Utkarsh Ambudkar on his "revolutionary" love interest role in "Brittany Runs a Marathon"

"To normalize brown people for the general viewing public has been a slow-going road," the comedian tells Salon

Published August 26, 2019 5:00PM (EDT)

Utkarsh Ambudkar (Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP)
Utkarsh Ambudkar (Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP)

Change in Hollywood, in terms of portrayal of minorities, is a long, frustrating process. That’s why actor Utkarsh Ambudkar, who is Indian American, playing the love interest of the white star in the new Amazon Studios film “Brittany Runs a Marathon” is so significant. Ambudkar, who you may have seen in the “The Mindy Project” or in the film “Pitch Perfect,” dubbed it “revolutionary” for him to play this role when I spoke to him on "Salon Talks," noting that if you look at his past roles as a South Asian man this is a big departure.

As Ambudkar explained, Hollywood’s “normalizing brown people for the general viewing public has been a slow, going road,” as he ticked off a litany of negative movie stereotypes of brown people, from terrorists to literally using Indian accents as a punchline.

And for those who don’t think depictions of minorities in entertainment media have an impact in the real world, Ambudkar dispelled that quickly: “I kept getting called ‘Slurpee boy’ in school, so pop culture, in that the way we [South Asians] were perceived with very little representation, really affected the way that we were treated outside the movie theater or off the television screen.”

Beyond Ambudkar’s groundbreaking role, he explained that the star of the film, actress Jillian Bell — known to many from Comedy Central’s “Workaholics” — also entered a space not typically seen on films. He noted that Bell broke the barrier of the “big girl” who is typically seen playing the sidekick or best friend of the female lead. Instead, in this funny and touching film, she’s the star. And she, like the film itself, are truly wonderful.

“Brittany Runs a Marathon,” which won the audience award at Sundance, is, Ambudkar jokes, a combo of the films “Rocky" and "Rudy." On some level, Ambudkar is right; the film is an underdog story about overcoming obstacles that no one could have predicted, not even Brittany. And at the same time, the film itself is breaking barriers that years ago few could have predicted.

Watch our "Salon Talks" episode here, or read the Q&A transcript of our conversation below. Our conversation has been edited lightly for clarity and length.

Let’s talk about "Brittany Runs a Marathon."  It's based on a true story.

"Brittany Runs a Marathon" was written by Paul Downs Colaizzo, our writer and director, and it's a love letter to his best friend in his 20s. Her name’s Brittany. Now, what I didn't know until I started working on the film is that Paul and the real life Brittany and I all went to college together and we were all at Tisch at NYU. Paul and Brittany remembered me, but I was doing stuff that was mind altering at the time, so I don't quite remember them as well. I was a little older too. And you know how seniors and sophomores are.

So Paul has written this wonderful story as a love letter to his best friend based on her life, which is essentially a girl who needs to get her life together and it's not going well. And she's looking for ways to improve the way she feels about herself, lose some weight. She wants to look better aesthetically, so she starts training for the New York City marathon. She starts to run and she starts to lose the weight and she starts to look better on the outside, but what happens is on the inside it gets uglier. What she needs to learn is that true beauty is only skin deep. I'm saying that as a cliché, but it's beautiful and subtle and thoughtful and really honest. And the cool thing about the movie too is you have Jillian Bell who's ...

She's great.

A megawatt. We got really, really lucky. Jillian and I have really great natural chemistry together, which is not always the case. I was super lucky. She makes everybody around her look amazing because she's such a deft comedic and very generous actor and just human being.

You play her love interest.

 Spoiler. You're going to go give away the whole damn movie.

Look, they're going to figure this out [laughs]! But the truth is, think about it. How many times has a brown guy played the love interest for a white woman? It's still rare. I mean, “The Big Sick” had it, but that was based on a true story. Generally, when you see a brown guy with a white woman, he's a terrorist and has taken her as a hostage, from “True Lies,” “The Siege” and the list goes on. In this film, you are just playing it like a human being where it doesn't matter, your background.

It's a little bit revolutionary. It's really weird because it's so basic. Because I think for most of the movie-going public, sort of the caucasian moviegoer, they're like, "Dude, like a guy and a girl. What's the big deal?" And you're like, "Well, it's a South Asian man.”

In the roles that I've gotten—and if you look at my IMDB and you look at the list of things that I've done—you'll see that this is a departure. And in many ways I know it's totally normal, but to normalize brown people for the general viewing public has been a sort of slow-going road. The fact that Paul and Tobey Maguire and Matt Plouffe and Margot who produced gave me a chance to occupy this space and work opposite Jillian who's also occupying a space that's sort of revolutionary for her.

The "big girl best friend" is now the lead in the movie; it's really cool. The skinny brown dude and the big girl best friend got to fall in love. As far as I can tell, people like it. So maybe it'll start changing some minds, perspectives.

There are probably people who watch and say,  well what does it matter that the representation in this world where you're not playing the stereotypical person, and I don't mean just a terrorist, I mean you're playing a doctor, whatever typical things like that. Aasif Mandvi, for example, he’s acting in a new series that they're shooting right now. And he was so excited because that part has nothing to do with his background.

Aasif is the O.G., so he took a lot of those cab driver roles and a lot of those 7-Eleven store owner roles before us.

I've talked about it with him many times, including on "Salon Talks," and you look back now and he's like, "I wish I didn't." But that's life at the time just to get a break. You've got to do it.

We wouldn't be here without him and people like Sakina Jaffrey, Ajay Naidu, to a certain extent Kal Penn, who I think really rode their wave and pushed my generation into it. And now you have younger actors who are brown. You have Rami [Malek], you have Geraldine Viswanathan. I think the world of Aasif because I know what he had to go through in terms of those stereotypical roles to get to where he is now as a leading man on a show.

There are times when white progressives don't even get why it's important to see different people on-screen. If you're white, are going to be the star, the hero. And if they are the bad guy, they're overshadowed by 50 other really good white people in the film. For us, the brown-Muslim guy has been the terrorist the whole time. The brown guy is the bad guy. Things are changing though.

I'm the dude at the computer telling the white lead where you are. Look at me, man. I'm not that intimidating.

You're as every bit as tough as Rami Malek and he's going to play a villain in James Bond. But things are moving forward for a guy named Rami, who played James Bond villain and some old people go, "Oh he's been a good bad guy." But it's a different level though. Because I know it's getting some complexity involved in that.

Well, you got to play it. Like Riz Ahmed was the bad guy in “Venom.” He was a baddie and he was in a position of power. And that is not a place that brown actors have occupied often, which is interesting. Everybody is subjective. We all have to eat and we all have to make our own choices and it's very different up and down the spectrum. I don't claim to have the rules on how to be brown in Hollywood.

To be able to play a romantic lead and opposite Jillian and to just be normal, like a normal dude who sounds like me and looks like me and falls for a gal, it's a privilege. And it was really interesting. It's the first time in my career that I played a character with a beginning, middle and end arc.

People might hear about “Brittany Runs a Marathon” and think it’s a movie for women in their late 20s, early 30s, but we are all always reassessing. We're always saying, "Are we where we should be?" It resonates far beyond because we all are dealing with that—everyone regardless of your age.

Missed opportunities, unmet potential, dreams that have been deferred. A lot of people are like, "Well, this looks like a great movie for women." But what we're finding in these screenings is that men, like myself included, I'm watching this movie and it's like I'm watching “Rocky” or “Rudy” or for some deep cuts like “Mighty Ducks” — one and two, not so much three. There's a little bit of “The Sandlot” in here. It's a great sports movie, it's a really fun romantic comedy in the “When Harry Met Sally” vein and the “Bridget Jones Diary” type of quirkiness and then it's an amazing acting job done by Jillian.

When you read the script you were like, "Hey, this is going to be a special movie. This is going to be unique and it's going to hopefully break through."

It's really cool. I read the script and wept. I thought it was beautiful. I really, really did. And I thought to myself, "If this script, if this movie after editing can be 30 percent of what this script is, we might have something really special." And then we shot it just like that, man. It's independent. Your zoom, zoom, zoom, one take here, set up two takes here, blah blah, blah. Cabs are going, it was a whirlwind and I live in LA, but I was a local hire in New York, so I had to put myself up. Technically I lost money doing the movie, but I subsidized it by doing a live Dungeons and Dragons show with my good buddies at Dungeons and Dragons.

Local hire means they're not going to pay for you to fly out there and put you up?

Yeah, local hire basically means you got to find your own place, fly yourself out, all that stuff. But then I saw the first cut man and you're just like, "Wow, this turned out really well," and it's really refreshing to see Jillian so involved, so engaged. She went through hell for this role. She gave her blood, sweat and tears to it. She lost 40 pounds.

I was wondering was it prosthetics early on the film?

Yeah, it was prosthetics early, but she lost 40 pounds. She went through the physical transformation that Brittany goes through in the film. She dealt with all of that emotional stress and was going through it as we were filming. It was exceptional. She was so gracious on set and then to see her really become a star, to watch someone go, "I really like you," and then see them work and go, wow, you're never going to pick up the phone again. It's pretty exciting.

Let’s go back to representation for a little bit here. In an earlier interview of yours, you talked about Dev Patel, who starred in “Slumdog Millionaire.” Turns out you're both auditioning for a small role on “Newsroom” for HBO.

Which he got. Thank God, he got it. I was speaking at that time to the fact that in my mind, somebody of that stature, having done that work at such a high level, because he was exceptional in "Slumdog," would be getting different kinds of offers, either would be getting offered the role on "Newsroom," and then they don't even call me and they're like, "Hey buddy, you're ... it's going to Dev Patel.” He's launched into a film career as opposed to he and I sitting in a waiting room together to read with Aaron Sorkin.

Your point was also the idea of someone who's brown could open a film. And I had this experience too. I wrote a film eight or nine years ago and Paramount liked it so much. They brought me in and the star was going to be Arab-American. They go, "We love this film, but there's no Arab-American who can be the star for this film." They were actually trying to be responsible. "We don't want to cast someone who's not Arab, but you don't have anybody." And I'm like, "Wow, that's the power of someone being in your community who could open a film." It's that important.

Of course. And they said that to me too. I was asking, "Can an Indian, can a South Asian, open the film?" And I think one of the execs on "Barbershop" was like, "Nope, maybe an indie." But no, there is no way you can open a big studio film. But then you look at guys like Kumail who had “Stuber” with Dave Bautista, that looks really funny.

“The Big Sick” was incredible. Really great story. Wonderful. I know he put his heart into that and it was a really nice film. I think Riz could probably lead a movie now. Rami obviously is a leading man, Oscar winner. We're in a different place now.

The Brown Invasion.

You did a lot of work buddy.

It wasn't, believe me. I only did it in comedy, stuff like that. Back to you, you just finished doing the live action Disney film, “Mulan.” Something came up on set that troubled you and you went to the people there, the executives. Tell us a little bit about that.

Well, you know on a base level, the one thing when you're doing film now , which is refreshing, is the stand-ins who help how lighting works. We'll do a scene and then we have stand-ins come in while we're going through our works so that the lighting crew and the grips and everyone can light the scene properly. Now up until maybe two years ago, what was happening is my stand ins would be Caucasian actors.

And so a Caucasian, a white guy, would come and stand here and they would light for a white guy and then I would show up and they'd be like, "Why does it look so dark? Why? Why is he so green? Why does the face not look good?" And after a while of having to go like, "Hey, can I get a stand-in that looks like me?" Just the same color tone. If you can't get the right ethnicity, which there's 2 billion of us on the planet, you got 1.2 billion of us, you got to be able to find somebody who looks like me, at least get the same color tone, which has started to happen without me having to ask for it. That’s an epiphany in and of itself. The point of saying all that was it's been easier to have these conversations.

On “Mulan,” there was stuff with stunt guys and stunt guys in New Zealand, so it was hard to find stunt guys that were my shade. We talked about coloring their skin and what that was like and we had an honest conversation about that and they were very receptive to what my opinions were, which you can imagine what they might be about, something like that.

I'm treading lightly because this is Disney, but also our characters were becoming something that we thought might be a little bit, myself and Chum Ehelepola who are working together, he's a Sri Lankan guy. We went in and were able to speak with Niki Caro, who's the director, and we were able to voice our concerns in a way that didn't ask for more real estate in the film and didn't ask for more lines. It wasn't about give us more shine. It was very much just we want the same amount of space. We just would like to be represented in a way that's maybe a little bit different and here's why. And there was across the board, total acceptance.

The atmosphere has changed from when you were growing up. I’m thinking of films like “Short Circuit 2,” where Fisher Stevens, a white guy plays an Indian guy in brown face.

Yeah, that's a tough one because I love that movie.

It's a funny movie and he's a funny character, but when you grow up and you watch that stuff and see they're not going to cast the Indian guy, but they're going to cast a white guy to do brown face. Do you even process now or later as an adult you look back and think, that's really wrong? Even internally in the industry it's wrong because there's no brown guy there who's getting known who could then maybe open the movie down the road.

Yeah, I think it's, you just said it, I agree. I mean the Fisher Stevens thing as a kid, I loved it. You know how I knew Fisher Stevens was not an Indian dude is because he was in the Mario Brothers movie also. He was one of the Goombas, the thugs. He's one of Dennis Hopper's henchmen and I was like, "Wait a minute, I know that bone structure."

And also “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” set us back quite a bit—the chilled monkey brains, taking the hearts out, snakes. That wasn't good for us at all.

Then the Apu thing, I didn't even watch "The Simpsons," I was too young. My parents didn't let me watch stuff like that, but I get getting called 'slurpie boy' in school. So pop culture in the way that we were perceived with very little representation really affected the way that we were treated outside of the movie theater or off the television screen, which is something that I think I'm not alone in.

I haven't met Rami, either of the Ramis, but there are people really pushing the culture forward in a progressive way. And as I said, I just finished a movie with Geraldine Viswanathan. They're young people coming up who are really carrying the torch in a way that we — they don't have the insecurity that we had. They don't have that fear or that chip that you have for sure. I can see it.

I have a chip too, but you see the chip getting smaller on every shoulder as the generations pass because of the hard work you did. I have it easier because of the hard work I've done. She has it easier and hopefully on down the line to where they can just be like, "Hey, I'm an actor," and you're like, "Oh my God, you lucky son of a bitch."

The way you just put it is so important about the way you were treated offscreen. You weren't even in the films or TV, but the way you were treated off screen is because of the misrepresentation of people from our community or furthering a stereotype where you became the punchline. Before we run out of time here, you've got a Broadway show, you're going to be in.

The show is called "Freestyle Love Supreme." It's an improvised one of a kind, hip-hop improv experience. It's all freestyle rap. It's based on audience suggestions. We've been doing it for about 15 years. We did a short run from January to March off-Broadway.

I think the reason that it's got so much attention now is because all my buddies from "Hamilton" are in it and we've all been in it together before "Hamilton" — before "In the Heights" there was "Freestyle Love Supreme." Daveed [Diggs], Lin Manuel Miranda, Chris Jackson, James Monroe Iglehart, myself. There's Anthony [Veneziale], Chris Sullivan, Arthur Lewis, Andrew Bancroft. I have to name them all or they'll be mad. Bill Sherman, I think I got everyone. We open October 2nd on Broadway, so that'll be eight shows a week. Starting in October through January. I'll be rapping, just doing what I do.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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