In 2008, sports agent J.B. Bernstein travelled to India in search of untapped talent for Major League Baseball. His hypothesis was that among so many brilliant cricket players, there had to be a couple of good pitchers willing and able to make it big in America. In order to find them, Bernstein created a TV show in which the two fastest throwers would receive $100,000 and 10 months of training, with the possibility of being scouted by MLB teams.
Bernstein’s story – along with one of two prospects he found in India – is now a Disney movie, premiering in May. Million Dollar Arm qualifies as a feel good movie, in which the sports agent and the prospects must adapt to their new circumstances and learn to rely on each other. Jon Hamm (Mad Men) stars as J.B. Bernstein, Aasif Mandvi plays his associate Ash Vasudevan and Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi) and Maddur Mithal (Slumdog Millionaire) portrait the winners of the contest and would-be baseball luminaries Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel.
Mandvi, better known as a correspondent for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, has an extensive career in film, TV and theatre. Born in India, his family moved to England early on and relocated again to Florida when Aasif was a teenager. These days Mandvi divides his time between the late-night comedy program and his movie career. We caught up with him in New York.
Your character, Ash Vasudevan, is a hardcore cricket enthusiast. Are you a fan?
I grew up in the UK with cricket around me, but mostly I would end up somewhere in the outfield. I always thought I was a really good bowler, but other people didn’t agree with me.
In the film, Ash does a lot to humanize J.B. Bernstein. Without that friendship, J.B. would come across as a cad and a bit of a jerk.
Ash offers a counterpoint, which is necessary for J.B. to make that transition. If J.B. is kind of a playboy, Ash has kids, a wife and more domestic life. On some level, Ash is jealous of J.B.’s freedom, but he also recognizes there is something more to life than sleeping with models.
Western filmmakers’ portrait of India is often patronizing, but that’s not the case in Million Dollar Arm.
The production was very conscious of not reducing these kids to stereotypes. In the original script there was a scene in which Dinesh and Rinku ride an elevator repeatedly for fun. They asked me if it came across as patronizing. I thought there had to be a clear distinction between being fascinated by an elevator because you have never seen one versus the fact you may have seen an elevator, but never had the opportunity to experience it, as probably happened with these boys.
Your character has a real life referent. Did you met him or just worked with his depiction on the page?
I actually knew the real Ash from before I was cast in the film. We have mutual friends. He came on set, just as the real J.B., Rinku and Dinesh. I always joke with Ash that my version of him was better dressed. He is a jeans and shirt kind of guy. Ash in the film thinks “maybe all this is going to heck, but I’m going to look professional.”
So the real Ash didn’t inform your performance.
The relationships in the film have been slightly changed. Ash is not actually J.B.’s business partner. He is not married or has any kids. Ultimately, I had to approach it as it was a fictional character.
THE MANDVI REPORT?
The announcement that Stephen Colbert will be replacingDavid Letterman in the Late Show in 2015 has triggered all kinds of speculation regarding who will be taking over the coveted Colbert Report spot. As the most senior correspondents of The Daily Show, Samantha Bee and Aasif Mandvi have been mentioned as the frontrunners.
You manage to keep a presence in TV, film and theatre. How do you do it?
Well, I’m not married and don’t have any kids. That gives me a lot of free time to work on my career. If I do one thing for too long I get bored, so I have to shake it up a bit. One of the great things about Jon and The Daily Show is that they have been very amenable to me going off and working in other projects.
Do you have a half-hour show idea you would like to pitch for when Colbert leaves?
I don’t know if I want to host a show like that. It’s not really my thing. I’m more of an actor. This summer I’ll be shooting a pilot for HBO called The Brink with Jack Black. Maybe one day.
What is the biggest misconception about you?
That I’m a comedian, because of The Daily Show. I think of myself more as an actor. I’ve done as much dramatic work as comedic. Also, I’m only three foot four.