Rizwan Manji on ‘The Magicians,’ ‘Schitt’s Creek,’ and South Asian Representation

Indo-Canadian actor Rizwan Manji’s flawless comedic style has beckoned audiences for years. The actor currently stars in Syfy‘s wonderfully whimsical “The Magicians” as Tick Pickwick, a wily council member of a realm known as Fillory. He’s on the underrated and genius comedy “Schitt’s Creek” as Ray Butani, real estate agent, travel agent, and photographer.

Perhaps, he is best recognized for his role as Rajiv Gidwani on NBC‘s “Outsourced,” the first of its kind American workplace sitcom set in India. He’s appeared on “Mr. Robot,” “Privileged,” “Backstrom” and “Better of Ted” on TV and “The Tiger Hunter” and “Wolf of Wall Street” on the big screen.

Through these performances, Manji has always proved his expertise in the field, acing the characters he’s played. We spoke to him about his roles on these shows, the significance of “Outsourced,” his Hollywood journey, and the state of South Asian and Muslim representation in the media.

The Teal Mango: You’ve been a part of some really good TV shows in recent times like “Mr. Robot,” “Schitt’s Creek,” “The Magicians.” How does it feel to just be a part of it all, especially since they’re of such different genres?

Rizwan Manji: I love it. It’s very exciting. On the career front, it feels like I’m working and doing it, which is what every actor wants. They want to be busy. All the characters I’ve played also feel very different. I think the character I play on “Mr. Robot,” FBI agent Norm, is something I never thought I’d get to do. I usually do comedy, which I obviously love. So even on “The Magicians,” which is a drama, I get to do my style of comedy.

TTM: “The Magicians” is definitely one of my personal favorites. I had so much fun binge-watching it and I loved your character. How did you get the part of Tick Pickwick?

Manji: When I got the audition for this role, I already knew that Summer Bishil and Arjun Gupta were regulars on the show. And you know how we’ve always assumed that if there’s one South Asian on the show, there’s not going to be more. “Master of None” even had an episode about this. “The Magicians” already had two [South Asians]! I thought I had zero chances of getting the role of Tick Pickwick so I went into it with no expectations. There was less pressure because of it and if I remember correctly, there were no other South Asian people reading for the part when I was there. I went in, I did it, I walked out not thinking much anything about it. A few weeks later, I got the call saying they wanted me to be in the show. I was just very shocked at first. It was almost two years ago now but I think it’s one of those things where I wasn’t giving the producers enough credit about simply picking the best person for the role.

Rizwan Manji, Summer Bishil on The Magicians
L to R: Summer Bishil, Hale Appleman, Rizwan Manji

TTM: Yeah, I think that is one of the reasons “The Magicians” is so groundbreaking, they cast people who are great for the part and that’s it.

Manji: Yeah and it’s not just for the South Asians on the show, it’s for everyone. If the person fits the part, they’re playing it. I think it’s why the cast also has such great chemistry. I think what I liked about your article on “The Magicians,” too, is that you were dead on about the fact that they’re not trying to check boxes. I’ve seen shows and even been in shows where I’ve been cast only because I check the box and in this case, it’s clearly not that.

TTM: It must be exciting for you to work with Summer and Arjun, especially Summer because you worked together earlier on an ABC show called “Lucky 7.” 

Manji: Totally. It’s funny because here the roles are reversed. In “Lucky 7,” I was the father figure and constantly telling her what to do. In “The Magicians,” she is clearly the one telling me what to do. She is the star of the show. She’s so good.

TTM: I agree, she’s great! I also wanted to talk about “Schitt’s Creek,” which is just such an underrated gem. It’s a Canadian original and airs in the U.S. on POP TV. Of course, you’re working with legends like “SCTV” stars Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara in it. How did that come about?

Manji: I had done a pilot for CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation], which was very funny and I loved the script. It never went to air but I built this relationship with CBC. When “Schitt’s Creek” came along, my agent in Canada asked if I was interested in the role. I never auditioned for it but it worked out. It happened so quickly and then I get to set and it’s the first day for me and my first scene is with Eugene and Catherine. I was freaking out. It turned out to be one of my favorite scenes in the show. And just seeing their interactions together, they’re almost like a married couple; arguing about what’s funny and what’s not. It was a surreal moment to be acting alongside the two. We just started shooting season 5 and I’m still in a state of ‘wow, this is happening.’ It’s such a great show so being a part of it is very exciting.

TTM: The comedy on it is so witty, you have to pay attention to grasp so many jokes. They express a lot of comedy with just facial expressions. I feel you do that on the show, too.

Manji: Oh yeah, we think that’s a great way to convey our comedy.

Rizwan Manji Schitt's Creek
Eugene Levy and Rizwan Manji in “Schitt’s Creek.” Photo Credit: Steve Wilkie, courtesy of CBC

TTM: Let’s talk about “Outsourced,” which, in 2010, was pretty unique because it was set in India and had almost an all-desi cast. It tackled the call center trope but also tried to dig deeper into it. Do you feel the show was ahead of its time 8 years ago?

Manji: It’s possible. There is a lot more South Asian representation on TV now than there was before. If it had come out a few years later, it wouldn’t have maybe gotten the backlash it had gotten. At that time, they were just focused on the fact that these characters have accents and so the show is racist or stereotypical. They weren’t able to get into what the show really was about. I feel like it got backlash it didn’t deserve. It was the first of its kind so there were definitely mistakes that happened and learning curves attached. There were way too many jokes about Indian food about making white people’s stomach hurt but in the process of learning, it would’ve corrected itself. It was the only show focused on Indians because back then and even now, there isn’t a full-on TV show about a family of South Asians. There is “Master of None” and “The Mindy Project” but that’s not what they’re about.

TTM: I loved your character on “Outsourced,” though. Rajiv Gidwani was funny and just so conniving. I think some of these character traits match Tick Pickwick and Ray Butani, too. 

Manji: What I always liked about Rajiv Gidwani is that he could have only been a character on “Outsourced,” because I was essentially the villain of the show. My character wouldn’t exist in regular sitcoms because it would mean you’re making the brown guy the evil one, so even if that’s what my forte is, it wouldn’t have happened in any other show. It’s happening now on “The Magicians” because it’s such a diverse cast. In a way, it’s funny it took so much time for me to play this type of role. While I wouldn’t say Ray is evil, he is funny and opportunistic, so in that sense, he’s different, but it’s still a lot of fun.

TTM: Like you said, this character wouldn’t exist in anything besides “Outsourced” but now its possible. So, what do you think caused this increase in representation for us over the last few years?

Manji: In no way do I think we’re at where we need to be. I’m positive about the growth but there definitely needs to be more. But we’re in a trajectory that is moving upwards. It’s even working economically because we’re realizing people want shows with diverse casts, shows that are different and don’t focus on the same old things. They want stuff they haven’t explored or seen before, and that’s why it’s working.

TTM: We talk about South Asian representation but even beyond that, there is no good Muslim representation on TV just yet. As a Muslim-Canadian, how do you feel we’ve been doing on that front?

Manji: That is something that I don’t think is moving as fast. The lack of representation is frustrating. The American or Canadian Muslim experience does not really exist, if it does, it’s not in a way I feel represents me or my community. There was even a study that said a majority of Americans didn’t know or haven’t met a Muslim person. So the only representation of what they know a Muslim person to be is what they see in the news or on the TV with shows like “Homeland” or “24.” It’s scary. If that’s what you’re seeing, that’s problematic. Because of that, me and my friend Scott Abramovitch, we pitched a show to CBC with Andrew Barnsley, a producer on “Schitt’s Creek.” I had lunch with Andrew about our script, which is about this Muslim guy who becomes the mayor of a major city in Canada. He helped us pitch the show to CBC because there was nothing like it on TV. They said they wanted us to develop it so we spent a year and a half, wrote a pilot and additional scripts. Unfortunately, they decided not to go forward with it because they didn’t have space on their schedule. We still have the show, Andrew is still on board, and wants to help us look for another home for it.

TTM: Are you looking only in Canada?

Manji: We were but the show doesn’t need to be set in Canada. It may even have more relevance in the U.S. at this point because of what is happening politically. We’re looking actively for a home and I think the U.S. might be the way to go. It’s just a really funny yet political show.

TTM: When you initially started versus now, what were the difficulties you were facing while trying to get non-stereotyped roles?

Manji: Very early on, when I started off, it was just a matter of what was available. One of my first major audition was for a terrorist in a movie about the first World Trade Center bombing. All I was getting was terrorist, cab driver, convenience store owners. They weren’t comedies. My first TV role was a cab driver on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” I would say that it did start opening up more options. My first non-stereotyped character, one I booked based on the fact that I was funny and had nothing to do with my ethnicity was “Privileged.” When we did the pilot,  my character was played by a Caucasian actor but then they recast it and I got that part. I don’t think they ever mention my ethnicity on it. I did 10 episodes. I realized I could get parts where I could be funny and had nothing to be with me being a South Asian. After “Outsourced,” doors opened up for me. I had a major role in a major NBC sitcom. We did 22 episodes. People weren’t limiting me to only one thing after that.

TTM: In the beginning then, when things were difficult, what motivated you to keep going then?

Manji: In retrospect, I think that I always thought that it was just going to get better. I think I always had that positive outlook that this struggle is just for now. We all do that in our jobs, right? I always thought people would figure out I was funny, even if it meant doing 3 lines on a show, and then it would gradually get better. I wish it would’ve happened quicker. I wish it wouldn’t have taken a decade to get to that point.

TTM: Do you remember any South Asian characters or actors at the time who were doing well and who inspired you?

Manji: Yeah, Ajay Naidu was doing good stuff. He was playing nuanced and three-dimensional characters. He was on “SubUrbia,” he was on a sitcom called “Lateline.” Aasif Mandvi was doing stuff in theatre. I remember seeing a one-man show he did off-Broadway and he was amazing. Sarita Choudhary had done “Mississippi Masala.” It was few and far between but these are the people who broke the ground for us, essentially.

TTM: Did you always know you wanted to be an actor, then?

Manji: I did. I was cast in a play in junior high school in Canada and thought, oh I could actually do this. I wasn’t good at very many things but I was good at math and at making people laugh. There was a brief time I thought I’d become a lawyer and took the LSAT but it wasn’t for me. I knew I wanted to do this. I had a calling for it. I’ve been doing it for a very long time now.

TTM: If you’re from a South Asian family, it might not be the easiest thing to venture into the creative field. How was that for you?

Manji: I wouldn’t say my parents weren’t concerned because they definitely were. They wanted me to get a degree so it was like ‘why don’t you do this first and then pursue acting.’ Maybe they thought once I got older I’d make smarter choices but for me, it never went away. I commend them because they never assertively said ‘you have to do this not that.’ They never pushed me away from it. As a parent, I get it even more now. I know there are a lot of people who haven’t had that, so I feel grateful that they would guide me well and they never said no. If I was in a position where they said ‘you can’t do this,’ that would’ve been more difficult for sure.

Rizwan Manji The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot
L to R: Sam Elliot, Ron Livingston, Rizwan Manji in “The Man who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot”

TTM: Finally, “The Magicians” and “Schitt’s Creek” are coming back and you’re searching for a home for your pilot, but what other upcoming projects are you excited about?

Manji: I just did a show for Sony Crackle called “Rob Riggle’s Ski Master’s Academy,” which premieres in August. It’s such a funny show that has one of the amazing casts. Rob Riggle, Tim Meadows, Dermot Mulroney are all in it. It’s a crazy little show about a jet ski academy. I play one of the students of this academy. I’m excited about a couple of films coming out. “The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot,” I mean the title itself is amazing. I play a French-Canadian mountie. I had to do the accent for it. I was nervous but it was so interesting because the accents I’ve had to do before is either super Indian or Middle Eastern. There’s a Christmas movie I’m doing with Mellisa Joan Hart called “A Very Nutty Christmas,” which is so fun to shoot. I’m looking forward to everyone getting to see them.

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