Aasif Mandvi wants the world to know that he is more than just a funny guy. "The Daily Show has been a relatively new thing in my life," he says. "I've been acting for almost 15 years and The Daily Show has only been in my life for the last three. But it's the most visual thing I've done, definitely the thing that most people have seen, as it's in pop culture. "People associate me with The Daily Show as a comedian now and think this is all I do, but the reality is that I've done comedy and drama and theatre and film, and hope to continue to do that for many, many years."
The 43-year-old actor has just finished turning his 1998 one-man play, Sakina's Restaurant, into the film Today's Special. He co-wrote the screenplay with the former Daily Show writer Jonathan Bines, and cast himself in the lead role of Samir, a chef who opens an Indian restaurant in Queens, New York. The romantic lead is not the part that many expect from the Daily Show correspondent, although Mandvi says that this is exactly why he wrote such a role for himself.
"The negative side of being in a cultural phenomenon such as The Daily Show is that people want to reduce you down to one thing, and as an actor and performer you have to fight that reduction," Mandvi says. "People forget about all the other parts that you have played and say: 'Oh, you're doing serious stuff now as well.' And I'm like: 'I've been doing serious stuff all along and no one knows about it because they have been focused on The Daily Show.'"
That serious side doesn't show up much in this interview. Sitting in a London hotel the day after the premiere of Today's Special, Mandvi says that writing a character he knows he is going to play "is the best thing to do because you just cut out all the bad lines and keep all the good ones". The big challenge for him was turning his one-man show, which featured anecdotal tales about growing up as an Indian in America, into a narrative drama featuring multiple characters. "Ultimately it is about the story," he says. "Of course I wanted an interesting part for myself in a film, but after I wrote the script I realised that, in some ways, I had the most boring part. I gave the juicy lines to the other characters, such as Akbar, who didn't even feature in the play. I think ultimately we serviced the story rather than making it a vanity project."
Another change from the play was that the movie has a greater emphasis on food and cooking. "Food is a metaphor for family," Mandvi says. "Everyone has a relationship with food, and it's a cultural metaphor, especially for Indians. So much of Indian culture revolves around food; as much as we have different languages, religions and cultures, it's an aspect of our cultural tapestry. Also, it's something that is very visual. It represents sensuality, emotion and memories. In many ways it's like music, so it's an obvious kind of tool used by filmmakers to exploit certain narratives."
Mandvi reels off some of his favourite films involving food - Stanley Tucci's Big Night, Gabriel Axel's Babette's Feast, Lasse Hallstrom's Chocolat and Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover - before admitting that his own culinary skills could do with a little bit of work. "I wish I was a better cook," he says. "But I have learnt a lot of good cooking tips between making and writing this film. In the film, we had this idea of comparing and contrasting French and Indian cuisine. The general thought was that French cuisine has these very strict rules. You improvise within them, but there is a very strict structure.
"In contrast, Indian food has a very loose structure and this feeling, like we say in the movie, that it's almost like jazz. It's more about how the chef feels on a given day, and that inspired me to think about Indian cooking. Take my mother and the way she cooks. If you were to ask her for a recipe she would say: 'Put a little bit of this or that spice in' or: 'Put your finger in the rice water' to tell you how it is done. It's these kind of word of mouth, unstructured things that are passed on from generation to generation that make Indian cuisine what it is."
The story's romantic element has also been broadened. Mandvi says it's very satisfying to end a movie with a guy getting the girl. Films set among the Indian diaspora commonly feature a mother trying to arrange a marriage, and the theme crops up in Today's Special, too. Despite being aware that it could be seen as a cliché, Mandvi says it was an important element that comes from his own life. "I'm a single guy and my mother has been trying to get me married off since I was born. It's a big part of our culture and of who we are and where we come from. Even though some of these things feel like they are stereotypical, I think if they are handled with complexity and understanding, then it's no longer a stereotype; it's just a reality. I feel like it's a reality of being an Indian and South Asian."
Since he wrote the script and played the starring role, Mandvi must have been tempted to direct Today's Special, too. "I thought about it," he says. "However, I'd never directed a feature and didn't want my first time to be when I was starring in the film as well. I thought it would be too difficult, especially with my schedule on The Daily Show. I don't think I would have been able to give it the time it needed because the director's work only really begins when you finish principal photography, and the actors' work is already done at that point. I didn't know if I could dedicate the kind of hours that were needed to dedicate to it in post-production so I chose not to. I think next time I'd like to direct as well."
The directing job went to David Kaplan, whom Mandvi became enamoured by after seeing his 2007 rotoscope animation Year of the Fish, which is set in New York's Chinatown district. For Today's Special, Queens was an important location for the screenwriter. "I wanted to set the film in a real South Asian neighbourhood, and Jackson Heights is that in Queens. In the UK, you have Southall and Wembley, which when you go there it's like you are no longer the UK. In Jackson Heights, you have Indians and Pakistanis and you also have Jews and Greeks and Italians. It's this melting pot of immigrants that all live within this five- or eight-mile radius.
"Flushing, Queens, has more ethnicities per square mile than anywhere on the planet, so Queens is representative of that immigrant melting pot like nowhere else in the US. It seemed natural to shoot it there because so much of the story is about that very American immigrant experience." Mandvi should know all about living in the melting pot. Since his accent is American, it's easy to forget that he was born in Mumbai and lived in England between the ages of one and 16.
"I feel a bit homeless in my life, really," he says. "I'm Indian; I grew up in Bradford, then New York. I have all these different places but England represents a time in my life and period in my personal history that was very formative for me. It makes going back to England to present my film and having a world premiere in London feel right. Yet it's strange how the universe comes around, with a film I made in America premiering in the UK."
Born Aasif Mandviwata in Mumbai, the actor studied theatre at the University of South Florida. He later moved to New York City and began appearing in off-Broadway productions (he won an Obie Award for his turn in Sakina's Restaurant). After playing minor roles in big films, including in The Siege and Die Hard with a Vengeance, Mandvi rose to prominence when he played the lead role in Merchant Ivory's The Mystic Masseur (2002). He then won a prominent role in Spider-Man 2.
Most recently, he played a dentist alongside Ricky Gervais in Ghost Town and an office employee in The Proposal. He will play Admiral Zhao in M Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender next year, as he continues his attempts to force people to think outside the box - especially when it comes to offering Mandvi movie roles.