A Chat with Rizwan Manji, Parvesh Cheena, and Anisha Nagarajan (“Outsourced”)

Although I mentioned in the intro to my chat with Ben Rappaport that my encounter with him at the 2011 Winter TCA Tour was the first time I’d ever spoken with him, it was not the first time I’d talked to a cast member of “Outsourced.” I had the pleasure of speaking with Rizwan Manji and Parvesh Cheena back in August at the summer TCA tour, and having enjoyed watching the ensemble of the show really come together since then, I took advantage of the opportunity to talk to them again. It was an added bonus, however, that the lovely Anisha Nagarajan, who plays Madhuri on the series (and who I’d not met previously), happened to walk up while we were chatting. All three were jazzed about the way “Outsourced” has been coming along and, perhaps more surprisingly, are actually kind of excited about their new 10:30 PM timeslot, which takes effect tonight.

One housekeeping note: there are a couple of questions within the piece which were asked by my TCA compatriot Bill Brioux, who has a great and appropriately-titled site called TV Feeds My Family. Poor Bill was forced to battle his way through the last half of the tour with an excruciating case of laryngitis, and he asked if – in lieu of trying to croak out all of his questions – he could piggyback on a couple of my interviews, so if you should happen to be one of the few people who reads both of us, let me assure you that any crossover between our pieces on “Outsourced” is totally authorized.

Bullz-Eye: You and I first met back in the summer, for the initial “Outsourced” panel. Are you nervous about being back amongst the critics?

Rizwan Manji: (Laughs) You know what? We’re very excited to be back. We’re glad that we’re still here and that we’re doing so well, so we’re very happy about that. Yeah, I think we’re a little bit more relaxed than we were in August. We were very nervous about what we were going to be asked, and we hadn’t done it before. Now, we’re sort of…we’ve gone to a bunch of different events now, so we’re a little bit calmer than we were in August.

BE: Plus, you guys are a hit now.

RM: Yes! We’re very excited about that!

BE: I liked the show from the get-go, actually. I used to work in a call center, so I had a natural affinity to the concept.

RM: So you’re the real Todd, I guess? (Laughs)

BE: Well, I did my best. In fact, I just spoke with your onscreen nemesis a few minutes ago.

RM: You did…? (Cuts eyes suspiciously around the room, then laughs)

BE: You guys really have some great chemistry together, a hero/villain dynamic or whatever you want to call it.

RM: Oh, thank you! Yeah, me and Ben, we have a tremendous time. We actually even live really close by each other, so we actually even see each other on the weekends. My daughter loves him, and whenever she sees him on TV, she’s always, like, “More Ben! More Ben!” (Laughs) She’s two, and that’s what she can come up with. You know, it’s…I’m so thankful that, as you said, the chemistry worked out, because we never auditioned together. It was one of those things where I found out really late in the game, because, as I think I might’ve mentioned to you in the summer, I auditioned for a different part. So when we actually met was the first time we were reading it for the network, and we were, like, “Oh, my God, this works!” So it could’ve gone horribly wrong, or it could’ve been this, and I’m so happy that we have a little bit of chemistry.

BE: Is it fun getting to play slimy? And I mean that in the best possible way, of course.

RM: (Laughs) You know, it’s so cathartic, I guess, because I get to say the meanest things. My wife always says, “Don’t bring that home with you!” Sometimes I get home and I’m using words that I’ve used on the set. But it’s a lot of fun. Rajiv gets to say the craziest things.

BE: Speaking of crazy things, all of us critics got a lovely Halloween gift from the show: our very own remote-controlled tarantula, a la the one Rajiv destroyed on the show. Were you fortunate enough to get your own? Because my daughter loves ours.

RM: I was not! Actually, we only had six of them on set, and they said, “If we ruin all six of them, the shot is done.” Luckily, we got it on the last take, because I had actually demolished all six of them by the end of that thing. So, no, I did not get one to take home…but now that I know you got one, I’m going to ask for one! (Laughs) I was actually out in Phoenix yesterday doing a press event, and they were giving out my favorite novelty, the toilet-bowl mug. That was great. The novelties are becoming characters on their own!

BE: Now that you’ve been working together for a few months now, who’s the easiest to make laugh and who’s the hardest?

RM: The easiest, I would probably say, are Ben and Anisha…Todd and Madhuri. They’re the easiest to break up. The one who pulls the most pranks is Parvesh, who plays Gupta. Definitely. He’s constantly doing crazy things to us on and off the set. There’s a video floating around where he’s taking a close-up video of the inside of my nose. So, yeah, he does crazy things like that.

BE: Where does Diedrich Bader fall in the ranks?

RM: Diedrich, he’s a prankster, but you’d be surprised: he’s very professional on set. He does lighten up at some points, and he’s so funny when you see him on TV, but he’s actually very, very professional. A joy to work with, but very professional.

BE: They showed us a little clip today of the upcoming Bollywood sequence.

RM: By far my favorite episode, and I’m so glad it’s on January 20th, when we move to 10:30 PM. You saw the little clip of the dancing, but you don’t actually hear the singing. Three of us sing, but only one of us can actually sing, so…

(At this point, Parvesh Cheena strolls up and joins the conversation.)

RM: I was just talking about you. We’re talking about how awful you are in the next episode.

Parvesh Cheena: Oh, shut up! You Canadians… (Referring to Manji, who is from Toronto, ON) …don’t know hell.

RM: (Laughs) So, yeah, there’s the Bollywood dance sequence, and then there’s the singing, so…

PC: Riz sings, too, by the way.

RM: I won’t tell you if I’m one of the good ones or not. I might be the terrible one.

PC: Let’s just say it’s a song by an ‘80s pop icon who’s seen better days since leaving her husband, Bobby.

RM: Rajiv clearly is a fan of ‘80s music.

PC: (Laughs) And you know that you sing in this episode (we’re getting ready to film), too?

RM: Yeah, there’s an episode that we’re about to shoot, and…I don’t know how much I can say!

PC: You can’t say anything. But I can! You sing…

RM: (Interrupts) I won’t tell you why, but I actually sing another song.

PC: From the ‘70s.

RM: It’s great.

Bill Brioux: Was there extra rehearsal involved for the Bollywood episode?

PC: Yes! We were, like, “Glee” meets “The Sing-Off.” (Laughs) Seriously! We had to lay down tracks…and I think I now have the street cred where I say can “lay down tracks”…Anisha and I and Ben. We had choreography. The choreographer, Fred Tallaksen, is one of Madonna’s choreographers from two tours, and I’m glad I didn’t learn that until the last day. Otherwise, I would’ve freaked out. I just thought, like, “Okay, I’ll do it. I’m sweating, but I’ll do it.” And then we had to film the rest of the episode, too, so we’d be filming something, table read, going to the music studio to record, coming back for dance rehearsal in this dungeon basement at CBS Radford, and then coming back to film.

RM: And the director of that episode (John Scott) has directed episodes of “Glee,” so it really just looks amazing. It’s the perfect episode to inaugurate that 10:30 timeslot.

PC: It really is. We’re really glad that they have that episode as the first one back, as a push. And to show that Anisha, who’s our quiet one, has a Broadway baby voice…? It’s a blessing.

BB: Can you speak to what the key Bollywood moves are?

PC: A lot of hips, and every so often a turn. That’s all you need to do! Hip, hip, turn. Sometimes some arms, but I wanted to keep it to the lower body for you guys.

RM: I feel like one day Rajiv needs to do some Bollywood dancing. (Laughs)

PC: You’ve got some moves.

RM: I feel like Rajiv would be awesome!

BE: So you’ve obviously got a great episode to kick off your new location, but are you guys excited or feeling tentative about the new 10:30 timeslot?

PC: No, I love it. The fact that we got to follow “The Office” before, and now we’re following “30 Rock”…? We can’t lose.

RM: And I think it’s one of those things where, because the entire night is this event now, a 3-hour comedy block, and there’s a lot of publicity for the three hours of comedy on NBC, there’s a lot of buzz about it. At the 9:30 timeslot, we had built our fanbase, and people are really obsessed with the show and love it, so I feel like they’re going to move with us to 10:30. I think our crowd is…

PC: Our fans have been really loyal and supportive, and…where have we gone? We’ve gone to New York together, and I went back to Chicago, where I’m from, and it’s just been awesome the amount of people who’re watching. Kids, even. Parents. And that’s from every ethnic group, let alone the Indian community. We’ve been so grateful to everyone.

BE: So when you guys became a hit, who was the first person to yell, “Suck it, critics”?

PC: Rizwan!

RM: (Lowers head) Oh, my God…

PC: But only because Rizwan says “suck it” a lot, generally. I’m just thinking, like, “It must be him.” He’s said to everyone at one time or another. (Laughs) But, no, we understand what purpose a pilot serves. It’s an introduction. And we were, fairly or not, under the microscope a lot more because we are the first show with a predominantly South Asian cast in America.

RM: And to the critics’ credit, there were several articles written after about the fifth or sixth episode…after the Bolloween episode, I believe…where they were saying, like, “You know what? I’m really sorry that I said all this, because I’ve changed my tune, and I just think it’s not everything I thought it was based on the clips that I was seeing at the previous TCA tour.” So to their credit, some of them took it back. And you know what? There are still some people harping about the stereotypes and all that stuff, but I feel like we’ve addressed that. And we’re so not that show.

PC: No one ever makes a problem out of, “Oh, that show about the lower income white family living in the trailer.” It’s a stereotype…or, rather, an archetype…and…

(At this moment, Anisha Nagarajan suddenly pops her head in between Manji and Cheena.)

PC: And here’s our Bollywood baby right now! Anisha, come talk to the fine gentleman!

Anisha Nagarajan: Hello!

PC: We were just talking about how…he asked the question, “Who was the first person to say ‘suck it’ to the critics?” And I said it was you.

AN: (Horrified) It was…?

PC: No, no, it wasn’t.

RM: I don’t think he believes it, anyway.

BE: I don’t think anyone could believe that.

PC: She’s too nice! I felt bad even saying that. I just imagined her starting to cry. (Laughs)

BE: So tell me about your part in the Bollywood episode.

PC: She’s my back-up dancer.

AN: (Laughs) I start out that way. But then I kind of find my voice in the episode. Let’s just say that.

BE: Was it nice to finally get the chance to use it?

AN: Yes! (Laughs) That’s for sure!

PC: And it’s an amazing voice that we’re glad we get to share with everyone, too.

AN: And his voice is really great in the episode, too. He sings an amazing song that you’ll see.

PC: We do pimp Anisha out wherever we go to sing, so now that it’s actually going to be on national television, it makes us all so happy that she’s not in “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” We keep her safe. That was her back-up! If she’d done “Spider-Man,” she wouldn’t be here with us. She’d be on Broadway, soaring over people’s heads.

BE: Or in the hospital!

PC: (Mock horror) No, Anisha! I will keep you safe!

AN: (Laughs) I saw the show when I was in New York over the winter holidays, and it looks like it’s really…as my mom said, it looks like it’s finding its eight legs.

PC: It just got pushed again, though. To a March opening.

AN: Yeah, I saw that. But what I saw of it, they had no faux pas, no malfunctions. It was really well done.

PC: And Glenn Beck thought it was really good, too.

AN: I saw that!

RM: Well, if Glenn Beck liked it, let’s all rush out and see it! (Laughs)

PC: Rizwan is a big Fox News fan.

RM: Well, Rajiv is, anyway! (Laughs)

BE: What were you going to be doing in “Spider-Man”?

AC: Well, I actually did all the workshops, and the part I was playing in the workshops was the villainess part, Arachnae. But that was in the workshops. I was actually cast as an understudy for the featured ensemble of the show. Given the circumstances, though, I don’t know if that would’ve actually happened, or if I would’ve played the part, or what is going on, but…

PC: All right, she’s being very modest, but I’m going to say it: she was called by them about her availability to maybe come back in the show. So she’s being very modest and humble.

RM: Yeah, it’s a lot bigger part than she’s letting on.

PC: And I’ll also let you in on some news: Riz and I are in talks to play Doctor Octopus and The Lizard. Yes, we are a three-for-one package. I will be playing Doctor Octopus, because I’m very handsy, and Riz will be playing The Lizard because he’s just slimy.

RM: Oh, man!

PC: Sorry, I meant “reptilian.”

RM: I like that better.

BE: You’d think I hadn’t already called you “slimy” earlier in the interview.

PC: (Bursts out laughing)

RM: I can take it!

BE: So are you guys happy with the way the show is evolving?

PC: Yes.

AC: Yes!

RM: Absolutely!

PC: We get creative input, we get to improvise, we get to play…we pitch ideas. I don’t know if you know this, but there’s one scene where, like, Rizwan slapped me twice…? We just pitched it, like, “If Rizwan got on a power trip, this is what he’d do.”

AC: At this point, I think you’ve been slapped by every character in the show…including me!

PC: I think I have. Now, this slap didn’t make it.

RM: They cut it from the show. They said it was a little…

PC: Too sick for the holidays. But I do know that the working title for one of the upcoming episodes is “The Slap.”

RM: It is not!

PC: I think it is!

RM: I just enjoyed it because for seven takes I got to slap him really hard in the face. So I didn’t even care that it didn’t make the final cut. I just got to slap you…

PC: It was a stage slap.

RM: Let’s just do it.

(Rizwan slaps Parv hard enough that it is very much audible on the recording.)

PC: Ow!

BE: Did that hurt?

PC: No. (Bursts into mock sobbing)

RM: (Starts laughing)

PC: That’s stage training for you.

BE: I’m going to start wrapping up here, but, Parv, I mentioned to Rizwan that I used to work in a call center, which is why I had a natural affinity to the show right off the bat.

PC: You know, I was a box office ticket agent, and we’d have to cold-call our subscribers…like, people who are paying high-end Chicago Shakespeare theater subscriptions…and ask, “Could you give $10?” “NO! How dare you call me?” I’m, like, “Ma’am, the upstairs studio is named after you. I thought maybe we could hit you up for ten bucks!”

BE: Lastly, for all of you, where would you like to see “Outsourced” go in the future, either for your character or just in general?

PC: I really have been pleased with how we’ve been leaving the call center for a lot of episodes. One of our upcoming ones is a full-on train. We built a whole train station and a moving train, and we employed 250 background artists. I love seeing that. I love seeing more of where we go to, like, Riz’s home, and the personal relationships, too. And Madhuri…

AC: Madhuri may or may not have a special twist during the Valentine’s Day episode. (Laughs) So stay tuned!

PC: It’s very exciting!

RM: Yeah, I think my favorite part about what’s developing in the show is you finding out the background of the call center workers and…just scenes that are not at the call center but, as he said, at people’s houses, or just meeting different characters that are relationships, like her grandmother and (to Parv) your mom and my fiancée. These are people who we’re going to meet.

PC: I forgot!

RM: What?

PC: I completely forgot about the episode with my mom! (Laughs)

BE: I’ve kind of likened the evolution of “Outsourced” to that of “Cougar Town,” in that it started with a simple-to-summarize concept but soon expanded beyond that as we learn more about the characters in the ensemble.

RM: Yes!

PC: I agree. That’s a very good analogy.

  

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