“The Walking Dead” is somewhat of an American pop culture craze. Based on the comic books of the same name, the zombie drama zoomed into AMC in 2010, premiering with record-breaking ratings. Over the last few years, beloved characters have faced all kinds of menaces: walkers and corrupt leaders and an All-Out war. However, in 2017, season 8 saw a first with the introduction of its first Muslim-American character, Siddiq, played by Avi Nash.
Nash’s previous TV credits include appearances in “Silicon Valley” and movies like “Learning to Drive” and “Barry.” He was promoted to a series regular for the upcoming ninth season of “The Walking Dead,” making this his first regular role for a big television show.
We spoke to Nash about playing a Muslim-American character on a show of this magnitude and reach, working with beloved actors like Andrew Lincoln, living life as a multicultural actor and how that frames his views on representation.
The Teal Mango: Congratulations on being upped to series regular for season 9 of “The Walking Dead.” How does it feel to step into a bigger role?
Avi Nash: It’s an incredible opportunity. Last year when I joined the cast, everyone made me feel like I was already a part of “The Walking Dead” family and so in that sense, there isn’t much difference. I’ve worked closely and intimately with my castmates and I’m doing the same this year. But I think the bigger difference for me is the sense of responsibility that I now have towards the project and telling the story as a bigger piece. Last year, I could get away with just focusing on my character and doing the job as best I could. They don’t tell you a lot of information, you don’t get all the scripts. This year, I still have the same focus on the work, but there is also a sense of telling a greater story in this world, and having a greater responsibility to my castmates and our audience. It all comes down to that. It’s something I’m thinking about as much as I’m thinking about my character.
TTM: To start from the beginning a little bit, you joined “The Walking Dead” at the start of season 8. Obviously, the show was and is massive. How did you feel knowing you’re going to step into this insanely popular world? Did you watch it before?
Nash: No, I had never seen it. I knew it was this giant part of pop culture and I was aware of its reach. I booked the show while I was living in London. I was with some uni friends at our mate’s house in Italy cooking pizza and pasta, just hanging out. But when I sent the self-tape, I got called back really quickly. All of a sudden, I had to leave my mates and go shoot in Atlanta for 3 days. I was so quickly on a plane and then on set that I never processed that I was about to be on “The Walking Dead.” That was the last thing that occurred to me, and it probably didn’t fully hit me until later in the year when they called me back for more episodes. My initial contract was actually only for three episodes. After I started to realize I was to be a part of this complex, massive, worldwide show it gave me more reason to put more and more care into my character. You always have to put in the work and delve into a character and explore and take risks, but this time there was this added element of ‘don’t forget, 10 million people will watch this show!’
TTM: I really enjoyed watching Siddiq. It’s interesting to see the show’s first major Muslim-American character. Plus, Siddiq is so vocal about his background and religion and his parents, it’s not just a passing comment about him. I loved his reason for killing walkers, because he believes he’s releasing their trapped souls. Why do you think bringing up all of this is important for you, your character, and the show overall?
Nash: I think first and foremost, Siddiq’s beliefs are a brilliant way to put back in a voice of reason into a world that’s become violent. Given that he was a stranger to these people, he has no idea of Alexandria, of Kingdom, of Hilltop, let alone of Negan and the All-Out war, so it set up a lot of obstacles for him. This makes the power of his message that much more significant. Had he been Rick’s confidante from the beginning, we would accept that Rick might listen to Siddiq. Instead, Siddiq is preaching mercy not only through the lens of his religion but ultimately through the lens of his parents. For Siddiq to be grasping onto ideas of family, mercy and goodness has brought a different perspective. As an actor, that was a brilliant challenge to explore. I was constantly up against what actors love to be up against, which are obstacles. It gives us something to fight against, forces us to try and convince someone else of what we’re doing, which is, of course, the goal.
TTM: Now that you’re a series regular, should we expect a Siddiq backstory? It would be interesting because his story is different in the comics. Do you know if any of it will come on the show?
Nash: I do know a lot about his backstory. A lot of it was given to me by Scott Gimple, some of it is by the comics, some of it is given to me by Angela Kang, and some of it I’ve made up. I don’t know what about that I can say. Something someone first told me on the show, which I think was a brilliant perspective, is that while all the characters have interesting, full back stories the show remains so compelling because it’s driven by their human moments now, their drive to survive, to help one another, sometimes to kill one another. All these things that came before inform their choices, but it’s not what drives the story. That said, I would love a Siddiq episode showing his background. I’d love to do a giant flashback or montage. I don’t know if that would happen but I also wouldn’t rule it out completely. Maybe they’ll drop in little nuggets here and there, as they’ve done before. Siddiq will keep evolving as much as his character can.
TTM: You’re getting to work with some beloved actors from the show like Andrew Lincoln and Danai Gurira. You briefly worked with Chandler Riggs even. They’ve been on the show for years now. What is it like to act with them and how does it impact your own process?
Nash: I think the brilliant part about acting is that we as actors are inherently very curious and inquisitive. Anytime I work with any actor, I am innately and internally driven to figure out how is it that they make the magic happen. When you’re in a scene together with actors like Andrew and Chandler and Danai, or anyone on the show for that matter, the first thing that’s evident is just how much they give to each scene. That giving and their creativeness and presence at any given moment is, for an actor, the greatest gift you can have. It’s fuel for you. I’ve been lucky in my career to work with talented, thoughtful artists from the very beginning. There is always something to learn from them, whether its about their process or how they conduct themselves on-set. Andrew, for example, is through and through a leading man. He sets a bar on set for how people should conduct themselves, and his humility and hard work are golden examples.
TTM: Last season was way more emotional and brutal, those emotions must be challenging to bring out.
Nash: Absolutely but less so when I’m doing a scene with Andy for example. First of all, working with anyone that good forces you to step up your own game as an actor, and that alone can make the challenge a bit easier. It also helped that we seemed to have a similar process, probably from days back at drama school in London, and some of that background overlaps. Both of us happen to be actors who, even when they yell cut, don’t exactly relax right away, especially in an emotional scene. We are still processing, and it’s amazing to work with someone who operates similarly. You then have the same language of sorts. On this show, there’s such a wide range of processes and such a breadth of talent, that so long as you’re willing to learn and play, the emotions start to take care of themselves.
TTM: Talking about drama school, before doing that, you were in Stanford and getting a degree in Mathematics and Computational Science. What made you shift gears and move towards acting?
Nash: I was a pretty arrogant 17-year-old when I showed up at Stanford. It was probably a bit of leftover “big fish in a small pond” from high school, and when I started at Stanford, I was in for a rude awakening. All of a sudden I was in class and I realized ‘okay, I’m actually not that fast or smart.’ I couldn’t even read the board in my first math class because I had never been exposed to real mathematical notation. I had to drop it and take a lower level course. Stanford humbled me very quickly. It was very necessary and I’m very grateful for that. That allowed me to reflect on myself and realize that of all the things I thought I was good at, there were very few that really held up in the face of the talent and intelligence that comes through a place like Stanford.
Being a creative, however, and acting as an extension of that, was still something I excelled at. It was something I was willing to invest in and get better at. I feel that our passion in life should be towards that thing, which even if no one’s watching, if there’s no money, if it’s hard and unusual and sometimes impractical, is still the thing that makes us feel whole. If I wasn’t happy watching films and thinking on my craft and rehearsing and improving myself, acting wouldn’t be the thing I pursue.
TTM: So then did some part of you always know you wanted to do this?
Nash: I think some part of me knew I was a creative but I didn’t necessarily see myself as that for many years. I thought of myself as an intellectual with creative tendencies. The last 2-3 years have helped me accept and embrace that I’m a creative with some intellect. That was an important shift for me. The first time I acted was senior year in high school on a dare. My best friend and I were dared by a classmate, because we were class clowns, to go on stage and audition for a play. We were supposed to show up together but he didn’t turn up. I auditioned and I got the role. I thought it was fun but it still just felt like a hobby. I didn’t think of it as what I would one day do. I was an artist, I drew and painted, I was going to study architecture. Acting just kind of evolved for me through humility and through a better understanding of myself. The great joy and the great creative expression I experienced with acting, I’ve never forgotten it. I thought it was worth pursuing for the rest of my life and not having it be tucked away.
TTM: You also studied at Anupam Kher’s Acting Academy in Mumbai, India. What was that experience like for you?
Nash: That was another dare! People always seem to be daring me to do all kinds of things. I was at Stanford and taking a film course kind of on the sly, because I wasn’t ready to accept quite yet that I wanted to be an actor. I also took a Hindi class for the first time. I wanted to understand my mother’s language. She’s from Bombay and my dad’s South American so I grew up primarily speaking English. In that class, a good friend of mine, Sameer Gadhia (of the band Young the Giant) and a bunch of us had gone out and he just stopped me that night and asked me “when are you going to stop bullshitting and become an actor?” I think it was the next quarter that he dropped out and started his professional music career. So, after my freshman year, I dropped out and I went to Anupam Kher’s school for a six month program. I didn’t speak English at all for six months. Everything was done in Hindi. I would write all my notes in Devanagari or, if I didn’t want people to read, in Urdu. A lot of what I learnt there was how to be emotionally responsive and deal with things like backstories. I went from struggling with the language initially to ultimately being fluent and speaking without an accent by the time I was done. The fact that it wasn’t easy for me but I ultimately did really well and found myself performing at the top of the class, if there is such a thing, confirmed that acting is indeed what I was driven to do, what I would do despite obstacles, and what I had a knack for.
TTM: As someone who is relatively new to this industry, how do you feel when you go for auditions? Do you feel like you’re seeing more stereotyped roles or has that been changing for the better?
Nash: That’s an interesting question. I don’t really see a lot of stereotyping in the auditions I go for. That’s a good thing and I think a part of that has to do with my team. They are cognizant of the fact that it’s not something I’d be interested in. I’ve been vocal that representation is important to me. Creating a more realistic picture of how diverse the world is is important to me. Part of that means changing people’s perceptions of what they think people of color can be and should be. People of any color or gender can do anything - it actually plays no bearing into your ability to be a brilliant doctor or brilliant construction worker or a brilliant actor. I tend to look for roles and audition for roles that support this notion.
This is all said with a grain of salt because I’m also acutely aware of the fact that I get many of these auditions because I’m not a white male. I think the nature of stereotypes is an interesting thing to unpack. In trying to expand the lens, the industry has started to look for the “ethnically ambiguous character”. Now that either means they are looking for someone who looks ethnically ambiguous or they’re looking to fill a role where they simply don’t want it to be a white man. Because of that dual nature, and because I come from a mixed background and I don’t look white in any way, I get to go out for both those things. I get to go for roles that don’t just ask for South Asian but also ask for Latin or Portuguese. I also go for roles that say ‘we don’t know what we want so send us what you’ve got.’
But with all of this, that approach is only the first step in tackling diversity and representation. That is still treating the problem as ‘let me just get a better rainbow of faces.’ Really what has to happen is the empowerment of people whose stories we don’t see. We need to tell stories that reflect the reality of people of different races, genders, sexual orientations and we also need to tell stories wherein these attributes bear no importance, they are simply part of the fabric of those characters. We are slowly getting there. I haven’t seen too much yet, but there’s hope.
TTM: I think over time, in the last few years especially, representation has been increasing but it’s also accurate representation. Who or what do you think is causing that change?
Nash: Donald Glover and Riz Ahmed are two recent examples that spring to mind. I just finished the second season of “Atlanta” so Donald’s definitely been on my brain. He’s a prolific creator, unafraid of challenging the norm and pushing the bar in America for black voices. Riz is likewise a very well-spoken, outspoken, and thoughtful artist. I appreciate the way he’s navigated his career from being in South Asian stories, Muslim-oriented stories and now more mainstream work, all without losing sight of what has always been important to him.
Growing up in the states, with a dad from South America and a mom from Bombay, my upbringing was definitely a hurricane of different cultural influences, be it South Asian, Latin, Caribbean, etc. People asking me ‘where I’m from’ is sometimes the worst question I can get. But it’s been heartening in recent years to see artists with similar mixed, complicated and messy backgrounds start to not only revel in that, but afford themselves a voice to tell stories about these experiences.
To that point, I’ve also always been fascinated by actors who create work in multiple languages: Rodrigo Santoro, Pedro Pascal, Tahar Rahim, these are just a few examples of artists who not only create challenging and fascinating work but are able to do it more than one language.
Representation is changing to support this increasingly complex world, and if I can contribute towards and support that complexity as an artist, that’s a challenge I’m ready to fight for.
TTM: Shifting gears back to “The Walking Dead,” you’re attending your first Walker Stalker Con this year in Orlando in August. How do you feel about that?
Nash: I’ve heard nothing but good things from everyone on the cast that’s attended. The main sentiment that always gets reiterated is that this show touches so many people in ways we don’t even comprehend. When we’re making the show, my focus is on playing Siddiq and being true and helping tell a story. But ultimately, this character and his story and struggles may reach someone watching in Texas or Georgia or wherever in the world, and is doing something else entirely for them. These conventions help share that experience, which I could never in my greatest imagination even begin to pick at. It is a lovely opportunity to not only see the impact of the show but to be grateful to the fans and to give back to them in a more tangible way. That’s a responsibility and a privilege and an honor for us. I’m looking forward to it.
TTM: What are some of your upcoming projects you’re excited about?
Nash: Well, shooting “The Walking Dead” is my life for the next seven months. Earlier this year, I shot an indie film in Oklahoma called “Hosea.” It’s the story of a successful architect who returns to his small hometown in Oklahoma and falls back in love with his childhood love, who has unfortunately had a rough go of things. Our movie looks at their marriage and questions whether things will work out just because you want them to, whether the idea of love is enough. It was a very touching, difficult and meaningful movie to make. I hope to see it on the festival circuit and see how it affects audiences.
“The Walking Dead” seasons 1-8 are available to watch on AMC.com, seasons 1-7 are on Netflix, and season 9 will premiere in October 2018.