Manish Dayal is slowly commandeering our screens, delivering one worthy performance after another.
The actor made a splash with his big screen film “The Hundred-Foot Journey” in 2014, in which he starred alongside Om Puri and Helen Mirren. He has a roster of TV show credits, ranging from teen dramas like “90210” and “Switched at Birth” to action roles in “Agents of SHIELD” to critically acclaimed hits like “Halt and Catch Fire.”
Currently, the actor is toppling the notions of what being a stereotypical or nerdy Indian-American doctor looks like in the FOX drama “The Resident” with his character Dr. Devon Pravesh. Despite joining the already crowded medical genre-themed TV shows, “The Resident” worked its charm and scored a second season order.
Dayal also added the title of director to his resume earlier this year with the earnest short film “Fifteen Years Later.” It’s an intrinsic, nuanced look at the lives of two men; one is an Indian-American technician and the other is a white cop, 15 years after the events of 9/11 and how it still continues to haunt them.
We spoke with Dayal about what it was like not only to star in but also helm the short film, the responsibilities of playing a doctor and busting the stereotypes, and reflecting on the state of South Asian representation on TV and in film.
The Teal Mango: I absolutely loved watching your short film “Fifteen Years Later.” It was intense and such a well-developed, meaningful slow-burn. What was the process of creating it?
Manish Dayal: Thank you for saying that. Directing “Fifteen Years Later” was a goal and passion that I’ve wanted to pursue for a while. It started with the script. I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t need much dialogue to carry the story along. I teamed up with Natasha Rivera, Yoni Goldberg, James Cole, and Tracy Mulholland and started scouting and crewing up and before we knew it the short was taking shape. The story for the short is based on stories I’ve heard from friends and an experience I had in Alabama 15 years ago. It explores the lived realities of those impacted by bias and violence in a post-9/11 era. The film strives to be a discussion on local Islamophobic policies and the role of allies in building solidarity with those on the front lines. Racially motivated crime towards folks of South Asian, Sikh, Arab and Muslim descent has grown, a resurgence emboldened by the Trump presidency. Just last week Terlok Singh, a Sikh deli owner from New Jersey, was stabbed to death at his store. According to Dr. Simran Jeet Singh, Senior Religion Fellow for the Sikh Coalition, this was the third attack on a Sikh in the last three weeks. Instances like these and the ones portrayed in the short film aren’t isolated. They deteriorate communities every day.
TTM: “Fifteen Years Later” is a very reflective film. I’m curious to know what you wanted the viewers to walk away with after watching this film?
Dayal: My hope is that it can shine a light on the challenges these communities are experiencing. It is a look at an epidemic holding our communities under fire. We partnered with Vigilant Love, 18MillionRising, White People 4 Black Lives and hosted a panel in LA. It sparked a powerful discussion about race, identity, policing and our law enforcement authorities. As we know, policing is an important piece of the puzzle. Too much power in the hands of just a few people is extremely dangerous.
TTM: You didn’t just act in this film but you also expertly directed it. What was that experience like? Why did you choose this film to make your debut in the director’s chair?
Dayal: It was awesome! One of the greatest experiences I’ve had to date. I’ve always wanted to direct, craft a story from start to finish. I chose this one because I could speak to this story. It was personal to me, my friends and family. We made it for just around 6k with hugely talented crew and incredible actors, Matt McGorry, Rachel Brosnahan and Tracy Mulholland.
TTM: Congratulations also on “The Resident” season 2! I love your character Devon Pravesh, he’s idealistic and fierce. South Asians are often stereotyped as doctors but Devon and “The Resident” as a show subverts these stereotypes. Is that what attracted you to the role?
Dayal: 100%. It may not seem revolutionary for me to be playing an Indian-American doctor. It might even seem very ordinary, but that’s exactly why it’s important. Devon is the picture of the American dream. He’s a first generation immigrant from Queens. He graduated top of his class at Harvard with hopes to heal people and change their lives. Many of America’s TV doctors are non-Indian, but I realized that’s not what the modern American hospital or medical school looks like. In the US, South-Asian doctors outnumber cardiac ICUs and overwhelm medical schools. Medicine is crowded with Indians, Asians, and Nigerians, the children of immigrant parents. With Devon, I am able to portray a slice of that. In season one, Devon starts his professional life with bravado and high expectations. He has an idealistic vision of what a doctor’s life looks like, but learns fast it’s about to crumble.
TTM: Delving a little bit more into playing Devon, you star in this primetime medical drama that people are just loving and you do play an Indian-American doctor. What responsibilities did you shoulder in terms of how you represent the diaspora through this character?
Dayal: To crack the “mold” we’ve seen for a long. I play an intern, who happens to be an Indian-American. If we take a look at the leading intellectuals in medicine, Atul Gawande, Siddartha Mukerjhee, Sandeep Jauhar – all Indian. The lack of representation you are taking about isn’t surprising. It is revealing. Anytime there’s a cab driver on screen, it’s imperative he be played by a South-Asian. I recall a casting call: Indian cab driver needed for two lines. Beard and turban preferred. I asked him why the role had to be cast Indian. “Because they usually are Indian,” he said. His argument was ethnic realism – in real life, there’s truth to these stereotypes, and don’t you want the world to feel real on TV? But in order to really move the needle, ethnic realism has to extend to our heroes, too. That’s how it’ll work. Diverse characters can’t be hovering in the background. They need to be integral to the story, influence it, and help move it forward. We need minority heroes and perspectives if Hollywood is going to make a shift. I think it’s starting to happen.
TTM: I know you’re deep in the throes of shooting the early episodes of season 2 but can you tease anything at all about what we should expect from the show this year?
Dayal: To have your mind blown by the thriller story. Season two’s thriller is particularly exciting to me. I’m learning a lot about the medical device business and its threat to healthcare and you will too. It’s some fascinating stuff.
TTM: It’s been over 4 years since “The Hundred-Foot Journey” came out! That must be exciting. That film was so great and groundbreaking for you. How does it feel when you look back and see how much has changed in the years since?
Dayal: Grateful for it everyday. I couldn’t ask for a better experience — one that will inform my career, no doubt. Mad respect to Steven Spielberg, Juliet Blake and Oprah Winfrey, who made this film and got behind it without resistance for a POC as its protagonist.
TTM: Your roster of TV roles is impressive, from “90210” to “Halt and Catch Fire” to “Agents of SHIELD.” What has your experience been in terms of how South Asian actors are now being auditioned for open roles versus the limiting archetypes like taxi driver.
Dayal: It’s a good thing! The first casting director I met asked before an audition, “where are you from?” We all get this question; one we’re trained for. There are two ways to answer – the way that preserves your dignity, and the way that gives them what they want. “I’m from here,” I said. She hesitated, confused. “Where are you from, from?” I gave in. “And you want to be an actor?”
The roles you mentioned, Raj, Ryan and Vijay didn’t necessarily depend on me being Indian. Im grateful to be considered for opportunities to interpret characters that are not just defined by their ethnicity. If our interpretations of these people can be broad and diverse, then Hollywood’s perception can be too. We don’t see ourselves as cab drivers and terrorists, but those were the roles we’ve been sent for years. This is what you are, the scripts wanted to say. This is your place in society. The solution is to create many versions of ourselves by broadening our life on screen.
TTM: As an industry insider for a few years now, what are your thoughts on the slow rise of South Asian representation? On the surface, there’s definitely been an uptick towards inclusive and accurate representation but there is still a long way to go. Why do you think this change is happening now?
Dayal: Because we are getting a glimpse of ourselves, our reality reflected on screen and it is powerful as hell. Films like “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” are more important than ever. A big part of engagement in film and TV is imagining yourself in the protagonist’s shoes. The role of South Asian writers in TV/Film is key since that is where story starts and characters are created. Perhaps the shift is starting because there’s a push for inclusion in those writers’ room.
TTM: Who were some of your role models growing up and who inspired you to pursue acting, especially since there probably weren’t many brown faces on TV at the time.
Dayal: Performances from actors like Denzel Washington, Sidney Poitier, and Leonardo DiCaprio inspired me. Steven Spielberg was a big influence on me as a kid. Filmmakers like Mira Nair and Gurinder Chadha, who I worked with on “Viceroy’s House,” were some of the first few who put us on screen in a mainstream way.
TTM: Besides the second season of “The Resident,” what are some of the other projects you’re excited about?
Dayal: I’m working on a book adaptation [by Anjan Sundaram] called “Stringer: A Journey into the Congo,”involving the mineral crisis in Congo and its link to the western world.
“Fifteen Years Later” is available to stream here. “The Resident” season 2 will premiere this on September 24 at 8/7c on FOX.