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Desi Making Waves

By Priyanka Dayal

Rock Star: A Conversation with Maulik Pancholy

Maulik Pancholy is a busy guy. The 35-year-old Indian American actor is on three television shows, in a few upcoming independent films—and, someday, maybe a Hindi film. These days you can catch him on NBC’s 30 Rock playing Jonathan, the ever-obliging assistant to Jack Donaghy, played by Alec Baldwin. And stay tuned for new episodes of Weeds, in which Pancholy plays drug dealer Sanjay. Pancholy spoke with ABCDlady about his character Jonathan, his upcoming projects and working with Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey.

How did you get on 30 Rock?
It was a regular old audition. The casting director liked what I did and said she’d like me to meet Tina Fey. [In the pilot episode, Jonathan communicates with Jack Donaghy only through sticky notes.] I kind of went overboard with it. I was pasting Post-it notes on my arm. At the time I thought it was too much, but I guess it worked.

Who is Jonathan? Do you relate to him?
There’s parts of myself that are similar to Jonathan. I tend to think of him as obsessive-compulsive and easily excitable. I grew up with a bit of a perfectionist mentality. I tried to always bring home the best grades. And on some level, I think he is this bizarre guy that I hope is different from myself.

Is the behind-the-scenes action as crazy as the action on the show?
We have a lot to do on any given shooting day. There’s a huge crew and a lot of people who have to work to get it done. It’s not very frenetic or anything

like that, but it is a busy set.

How would you describe Jonathan’s relationship with Jack?
Pure obsession. I think he would love to be Jack Donaghy and probably spends a good amount of time worshipping him on the sidelines.

What’s Alec Baldwin like?
He’s great. When I first met him I was definitely a little intimidated by him because he’s Alec Baldwin and he’s had this amazing career…. But over the years I’ve come to know him as this good guy. I think he’s looked out for me. He’s like, “Let’s get Jonathan in this scene.” He’s a good guy and an incredible actor. Being around him is a little like being in an acting class.

Do you laugh backstage as much as we laugh while watching the show?
There’s always really funny stuff happening. But people aren’t performing all the time. They’re relaxed. It’s kind of like a family…. I think it’s a gift to be on a show that you really, really like and is not just a job.

What’s it like working with Tina Fey?
It’s so great. Sometimes I have to pinch myself. She’s also one of the nicest, most generous people I’ve worked with. She writes and executive produces for the show, apart from being a mom and having a family. She never seems stressed…she never snaps.

Is Liz Lemon like her?
I think everybody has a little bit of themselves in their characters, which is partly why it works so brilliantly. The writers write to the strength of the people who are playing the part. She’s obviously brilliant and talented and obviously able to make fun of herself.

If Jonathan went 10 rounds in the boxing ring with Kenneth, who would win?
No matter what the outcome was, Jonathan would think he has won. He could go home bloody and with his shirt ripped and think he has won.

Any favorite moments from the show?
When I’m singing to Jack Donaghy.

Did you practice the singing?
Oh, I practiced.

What else are you working on?
I do a voice on the Disney cartoon Phineas and Ferb… I play a little Indian kid who speaks in a high voice. Not only do I go in and record it in a high voice, but then they pitch it up…. It’s really fun. It’s a completely different way of working. Most of the time you go in and it’s just you…no other actors are there. It goes against the actor instinct of playing off your partner. But there’s a great freedom in it, a real sense of play with it.

Where were you born?
Ohio, but my family moved around…. Junior high and high school was in Tampa…. then Indiana, Texas, college in Chicago, grad school in Connecticut, L.A. for a while.

Where is your family from?
Gujarat. We used to go [to India] when I was younger. I went the Christmas before last. It had been about ten years since I had gone…. It was nice. I have second cousins over there. People have such great spirit in India…. The people I know there—their hearts are huge. You haven’t seen them in ten years, and they’re waiting at the airport ready to take your bags and take you out.

What languages do you speak?
I speak Gujarati and Spanish. I’m pretty proficient with learning Hindi.

Do you approach characters differently if they are South Asian or not?
I have a twofold thought process. If the character has a specific background, it obviously comes into play. For 30 Rock, when I was brought to the part, his name is Jonathan but he had no last name. It was up to me to bring what I wanted to that. I chose to keep him closely to me…. I’m Indian-American and I consider myself Americanized. I don’t deny my heritage. You look at me and you know I’m from somewhere else. Those things play out subtly…. When the character is written more generally, it’s up to you.

What other projects do you have in the works?
Lots of independent films in the past few months. A small part in a film called Love N’ Dancing, which is about West Coast swing dancing. That’s releasing in May. And a film called Love Ranch, where I have a scene with Helen Mirren. We just wrapped on 30 Rock. We’re coming up on the next season of Weeds. We start that in July or August.

With all these projects, what’s your schedule like?
There’s a lot of hurry up and wait. It’s really unpredictable. I’m kind of okay with that. I just took a vacation to Utah and they called me and said we need you in L.A.

When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
I told my parents when I was five, according to them. I don’t know why at the time. As a kid, it was definitely an outlet for me on some level. I was always drawn to the arts. I started playing the piano at a young age. My parents are not artists, but they were active in the community in arts. My dad was a huge fan of Hindi films. We would sit down and watch old Raj Kapoor movies.

Have you ever thought about being in a Hindi film?
I’ve considered it. A few opportunities have come up, but scheduling has always been an issue. I think that market’s going to grow in such a huge way. It already is.

Catch Maulik Pancholy on 30 Rock on Thursday nights on NBC and watch him on Weeds on Showtime on Monday nights.

Priyanka Dayal is a journalist in Massachusetts, who appreciates good acting and absurd comedy.

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