He's not yet a household name, but Utkarsh Ambudkar is starting to get recognized: the 29-year-old actor-musician was one of Pitch Perfect's breakout stars. Next up he's playing Mindy's rapper brother on The Mindy Project — the role, he explains, he was born to play. I spoke to Ambudkar about the Pitch Perfect experience, his music, and the struggles of being a South Asian actor in Hollywood.
LP: 2012 was obviously a big year for you. What was life like before Pitch Perfect?
UA: So, I moved to New York — I attended NYU, did a BFA in Acting at NYU. I was really into hip-hop, so I started battling, like 8 Mile. I used to rap battle. So I decided I’m gonna be a rapper, I’m not gonna act, fuck acting, this is stupid. But I enrolled in a class where I was meeting agents every week.
[I got signed] and I booked my first Broadway show, which was a hip-hop play — it was a comedy. And I thought to myself, this is it. I got it. I’m getting paid $700 a week from nowhere. I’m big time. You know, I was just waiting in a Korean restaurant two months before this, so I must be doing something right.
Then I started VJ-ing for MTV Desi, which was an Indian-South Asian DIRECTV-only channel. So I’d go and I’d talk to these incredibly famous Indian performers and just shoot the shit with them basically. In the same time, I was doing off-Broadway plays and I booked a commercial. This was when I got a Radio Shack commercial, and I was like, I made it, dawg. And then I was also in a hip-hop group because I was pursuing music, and that group was called the Beatards.
So it’s an ongoing story. At no point in this story is there one big moment that makes it happen. It just so happened that my agent called and said, “There’s this movie Pitch Perfect. Here are the sides.” I think I originally read for Bumper, because Donald didn’t have much in the script, so I read all Bumper’s lines. I beatboxed for them, because that’s what my character was supposed to do. And then I was like, “By the way, I rap.”
LP: You asked to rap in the movie, and you ended up doing B.o.B’s “Magic” during the final performance. Was that your choice?
UA: First thought that I had was please let me do this song, and it happened. How often does that ever happen — what you want, especially in the business that we’re in, comes to fruition? I mean, especially when you’re a no-name coming off of a very fascinating pedigree of off-Broadway work and DIRECTV VJ and D-list rap star, to be able to do a movie with those people at that caliber, at that level, and to be able to do it in Baton Rouge! We would go to New Orleans every weekend, and all they do is eat and drink and watch football. I went to prison rodeo. It was the time of my life. And they’re still my close, close friends.
LP: So pretty early on in filming, you knew this was going to be big?
UA: I knew it was going to be a hit. A month and a half in, I knew it was a hit. I was like, this is going to be a huge movie. It’s different because I’m brown, man — I’m Indian. Like, Skylar, who is awesome in the film — and Skylar and I both have a theater pedigree, ‘cause he did Spring Awakening on Broadway for many years. Skylar was like, “Dude, you’re gonna be a star after this.” And I was like, “I don’t think you understand.” It wasn’t my choice that the last movie I did was Rocket Science, and that was seven years ago, bro. It takes time for brown people and people of different ethnicities to get into the Hollywood world, which is predominantly Caucasian and African American.
So I was surprised when all this recognition came in. I’m watching the movie, and I’m like, OK, I beatbox and I sing a little bit. I don’t have many lines. I don’t have any storyline. I’m just like, OK, cool, I feel good about it. I’m a part of a great project. But I didn’t expect it to be something so great — it’s really, it was cool. Halfway through it I was like, this is a hit movie, Rebel’s gonna take off, Adam’s gonna take off, it’s gonna be great for Anna Kendrick’s fans to see her do something sweet and light and fun. Hana Mae Lee, who plays Lilly, the quiet talker — come on. You see breakout performances happening throughout the film.
LP: I felt like everyone in Pitch Perfect kind of got their moment to shine.
UA: It was really cool. It was like Wet Hot American Summer but with music. Glee Hot American Summer.
LP: What kind of attention have you gotten since the movie came out?
UA: There’s waves. The first wave comes and you get — I’m measuring it by Twitter followers, because before this, it was like, my mom and like 14 friends from high school. The movie comes out and it’s like, boom. Then the DVD comes out, and that doubles. It’s pretty fun.
LP: How are you dealing with the attention from 13-year-old girls?
UA: What are you gonna do, man? I’m 29 years old, and people are like, “Follow me, text me, talk to me.” And I’m like, legally, I feel like there’s some hazy gray area. It’s a little bit spooky. I sing this song “Let’s Talk About Sex,” Salt ‘N’ Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex,” in the riff-off scene, and mad girls are tweeting me, “I want to be your sex baby, blah, blah, blah.” And it’s like, ugh, gross. It should be gross for them, right? I feel like I’ve handled it well. I’m learning the ropes, as it were. And my girlfriend finds it funny, so that’s good.
LP: So, The Mindy Project — was that something you auditioned for, or were you approached?
UA: That’s the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me, bro, so far. I was doing a play in New York called Modern Terrorism. I was at dinner with my mom and two aunts, and they were talking about Mindy, Mindy, Mindy, because she’s Indian, and you’ve gotta just rep for your own people. You have to do it. And they’re like, oh, Mindy Kaling, she’s got this show and it’s so good and she’s so cute. Then I get a missed call from my agent, which at like 8 p.m. on a show night is weird for me. I was like, whatever, I’m with my family, I don’t want to be rude. And they talk about Mindy Kaling for the next 25 minutes.
I leave and my agent texts me, which is unheard of. He’s like, “Dude, you’ve gotta hit me up right now.” I hit him up and he was like, “I’ve got a pretty cool opportunity for you.” I play it cool, and he’s like, “So, they want you to play Mindy Kaling’s brother on The Mindy Project. What do you think?” And my girlfriend was sitting next to me, and I’m like, “Hold on one sec.” I flipped out. I did the silent flip-out where you just fist bump for like five seconds — without the agent knowing. And then I was like, “Yeah, all right, I think I’ll try that.”
Mindy’s brother needed to know how to rap. They saw Pitch Perfect, and they just gave me the role. It’s something that probably will happen in the next 10 years of my career maybe two or three more times. And that’s a conservative estimate, but if I’m going to be the realistic person that I am — I’m kind of an Eeyore when it comes to my career. I wasn’t expecting it. And it was really cool. They flew me out, and it’s right now, the next step in what’s happening.
LP: There’s been a lot of talk about Mindy being the first South Asian American lead actress on TV. Do you see a positive change in terms of roles opening up for South Asian actors?
UA: What’s changing now is I don’t have to be a South Asian actor. But no, roles are not opening up. If you look at TV, Big Bang Theory’s there. I mean, Newsroom has Dev Patel. But look at this: Dev Patel and I — I don’t know how many other people were up for that role, but I certainly went into the room and read with Aaron Sorkin for that role.
Look at Anna Kendrick: Up in the Air, nominated for Best Supporting Actress, movie career takes off. Dev Patel, part of the biggest movie of probably the last five years, Slumdog Millionaire, huge, huge film, popularity, critical acclaim — and he’s on The Newsroom. That’s like the first thing — he did The Last Airbender at the bad guy. … You see the difference. I’m going up against, at my stage in my career before Pitch Perfect, I’m going up against a dude who was in an Oscar-winning film for the seventh, eighth, ninth character, South Asian character, in a TV show. Those are his options.
You’ve gotta break out. You have to find a way — and thankfully for me, it’s been music — to separate yourself from the racial identity. It’s not easy, and I continue to work, God bless, and I’m really, truly appreciative of it. It takes a lot more work. Anyone would say that.
It takes a lot of hard work. And then just think about how lucky I am, that I happened to just work hard on being an MC and being a battle rapper and a freestyle rapper. And I went to acting school — I had the opportunity. And all of a sudden, Mindy decides she wants a rapping brother. And it just so happens I’m the only rapping Indian comedian that I know of, at the very low level that I’m at right now. It’s just kismet. It’s destiny, man. It’s a wonderful thing to be a part of. It’s truly humbling. I mean, you feel small. You really feel like a small part of cultural success. The amount of love I get from India, from Pakistan, from Asia, from Persia, Malaysia — people are just like, “Brown boy doing it, brown boy doing it!”
LP: You’ve mentioned not wanting to just be thought of as an Indian actor. Can you elaborate on that?
UA: You get pigeonholed, and you fight those archetypes of, “He’s just an Indian” or “He’s super hot for an Indian.” These are the quotes you get, and you think to yourself, OK, first of all, I don’t want to be hot regardless. It’s cool to be thought of as attractive, it really is, but from 13-year-old girls it’s a little creepy. So I’m already having a problem with the source, but will there ever be a day where somebody’s gonna be like, “I like him for who he is”? “I just like him. I think he’s very good-looking” or “talented” or “attractive,” and the label is gone. The day the label is gone is a good day, you know what I’m saying?
Denzel Washington isn’t a “really hot Black dude.” That would not fly. It’s a completely wrong statement in today’s America. “Utkarsh Ambudkar is a really hot Indian dude” is still allowed. The guy from Lost is a “really hot Korean dude.” That’s still allowed. People don’t understand that Asian men, they get emasculated in this way — by the business and by society and culture.
And I’ve worked hard in my career to be like, that’s just not on me. I’ve sat down in meetings with people and been like, “If you want to hire me to put on some glasses and a pocket protector and act like I’ve never been laid, you’ve gotta find somebody else.” We have sex. We wrote the Kama Sutra! Asian men, Japanese men — we’re freaky dudes, man. We can have fun. And for the business or the industry or society as a whole, because it’s a trickle-down effect: Hollywood is the most stereotypical distillation of what the world is thinking. Because they have to speak to the broadest amount of people.
It’s just an ongoing struggle, which is why maybe I’m a little more sarcastic than I should be. Maybe that’s why I like to dance or emulate people who aren’t South Asian, so that you can look at me and — the best case scenario right now is someone would look at me and say, “What is he?” Like, that’s best case scenario right now. That’s the step I’m at, is for someone to just look at me and go, “What are you? Where are you from?” And then the next step is, “I don’t care where you’re from.” But that’s ultimately something that will take — if I see it in my lifetime, I’ll be happy.
LP: By the same token, do you feel like you’re expected to be a representative of the South Asian community?
UA: Sure. And I should. It’s truly an important part of who I am. I’m Indian. I’m first generation. I was born here, I was brought up by two Indians, I’m Hindu. I didn’t go to church, I didn’t go to synagogue, I went to temple, Hindu temple, where I prayed to my Hindu gods — whether or not I believe in it is another story.
If a 13-year-old Indian kid is like, you know, maybe I’m gonna pick up a mic or a pen and a pad and start writing, or be funny, or try to kiss a white girl, try to be attractive and be sexy but be smart. These are things that are important. I didn’t have a role model. My role model was Michael Jordan. Bad role model for an Indian dude. … I didn’t have anyone who looked like me. And by the time I was old enough to have what could have been a role model, they were my peers. Aziz Ansari is my peer. Kal Penn is my peer. If I can be a role model to somebody younger or something, it always feels good to inspire somebody.