Last week I had the chance to sit down with the lovely and hilarious Kiran Deol during the Tribeca Film Festival. Deol plays the role of Roopa Raj in Meera Menon’s award-winning film “Farah Goes Bang.” In addition to being an actress who has appeared on shows like “Modern Family” and “Weeds”, she also directed and developed an Emmy-nominated documentary called “Woman Rebel.” If that wasn’t enough, she’s also a really funny stand-up comedian.
IIF: Tell me about how you got involved with this movie, “Farah Goes Bang.”
Deol: They released breakdowns before but I remember seeing it online. This is actually a great little story. Through the website Actors Access, which is like a random bootleg website. There is all this crap and random things. I remember this project called “Booty Patrol 2.” Do you know what I mean? “Booty Patrol 2: The Quest for the Golden Booty”, which tells you about the quality of the projects that go on there. But every so often there is something really cool. And this one had a great breakdown and was really articulately written. They specifically wanted an Indian and someone who was funny. And I do stand up and so I was like “Oh!”
So I kind of light-core stalked them. Then I found out the director (Meera Menon) was a USC grad who worked on a thesis film of a friend of mine. Then I got her e-mail and sent her an e-mail and was like “Yo I’d love to come out and read for you. And I’m also a comic so if you ever want to come out and see a show let me know.” And she was so gracious that she wrote me back and said, “Yeah!” So she came out to this show on like Skid Row in downtown L.A. and she saw a set.
And I remember after we started working on the film, she said “You did a joke that night, which I thought was perfect.” It’s just so funny, I threw in a joke, which was a little political about MoveOn.Org. When I did the joke she said, “That’s kind of like the heart and soul of this character on film.” So It was kind of like this serendipitous lucky thing.
IIF: So what was it like once you got on board and started filming? I mean you guys are in so many different locations. I don’t know if you guys actually drove that length. (Laughs)
Deol: So the producers drove that length. Two of the producers drove from Los Angeles to Wisconsin in like 72 hours.
IIF: That’s dedication right there.
Deol: Yeah, yeah exactly. So we shot most of our scenes in Los Angeles and then we did I think like 10 days in Wisconsin. So it was like a mix between L.A. and Wisconsin for shooting. And then the crew, like Meera and our DP Paul, they all picked up the route 66 shots and stuff like that.
IIF: One of the awesome things I found about this film was that it was light-hearted but also serious at the right moments. You guys didn’t necessarily gloss over racial issues and things like that. It was there but you didn’t dwell on it. I remember a scene when you guys are in that run down apartment and KJ punches out that crackwhore because she said something racially charged about your character and earlier there was something racially charged said about Farah too. It was portrayed as if you guys, meaning girls of color, always have to deal with this anyway. Was it exciting for you to tackle a film that portrayed all these sentiments that way?
Deol: Yeah, I think that was one of the things I really liked about the script. I liked that this character was Indian and they were looking for diversity. But they were still robust and interesting characters that weren’t exclusively defined by race. I think that’s one of things we’re moving into. Where we find writing like that where you’re Indian but you’re American too. Do you know what I mean?
IIF: Exactly. Except for those moments, the awesome thing I noticed was that I forgot you guys were Indian or Iranian or whatever. That’s what really spoke to me. There was one scene where you made a hilarious joke. The Magnum P.I. joke. That was awesome. Was that on the spot or was that written in.
Deol: No that was written in. We also did uni-brow on my lip and that one was improv. But the Mangum P.I. thing was all Laura (writer/producer). I think as a performer, as a comic I think the goal is to feel this transcendence. I feel like Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, these are people who were able to transcend race and speak beyond just your specific race.
IIF: Yeah, like it’s there but it doesn’t have to define you.
Deol: Exactly, and I like that. And that’s how it was in this film. Because you touch on it to show that it exists or you touch on the fact that they’re hairy and these culturally specific things but it exists within the broader context. It’s one part of a person who’s more robust with feelings and emotions that isn’t strictly defined by race. And I thought one of the great things about this movie was that we got to play somebody robust as opposed to just an arranged marriage or whatever else is out there.
IIF: The movie itself, or at least the vibe of the film, reminded me of “Sideways” a little bit. The characters in “Sideways” might be a little bit more morally ambiguous but it’s the same vibe. There is not a whole lot going on, but it’s funny and important at the same time.
Deol: Yeah I know what you mean. I have never really thought of that comparison but I actually really like that comparison because this is similar and that’s another kind of road trip film.
IIF: It’s a universal coming of age thing that works for almost any age and viewer. So tell me a little bit about yourself. How did you get into acting and stand-up?
Deol: I graduated from Harvard a couple of years back and the first thing I did was make a documentary film about women soldiers in Nepal. I made it and HBO bought it and all this great stuff happened with it. But I felt really burnt out after that. I’d always been an actor and I was just really burnt out after the experience because docs are really intense so I auditioned for this showcase in Los Angeles called the CBS Diversity Showcase. It’s a comedy showcase and I ended up writing for them and it was kind of my first exposure to a very multicultural and diverse world of improvisers and stand-ups. It felt like like a great fit and it felt close enough that you saw people who look like you doing it. I mean I had never even really considered doing stand-up before and so after we finished that I started it. It’s been amazing. I love it! In stand-up, the great thing is you get to express your own point of view. It’s very validating as an art form. Because we’re still developing writing that’s geared towards people who look like us, you get to express exactly who you are and your point of view in a way that you don’t necessarily get to do elsewhere.
IIF: Yeah I can see that. There’s not really too much compromising on your vision I suppose.
Deol: Exactly. So I did Wyatt Cenac’s show [this past week] and Meera came. And she was telling me that one of her favorite jokes where I say I’m an actor who goes up for a lot of “weepy bitch” roles and I’m up there doing the “weepy bitch.” I take a moment to get into the role and say something like [in a perfect accent with convincingly depressed eyes] “If I go back to Pakistan…”
So this is the time where you get to comment on it and laugh about this thing that you’re pigeonholed into and talk about the negotiation of your own identity. And you get to grapple with that on stage, which is very satisfying and it’s been really helpful because somebody like Meera came to see the stand-up and that gives you a leg up when you go into the audition. When people see your stand-up they start to get to know and that can lead to more opportunities, theatrically.
IIF: I know there are a lot of South Asian comedians out there. But the way you framed it was to show it as an outlet to get your creativity or message out. A lot of the comedians that I’ve spoken to, maybe they’ve dreamed of being a comedian for a long time but I’ve never heard it framed like that. And a lot of what I’ve been trying to discuss on India Independent Films, is what it’s like being a South Asian in Hollywood and the challenges you face. So can you talk a little bit about that? I know with some of the guys I’ve spoken to they say the roles they get are almost always either a cab driver or a terrorist. So what are the typical roles you get placed into being a brown woman?
Deol: Well I started stand-up because when I look at the people who were able to transcend race, a lot of them are in comedy. And I think that is one place where it opens up a little bit faster. I think the American public is much warmer and more forgiving than the structure of Hollywood might be. They are more open to different points of view. You know it’s gonna take a little bit longer for the structure to change. But it is changing and that’s what’s so encouraging about it. But yeah, when I would go out in the beginning, it would be a lot of, again, “weepy bitch” roles. I remember the first three or four auditions I went on, one was like a surrogate slave, an abused wife, someone who’s gonna burn you at the stake, or you’re in love with a white man and you have to go back to Pakistan, all sorts of stuff like that. Which ultimately, is not the right fit. Then I got a manager who got me an audition for this tiny little thing on “Weeds”, where it’s like a woman completely dressed in a hijab who comes in with a suicide bomb and she screams at them and then blows herself up. And I remember not wanting to go out for this role. But then I thought this was the second thing my manager is sending me out for and I didn’t want to be a snob.
IIF: Well I guess it’s still work.
Deol: It’s work too but I specifically remember being very uncomfortable with it. Then I booked it and I remember going into the fitting. It was like six white women putting me into a burka. It was very disorienting. And I remember going back to my car that day and I cried my eyes out. Because I thought that I want this. Obviously we’re all working towards something but it was to the point with this role where it was like I didn’t want it. This isn’t what I want to represent and this isn’t why I started doing this. And it felt awful and wrong in my heart. And I don’t judge anybody for their choices but it just took a piece of me. And that joke, that “weepy bitch” joke originated out of that. So I started doing that joke about Weeds and for me that was a way to re-appropriate that experience, take it back and make it your own. Because I felt so unempowered after that. So it was to get my voice back or to comment on the experience or to reclaim the experience as your own, from your own perspective. I think that’s the gift of stand-up. Whether it’s something that makes you very angry or sad, you can talk about it and hopefully manage to make it very cathartic.
IIF: Wow. That’s a really interesting story. You know I hear it all the time from actors, writer, directors and others that the only way we are going to be able to tell our stories properly is by doing it ourselves. Which is precisely what’s happening with Meera. I mean, knowing what’s happened in the past and what’s currently happening, do you see a strong future for South Asians in Hollywood? I mean almost every TV show has a token Indian person, if you think about it right? You see them everywhere, which is a good thing and I think the walls are starting to come down. Do you agree?
Deol: I do. I think we’re at that cusp right now. It’s not what it was for the generation like Asif Mandvi and those trailblazers. I think you’re really starting to see it change. And I mean there are still the doctor roles and those things but you also have more interesting and robust characters like what Meera’s writing and hopefully what other filmmakers are doing. I think if more of us start being content creators and putting stuff out there and speaking to the robustness of your diversity that is partly defined by your family and whatever else but also by your experiences as a person. Because at the end of the day, whether you’re brown or not, everyone is just human.