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In What Language? - An Interview with Ajay Naidu

NEW YORK, April 29, 2003 - Actor Ajay Naidu has appeared in various roles in film, theater, and television. His film credits include Office Space, K-Pax, Pi, Requiem for a Dream and Suburbia – for which he was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. His most recent work is in Asia Society's commissioned piece, In What Language? A Song Cycle of Lives in Transit (May 8 - May 11, 2003), a poignant work of music and poetry by composer Vijay Iyer and librettist Michael Ladd. The performance explores expressions of cultural identity and persistent stereotypes in an age of expansive global diaspora through a series of interior monologues by fictional passengers in transit at an international airport. Scored for seven musicians and four speaking voices, it draws upon a broad range of musical influences including experimental jazz, hip-hop, African and South Asian rhythms. Ajay Naidu plays one of the four spoken voice roles in this continuous, organic dialogue between a sequence of music and text.

The son of Indian immigrants, Ajay Naidu was born and raised in Chicago and began acting early in life. After a series of TV and film roles, he began working in theatre and trained at the American Repertory Theatre's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard University. He has starred in theatre productions at The Goodman, Steppenwolf, A.R.T. and most recently he performed in The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui directed by Simon McBurney, opposite Al Pacino. He is also a regular on television in the series Lateline with Al Franken, The West Wing, and The Sopranos, among others. As a dancer and lyricist Ajay has been working on a variety of projects in the US, Britain, and India for the past eight years. His solo piece Darwaza ran at the Labryinth Theatre last summer to wide acclaim.

Asia Society spoke with Ajay Naidu about his performance in In What Language? and his passion for music and dance.

How did you get involved with In What Language? Is this your first time working with Vijay Iyer and Michael Ladd?

It is the first time I am working with Vijay Iyer and Michael Ladd. I have always known about Michael as a great underground poet, as well as an overground poet. I was out with people I was working with last summer and we saw Mike and they said, "Do you know that is Michael Ladd, he's a great poet." I just went over to him and said "Hello." Vijay Iyer and I had played together in the old days at least once and I always knew he was a brilliant composer from the second I saw him. So indirectly we all wanted to link up. I didn't know that Michael was doing this piece with Vijay till later on this year. They asked me to do it and I was thrilled but I wasn't sure I was going to be able to because of time. I was going to possibly be in India or Vancouver. But when they came to the very end of their rope as to whether I was going to be able to do it, we met and I was able to fit it in. I really enjoy working with them. They are super amniotic and creative and allow for a lot of room. The pieces they have given me are just up my alley.

The performance explores expressions of cultural identity and stereotypes through a series of monologues by fictional passengers in transit at an international airport. Which of the characters do you play?

There are four speaking voices. I play one of the speaking voices that has four different characters. Each single monologue is from a different personality and life in transit. The ones that I am doing are similar to acting roles I have played in the past. But poetry-wise, the words are from Mike and so they have a different metaphysical life as material to work on as an actor. I really liked what he had written for these characters. One of my characters is a taxi cab driver. I have played drivers before and I have always felt they were the most interesting, coolest drivers possible so this is a really metaphysical character. I also play an Iraqi businessman who loves mob movies and a guy who works in porn rentals who is being searched at the airport. Another character is a young filmmaker who has been handcuffed on his way back to his country because he refused to submit to a finger-printing test.

The piece addresses today's socio-political environment and the deep mistrust of 'foreigners' as well as strongly demarcated ethnic and cultural identities. Did you feel as a South Asian American actor that this was a project you particularly wanted to participate in?

I think it important for South Asian American actors to participate in anything that is important to them. I didn't necessarily want to do this just because I am a South Asian American actor. I am an actor. I like to do things that challenge perspectives whether that is in this dimension or not, whether it involves spiritual questions or very practical questions. The thing that excites me is when stories are directly involved with relating two worlds, in this case, the vast spiritual expanse and zeitgeist in America and a place like an airport.

The importance of the socio-political standing of Indians, or South Asians, or Asian people all over the world is vastly different. The last thing I want to say is, "You must come to the theatre because we are going to tell you something socially correct." I just want to present really interesting stories that don't qualify themselves just by virtue of their ethnographic type. But at the same time I do think it is important to raise race and culture issues and most importantly the idea of mental health within those issues. I think theatre and art help us do that as one of their functions.

You said in a previous interview, "One of the common denominators of the Indian experience in America is this overwhelming sense of loneliness." How has this played out in your life and in the Indian American community?

Yes, that is one of the overwhelming universals because America is a very vast place compared to other countries. I have a lot of family all over the world, not necessarily just Asian family, but family, in America, the UK and in India. I always found myself missing everyone and found my father and mother did too. We talked a lot about people that weren't there and they took on a mythological dimension in my mind. I knew they were real people but I definitely yearned for them to be in the flesh and blood. So the loneliness is when you pick up and move, even if you are not originally from that place, and you have some memories that you want to embrace. Especially traveling around and having a life in transit I feel like you are always looking out the back window.

Your parents immigrated from India and you grew up in Chicago. What was the community like around you? Was your family supportive of you becoming an actor?

The community where I grew has changed drastically in my lifetime, I think for the better because there is more there. When I was growing up in Chicago we used to take very long journeys to multi-purpose rooms to have prayer meetings. You would see the same people again and again, but this is just talking in terms of the Indo-American community. My life in Chicago was brilliant. I was very lucky as a child to be growing up in Evanston in the North side, which was an extremely integrated, very urban and a particularly educated environment. In terms of my immediate surroundings and my day-to-day life, I am grateful to my parents for putting us in this kind of environment. A lot of the younger people I knew were outside the city in the decentralized and more suburban areas. But I was also exposed to that environment since anytime you left where I lived you would be in the middle of the most bleak vast midwestern suburb. My experience is Chicago was like an urban super sprawl that I find similar to New York, London, and Delhi. So it was great and amniotic for the kind of life that I decided to pursue.

My family was very supportive of my acting. They didn't really have a choice because I got jobs acting before anyone could really say anything. It paid my way through college and helped my family out at that time. My first acting job happened by accident when I was really young. I was in fifth grade and my teacher saw an ad in the paper and took me to the audition after school and I got the part. I stopped when I was 14 and went back to high school after working a little bit in movies and television. I then got into theatre and started pursuing classical theatre. My mother is from Kerala so she has a really strong cultural background and she can trace her family back 800 years, but my father didn't even really know his grandparents but he grew up near the railway in India and so they were both very much in love with the idea of being world citizens and making sure we got around and saw things. As I turned into an actor they felt it made perfect sense.

You have worked in many different media (film, theatre, music, TV). Is there one form that you enjoy most?

I do like when they fuse. But there is no one thing in one particular arena. I love films for the fact that it is like working under a microscope. It is sort of like a laboratory and you are allowed to just think your thoughts and they really want you to take a journey inward because the camera is interested in what you are thinking as opposed to just what you are doing or saying. I like the theatre because you paint with broad strokes. To me the theatre is stretching its definition really far. Multimedia as a concept doesn't make sense to me because I have always been involved with electronics and redefinitions of modalities of work.

Part of the work is determining through what instrument you are playing. So I don't have a favorite, it is usually what I really need to do in that moment. Actors are physical, olympian storytellers and we should be able to create entire landscapes with nothing. We should be able to take empty spaces and fully create epic drama with no help. That is the training I underwent. We make a contract within ourselves as actors or directors or writers about how much of ourselves we let into those projects. So you can actually figure out before you work on something how much blood you will have to let, at least emotionally. Sometimes you miscalculate.

In What Language? seems to be a great fit for you in that it combines spoken word and music.

Yes, it is a good fit. The things that rile me up or get me agitated about spoken word performances or jazz word performances are being conscientiously avoided in In What Language? because of the kind of people who are working on it. We are trying to put up something that you just would come to the theatre to see, not a play or a concert, but a proper performance of words and music.

How do you prepare for a role like this? Is there improvisation involved with your spoken role as there is with the musicians?

I think it is fully improvisational. When the words are great then you are lucky. But I think you owe it to yourself to improvise on everything you do, at least for a while, in the gestation or earlier phases of a project. You should definitely at least be improvising by yourself, if not in front of other people. You have to work with what you are given, even in Shakespeare. So there is improvisation but not in the way that one would think of as "improvisation." It is more along the lines of jazz in that it is spontaneous composition versus improvisation. Sorry to be semantic but it does matter in terms of a definition of a project like this one because we have our form and it is important that we free ourselves through it.

Can you talk about what music and dance mean to you?

Being an actor, being in theatre, and films has played such an important, intrinsic role in my life. My earliest experiences have either been super organic or really cinematic. That has naturally pushed me to always be listening. All of my friends when I was younger were for the most part musicians or DJs. The DJ culture at that time was actually just beginning, in the way we know it now as turntable-ism. I grew up with that very closely and was a breakdancer my whole life. Most of my friends make music if not spin it for themselves. The turntable is now an instrument at the Smithsonian. So having grown up in that world and been at the raves and the early hip-hop parties and having gone to the big midwestern rock concerts and traveled to England, music has always been important to me. I think particularly for travellers because they get around and are exposed to different things and music sometimes becomes necessary to save yourself.

About seven years ago, a friend of mine in England saw me perform on stage as a musician, spoken word artist, and a dancer. At the time I was doing what I would call performance art. He was interested in recording me as a straight vocalist as an MC on his record. He took me to England and I did this record and it ended up winning the Mercury prize. As a result, I was introduced to a whole new collective of musicians around the world and I took my mother's records and started a deep dive back into Indian classical as well as modern electronica music. After I got out of school I really missed it and I got back into it with a new openness and a new sense of musicality. This new understanding about what music meant and about the narrative forms really flowered in me. I began to be able to connect them closer. But I would never pretend to be a writer in the music world, although I would definitely say that I am musical and enjoy storytelling through that modality and can help people with it.

I played different instruments when I was younger but my facility with it is pretty good. I have been working with Talvin Singh, Karsh Kale, and the Medieval Pundits in Delhi, mostly in the rave scene and in and around electronica for whom I have done spoken word. But I can also speak for them since I have a lot to say about that world and that kind of motion, dexterity and vibe.

What are you listening to these days?

I like a lot of different new breaks, the old Goa Trance, old jungle and drum and bass, I like a lot of midwestern acid techno. When I am home by myself I listen to Ustad Sultan Khan, Bismillah Khan, and Ravi Shankar. All these people are so much a part of me that I'll put their record on without even thinking about it. But if I am thinking about what I am going to buy, I will buy some of the newest garage music out of London or I look into really obsolete places for old artists. Today I was listening to The Streets, a new group in and out of London, and their music is quite beautiful. There is so much new stuff, what road should I point you down? I listen to the Big Bud, or the Good Looking Collective, or Talvin Singh, or any one of the old greats. When I am listening to house music I am listening to Detroit or Chicago stuff. When I am listening to Indian music I am always trying to find the newest kids doing the most interesting stuff. It changes from landscape to landscape what I really want to hear.

On the breakdancing note, where did you find the inspiration for it in the movie Office Space?

In that scene we were trying to act tough even though we were role playing. Mike Judge, the director of Office Space, really liked the fact that I could break dance. He said, "We have to do this so we can get revenge in a really different way." It was the positive side to revenge. It was like a mystic warrior reference.

You have worked with many talented actors. Who have you learned the most from?

I think I learned the most so far from the group of actors in the last piece I did, which was The Resistible Rise of Arturo UI. Being around Al Pacino, Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, Chazz Palminteri, and everyone else in that cast was the highest grade of the most intense and available talent and energy. It was really hard to top as an experience on stage. That experience allowed me to flow in a way that now I know I can, which was nice and rare. When you get to play with the big boys, your game improves drastically. I was able to perform at such a time of freedom as oppose to feeling like "Oh my god, now I really have to perform." They gave me so much freedom and didn't expect anything so it became one of the best pieces and performances. It felt effortless and beautiful and wonderful and terrifying. All the things you want a performance to be.

Do you feel opportunities are growing for Asian American actors?

Yes, I feel the opportunities are growing but maybe not at the rate they should be growing. But I think they are growing because South Asian actors and actors from other countries are creating their own work and that will be an enormous push forward in film. It is not to say that this hasn't always been happening but the opportunities are becoming easier to access. I think it was a really big deal in the '80s to do an Indian movie from Mira Nair in America. I don't think it should be approached like that because I don't think it is a big deal. I think it is important to tell good stories. So in that way I see that the opportunities are always there. You can tell stories now even if they are not huge, epic, and wonderful. You can still take the responsibility for being a scribe of your tribe. No matter who you are, you can do that.

Is there a role you would love to play but feel the doors are still not open to you?

Yes, it is still hard and you do often feel boxed in. It will always be like this in America because America makes up its own mind about what it wants to see. If you are a certain kind of Indian person or black person or white person, you can get famous as a result of the numerics of your face and your beauty or what you are cashing in on or what your shtick is. All these things come into play. If you just want to be a simple creative idealistic person, it becomes hard to deal with everybody all the time. It is important to keep your head up and follow what you believe is right and have an inherent personal understanding for when you compromise your own dignity.

There is no anti-defamation league for Indian people at this time but that means that someone has to fight, fight, fight in order to make sure that you are not the butt of a joke. That is what is required so that people will stop using you as a "man in turban" in movies. But I think the great new filmmakers in Hollywood and America realize it is a dumb stereotype and a dumb joke, but it takes a long time for the whole world to know that.

People ask me about these roles a lot because I think that I have sold out sometimes. But I am a forerunner of a lot of the new cool work because I have had to do the bad roles and the good roles. I feel very strongly conflicted about a lot of the questions I have been asked in the past about this. So to answer it simply, it is important to make your own stuff. Even if you are not an actor and you wanted to be, it is important to not stop involving yourself as a creative person. The more creative people we get the better our work will be.

Interview conducted by Cindy Yoon of Asia Society.