Outsourced actor Manji speaks at CroMem

May 10, 2011, 2:04 a.m.

Rizwan Manji, star of NBC’s hit television series “Outsourced,” spoke last night at the Crothers Memorial Lounge about “life, acting and what it is like to be a South Asian Muslim in Hollywood.”

The show follows the life of an American call center manager whose job is outsourced to Bombay, India. Manji plays the manager’s scheming assistant manager, Rajeev. During his talk, actress Aneesh Sheth, who guest stars in the last two episodes of the season, joined him. They began with a Q&A session with Elahe Popat ’13 and then responded to questions from a largely South Asian audience.

Manji began by discussing his childhood in Canada, his “horrendous accent” and his decision to pursue acting despite the fact that his parents pushed him to pursue law.

“I think the first play I got a role in was in junior high school,” he said. “Once you get a laugh, you’re like, ‘Oh my god, I want to do this for the rest of my life.’”

Although his parents’ support for his career increased with time — “My dad, I think, has become my agent,” Manji said — the political environment made it difficult for him, a Muslim actor, to find work.

Reflecting on this challenge, he said, “2001 was also the time when 9/11 happened, and suddenly jobs for people that looked like me sort of stalled a bit.”

After numerous TV roles, he landed a part on “24” in 2010, when he made the decision to portray a terrorist in spite of his previous aversion to those roles.

“The only problem I had for the longest time was playing terrorist roles,” he said. “For me personally, being Muslim, I felt like I did not want to perpetuate that stereotype.”

When he was offered that role, however, he came to a realization.

“In order to show the good part, you also have to show the other part,” he said. “That could have been my rationalization because I needed money . . . At that time, I felt okay doing that.”

Regardless of the “doctor” and “cab driver” stereotypes that Manji mentioned, he concluded that being South Asian in Hollywood has actually been beneficial.

“I have always felt, a hundred percent, that being Indian has helped me in this career,” he said. “Especially because when I walk in the room, I look different . . . that’s something that I’m going to bring to it, no matter how horrible my audition is.”

“When there is a role for a Caucasian actor, you have so many choices,” he added. “But when you’re auditioning for a part that’s specifically written for an Indian, there are less.”

Furthermore, his role on “24” was received positively by his own Muslim community.

“It was funny because at my mosque, everything else I did people didn’t care about, but this was ‘You were on “24” and you acted with Anil Kapoor — that’s so exciting!’”

Manji began acting on “Outsourced” in 2010, when he decided to audition after “laughing out loud” while reading the script. The producers originally auditioned him as the workplace clown Gupta.

He jokingly described the audition as a “South Asian Student Association meeting.” Manji got the part of Rajeev after all of the original candidates were eliminated in favor of his portrayal.

Sheth, on the other hand, spoke about being the only South Asian transgender actress on television.

“I got a lot of criticism from the transgender community because I was a stripper on the show, and they thought I was negatively reinforcing stereotypes,” Sheth said. “One of my teachers in acting school said, ‘If you’re getting stereotyped, at least you’re working.’”

“You have to start with something,” she added. “I never thought I could be a transgender actress.”

Sheth also has a background in social work and mentioned a passion for working with LGBT youth and a desire to mix television with activism. She mentioned that she even fought for transgender visibility at her “Outsourced” audition.

She described the role as “a great opportunity” for transgender people to gain visibility.

“I would love to one day be that one transgender actress who books a role as a genetic woman,” Sheth said.

Sanskriti, a South Asian campus organization, hosted the event.

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