SALON TALKS

Aasif Mandvi talks "Evil," djinns and "the appeal of Trump" despite being hated by GOP leaders

The actor appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss his hit series & how to tell if a beautiful woman is really a demon

By Dean Obeidallah
Published August 29, 2021 11:00AM (EDT)
Aasif Mandvi as Ben Shakir in "Evil" (Elizabeth Fisher/CBS/Paramount+)
Aasif Mandvi as Ben Shakir in "Evil" (Elizabeth Fisher/CBS/Paramount+)

Aasif Mandvi is a Muslim guy playing a Muslim character on the addictive Paramount+ series "Evil." And get this, he's not the evil one on the show. He doesn't blow things up or even threaten a jihad. Years ago this would be unheard of, but thankfully in recent years Hollywood has become a bit more responsible when it comes to depicting Muslims.

On "Salon Talks" I spoke to Mandvi, who I've been friends with for many years, about "Evil," a truly scary drama that deals with (possible) demonic possessions and other supernatural horrors. Mandvi plays Ben Shakir, a technical expert who helps his two partners make sense of the unknown and investigate cases through varying lenses of belief and scepticism.

When we chatted, Mandvi, who many know from his nine years on "The Daily Show" as the "all things Brown" correspondent, was especially excited about an episode this season that features a djinn. In Islam, a "djinn," better known as a "genie" (yes, think "Aladdin"), is a supernatural spirit that can be good or evil. The episode also features a priest battling an Islamic cleric over who gets to perform an exorcism on a person thought to be possessed by a jinn. The battle is a bit comedic, but still introduces the audience to an Islamic cleric who is depicted in a positive, caring light — as opposed to how we have typically seen Imams portrayed by Hollywood in the past.

But even as Ben's team brushes againt the supernatural, everyday real-world concerns intrude to demonstrate the far-reaching nature of evil and navigating what it means to be a moral person. This is a natural direction for the series' storytelling, consdiering the series is created by "The Good Fight" duo Michelle and Robert King.

Mandvi discusses all things "Evil," childhood horror stories, demons and his views on America post-Donald Trump. You can watch my "Salon Talks" interview with him here or read a full transcript of the interview below.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Tell people about "Evil." It is a crime supernatural drama and it is truly scary.

"Evil" is, I would say it's like "Ghostbusters" meets "Silence of the Lambs" meets "The X-Files." If you mash all that and you make a baby out of that, that is kind of what "Evil" is. 

The premise is that there are three characters, Katja Herbers plays Kristen Bouchard, Mike Colter plays David Acosta, and I play a character named Ben Shakir, and we're sent out by the Catholic Church to investigate their backlog of miracles, demonic possessions, whatever it is – in terms of like trying to figure out is it something supernatural or is it something that can be explained technically or through psychology. Is it a psychopath?

I play Ben Shakir, who is an atheist, but he comes from a Muslim family. He's a scientist. He's a tech wizard. He's kind of like a MacGyver sort of character who, if there's anything that needs to be figured out on a non-psychological or non-spiritual plane, Ben's your guy.

What I've learned is that children can go from cute to creepy in five seconds on your show.

I have a child myself, and I know that to be true.

I'm not kidding, there's something about children that are so endearing that on your show you have these cute little kids and then you have these children who are . . . it's like "The Exorcist." I mean, literally there's an exorcism episode, several, where you have these kids that are really creepy.

We've got some great young actors. The kids that we've gotten are remarkably good and really talented. The kid who in the first season, the fourth episode, was this psychopathic kid, this kid who, he must've been 10, 11 years old, he was trying to kill his baby sister. It sounds creepy, folks, but it was hilarious.

It's not a funny show. You're the comedic relief.

I am, and so there you go, it tells you everything right there.

The fact that you're Muslim and an atheist, it doesn't come up that much, but there was an episode this season where it did come up.

Yeah. It's interesting, when I got cast on the show, the character that I originally got, his name was Ben, and so he was not supposed to be Muslim or brown. Then when they cast me, I think they were like, oh, this is an interesting place to explore. There was always this idea that I think Robert King had brought it up to me a while ago that he had this idea of doing sort of like a Muslim and a Catholic exorcism. He was asking me a little bit about Muslim exorcisms and stuff like that. They wrote this episode and it's kind of crazy because you have these two, an imam and this priest, and they're kind of vying for who's going to do this exorcism on this young girl who's seeing a djinn.

Explain what a djinn is. It's not G-I-N.

No, it's spelled in English D-J-I-N-N. Most people know it from Aladdin and the lamp, the genie that came out of the lamp. The word "genie" comes from djinn, and a djinn is a spirit. What's interesting is that Ben goes to some explanation on the show about how a djinn can be good or bad in Islam. In Catholicism or Christianity, demons are always bad and they're always evil. Whereas in Islam, a djinn can be a trickster or mischievous. It can just f**k with you, but not necessarily of Shaitan, you know? Which is what we would say in Islam.

I thought it was really interesting. It was creepy and the girl who played that part was really good and she was really scary, but then there was also this kind of absurd quality of these two guys who are like, "No, I'll be the exorcist!" "No, I will be the exorcist!" The show does that a lot where it travels this line of it's scary, but it's also kind of weird and crazy and sometimes even slightly funny.

There are definitely funny moments. That's really interesting is when you had the imam and you had the priest who both wanted to do an exorcism of this young girl, and they're not joking. It was kind of humorous to watch it. It's like a mini holy war and then there's some coexistence at the end.

Exactly.

There was a part in the show when you were talking to your sister and she says it's an ifrit. Not a freak, but an ifrit. When I was a kid, my dad would call me ifrit all the time, like little devil. Because I wasn't a djinn, but I was always mischievous and causing trouble. So it was funny to watch her say the Arabic word, ifrit.

Well, you know what's funny, what's interesting is that Robert King and I were talking a while ago and he was asking me about crazy horror stories from my own childhood and my own family. I told him the story about how my grandmother used to tell me this story when I was a kid about in the little village in India where she grew up if you went out at night there were these women that would walk the streets at night and they would dress very beautifully. Some of them were dressed like prostitutes, you know? But if you looked down at their feet and if their feet were turned backwards, then you knew that they were actually spirits. They were demons. They were not, you know? The weird thing is that I heard this as a child and it scared the living s**t out of me.

I remembered it and I brought it up to Robert and then they put it in an episode that's coming up on the show this season where Ben has this experience with this creature that is dressed like a very seductive woman and then the feet are turned backwards. Actually, in South Asia and many parts of Asia, this idea of these demons that walk with backward feet is a very common thing. So they've incorporated this stuff and I thought it was really cool that they put that into the show.

Most people have never heard of a djinn, they have no idea. So by watching that episode, Americans have heard about a djinn, they learned about there are exorcisms, both Muslim exorcism and Catholic exorcism. Which is kind of interesting that it's not something that's talked about much.

No, no. I've never seen it done before. I've never seen a Muslim exorcism ever. My mother saw one.

Really? She actually watched an exorcism?

She saw an exorcism, she said, as a child. Then she said she saw one when she went to Karbala in Iraq. We go to Karbala to go to the tomb of Imam Husayn. This is going over the head of a lot of people.

Well, no. People want to learn, so it's good you explain.

There's people out there who know what I'm talking about. She said she saw a demon come out of a woman's body, that kind of thing. So that kind of stuff was definitely very normal in my home to talk about. I don't know about your family.

No, not at all.

Yeah, we were always talking about demons and ghosts and stuff.

My mother, who's Sicilian, would curse about the devil all the time. I think more on my Italian Catholic mom's side were there talks of devils and supernatural things.

Little devil, I think that was your comedy name when you first started in the business.


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Tell people about the showrunners on "Evil" and how collaborative they are.

I could talk about the Kings all day long, Michelle and Robert. It's so interesting because they really are like a powerhouse Hollywood couple. If you ever watched "The Good Wife" and "The Good Fight" and now "Evil," they are creators who have created a lot of really amazing content and are incredible writers. So often in this business you meet creators or showrunners and there's just a Hollywood vibe to them, this kind of whole LA-Hollywood vibe, and Michelle and Robert look like they live in Michigan or something. They just look like mom and pop down the street.

It's been an amazing experience to work with them and to work with the rest of the cast. We all get along. It's also kind of fun to do a show where there's no huge egos. I mean, maybe I might start developing an ego at some point. We're kind of betting on who's going to become the big diva on the show because right now we don't have one. Somebody is going to have to break out as the diva.

Have you had any nightmares from working on the show? Does anything stay with you?

Well, the biggest nightmare was when I didn't know if we were going to get picked up for Season 3. That was a big nightmare. I mean, I can't say, because it's so weird. If you watched this season, there's a bunch of episodes where Ben gets visited by a night terror and she's this female demon and the succubus sort of inhabiting all of his darker thoughts and stuff. But you shoot a scene like that and on screen it looks really scary and terrifying and she's there, and the actress who played the part was a lovely woman and had a very lovely demeanor, but she's got this giant costume and so the whole thing feels very, it's hard to be terrified.

You've got to really act because she's got an electronic tail and there's three guys, you know? At one point I remember they got a camera above me and I'm lying there with the demon woman to my side and one of the crew guys comes over to the DP and he's like, "You know, if she was seducing him, she might have her hand here," and he rubbed my . . .  It's just this kind of surreal experience of like all these guys standing around, and you've got this demon on top of you with an electronic tail and there's three guys working the tail. It all ends up feeling like that behind the scenes on this kind of thing, but it is all put together.

The humor of that, it's scary, but then she takes her retainer out.

It's so funny, I've been asked about that line a lot. I remember reading it on the page and I thought, oh, that's an interesting line. As I was working on it, I thought, well, Ben doesn't believe any of this stuff, right? He's a pragmatist, he's an empiricist, and so he doesn't believe that he's really being visited by demon. So he probably goes, oh, I'm making this up. So if I'm making up a demon in my dreams, why am I giving her a retainer? What is that about? Was I so hurt by someone who had a retainer at some point? Do you know what I mean? So it came out of that sort of idea, Ben really being like what is it about me that makes my demon that I create have a retainer? 

Yeah, I imagine since you created the demon in your brain, it must be from a relationship that you had somewhere.

I think Ben was like, did I date someone who had a retainer who broke my heart?

"Evil" was on CBS the first season and then moved to Paramount+, which is the new streaming network that they have. What is your reaction to moving from CBS to Paramount+?

I think it's great. Look, obviously there are people who are disappointed that it's gone from free television to now behind a paywall. Here's the reality, I think the reality is that television is moving to streaming, and network television was down 20% last year compared to streaming. You can see that the entire industry in terms of TV is all moving towards sort of the streamers and you can see the success of Netflix and Apple and Hulu, and Paramount+ is the new game in town. I think you're going to just see the most content will in the next few years start moving towards streaming.

What CBS did for us was they said, look, this is a great show, it's an expensive show, and it deserves to have a platform where you guys can actually creatively also do much more interesting stuff. Because we're not limited by network Standards & Practices anymore, so we can do all kinds of stuff in our third season now that we couldn't do it when we were on CBS. And we get a full hour as opposed to 43 minutes or whatever, which affects the way the show is edited and stuff, so I think it could be creatively a really good move.

Will there be djinn sex, naked djinns?

I hope so. My goal for Season 3 is that Ben gets to show his naked back. Not anything else, just drop the rope and just to get to see the back. Just the back. Just the top of the butt crack.

The future of content is really online now, which is remarkable.

There are still people who tune in on Thursday nights at 10 o'clock or whatever, but I think people are now watching it mostly when they want to watch it. They're bingeing things, and that's where the content is moving.

With our show right now, it is airing once a week, so if you can't wait and you want to watch it, you want to watch it once a week. There is a certain sort of beauty in that as well where you kind of get the anticipation of watching once a week, or you could just wait till it's all there and then you just go and binge it because the other thing is it's on there. It's like you can just keep watching it, it's not like it's going anywhere. So it's on Paramount+, you can watch it, you can binge the whole season once it's aired if you don't want to watch it right now.

Before I let you go, let's just get your reaction to politics. You've lived in different countries, by choice or by people clamoring for you to leave. Now you're here in the states, but you and your family were immigrants here. Where do you think we are now? Trump's gone, but on some level it seems almost more alarming where the Republican Party is going. It's not even about politics, it's just going in a trajectory that we're not used to seeing in America. We're used to seeing it on History Channel about the 1930s and '40s.

I mean, it's interesting how the Kool-Aid gets drunk, do you know what I mean? You think to yourself, how did that happen? How did the Nazis come to power? How did the fascists come to power? Then you just start to realize, oh, it is just a chipping away at little things. That's what we've been seeing and it's still continuing.

The Republican Party has moved now to a kind of embracing this fringe QAnon part of it.  I think what's happened to Republicans now is that they're terrified that Trump is still in control of the Republican Party because he's still got this giant base of people that support him and that voted for him in the last election. He's kind of almost become the Rush Limbaugh now of the Republican Party where he's the puppet master from behind the scenes.

Everyone's dancing the dance to just keep those people happy and that's what ends up happening is that you start, and by doing that and discarding your own moral barometer you start to just get sucked into the sort of vortex of Washington where it's just maintain and retain power. Mitch McConnell is a perfect example of that, somebody who's just whatever means necessary. It's like he doesn't care what he has to do just to retain that control and then it just becomes a chess game. Then you realize that all these guys are just playing chess and they're just trying to win, and it doesn't matter. Then we're all sitting here going, how could anybody really believe that? It's like, well, they probably don't, but they just know that's the winning formula and that's what they've got to do so they've got to say that. They've got to just say that and they hate Trump. Most of them hate Trump.

Well, I think the bigger name Republicans might, but the rank and file love him.

I think a lot of the people who are die-hard politicians, I think they hate Trump. They hate the fact that he has a chokehold on the party now.

I think about how much fun it is to be a Trump supporter because you're not restricted by facts or reason or knowledge. You can believe anything you want. It's like being Peter Pan forever.

Well, that's what I think is part of his appeal. Part of the appeal of Trump was like, "I'm a bad guy, and I don't care that I'm a bad guy. If you're a bad guy, if you have these thoughts." The genius of Trump was he never apologized for anything. He would just be this kind of narcissist, sort of just juvenile, whatever it was, man-baby, and never apologize for anything and just double-down, and people saw that as, yeah, I want to be like that as well. There's something about that that's cool to me.

I think Trump might be a djinn. Definitely an evil one.

He might be a djinn.


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 CNN.com 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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