“I’ve done so much bad stuff, so it’s good to be part of something that, like, has some possibility of doing well,” says Ravi Patel with a laugh. The 36-year old actor and comedian has certainly seen his fair share of failure, having been attached to “13 or 14” pilots that were never picked up, as well as a few that made it to prime time but didn’t make it past initial episodes.
Now, success is coming hard and fast for Patel. He stars alongside John Stamos in Fox’s Grandfathered, which just got a full season pickup. Tomorrow he’ll be in Netflix’s Master of None, the new series from Aziz Ansari. And earlier this year Meet the Patels, a funny, heartfelt documentary Patel made with his sister Geeta about letting his parents find him a traditional Indian wife, became one of the most successful limited releases of 2015. A remake is even in the works at Fox Searchlight.
We spoke with Patel about his recent success, combating Hollywood stereotypes and why he always dreams of flying.
Grandfathered is one of the most well-received new shows this season. Why do you think people like the show so much?
I think it’s got a lot of heart, and I’m not sure that we see that so much anymore. It’s a sweet show, and I think that tends to resonate with people, especially with people who have already had a crush on John Stamos for 40 years.
What’s your favorite part about being on the show?
The cast has great chemistry, and I think it’s very well-written and it’s a good group of people. We’re becoming friends, and we all went out to a Halloween party the other night and it was such a fun time that the writer came down a few days later and said “Hey, we’re turning that into an episode.”
I’ve had so many misses, and I’ve done one or two pilots every year since I started acting. I’ve been in, like, 13 or 14 pilots and only a few have gone to series, but this is by far my most successful already because I’ve never gotten past six episodes.
Audiences will also get to know you on Master of None. Your episode, specifically, tackles the issue of Indian stereotypes in media. Ansari has been open about his refusal to play Indian characters with a stereotypical accent, including a role in Michael Bay’s Transformers which you ended up taking.
I think it’s really easy to say “I’m not going to do accents,” but if I’d said that, I wouldn’t have had a career. The key is now I’m in a place where things are going well, and I can use my position to write more creative roles that represent diversity.
I don’t find stereotypical roles to always be offensive. I think stereotypes are there for a reason, and are a very big part of comedy. It’s interesting, [Aziz’s] issue is specifically with Indian stereotypes, but you don’t see him walking away from other [racial] stereotypes.
You need to look at it on a case-by-case basis. Like in Transformers, Michael Bay wanted me to wear a turban. I was like “Why do you want me to wear a turban?” And he said, “Because it’s funny,” and I said “Well, that’s not a good enough reason to wear a turban.” I’ve stood up for stuff that’s offensive every time.
What’s the most racially insensitive thing you’ve personally witnessed in Hollywood?
Ah man, there’s too many to list. But I think the main one is how openly people are about race in casting. They designate which roles are not supposed to be the white people.
So for example, this year I had a role and the director called me and told me I was getting it. Then I found out they cast an Asian chick in a different role, and as a result, I couldn’t be in the show too. That’s some bullshit.
So why do you think Hollywood players think people can’t handle more than one non-white person?
Because they’re idiots. But really, it’s all driven by what’s going to look most appealing to advertisers. I think ultimately they believe the only way people will buy something is if it’s sold to them by people who look like themselves. Which is stupid.
Is the Indian community in Hollywood a really tight-knit group?
Totally. Aziz isn’t necessarily part of the group, because he’s been very successful from the very beginning. But me and all the guys who’ve come up together are super close. We ride to auditions together, we coach each other for the same roles.
Let’s talk about Meet the Patels. Audiences really love the movie, and for many viewers, it’s one of the only times they’ll see an Indian family portrayed on film. What do you hope audiences take away from it?
I always knew that Indian-Americans, or South Asians, would love this movie, because even if it’s not your own experience, you understand the story inside and out.
What I didn’t anticipate was how many non-Indian audiences would love the movie. During our festival run, we sold out every screening and it was, like, 95 percent non-Indian. What was really cool to see was that way that everyone was finding different ways to relate to it. I think the struggles and conflicts that my family deals with in the movie are all universal, in terms of dealing with loneliness and finding someone who fits in your family.
So, I just want people to watch it, and I hope it makes them think and smile and laugh. We premiered in theaters on five screens, and now we’re in more than one hundred. There’s been very little marketing done, and it’s entirely through word-of-mouth. We spent six years making it, and it’s awesome to see this kind of result.
What’s your bedtime routine?
I sleep a lot. I need eight hours, otherwise I feel like shit. I really want to become better at sleeping, and I want to figure out how to get by with sleeping less, because I feel like right now I need to sleep more than most people. I had my first day off in months the other day, and I slept till noon. That’s my idea of a great time: sleeping and doing nothing.
I can do most things well off of little sleep, but acting, specifically, is very difficult for me when I’m exhausted and sleep-deprived. Especially if I have long scenes, it’s hard for me to store the scenes in my head. Memory, of course, is severely impacted by sleep deprivation.
What kinds of dreams do you have?
I have the “flying” dream a lot. That’s gotta mean something, right?
They normally mean you’re happy.
Then I must be happy, because I have a recurring dream where I fly over the city visiting people. But I haven’t been dreaming lately, though. I haven’t been having dreams for months. I don’t know what that means.
What kinds of things keep you up at night?
Often, if I can’t sleep, I’ll lay in bed, envisioning myself as the quarterback of a football team and coming up with plays. I love football, but I wasn’t a player growing up, and it’s weird at this stage of my life that I find myself dreaming up and executing plays. I think I have some serious sports complexes I need to work through.