Comedy, Drama, and a Swordfish
Indian-Canadian actor Vik Sahay plays Lester Patel on the NBC series Chuck, a show that’s a brilliant mix of comedy, drama, and action.
In the show, Chuck (played by Zachary Levi) and Lester are co-workers at the electronics superstore, Buy More. Chuck is a computer whiz who has had an entire server of sensitive classified data subliminally embedded into his brain. Chuck lives a double-life and, when he is not being shot at by enemies of the state, works at the Nerd Herd (the Buy More’s team of tech support workers who make house calls). Lester Patel is an associate in the store.
Born in Ottawa, Vik Sahay attended Canterbury High School of the Arts and studied Theatre Performance at Montréal’s Concordia University. He played the role of hockey jock Kevin Calvin on the Canadian television series Radio Active. Largely based on his work in that show, he was cast in the critically acclaimed Canadian Broadcasting Corporation show Our Hero as Dalal Vidya. For that role, Vik was nominated for a 2002 Canadian Comedy Award.
In addition to TV series work, Vik has an extensive filmography, having appeared in TV movies and films such as Good Will Hunting, eXistenZ, Stir of Echoes: The Homecoming, Time Bomb, and The Rocker.
Vik is also an accomplished dramatic actor whose stage-roles have included Rosencrantz in Hamlet, Anish Das in Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink, and the title role in Terrence McNally’s Pulitzer-nominated play A Perfect Ganesh.
Vik’s most recent dramatic role was the character Vivek in Amal, which has won awards at the Whistler (Canada) Film Festival, the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, and the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles. India Currents named Amal one of the top 10 films of 2008.
While Chuck contains comedy and drama, your (Lester’s) scenes are mostly comedic. What was it like shooting the drama Amal?
We shot Amal in India, and I was there for two months. My approach to acting involves a real immersion into the character. Amal was a gritty, intense, project, and it took everything I had. And shooting on location, in New Delhi, we were constantly affected by our environment. The crew members, most of whom were from Canada, were so out of their comfort zone. When I was shooting my last scene, the end of the road for my character, I was on the ground crying my eyes out … and there were animals walking through the shot behind me. That’s India.
I got up, brushed the dust off my clothes and the next thing I knew, I was on a set in California shooting Chuck. No wild animals there. Security is very tight.
I did go through some culture shock. It felt strange doing this crackling comedy immediately after the intense drama of Amal. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
A lot of your scenes in Chuck could stand alone as excellent comedy sketches. Do you have experience in sketch comedy and/or improvisation?
I have immense respect for sketch and improv comics. So, while I have done a little bit of that work, I would never call myself experienced in sketch or improv.
In high school, we competed in a national improv tournament, and we won the tournament both years that I did it. I also did a little sketch work then, but that’s about it.
Have you done any stand-up?
No. I’ve watched a lot of stand-up, and I know a lot of people who do stand-up. It fascinates me. I think that one of the most terrifying things you can do is just go up there as yourself and perform alone. It seems overwhelming, and I think people who do it well are brilliant.
I’m noticing Indian-American and Indian-Canadian actors popping up a lot now in film and television. Is the spirit among these actors more competitive or cooperative?
It’s a little of both. There are many Indian actors, and not many Indian roles. So there is inherent competition, and if somebody else gets a role that you wanted, of course it pinches you a bit. But we also encourage one another and congratulate one another on successes.
Do you see yourself as representing Indo-Canadians, or are you simply an actor who happens to be Indo-Canadian?
I really just consider myself an actor. In fact, most of my roles haven’t been characters that were intended to be Indian. Including Lester.
I’ve never met an Indian person named Lester.
Yes, originally he was simply Lester with no assigned last name or ethnicity. After I was cast, he was given the last name Patel. I feel good about playing a three-dimensional character who happens to be South Asian.
It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve started to play Indian characters here and there. When I do, I’m always cautious to avoid one-dimensional characters. And even when I needed the money, I said no to any roles that I found culturally or artistically insulting.
What I like the most about your comedy in Chuck is that it’s done very sincerely.
Thank you! I really strive for that.
Ah, well it pays off. For example, when Lester is spinning the Wheel of Misfortune at a staff meeting (episode 202), or when he’s devising an ill-advised new pricing strategy during his brief stint as assistant manager of the store (episode 204), Lester sincerely believes that these are great ideas when in fact they are bound to yield disastrous results.
(laughs) That’s the tragedy of Lester. That’s my approach.
As far as I’m concerned, the show is called “Lester," not Chuck. My concern is Lester—what he wants, and how he’s going to get it.
I did quite a bit of research for the role. Went around to the Buy-More equivalents in Toronto, talked to a lot of people … I wanted to make him as real as they are.
The character of Kevin Calvin on Radio Active was a super-confident jock, while Lester Patel is …
Right! Big Mike [Lester’s boss, the manager of the Buy More] describes Lester as a “scrawny-ass Indian kid with a Bay City Rollers hairdo.” What do you enjoy about playing two such different characters?
As different as they are, they are also quite similar. Even Lester is a bit of a smug, overconfident guy. He’s just not as physically confident as Kevin Calvin was. I love playing both of these characters. They both want to be liked and respected, and that’s easy to identify with. You start with that internal and then you build the external onto it.
One scene from Chuck that I thought was huge and sloppy and fun was the late-night kegger at the Buy More (episode #204).
(laughs) That was pure insanity. The place was just packed with people and completely trashed. What it required from me was trying to control this huge mass of partying people. And I didn’t need to act that!
What I loved was Lester’s slowly escalating frustration which inevitably explodes. I also loved Lester trying to wrestle the swordfish away from the reveler. [A partier was slow-dancing with a ceramic swordfish taken from the office of Lester’s boss, who was away on vacation on a fishing trip.]
When I tried to grab the swordfish from that guy, he wouldn’t let go! It wasn’t in the script for him to refuse to give it to me. He was an extra and he just wouldn’t let go, so that struggle went on for a good three, four, five minutes—though it was edited down a bit for the show. This actor was hired to just dance with this swordfish and then give it to me, and he wouldn’t give it to me! (laughs) And I was thinking, who is this guy?
What a great acting choice on his part!
I wouldn’t have had it any other way! By the time I got the swordfish from him, I was just dripping in sweat!
How did you get the role of Lester?
Lester was not the role I actually auditioned for. Still, I went through the gauntlet that is the audition process. For a kid from Toronto, where you do one audition and then maybe a callback, the Hollywood process is huge. I auditioned five times. The final two auditions were in the Warner Brothers studios and the NBC studios with about 40 executives sitting there—and the cameras were shooting and feeding live to offices in New York City, with 40 more executives watching there.
I read for the role of Morgan. It was down to me and another guy—Josh Gomez—but of course at that time he was just “another guy” to me. And Josh got it. This was devastating after I’d done five grueling auditions and come so close. I was really howling at the moon.
But a few days later NBC called and offered me this other role of Lester. I was thinking, who’s Lester? I flipped through my script and found him, and he had almost no lines. I was still heartbroken and wasn’t sure whether I wanted to do it. But my manager basically said “who do you think you are, that you’re going to turn down ... anything?” (laughs) So I took the role and went to L.A. and shot the pilot.
And how did that shoot go?
McG was directing the pilot. I took my one word and—I’d not planned on this—I began improvising and the director didn’t call cut. And eventually at some point the director started saying things to me like, “and then the camera will come back here and then say and do whatever you want.” And it was just an incredible experience.
And then the show got picked up, and I was in Toronto and they called and asked whether I could come to L.A. and shoot the first episode. I flew in and we shot the first episode. Then they asked whether I could stay and do the next two, then a couple more, and I ended up being in all 13 episodes of the first season. And then after the writers’ strike was over, the producers called and said we want to make you a regular as Lester and put you under contract.
Wow. And you almost turned it down.
So there wasn’t really a day when you moved to L.A. to try to “make it”.
No. Even now, people say, “So you live in L.A.?” And I say, yes, I guess I do! It just kind of happened.
When did you decide you wanted acting to be your career?
There really wasn’t one moment when that happened either.
I was in a play when I was very young, and I got scouted and put onto a TV show [You Can’t Do That on Television], and that led to meeting people and going to Canterbury.
Nobody in my family was in the arts. Nobody was saying I should do this with my life—not even me. Next thing you know, I was going to theatre school, but even then I wasn’t really thinking I’d act for a living or be on television. I just enjoyed doing theatre.
What’s the difference between doing comedy and doing drama?
For me the differences are associated more with the medium. Doing television is quite different from doing a film or a play. With a film or a play, I really take an approach of immersion and subjectivity. But when you’re in a series, it’s so long-term that taking that same approach would not work.
Still, no matter what type of project—comedy or drama, film or television or play—acting is acting. In the end, my basic approach is the same. I just go for the truth as well as I can.
What creative projects do you see in your future?
I enjoy work that takes all of me. Work that requires deep exploration, and forces me to bite hard to get to the blood, whether it be a smart comedy or a drama.
I love shooting Chuck, and I think it’s a terrific show. I’d like to get to do more and more on it, and explore more facets and backgrounds and desires and passions and attempts and relationships and madnesses of Lester. I’d like to work on Chuck as long as I’m allowed.
In addition to Chuck, I want my career to move to a place where I have options—and that may mean big studio work and/or more independent work.
I’m interested in exploring my culture.
I’d like to collaborate with writer/directors to help manifest the expression of an auteur’s vision.
Working on Amal was the first time in which many of these ideas came to fruition for me: exploring the South Asian world, working on an independent film, with a writer/director, where I could really collaborate and dig into myself and the work.
Yeah, I want to do more of all of that.
|Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.