Parvesh Cheena on changing Hollywood culture, reclaiming Indian-American identity

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LOS ANGELES – MAR 7: Parvesh Cheena at the Premiere Of Disney Junior`s `Mira, Royal Detective` at the Disney Studios on March 7, 2020 in Burbank, CA . Photo: Editorial Stock – Dreamstime

Parvesh Cheena, an Indian-American actor born to Punjabi immigrant parents stars in Apple TV’s comedy series Mythic Quest that returned for a season 2 on May 7, 2021.

The nine-episode series follows a fictional game development studio working on its latest expansion, and invites us to remember the little details of work.

Cheena also starred in NBC’s ensemble comedy Connecting that follows a group of friends trying to stay close (and sane) through video chats as they share the highs and lows of these extraordinary times.

He joined the cast of Family Style Season 2 which debuted September 2020 on Stage13.com, YouTube and Facebook. He will next be seen in Music produced by Sia, opposite Kate Hudson and Maddie Ziegler.

Cheena is best known for his roles as ‘Gupta’ on the series “ Outsourced” and ‘Sunil’ on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and he has voiced many characters on animated shows like Disney Junior’s “T.O.T.S”, Disney’s “The Owl House” and “Transformers: Rescue Bots”.

He talks about his new show, the quarantine life and Indian-American representation in a tête-à-tête with Desi Talk.

Please tell me about Mythic Quest season 2 and your character in it.

Isn’t it crazy that my best friend, Danny Pudi plays my brother in the show? We have known each other from Chicago since 2001-2002 and it is just a dream that he messaged me that ‘you are going to be playing my brother and say yes’. So of course, I was like yes yes yes! So I asked him if he referred me and he was like no – hahaha.

The creator and showrunner Megan Ganz she has worked with Danny on Community. They have been friends on that NBC show that they have been on for years. So she had actually recommended me playing Danny’s brother and then he did pick up the queue and was like yes, that is a great idea.

The funny thing is that you know it has almost been a year and a half of the quarantine and last February was Mythic Quest season 1’s premiere. And so Danny had invited us and I went along with Sonal Shah who is also from Chicago suburbs and the three of us have all known each other since 102.

We have worked together, we do cartoons together, we write together, we get out to vote for the Asian community together. We need Asian Americans, South Asians, Indian Americans to vote so we have been very active.

Now I have done a couple of episodes for Season 2 and we just had a virtual premier which was a few days ago. I play video games and Mythic Quest is like an online computer video game world you know, not just like playing Mario Kart on Nintendo. People play these games for hours and days on days. So I also started playing; I dabbled into the World of Warcraft online games and it was fun. I found that I like playing them in winter, like even in LA when it gets dark with daylight savings and after fall; I found it to be a nice escape.

Even in the pandemic it is like a form of recreation; everyone plays with their friends online. You play board games, video games over Zoom and with family and friends and in that regard it has been a nice part of our lives here in the quarantine but now here even in my acting life, I am a video game player everywhere.

In your career you have played a lot of roles. Which was the most challenging and which one did you love the most?

The most challenging one is the difference between chameleons and the people who play themselves, Hollywood or Bollywood both. People like Gary Oldman or Amir Khan, they disappear (when acting). When I see Aamir in 3 Idiots, even in the wrestling coach movie (Dangal) he is a different kind. I am not that actor, I am better at playing roles that are really close to myself because I am comfortable.

I host a lot of events and charities and even ‘Connecting’, which is my NBC show – my quarantine show, we filmed it all from home – that was very close to myself you know; playing a gay married dad. I don’t have kids but I have dogs. So yeah that’s why what is challenging for me is when I have to play something 180 degrees from myself.

So remember there was an NBC show called A to Z and it was a little challenging to me to play a web programmer and it was difficult also because it was a quieter role.

I get better when the roles are loud and gregarious with jokes. I have been fortunate that I have been on NBC for 4-5 shows for them. Outsource was easy because so many of us were born in America, you know the first generation Indian-Americans.

Friends my age are having children so the first generation who immigrated here like my parents are now becoming the grandparents. So what I had to do with Outsource was just an imitation of my dad and my uncles. That is kind of easy because you know you are just doing your extended family.

We have that natural Indian accent because we are so close to our family and they still have the accent from the country of origin.

You are also a voice actor. How has that experience been for you?

It is a dream because we forget that every person of colour be it black or us of the Asian diaspora, we get pigeonholed. There is so much of race acknowledgement and awareness happening after Trump incited so much hatred against anyone who was not white or Christian.

Now we are accepting that if you are Indian American you should voice the Indian American character. We have Indians (born in India) and then we have India-British or Indian-American. So voice over has been such a joy for any of us of color.

On Mira, Royal Detective, Sonal and I play brother and sister on it. We are the bandits who are always stealing things for which Mira has to solve the crime for. We are thrilled that there are now shows like that.

It is moving for us to play that Indian, that authenticity, that representation even in children’s cartoons. Every single actor on Mira is someone in entertainment even if they are new child actors making their first show to everyone from mother Hannah, Karan, Freida, Jameela or others. I speak very highly and I am very thankful to the voiceover world because it has been such an access to work.

How has working in quarantine been like for you?

It is a mix. I had a very fortunate year. At least for day to day expenses I didn’t worry, I was very lucky as an actor. So many people had to get assistance and you know there is just not work for some people, like if they are mainly an on-camera actor what do you do? Having the NBC Connecting was such a gift, and I got to do it from home.

People just don’t believe this but NBC just dropped the lights, the sound, they shipped the wardrobe. You had to do everything by yourself. Setting up the camera, doing our own makeup, hair, wardrobe, sound, microphone. So because of that too my quarantine also doesn’t feel that long because I have been busy. And, we also filmed Mythic Quest during the quarantine.

So even right now, when I was doing Mythic Quest, they used to do drive-thru Covid tests before the vaccine came out or even nurses would come to your house before you go to set. So there were times when I felt safer on set than any other place. For a big chunk of the year we did not even go to any right outdoor picnics or in the park because I didn’t want to risk the ability to not work.

A lot of these streaming platforms like Apple TV and Netflix tend to shoot out of order. They’ll be shooting two or three episodes at once. I literally came in one day a week for like, five, six weeks. But each time it felt like I’m coming to have lunch with my friend, Danny.

And anyone on set would be tested negative. So anytime we were eating lunch it felt as if I am spending social time with my best friend. I was very fortunate. My pandemic quarantine experience knows the exception and not the rule.

Back home in India, we’ve had some relatives get it (covid-19); they’re recovering but we are still worried. So it’s funny to see how it’s been shifting across the world. Like they were worried about America first. I keep checking up on my cousins India asking if they are okay.

As an Indian American actor, as a South Asian personality, have you faced any challenges in the industry so far?

Yes, we always will. But now people are finally talking about it. Before, people wouldn’t talk about race or anything because there’s always this fear of retaliation, right? Now we’re saying it.

I have been in the industry for quite some time and I feel privileged. Luckily I have work to sustain me. Not saying something as a person representing the Indian-American community in the industry doesn’t sit well with me.

I want to speak out that other Indian-American actors or mixed-race kids or other gay or trans Asian Americans may need to see people and be like, no, you can have a career, you can live openly, you can live proudly, and, you do not have to hide or commit harm to yourself because you are seen. I want to say you are understood.

Coming to correct representation, up until a few years ago the industry used to take non-Indian actors to play Indian roles. I was raised a Punjabi. My father cut his hair when he came to America because the 1970s were a different level of orthodox and conservative

It has always bothered me in American culture is when they would throw on a Punjabi pagri turban on someone who was clean-shaven or not Indian even. I used to be like you can’t put the turban on without the beard.

They just didn’t know and now we have had to educate them. We have to speak up. This is our home. We are a growing population. In 2012, there were about 18 million Asian Americans and now that number is even greater. I am just grateful that the more that there are of us, the more they cannot represent us incorrectly.

Would you have any advice to give rising Indian American actors in Hollywood?

As much as you want to keep your social media fun and keep that going and it does help people get to know you even if you just want to share jokes or videos or photos, there is nothing like a live experience of theater and stage. You do a play for like two and a half – three hours without edits without retakes without having to “Oh, I messed up can we go back.” No, you can’t because you are doing Hamlet and it’s act 3 and we gotta keep going. Evidently, I am a big fan of theater. I understand that social media is a great access but at the at the root of it all, if all the electricity went out in the world, we would still be around that campfire telling stories or you know, telling tales and acting it out. So that live experience is never going to leave us as a humanity.

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