October 11, 2019

Unprecedented Conversation: Actor Maulik Pancholy on Being True to Ourselves, Bridging Divides

Even as a young boy, Maulik Pancholy loved stories – whether in books, on TV or in the movies, he was drawn to them.

But Pancholy noticed something very early on. He didn’t see people like himself in the pages of novels, and rarely were they on TV or in the movies. “There were never any brown characters, and there were certainly never any gay characters,” he said.

When those characters did begin appearing on screen, they were often the butt of a joke or a comedic sidekick. As he grew older, Pancholy wondered how he would become an actor “being there was no one I could even look to and say, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”

Pancholy is perhaps best known for his role on NBC’s “30 Rock” where he played Jonathan, executive assistant to Alec Baldwin’s character, Jack Donaghy. He’s also voiced a variety of animated characters and appeared on the Showtime series “Weeds.” Pancholy recently addressed Goodwin’s annual Pride retreat in Boston at the latest of the Unprecedented Conversations the firm is hosting around various diversity and inclusion topics.

The lack of people in the media like Pancholy – who is gay and Indian-American – made him question his own existence: “I thought maybe I needed to be someone else just to be in this world.”

While a student at Northwestern University’s theater program, Pancholy studied primarily white playwrights. “On a certain level I started to forget that I was Indian. I was running away from multiple facets of myself.”

When he moved to Los Angeles, Pancholy was cast primarily for his ethnicity, playing characters who were stereotypically smart, nerdy, shy or desexualized. But on Showtime’s “Weeds,” Pancholy finally inhabited a role that was three-dimensional and evolving with the character eventually coming out as gay.

As seasons progressed, Pancholy began hearing from viewers.

“That’s so cool that you’re playing this character,” Indian and LGBTQ fans told him. “It was unusual to have a complex character like this.”

Still, Pancholy hadn’t yet fully embraced his own identity as a gay man. When “Weeds” was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award, he had trepidation about inviting his partner to join him on the red carpet.

“It felt scary to do that,” he said. “I had so many of my own fears around it that were unfounded.”

More recently, Pancholy has become active in addressing societal problems such as bullying. He was appointed to President Obama’s first White House Asian American and Pacific Islanders Task Force where they conducted 29 listening sessions around the country, meeting with parents, teachers and students. That group moved out of the White House after administrations changed and has become a non-profit which Pancholy continues to Chair.

Still, Pancholy felt like he had an opportunity to do more.

“I had a conversation with a friend about the lack of diversity in books for young people, and it became clear to me that what I wanted to do was give back to that space,” he said.

Drawing on his experiences in middle school when he was grappling with his sexuality and dealing with bullies of his own, Pancholy wrote “The Best at It,” a fictional account but one in which he hopes many readers will see themselves.

“It’s important for us to share our stories with the outside world,” he said, “because that’s how you bridge these divides. We are in a place where we’re very divided and hopefully today is a day for you to have your story heard.”