There’s a sweet sensitivity to Danny Pudi. Off the bat, he’s warm and affable. He makes you feel like an old friend. In between camera setups for his photoshoot, he jokes self-deprecatingly. He says he loves attending weddings. He’s also a hugger.
It’s fascinating to reconcile this charismatic actor with Abed Nadir, the deadpan, socially awkward character he’s known for playing on “Community.” Abed has been a fan favorite since the beginning of the cult comedy — the endearing nerd who doesn’t quite understand human emotion, but tries to fit in anyway.
Pudi can relate. He admits that he felt like he never fully fit in when he was growing up.
He’s a half-Indian, half-Polish product of immigrants from different continents. As a child, he lived with his mom in a primarily Polish American neighborhood in Chicago, and always felt like a perpetual outsider. “We spoke Polish at home, but I was perceived as Indian outside,” he said. “There was always a little bit of, ‘Wait, what really are you?’”
(Jack Blizzard/Kore Asian Media)
He recalls relating to Vicki, the little girl robot protagonist from the ’80s sitcom “Small Wonder.” “I used to try to find the most unusual performers — in their body shapes, in their performance,” Pudi said. He considered (and still considers) himself a weird and lanky individual of mixed race with no apparent role models, so he always felt a certain kinship with characters and actors outside the norm. His comedic icons were Chris Farley, Eddie Murphy and Jim Carrey. “Being on stage was the one place I could really express myself,” he said.
Pudi first realized a career in the arts was possible when he became Marquette University’s first-ever recipient of the Christopher Crosby Farley Scholarship. Following in Farley’s footsteps, Pudi dedicated his post-college life to comedy training at The Second City in Chicago, the institution credited for launching the careers of numerous comedy legends.
(Jack Blizzard/Kore Asian Media)
His dedication paid off. Pudi’s portrayal of the robotic pop culture savant on “Community” has earned him his own cult-status adulation. His acting and comedic talents are further punctuated in episodes where he uncannily channels other TV characters that completely juxtapose Abed, like flawless impressions of iconic characters like Don Draper, Batman or Han Solo, dramatically transforming his physicality and voice.
His last project, “The Tiger Hunter,” was his most exciting to date. Pudi stars as Sami Malik, an Indian man who immigrates to the United States to gain the affection of his childhood crush. “It’s a chance for me to do something I’ve never done, which is to be a romantic comedy lead in a film that has both comedy and drama in it,” he said.
Director Lena Khan admitted Pudi wasn’t always her first choice. When initially presented with the idea of casting Pudi as the lead, she immediately thought of his offbeat “Community” character. “I was like, ‘Abed? Abed’s weird!’” she said. But when Pudi showed up for the audition, Khan saw first-hand that “he just had this wonderful combination of soul and humor…and he wasn’t weird. He’s fantastic.”
Kunal Dudheker, who plays Rehan in the film, previously also only knew of Pudi from “Community.” But in getting to work with Pudi in person, Dudheker observed, “He’s just so sweet and genuine and funny. If you do a bit, he will do the bit until it dies. Everyone who talks to him wants to talk to him all the time.”
Pudi acknowledges a project like this, with two ethnically Indian leads (American and Canadian, respectively) wouldn’t have been possible just 15 years ago. “Two leading roles,” he emphasizes, “and not just roles that are supporting roles. That to me is a huge shift. There’s still a lot of room to go, but it’s wonderful to see some movement, and an actualization that people want to see these stories. I want to see these stories.”
From here, Pudi continues to search for projects that resonate with and challenge him. Given the chance, he would absolutely explore other aspects of film, like writing and directing. He believes these are critical entertainment roles for Asian Americans. “It’s another opportunity for us to grow as artists and also to tell stories in different ways,” he said. Still, when asked if he feels like less of an outsider with his recent success, Pudi gives a hearty laugh and a resounding “No.” It’s that exact self-effacing charm that keeps us watching.
Photos Jack Blizzard
Hair & Makeup Jayme Kavanaugh
This story is featured in Kore Asian Media’s 2018 Annual Issue. Order your free copy at koreasianmedia.com/subscribe!