Chuck Lorre’s new sitcom, “United States of Al,” has caught flak online for casting a South African actor to play an Afghan interpreter, but actor Adhir Kalyan says the show will do right by the character.
“From the perspective of someone who has apprehension about how this character is going to be portrayed, I think that’s a legitimate concern because sometimes characters who are foreign are portrayed in a very narrow-minded way that feels very limiting and stereotypical,” Kalyan, 37, told the Daily News.
“But I view this opportunity to play Al as a privilege and I’m committed to playing him with even more authenticity than I would if I was playing a character with my own background. I think the responsibility of finding this character’s voice has, for the first time in my career, been truly shared. Everyone is endeavoring to make him as real and as true and as authentic as possible while still allowing him to be a bright, bubbly personality.”
Kalyan, who was born and raised in South Africa before moving to England, and then to Los Angeles, plays the titular Al in Lorre’s latest endeavor, premiering Thursday on CBS. As a former interpreter for the Marines in Afghanistan, Al makes his way to the United States and his best friend Riley, played by Parker Young.
Both men are trying to figure out their lives: Al starting fresh stateside, Riley adrift after coming home.
“For a long time, his sense of identity and purpose was rooted in that brotherhood and now he finds himself back stateside and he doesn’t have that mission, that purpose,” Young, 32, told The News about his character. “He’s back to rediscovering who he is beside that which he’s identified with his whole adult life. Riley’s also a father, he’s a brother, he’s a son. He’s doing the best that he can but just struggling a little bit.”
Young, who previously played a soldier in the short-lived “Enlisted,” called his casting “serendipitous.” A few years ago, he moved to Coronado, California, to raise his daughter and ended up befriending the soldiers training at the Navy’s amphibious base in town.
“One of my buddies was getting out of the SEAL team and he was having a hard time adjusting to civilian life,” Young told The News.
“It was just a bit jarring after spending so much time in that high-strung, high-adrenaline environment. He had a little bit of a loss of identity, a loss of purpose. That in addition to some traumatic brain injuries … I don’t like to call it PTSD, but just the traumas of living that kind of lifestyle. So I had that relationship with those guys and then this story came into my life and I couldn’t believe how similar Riley was to my buddies.”
Yet “United States of Al” is a comedy, right down to Dean Norris’ bad dad jokes. For every conversation about Humvees on dirt roads, there’s an awkward moment at the DMV. For every missing dog tag from a soldier who died on duty, there’s a sassy sister with a sharp-tongued retort.
“When we talk about the military, there needs to be a degree of gravity there because these are serious, life-threatening situations that our men, women and persons are involved in. But at the same time, there is a lot of humor,” Adhir told The News.
“There is joy in moments that is unexpected. There are situations that unfold that are silly and unrelated to them being in Afghanistan. I love that the show has a degree of balance. It has a bit of everything. At its core, the show isn’t about the war. It’s about the families that are affected by the war once veterans come back home.”
Showrunners brought in military consultant Chase Millsap, a 10-year veteran of the Marine Corps and Army Special Forces, to help with the legitimacy of the story. Young chatted on the phone with retired Gen. David Petraeus, former director of the CIA. The writers room included three Afghans, and Adhir spent two weeks learning four lines of Pashto for an on-screen video call.
“I think when you have the framework of those character story points and knowing that these points are based in actual realities … you realize that these stories are true and they’re real and they give you the foundation upon which you can build the character,” Adhir said.
While Lorre faced criticism on “Big Bang Theory” for the stereotypical representation of Indian astrophysicist Raj Koothrappali, Adhir said the script is flipped in “United States of Al.”
“The joke is often coming from (Al) about the rest of the family rather than from the rest of the family at his expense,” he told The News.
“The character who is the foreign presence isn’t the butt of the jokes. He’s the one holding up a mirror and going, ‘are you all aware of how ridiculous you are?’”
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