, it might come down to me or him.
Again, I recognize this show is fiction (does every cocktail in Brooklyn come with one of those huge ice cubes and an orange peel? And is every bar well lit?) And the show definitely has the cloyingly unbelievable representation of what the cost-of-living in New York is (I just do not believe an actor, like Dev, who does GoGurt ads, is living comfortably in a well-appointed 1-br in Williamsburg), but I like where Dev's head is at.
Unfortunately, so much of an actor's strife comes from gaining money and maintaining work, and while I applaud Aziz for painting Dev as a carefree kind of actor, the unfortunate reality is it's near-impossible be that kind of carefree actor in New York.
Still, "Master of None" is such a gift in so many ways; most of all in how it puts so many South Asians - Indians specifically - in the spotlight. It’s also teaching me that being an actor in New York does not mean losing the parts of myself that I love: my capacity for forgiveness, friendliness, humility, clumsiness, self-deprecation, and so on.
MON is teaching me my principles - the beliefs I decide are important to me - can support my process of an artist, not get in the way. So thank you, Aziz. Now I need to go finish watching the show :)