We’ve come a long way from Apu on The Simpsons, who used to be the sole Indian on network television. South Asian actors are more visible than ever these days. From Aziz Ansari’s underachieving government official “Tom Haverford” on Parks and Recreation—whose ethnic identity doesn’t even come up until the second season—to The Big Bang Theory’s Kunal Nayyar, whose Dr. Raj Kootharappi plays up the nerdy Indian scientist for laughs there’s a wide spectrum of representation and character development.
Hannah Simone’s Cece Parekh—Zooey Deschanel’s BFF on New Girl—occupies a well-written middle ground as just one of the quirky characters in the hilarious ensemble cast. Cece is a working model—a gorgeous, self-aware foil to Deschanel’s innocent schoolteacher, but a nearly season-long arc last year explored arranged marriage and the complexities of wanting to date within your ethnicity, without one-note, pandering jokes about the Kama Sutra.
Simone, whose father is Indian and mother is British, German, and Greek, grew up in London, India and Canada. Before landing the role of Cece, she worked as a human rights and refugee officer with the United Nations, and as a VJ on Much Music (Canadian MTV). Besides catching her in this Train video with Danny Trejo—you can catch Simone in CAAMFest 2015’s feature film Miss India America, about Lily Prasad, an ambitious Indian American girl (played by Tiya Sircar) who embarks on a plan to win back her boyfriend by entering the Miss India Golden State pageant—no matter what the cost. Simone plays Sonia Nielson, the reluctant pageant favorite.
We spoke on the phone about the secret of being funny, the pressures of acting while Indian, and her turn as an executive producer on Miss India America.
How did you get into acting?
It has always been a great passion of mine. I was doing plays since I was about seven years old. It’s just my creative outlet that I’ve had for my entire life. I always knew I’d be acting, I wasn’t sure if it was professional or not, but that’s my passion.
You’re so funny on New Girl. Was comedy something you knew you wanted to focus on?
I got really lucky with New Girl. When you come out for pilot season you’re just trying to be a working actor, you don’t necessarily get to choose your projects. I remember reading the pilot for New Girl and it was so funny and so honest and so real, and I loved the character so much. And you knew it was going to be a success—it just had that feeling about it. And then you saw the people who were attached to the project and I just wanted to be a part of it so badly. I just got very lucky that they saw me in that role, and that I’ve had the opportunity to develop CeCe. And yeah, I find her pretty hilarious. I like her.
Comedy is such a mystery. What do you think makes comedy work? What makes things funny?
I think it is just a matter of being honest in a weird situation. I think that is the key to New Girl and why people like it so much. We have great jokes in our show, but they put these odd characters in really weird situations and watching them handle it is funny. Also, the cast that they built: we all have great chemistry. And whether the cameras are rolling or not, we’re all trying to make each other laugh, and I think that comes across.
What is it like portraying an Indian American character on television right now?
When they were casting this role, they weren’t looking for a South Asian character. I remember when I got cast, I went to [show creator] Liz Meriwether and I said: “That’s really cool that you cast me. I didn’t grow up watching American sitcoms seeing my face in those shows.” I was talking not just as a South Asian person, but as someone with this skin tone. I’ve had young Persian girls come up to me, young Latina girls come up to me and say: “It’s so cool that someone like me is on TV.” I thought that was really cool that Liz had cast me in light of all that, and I remember Liz just looking at me and saying: “Hannah, I just cast the funniest person,” and that really landed on me. And she just kept writing that way to keep Cece a funny, honest character and friend and woman on that show. Just like in real life, the origins of where we come from play up, whether it is due to family or dating or whatever. So that’s just naturally woven into the show, but it is never something that has a big motive or purpose within the show. Just because I happen to be half-Indian, they use that. But it wasn’t something that they were like: “We want an Indian girl so we can write all these Indian stories.”
It’s, I think, a really great sign for those of us in the industry that you can be seen for being a really funny actor and get cast, and they can use who and what you are naturally and organically and authentically. It’s cool.
I am so excited for Miss India America, especially because I was a Kickstarter supporter for the project, since producer Megha Kadakia is a friend of mine and she was so excited for the script. What drew you to being a part of the film?
A few years ago I was on the jury for the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFLA) and [Miss India America director] Ravi Kapoor had submitted a short called “The 5.” It was so funny and so unique, and I remember thinking: I really want to work with this director one day. I think it was a year later when we did the “Table 34” episode of New Girl where Cece goes to the Indian Dating Convention. They cast this awesome actress, Meera Simhan [actor and writer in Miss India America], to be in charge of the dating convention. She was so funny and so great. She came up to me and said that she had this script and that she thought I would be perfect for the role of Sonia, and that her husband was directing it. I was like: “Who’s your husband, and she told me it was Ravi, and I was like: “You’ve got to be kidding me!” So I read the script, and I thought it was so funny, and so honest. She drew so much from her own life experience. I adored it, and I wanted to be involved in trying to get this film made. I thought it was so exciting to see a script that had so many amazing characters who were South Asian, so I really wanted to be involved in the casting process and building the story of it.
The film seems to really have fun playing with the beauty pageant as a frame—leading to lots of amazing montages of beauty rituals and various talents, which send up the Indian American community. My favorite was Nita Nanji (Anushka Rani)—a girl so obsessed with tennis (a typical sport in the upper middle class Indian American community that the film portrays) that she does a traditional Indian dance including her tennis racket for the talent competition. It was so great to see all the hilarious South Asian female actors out there. How was the casting process?
It was amazing to be in the casting room during the auditions and see the incredible wealth of talent come through the door, and just watch everybody just knock it out of the park. It was a really difficult decision and we were spoiled for choice for sure.
Why should people come see Miss India America?
For me, I don’t think the movie is about Indian beauty pageants. I see the movie more as California girls at a pageant, that’s what’s so refreshing and cool about the project. Like Cece on New Girl, the characters are not defined by their ethnicity. It’s a girl going through a break-up and she’s trying to cope. It’s about a friendship of two girls who have a conflict but are trying to do the best for each other. Tiya Sircar (who plays main character Lily) and Kosha (Lily’s best friend Seema) have great chemistry that’s real, and that comes across.
This theme of this year’s festival is Destination: CAAMFest. What are your travel essentials?
I’ve done so much traveling this past year because I’ve been working with this incredible Canadian organization called Free the Children, started by this amazing 11-year-old boy who wanted to help other people find what their passion is, and build this community of young people helping other young people get an education. Now it’s grown into a massive organization with education at its core. I went to high school in India and I went back for the first time since then this June, and then in December I went to Kenya with them and helped build schools.
I’ve found that is the greatest way to travel is to get involved in something local, and then you spend time just hanging out and talking to the people you are working with. That’s my travel essential: no plans, just land, build a school—then hang out.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The interview is made possible by xfinity.
Miss India America will be back in the bay with screenings in Santa Clara from March 25th-March 31st!
SAN JOSE, CA – AMC Mercado 20 with IMAX
3111 Mission College Blvd.,
Santa Clara, CA
3:00 pm and 7:00 pm daily (show times may vary by 10 – 15 minutes)