Muslim actor Aly Mawji is truly making a name for himself in Hollywood and now he’s appearing in HBO’s hit comedy series Silicon Valley. Of Indian ancestry, born in Des Moines, Iowa and with both Canadian and US citizenship, his roots and relatives spread out over Pakistan, India, East Africa, Canada and the UK. He has the advantage of being a true Global Citizen and an actor quickly on the rise.
You come from a diverse cultural background. Tell us a bit about that.
I think being nomadic is in my DNA. My maternal grandfather was born in a small town in Gujarat, India, and stowed away on a ship when he was twelve years old. He ended up in Madagascar and worked as a dishwasher there. He travelled around Africa for several years before ending up in Tanzania. My other grandparents were born and raised in Tanzania and I’m not sure when they arrived or how they got there. My parents were also born and raised in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. Work and studies then took my parents all over the world throughout East Africa, Europe and the U.S. and Canada. I grew up in Canada speaking French and English but my parents speak Kutchi, Gujarati, Swahili, French and English. Being exposed to other languages and cultures from a young age gave me a bigger picture of the world we live in and made me want to see it all.
As a South Asian, was it difficult for you to step into the world of performing arts?
Both my parents were very supportive of me having hobbies, whether it was acting or playing the piano or painting, but it was not looked at as an option for a career. I, however, knew very early on it was the right path for me. Every time they asked me what I wanted to do with my life, and I told them “acting,” I got this response that I’m sure is very common amongst South Asians growing up here: “The arts are a hobby, not a career.” My whole family kept telling me that I could have another more stable career and act on the side. Because of this, I didn’t have the confidence to pursue acting; I thought I needed their blessing, and so I studied Computer Engineering (like a good Indian boy!). I’m sure a lot of first-generation Americans can relate to this; most of our parents worked so hard and struggled to get here and provide for us, and they worry that we’ll have to struggle to succeed in such an unstable career. In my mind, that’s the payoff of all their hard work, that the next generation has the luxury to choose a career in the arts that may not be financially rewarding, but is personally and spiritually rewarding. I wasn’t happy doing engineering and after working for a couple years in that industry, I knew I needed to at least give acting a shot. You just never know unless you try. It’s been a long road, but it’s been very fulfilling and I’m so much happier in acting than I was in engineering.
Aside from these cultural and personal challenges to pursue acting as a South Asian, there are the industry challenges; from too few roles, to too many stereotypes, but the industry is changing. There are so many more roles today than there were ten or 15 years ago, not just for South Asians, but for visible minorities in general. There’s a very strong push to cast minorities in network television. I think we still have a long ways to go in terms of reflecting the American landscape, but it’s changing, slowly. Much more so than in film.
I think that being in America, we’re a little spoiled with our lifestyles and have become accustomed to certain conveniences. Being a ‘Global Citizen’ has given me perspective on the world and what I have, how fortunate I am. Travel is so important, I think. You can see pictures on the internet, but it’s completely different to be there; the smells, the sounds, the rhythms of life, the gestures, actions and rituals. It really awakens my senses and takes me out of my comfort zone, which I think is important for personal growth. All of this allows me to better empathize with others, putting myself in someone else’s shoes, and gives me more experience to draw on in my work.
How would you describe your first trip to India?
I went with a few (non-South Asian) friends shortly after grad school. I didn’t grow up around many Indians other than my family, so I didn’t feel particularly “Indian.” When we stepped off the plane in India, I was bombarded by the heat, the sounds, the smells, the languages, and the different customs. I instantly felt at home. I was very surprised by that feeling and it felt like I was connecting to a part of myself that had been buried deep inside me.
How did HBO’s Silicon Valley happen for you?
It was pilot season 2013, and I was feeling pretty down…I was discouraged that I was auditioning so much and getting no response. My agent got me an audition for Silicon Valley and I remember the character being described as having a crazy haircut and facial hair, and huge biceps. So I went in with this oddball hairstyle with the sides and back flipped out (as it is in the pilot) and I did the scene and then the casting director, Nicole Abellera, asked me if I could roll up my sleeves so she could see my arms. I laughed and flexed my biceps for the camera. I got a callback for the following day, and the morning of the callback, I said to myself, “If I don’t book this, I’m quitting acting.” I went in for the creators (Mike Judge, John Altschuler, Dave Krinsky, Tom Lassally) and the casting directors (Nicole, Jeanne McCarthy, and their associates). I remember going in with the same hairstyle and this time I’d rolled up my sleeves. I walked in the room and before I could even say anything, Mike and the other guys just started laughing. It was such a warm and responsive room, I felt instantly at ease. I think I got the offer the next day. The show eventually got picked up and even though my character wasn’t supposed to recur, they found a way to bring me and the other Brogrammer (Brian Tichnell) back for multiple episodes in seasons 1 and 2. It was a really nice surprise. The best part though, was that I didn’t have to follow through on my threat to quit acting!
When did you realize you wanted to be an actor?
From a young age, I noticed that the only people on television who looked like me were cab drivers and 7-11 workers, but I couldn’t relate to them and I felt that there was a story that wasn’t being told. I knew I wanted to fill that hole and I fantasized about playing characters rather than ethnic stereotypes.
What kind of characters are you interested in playing in the future?
I often get called in for the best friend, goofy sidekick, IT guy, doctor, etc. But I’d like to play the romantic lead, a hero in an action film, a bad-ass evil character…I’m really drawn to underdog stories, father-son bonding stories, and fish-out-of-water stories. You know, universal stories that cross cultural, ethnic and language barriers.
What is your most memorable experience as an actor thus far?
I’ve had so many amazing experiences on sets and stages, but the most memorable for me was opening night of Rajiv Joseph’s Animals Out of Paper; it was the West Coast premiere at the SF Playhouse, up in San Francisco, and my parents had come into town. We got a standing ovation and I think it was the first time they really understood what I do and how much joy it brings me. They were so proud. It was like it was their opening night as well. A couple of the reviews that came out for the play mentioned them and they were absolutely ecstatic, forwarding the reviews to their friends and our family. To go from discouraging me from pursuing the arts to that was indescribable. I’ll never forget the grins on their faces. I was so grateful to have them there, supporting me. And proud.
Which would you prefer critical acclaim or commercial success?
Do I have to choose one over the other? Seriously, I’d like to strike a balance. I think the kid version of me would say without batting an eye, “Critical acclaim.” But I’ve found that my priorities have changed as I’ve matured and I think it’s nice to have some commercial success, to be able to say I’m in a project that people recognize and love but that also allows me to pay my rent. I’m about to get married and now I’m finding myself thinking about things I’ve never had to before: paying for a wedding, buying a house, having kids, sending them to college. But I also think about the legacy I want to leave and I don’t want to let go of that dream of winning an Oscar.
What message would you give to fans and aspiring actors?
We don’t need anyone else’s permission to pursue our dreams, but we often need other people’s help to get there. Whether it’s an agent’s help getting you in the door, or your mom’s help picking you up from rehearsal. Surround yourself with people who believe in you and are willing to help you; seek them out. And if at first you fail, and you really want it, keep pushing, keep trying. The things we want most are often the things that seem impossible. But if we really want it, and we keep working at it, I believe we can accomplish whatever we want.