For a new collaborative series with 5XPress, the guys from the podcast People of the Community sat down with actor and emcee Utkarsh Ambudkar. Best known for roles in Blindspotting (2018) and Free Guy (2021), Ambudkar is also recognized from his roles in Mindy Kaling ventures such as Mindy’s younger brother Rishi in The Mindy Project and high school teacher Manish in Never Have I Ever.
Ambudkar is always a refreshing presence on screen; his characters offer more depth than that of many others with typical South Asian stereotypes and tropes we’re used to seeing in the space of Hollywood. Instead, Ambudkar is always serving up way more while also being true to real life characteristics of brown guys. In The Mindy Project he was a rapper and a bio student– I’m sure we all know a brown boy who can be described this way). His dynamic portrayals of brown boys on screen is something he’s intentional about and Ambudkar touches on in this interview when speaking about the need to say “no,” specifically with roles that reduce brown men to said stereotypes.
On top of his choices within acting, Ambudkar speaks at length with People of the Community about being vulnerable and how to ask for help when you need it. Reflecting on his own career and surroundings, he opens up about being stagnant, and the need to get sober to push himself to his furthest potential.
Read on for more wisdom from Ambudkar and People of the Community.
Q: What is your superpower? And how did you come to identify it?
A: My superpower is vulnerability.
The way that I came to identify it was by repeated failure, and then admitting said failure and realizing that that it made me stronger by asking for help. Asking for help has always been a great equalizer for me. You know, somebody said, when you share good news, it doubles when you share bad news it gets cut in half. The pay is the cut off. look, I'm not perfect at it, but I think I'm developing that as a superpower. It hasn’t reached its full potential yet
Q: When it comes to asking for help? I feel like there's two things that people struggle with. One is ego, and the other is fear of rejection. What aspect did you struggle with most? Or was there another aspect of asking for help that you had trouble with?
A: In any field, you're sort of brought up to just kind of like, fake it till you make it. Just act like you belong. When I was young, that sort of manifested itself in sort of a swagger, but it's an empty kind of swagger. It's a posturing. So we fluff up our feathers, and we do our hair and we walk a certain way and talk a certain way just to let people know we fit in.
In my late 20s, early 30s, I sort of realized how refreshing and how much of a relief it was to let go of that excess energy being expended on just trying to fit in. Instead, I started looking for someone who looks more uncomfortable than I do and asking them how they're doing. Sort of being like, “Hey, man, you look on the outside the way I feel on the inside.”
There is also the fear of well, if I'm vulnerable, and if I'm open and I'm free, then aren't people going to take advantage of me. That's a valid fear to have. However, that's where setting healthy personal boundaries and in business, working with the right people helps.
Q: Did you have a “aha” moment when it came to being more comfortable with being vulnerable?
A: It's a gradual breaking down of the ego. Hearing enough no’s. In my business of acting and music, “no” is the word you hear the most. I look back on things and ask myself, if I had just asked the writer or the director a question, if I had literally just said “I don't know what I'm supposed to do here, can you please tell me?” then I wouldn't have the regret of not being able to have given that project my all. Repeatedly, failing in that way was helpful.
Q: Have you figured out how to say no?
A: I knew how to say no, right off the jump. I had to say no, initially to things that I felt culturally were not in step with the story that I wanted to tell as a South Asian. Number one, if you run or work at a convenience store, and you're a South Asian that's your story and it is a true story. It is a story of how you come to a new country and become a business owner and a businessman. If you run a gas station, that’s a highly lucrative business. Let's not take away from how much work, it really goes into making that work. To get a taxicab medallion costs a lot of money. Those are very difficult jobs to maintain and succeed in. But these professions are the only roles that I can play. They're being marginalized within the stories that they're being told. They're being stereotyped in ways that these men and women who have come from other countries with advanced degrees are being sort of diminished into these foolish comedic, really offensive roles. You're not doing the source material justice. So early on, I was like, yeah, that's not for me. That's pushing a narrative that is not even true to how difficult it is for these people to actually work in these jobs, which require a lot of grace, faith, honor, dedication and discipline. I feel it's putting a picture of who we are as South Asians in front of a predominantly white entertainment viewing community in the wrong light.
I've also had to learn that I can't speak for the Asian community, we're all very different. All of us have different gauges on what is success and, and what we are willing to do and willing not to do. Our priorities are in lots of different places, some of us just want to make money and feed our families. Some of us want to be artists and move a South Asian narrative forward.
If I didn't say no, then you would have seen me doing a lot of stuff that I think a majority of the people in the community would not respect.
Q: You have previously said that during your 20s, you sort of relied on potential and you coasted on. You knew you were capable and that was enough. When you were 30, you realized, fuck, I must do and just not rely on my potential. That is something I can relate to. How did that switch happen? Was it as easy as the two turning into a three? Or was it something else that happened?
A: It's not it's not a secret. But I was living a lifestyle that was not conducive to being a responsible human being. I was partying a lot. This is also something in the South Asian community we don't talk about, I needed to get sober.
Everyone's like, “Oh, you're the next this… you're so special.” One day, and I was like, yeah, I'll be great. I set all these goals for myself that I didn't meet. Okay, by the time I'm 18, I’ll be an actor. Then I said by the time I'm a sophomore in college, I'll be a professional actor. I missed it. I didn't miss it by much. But I missed it. Then I was like, I want to be on People's Top 25 Under 25 List. I missed it. Okay, well, why did I miss it? It's their fault. It's because the industry is racist or prejudiced, which is true. But also, I will never know if that's the reason because I didn't give it my full. Once I got sober, I started to see a lot of behavioral patterns. What I say was, is that I started a lot of things, and I don't finish them. I've been entitled to this talent, and have been taking it for granted, as opposed to being grateful for it. Not treating it with the reverence that it deserves. It's a God given gift. When you get a gift, we respect it, and you have to nurture it, treat it with honor and it deserves to be explored to its fullest potential. That requires work and discipline.
I can be pretty lazy. You shoot for the stars, and you dream about being up in the stars and on the moon. Then you look around and you're like, Yeah, but this couch is pretty comfortable. I had to switch up. I really had to rewrite and rewire all of my behavioral patterns.
Q: What kind of validation Do you seek?
A: Validation is tough. I don't know how to answer this in a concrete way, because I think the thing that got me started in this business to begin with was a need for attention. Feeling underrepresented in my existence, feeling unattractive to the Caucasian ideal of beauty. Once you see that it's a craft and there's a real passion for telling stories and creating, it starts to get a little easier. But validation is so tough. All I know is I don't get my validation from hearing “no”.
My validation comes from making sure the sink is clean.
Q: A book that has a significant impact on your life:
A: The Alchemist
Q: Some tips on being freestyling:
A: The main thing is there's no failure. We're doing a silly party trick. It feels so good. It's so fun and it's so funny to make mistakes.
if you really want to become a proficient emcee and rapper, you need to know your history. I need to know where hip hop was born, how it was born, the African Afro Cuban Latin X diaspora that it was born out of. You can trace that all the way back to India. I'm not saying hip hop was born in India, but I'm saying that India, has ritualistic theater elements and the rhythms and those syncopations of our culture we use musically in hip hop. You need get into socio-political stuff.
Know your history practice and don't be afraid.
Q: What would be your last meal?
A: Country-fried Steak
People of the Community are a collective of socially conscious humorists & creatives who share their stories and hold space for collaborators to speak their truths. We advocate for a better world, healthier mentalities, equity, and justice through free progressive thought, inclusiveness, punching-up, uncensored candid open dialogue, and content that is honest, raw, and self-reflective.
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