30 Rock & Weeds Star on Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey and Shattering Stereotypes
Today actor Maulik Pancholy is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Jack Donaghy’s overprotective executive assistant Jonathan on “30 Rock”. Sharing most of his screen time with Alec Baldwin in a series created by Tina Fey that stands as NBC Thursday’s most popular show, most would sit back comfortably and enjoy the ride. But Pancholy’s work is far from over when he steps away from Silvercup Studios in Queens (contrary to popular belief, the show is not filmed at Rockefeller Center itself).
The actor also slips into the recurring role of complex drug dealer Sanjay on “Weeds” (by complex, we mean he’s a homosexual drug dealer who has a baby with a prostitute), lends his voice to Baljeet on the highly-acclaimed Disney animated series “Phineas and Ferb”, and still finds the time to return to his stage roots (Pancholy is a graduate of both Northwestern University’s theatre program and the Yale School of Drama).
Arguably one of the busiest men in the business, Pancholy found the time to play 10 Questions with Divanee. Read on as he gets candid about his journey from one of his first roles “wearing a turban and making camel nuggets” to being a part of ‘Must See TV’, working with Alec Baldwin, and having Tina Fey squeeze water into his face on live television.
Divanee: “30 Rock” is now in its fifth season and remains both a critics and fan favorite. What do you think has both driven and sustained the success of the show?
Maulik Pancholy: It’s crazy to reflect on the fact that we’re in Season 5! I remember shooting on the last day of the pilot episode for the show. Tina Fey gave a little speech to the cast and crew thanking them for all their hard work and making a little toast to hoping that the show would succeed. And here we are.
To me, “30 Rock” is driven by Tina [Fey] and the incredible writers. They come up with, in my mind, some of the most unexpected, creative, genius stuff. I’m in total awe of them. And then there’s the rest of the cast – it’s such a privilege to count myself among them. Most of my scenes are with Alec [Baldwin], and he’s …well, kind of an acting God, as we all know. We get such smart directors, and the crew is amazing. My character has had some props in the last couple seasons that have boggled my mind…there was a good-bye poster Jonathan made for Jack Donaghy in one episode that was so ridiculously funny and incredibly detailed…and all the credit for that goes to the props people. It really seems like every element works together so well.
Of course, we’ve been really lucky to have developed some incredibly loyal fans as well– hopefully like some of your readers. I think that plays a big part in keeping us on the air. As well as the awards we’ve been lucky to have received over the last several years, which I think is a testament to how hard everyone works, how relevant Tina and the writers keep the show, and how no one on our set takes “success” for granted. We all try to make every episode better than the last.
What was it like filming the live episodes for both the East and West Coast? Also, did you rehearse getting water thrown in your face or did that just happen?
Oh man – doing the live show was so much fun! It was so great to spend the week at NBC’s Studio 8H – which is where they film “Saturday Night Live” every week. There’s so much history there – and just being in those dressing rooms, and walking around the hallways and seeing all the pictures of all the comedic greats hanging everywhere, was such an experience. We shoot most of “30 Rock” out at Silvercup Studios in Queens, and we’re only occasionally actually at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. So, it was nice to be in the real-life setting of our show as well. I remember sitting in Lorne Michael’s office, where he’d gathered all of us for notes before the East Coast show, and just thinking about how many legends have sat in that very office before us.
It was such a rush doing the show both times. And there was such great energy and excitement from both studio audiences that each show – both the East Coast and the West Coast version – felt totally like their own thing. It was also fun to see how the little scripted differences between the two played out.
A lot of the cast, myself included, have done a good amount of theatre. So I think we all really enjoyed having an audience. But the added fact of knowing that millions would be watching at home, and that whatever happened would be recorded forever, with no chance of going back and doing another take – really added a whole new element to the performance.
And yeah, we did rehearse Tina squirting the water bottle in my face. We didn’t want to take any chances with making sure that the water would come shooting out properly for the effect. But Tina was kind enough not to make me do it every time we rehearsed the scene. Thank you, Tina. We saved it for our final rehearsals. It was still pretty shocking when it happened though…she put some real force behind it! Let’s just say Tina can squeeze a mean water bottle. Maybe not her most prized skill, but a skill nonetheless.
How would you describe your experience working with Alec Baldwin?
Working with Alec is such an unbelievable gift. In the pilot episode of the show, my character only communicated with Jack Donaghy through post-it notes. The idea was that this man was so busy, that his own assistant had to pare everything down to a little post-it note as there was no time to be wasted on talking. Obviously over the last five seasons that’s changed quite a bit, and it’s been so fun to explore the dynamics of the Jonathan/Jack Donaghy relationship with Alec. I like to think that we’ve come up with a very bizarre, unusual, and yet totally believable realm in which these two characters exist together. For Jonathan, I feel like the heart of it is the weird, obsessive love an executive assistant has for his boss and the lengths he’ll go to, to protect that. And of course that comes out in all sorts of surprising ways because of who Jonathan is…and who Jack Donaghy is. I’ve had people who work at big companies come up to me and say things like, “Oh my gosh, we have an assistant at our office who is JUST like you!”, or even, “I AM you! My boss totally treats me like that!” Which I love. I mean, I think as an actor, you’re always trying to touch on something that hits home for people. So, it’s just been such a treat to get to develop that with Alec, and it’s always so fun to play scenes with him.
I also learn so much from him. He has an uncanny ability to cut right to the heart of a scene, or even a moment. And he knows instinctively how to make something funny…or something that’s already funny even funnier. He’s also spent so much time in front of the camera over the years that he knows exactly the best place to be in a shot, or what angle is going to be funnier, or what turn to the camera is going to make for the best close up shot. He’s not just a great actor, but he’s truly skilled at the craft of filmmaking. So it’s nice to get to watch that…and hopefully add some of it to my bag of tools.
You’ve spent the last several years hopping back and forth between projects, portraying a homosexual drug dealer in “Weeds”, an often panicky and overprotective assistant in “30 Rock”, and lending your voice to the animated series “Phineas and Ferb”. Thus, a two-fold question:
1) How do you find the time to balance all of this at once (and still appear in films and on stage)?
Time wise, I got really lucky in that when I was doing both “Weeds” and “30 Rock”, they filmed at completely different times of the year. We normally shoot “30 Rock” between August and April, and “Weeds” always fell between May and July. So there was never a conflict there. And it was really nice to be working year round…although it did make scheduling a vacation a little challenging.
“Phineas and Ferb” is such a terrific job. I’m so glad you asked about it. We’re in Season 3 of it now on the Disney Channel, and I can’t tell you how much fun it is to do a cartoon voice. The nice thing is that for me it’s not a super demanding job time wise. I can basically do it from a sound studio wherever I happen to be (which is mostly in NY or LA…but I’ve also done it once in Michigan while I was out there shooting a film). In two hours, I can record a couple of episodes as I’m not actually doing scenes with other actors. I just go in and record all of Baljeet’s lines for whatever episodes we’re working on.
But there have definitely been times when scheduling conflicts have presented themselves. Sometimes it means you have to turn down a job, even if you really want to do it. This past summer I was working on the New Line/Warner Bros. film “Horrible Bosses” which will come out next summer. And because of the shoot dates, I had to miss doing the first episode of “30 Rock”. So, it’s a balancing act for sure. Being busy is a good problem to have though. And I definitely try to make time for theatre and films and other TV work. It just means my agents and managers have to work a little harder and do some “creative scheduling”.
2) From an actor’s perspective, what is your approach to simultaneously putting on such different avatars?
I’ve been lucky to have had some incredible acting teachers over the years – in the undergrad theatre program at Northwestern, the Groundlings Improv School in LA, and in the Graduate Acting Program at the Yale School of Drama. And the thing that I really came away with from all of that is a personal process for approaching a character. On a basic level, it’s finding out the givens of who a character is, the world in which they live, figuring out what the character is really sensitive to, what motivates the character – what does he want in the world? What does he want from the other characters in the scene? And ultimately how that all molds to me. How it translates through my body, my voice. What I can bring to it? And I feel like when you have that to latch on to, you have a way to delve into each distinctive role. So that’s been pretty useful in bouncing back and forth between different parts. And then of course, you have to get out of your way with all of that, and remember to be funny!
What’s been really nice too, is that I had five years to live with the character of Sanjay on “Weeds”. And on that show, the writers kept throwing me really bizarre twists – like coming out of the closet and then having a baby with a prostitute! But after five years you really get to know a character well. And entering the fifth season of “30 Rock”, I feel like the same is true for Jonathan. I get to know him better and better with each episode.
As someone who studied theatre, how important is it for you to continue to return to the stage when possible, and how different is that world when compared to your experience in television?
I love getting to do theatre! Right out of Yale, my first jobs in New York were all Off-Broadway theatre jobs. And even growing up, I was a total theatre nerd…doing community theatre productions of shows like “Grease” and “The Wizard of Oz”…which may not have made me the coolest kid around. But I loved it. The last play I did in New York was last summer (2009), but I often do workshop productions and readings of new plays. It’s been a little hard schedule wise to do as much theatre as I would like to, but I’m always keeping my eyes peeled for a cool project to work on.
For me, it’s really important to do on a couple different levels. For one, it works my acting muscle in a different way – you get a rehearsal process where you get to really explore scenes and characters over hopefully a couple of weeks. That’s very different than television, where you basically rehearse a scene two or three times (once to figure it out, once to get the blocking down, and once to show the camera team what the blocking is going to be), and you have to crack it pretty quickly. And then, of course in the performance of theatre, you get to experience the journey of the character without stopping. You get to sustain playing the character over a couple of hours. So that demands a whole different thing than television where between each take you have to take a break for the crew to relight the scene or move the cameras to another shooting direction. And there’s the audience. In theatre you have a real, direct relationship to the audience. You can feel them and each performance is affected by the energy of the audience.
TV and Film has a different set of acting challenges. An honest intimacy with a camera stuck right in front of your face, and a boom mic hanging a foot over your head. The ability to do the scene over and over and keep it real each time. I love the final product of TV and Film as well – it’s always exciting to see the work once it’s all been edited together.
But, yes. I like to try to keep a balance of both.
What shows are you watching these days (other than “30 Rock”, of course!)?
Well, I’m still watching “Weeds” although Sanjay is not a part of this season. And I love watching “Phineas & Ferb” – it’s geared to kids, but you’d be surprised how it works on a pretty adult level. Ask your friends…they might be closet watchers. I’ve also become a bit of a cable junkie…”Mad Men”, “Dexter”, “Entourage”, and “Boardwalk Empire”. I’m a big “Modern Family” fan, and “Glee” [is] definitely on the DVR too. I still shed a tear at “Intervention” even though I obviously know by now what’s going to happen when they actually get to the intervention. I mean, how do they get to me every time?! If I mention any more shows I’m going to feel like I’m spending way too much time watching TV. So I’ll leave it at that.
Increasingly we are seeing more and more South Asians on American television. As someone who has been active in the industry for over a decade, what changes have you seen in your own career path and how important is it for you to represent that community and dispel existing stereotypes?
Wow. This is a big question. I’ve recently started doing talks to students at universities around the country, and the major thing I focus on is what it’s been like to be of South Asian descent working in American television. I speak about stereotypes, how they’ve changed over the years, and what still persists. So, I could go on about this a bit.
In a nutshell, though, in my first TV job ever, I played a foreign exchange student. I had to wear a turban, speak with an accent, and make “camel nuggets” for my dorm mate. It wasn’t the most flattering portrayal of a South Asian person, and sadly that was what most of the roles being written for South Asians looked like back then. So, to get to play Sanjay on “Weeds” – who I think shatters so many South Asian stereotypes – and to play Jonathan whose ethnicity isn’t even a defining part of the character, is a mark of huge change for me.
I think there’s still negative stereotypes out there, but at least we’re seeing some balance on TV now with characters like Mindy Kaling’s Kelly Kapoor, or Danny Pudi’s Abed. A big thing of concern now is how so many of the brown characters on TV are terrorists. And yeah – we can’t ignore that terrorism happens and of course there should be television and film made about it. But what happens when it’s not balanced out so that we get to see that brown people are not ONLY terrorists? It’s hugely important to me, and what’s nice about where I’m at career-wise now is that it’s a conversation I can have with writers and directors. It’s a conversation I had when I did a “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” that focused on a Muslim family a few years back. In the film “Horrible Bosses”, I played an Indian guy working in a call center in Bangalore. The director (Seth Gordon) and I talked about the writing and how far to go with the accent to keep it from being a stereotype. We wanted it to be funny, but funny because it was real, not racist. So, I’ll be interested to see how people react to that.
Tell us about some of the projects you’re working on at the moment and what your fans can look forward to in the near future.
Apart from continuing to work on “30 Rock” and “Phineas & Ferb”, I recently guest starred on an episode of Will Arnett’s new show “Running Wilde” which should be airing soon. I also did several episodes of Lisa Kudrow’s web series “Web Therapy”. I’m not sure when those will be ready, but I believe Showtime is planning on airing those at some point. It was really fun to work with Lisa again. I met her doing her HBO series, “The Comeback” like five or six years ago. “Horrible Bosses”, which I’ve already mentioned, should be out next summer. I think it’s going to be a really great film with some really cool actors like Jennifer Aniston and Colin Farrell. My scenes were with the leads: Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day, who are hilarious in it. And I’m doing some more voice work as well. I just did the voice of a monkey named Babi in a kids movie called “Treasure Buddies” which will be out sometime soon.
Finally, at the end of the day, what do you want people to think of when someone mentions the name “Maulik Pancholy”?
I’m not sure if I want people thinking about me too much at the end of the day. I think the end of the day should be reserved for that special someone in your life. But IF, at the end of the day, I’m the one you’re talking about…well I don’t care what you’re saying. I’m just glad I popped into your head somehow. Now good luck getting me out of there….