Exclusive Interview with Rizwan Manji

We routinely make jokes or take shots at the expense of the people who work in overseas customer service, but could you imagine playing one? I asked Rizwan Manji, who plays Rajiv on NBC’s Outsourced, about what it’s like to be the conniving assistant manager of the Mid American Novelties call center, and his previous roles on shows like Priveleged, 24 and FlashForward.

You play an interesting character: he thinks quite highly of himself, yet he’s still living with his parents. What’s it like to play that contrast?

Rajiv is a very interesting character. You can see he’s very ambitious and he’ll do whatever it takes. I think he’s actually kind of a loveable person at heart because he really, really wants to get married. It’s the best role that I’ve ever had. I don’t think I’ve ever had the opportunity to play someone who’s had so many layers.

We know Rajiv will stop at nothing to get Todd’s (Ben Rappaport) managerial position. Does he have any tricks or schemes up his sleeve?

Oh, a lot. I don’t know how much I can tell, but in the Halloween episode, he creates another scheme to get Todd out of some money. I promise that there’s going to be many, many different things that Rajiv tries. He likes to think he’s very good at what he does, but he’s kind of unskilled at it. But he tries.

We know what he wants, but now that the show has been picked up for a full season, is there anything you’d want to see happen for Rajiv?

We’re very excited about that. We’re the number-one new show on NBC. The writers have been amazing. It’s been a surprise every week. Every week it’s something new and crazy and hilarious. I haven’t really thought about it. I trust them.

It seems everyone has a horror story from having to deal with a call center like the one on the show. Do you have a story of your own?

I actually worked at a call center. I worked at The Learning Annex in New York and answered calls. It was one of the craziest jobs. People call and yell at you about what they didn’t like.

You were born in Canada, but you’ve got Indian ancestry, your parents met in East Africa, and you studied acting in New York. How has that diversity helped you in approaching this role?

I actually didn’t speak English until I started going to school because my parents wanted us to know our Indian language. So at home we were only allowed to speak our native language. So it was really easy to get into this role, because for the longest time, that’s what I was speaking. The accent has never been an issue for me.

How do you keep your character from becoming stereotypical? Rajiv could easily be a caricature of what American audiences think someone in his position is like.

We have five cast members and a third of the writers who are South Asian. I’m not concerned about it at all. I feel like you’re going to learn more about these South Asian characters than you’ve ever learned on another show.

You’ve had previous roles on some great dramatic series like 24 and FlashForward. What was it like working on those series? Do you have a preference between comedy and drama?

I did three episodes of 24, and on the third episode I died. I was shot by Kiefer Sutherland. I’d never been shot on camera before. They say that it can hurt, and not ever having experienced it, you’re just waiting there to get shot. It was actually one of the scariest things. A piece of cardboard flew out of the gun and I thought I’d really been shot.

Is it a difficult transition to go from a dramatic series to a show like Outsourced?

I don’t think it’s difficult. I guess I’m more sensitive to the dramas. Like with 24, it was on for eight seasons and I was kind of uncomfortable. I felt like it was perpetuating a stereotype. I feel more concerned about perpetuating a stereotype. I feel like if anything, this is a sitcom where it’s supposed to be broad and it’s supposed to be funny. I’m more of a sitcom guy. I’m very happy with where I’m at.

You’ve been seen on a variety of different shows and projects, from Glee to Transformers.

I’ve gotten to work with some amazing, amazing people. One of the best experiences of my career was doing Charlie Wilson’s War. I got to go to Morocco and do some scenes with Tom Hanks. I’ve been very happy and blessed with what’s come my way.

You also play a lot of ethnic characters. Do you ever wish you’d just be playing some generic guy named Dave, where the ethnicity of the character doesn’t matter as much?

I’ve had a lot of opportunity to do that. I played Rick on Better Off Ted and I also did almost all the episodes of Priveleged, where I played Rami. His ethnicity was never identified. Though I think that’s great, I don’t discount stuff where I have an accent.

What TV shows are you currently watching?

Right now, my favorite show is Lie To Me. Several years ago I worked with the guy the show is based on, [Dr. Paul] Ekman. It’s something that I’ve always been interested in. It’s very interesting for an actor as well. My favorite show of all time is Three’s Company.

My thanks to Rizwan Manji for sitting down with me. Outsourced airs Thursdays at 9:30 PM ET/PT on NBC, immediately following The Office.

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