'Daily Show' Star Whips Up A Food Movie -- And More Comedian and Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi also has a thriving acting career. He talks with NPR's Audie Cornish about his new film, Today's Special, and staying true to his own identity.

'Daily Show' Star Whips Up A Food Movie -- And More

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If you're a fan of "The Daily Show," then you're probably familiar with regular correspondent Aasif Mandvi.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Daily Show")

Mr. AASIF MANDVI (Middle East Correspondent, "The Daily Show"): Well, Jon, if they're not going to make a distinction between Muslims and violent extremists, then why should I take the time to distinguish between decent, fearful white people and racists?

Mr. JON STEWART (Host, "The Daily Show"): Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: Before Aasif Mandvi was a comedian, however, he was an actor in movies and on stage. His latest film is called "Today's Special." It's inspired by a one-person play he wrote. He plays Samir, a high-class chef who takes over his father's rundown Indian restaurant after his dad has a heart attack.

Aasif Mandvi visited our New York bureau this week and he told me the film is about more than just food.

Mr. MANDVI: The journey of Samir, our hero, is the journey from his disassociation with his culture to the reclaiming of his culture. He wants to be a great chef, but he's never going to be the great chef that he wants to be until he actually reclaims his identity that he has let go. And food represents one's home, one's culture, one's family. And so, you know, immigrant communities always hold on to their food and their language. So those are the two things they tend to hold on to in order to retain their immigrant identity.

CORNISH: This is also about, I guess, multigenerational families. And talk about, I guess, your own family in this respect because I read that you were actually born in India, raised in England, and now your family is based in Tampa, Florida.

Mr. MANDVI: Yeah, that's right. You know, I took a lot of stuff from my own family. I took a lot of stuff that my dad says and my mom says. This one line that I love in the movie where Samir's father tells him, do whatever you want with your life...

(Soundbite of movie, "Today's Special")

Mr. NASEERUDDIN SHAH (Actor): (as Akbar) Go into France, go to England.

Mr. MANDVI: Go to England, France, China...

Mr. SHAH: (as Akbar) Marry a bloody Chinese clown girl.

Mr. MANDVI: Marry a Chinese clown girl and have your mother come and cry at the bloody wedding, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MANDVI: And that's really something my dad has said, you know. My dad has used the term Chinese clown girl.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MANDVI: And so, marry a Chinese clown girl.

CORNISH: Now, in the film, Samir's father doesn't really hide his disappointment in his son's choice of career, being a chef.

Mr. MANDVI: Right.

CORNISH: What did your own parents say when you told them you wanted to be an actor?

Mr. MANDVI: You know, they weren't thrilled about it. You know, I mean, as any reasonable parent, they sort of tried to talk me out of it. But, you know, we sort of migrated to America when I was in high school, and I started taking theater and drama and stuff. And I think that what happened in my life was that my parents were so busy trying to start this new life in America that I ended up taking all these drama classes.

And so it sort of just snowballed. And before my parents had realized, they turned around and I was already, you know, like, doing theater and it was, like, well, a passion and a love in my life. And so, you know, theater and acting have always been with me since then.

CORNISH: The place I've read that you've done, especially some of your work in New York a few years ago, tackles some very serious topics. I mean, you were in a play a few years back called "Guantanamo," which is about, I think, a Muslim detainee at that prison base, and another one called "Homebody Couple." Was it a conscious thing? Because I know for many actors in Hollywood and in theater that when you are brown you get typecast into all kinds of roles.

Mr. MANDVI: Yeah.

CORNISH: So why this focus on identity and how did that play out in the other aspects of your career?

Mr. MANDVI: A lot of my own writing and my own work has ultimately had to do with identity. And East versus West are what Tony Kushner loves to call the Greco-Bactrian confusion. And after 9/11, of course, it became even more heightened for me because being raised as a Muslim and living in the West, it suddenly became very personal.

CORNISH: And I think it's interesting that, you know, you're getting these roles at a time also where there's probably a lot of roles around for people to play the terrorist.

Mr. MANDVI: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: You know, and...

Mr. MANDVI: And I get offered those - you know, and I audition for those - and the thing is it's always, for me, really about the role. I mean, I've never said, oh, I don't want to play a terrorist, you know. But it is really about the dimensions of the role and the complexity and, you know, because, I mean, it's very easy for people to sort of just write one-dimensional roles in any capacity.

I mean, I started off my career playing one-dimensional cab drivers and deli owners, you know? And then it became - later, it became one-dimensional terrorists and, you know, and doctors. But if the role has complexity to it, then I think it's worth exploring, you know.

CORNISH: Talk about that in context of "The Daily Show," because it's interesting: you're doing the same things and arguably it has more reach.

Mr. MANDVI: Right. Well, the most effective I feel on that show is when I am standing on the fence between cultures and when I'm speaking as that sort, quote-unquote, brown correspondent. You know, these Muslim organizations or whatever, they'll come up to me and they'll say, you know, the kind of bridging and outreach that we're trying to do over years and years, you know, you're able to do it in a three-minute sketch. You're able to make that point more succinctly than we are in all of our sort of programs that we do.

You know, and sometimes I think comedy has that effect. It can sort of distill things down to the very essence and sort of, you know, almost like a pinprick -it hits you right there and you kind of get it for at least a brief moment. I don't know if people actually do anything about it afterwards. It's probably just cathartic more than anything else. But at least for a brief moment you understand something, you know, that is maybe quite complicated in a very simple form.

CORNISH: That's actor Aasif Mandvi. He can be seen as a correspondent on "The Daily Show" and in his new film, "Today's Special," which is currently in limited release in theaters across the country.

Aasif Mandvi, thank you for joining us.

Mr. MANDVI: Thank you very much.

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