Kerry Washington, Aziz Ansari on Facing Racial Stereotypes, Creating Their Own Opportunities

Kerry Washington and Aziz Ansari sat down for a chat for Variety and PBS’ “Actors on Actors.” For more “Actors on Actors, click here.

Kerry Washington: How did you come up with the idea for your show?

Aziz Ansari: I was finishing up “Parks and Rec” and I wanted to do something that was really my voice. I had that opportunity with stand-up, but I’d never really gotten to act in anything that really felt like it was my voice. I’d worked on some movie scripts, but the movie world is so slow.

Washington: Aquazzura heels available at Shopbop; Ansari: Ami blazer, Our legacy shirt, apc pants and Loake 1880 boots, all available at East Dane; Photo: Bryce Duffy

Washington: Movies are hard.

Ansari: It was very slow. Sometimes I would develop scripts and then by the time [they were] ready to do anything with it, I’d already moved beyond those ideas. So I thought, “I should do a TV show.” I was friends with this guy who was a writer on “Parks and Rec” — Alan Yang — and we started talking about doing a series together. We didn’t really know what this series was going to be, but the idea was basically to take the point of view that I’d been developing in my stand-up, and explore that in a narrative form.

Washington: Were you nervous to executive produce a series?

Ansari: I was really excited, because I wanted to do something like this. I remember when the show first came out, a lot of the reviews were like, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know he had the ability to act like this.” Well, no one had ever written me something to act like this.

Washington: So true.

Ansari: Every actor feels like that at some point.

Washington: It’s because you put us in this box that there’s this one thing we can do.

Ansari: There are probably so many people that are capable of incredible things and just don’t get the opportunity. I always say if I didn’t write “Master of None,” no one would have given me this part. If that was just a script that was out there, they’d be like, “Well, no, he can’t do this. He just can’t.

Washington: In your show, you talk about a lot about auditioning. Do you hate auditioning?

Ansari: I do. I’ve never liked auditioning. In [one] episode, there are a lot of things that I feel like a lot of minority actors have told me, “Oh, this rings a bell.” When you go into an audition room and you see a bunch of people that look like you, and you start feeling like, “Oh, I’m not here for me. I’m here because I fit what looks the person they want.”

Washington: Before “Scandal,” I was actually cast in two other pilots. Both went to series, but I was fired and recast. For both, it was because they wanted me to sound more “girlfriend,” more “  ’hood.” (Laughs)

Ansari: It’s interesting. Every person that’s not a straight white guy has their version of this.

Washington: Tell me about a challenging moment you’ve had as an actor and how you got through it.

Ansari: Doing “Master of None,” there was definitely more dramatic stuff than I’d done in my other work. I felt in my heart that I’d be able to pull it off, but sometimes I’d read the scripts and be like, “I hope I can sell this.” The woman who played my girlfriend, Noël Wells — we would do a lot of rehearsals. I would just throw out the script and say, “OK, let’s just use this as a prompt. Let’s just say we’re having sex and the condom breaks.” We would improvise and record it, and do that over and over again, and use that to rewrite the scripts and find real moments. I think the show, overall, was a challenge for me because I’d never done anything where I was in everything like that and had those dramatic moments as well. What was a challenging moment for you?

Washington: Aquazzura heels available at Shopbop; Ansari: Ami blazer, Our legacy shirt, apc pants and Loake 1880 boots, all available at East Dane; Photo: Bryce Duffy

Washington: For me, it was a little bit tricky. There was a moment when I had to really take off the producing hat. I’d worked really hard in the first third of making [“Confirmation”] to fight for a balanced story where you really felt pulled, not only in the direction of Anita [Hill], but where you felt pulled toward Clarence Thomas and Joe Biden — all of the players. Just making sure that it was fair and everybody was three-dimensional and that we weren’t playing these kind of political, iconic caricatures — that we were real people. There was that point where it was like, OK, now I’m avoiding the difficult, painful acting of being Anita Hill by going over the schedule with the line producer. I have to now take off the producing hat and focus on going to that place that she was in. It was scarier than I thought it was going to be, but exciting also to learn how to take that hat on and off as a producer and actor.

Ansari: Sometimes it’s easy to forget, “Oh, I’ve got to be in these scenes, too.”

Washington: Yeah, I can’t just focus on the rewrite; I have to memorize the lines. It’s so rewarding because I agree with you. I feel like I’m at that point where it’s nice to not have to sit at home and wait to be invited to the party, but to be creating work for yourself.

Ansari: You can’t wait for anyone to open doors for you, especially if you’re not the people that are in all those stories that happen all the time. You’ve got to really create your own doors.

The entire interview can also be watched when the two-part fourth-season premiere of “Variety Studio: Actors on Actors” airs June 12 and June 19 on PBS SoCal. Presented by Shopbop/East Dane, the episodes will also be available to stream on Variety.com.

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