Maulik Pancholy is a man of many talents. Having played roles on Weeds and 30Rock and voicing characters on PhineasandFerb and SanjayandCraig, he recently finished a stage production of TheTamingoftheShrew in Washington, D.C. In classic Shakespearean style, he filled the 4-inch heels of Elizabeth Taylor to play the female lead, Katherina.
Upon his return to New York, I caught up with the actor at Soho House over coffee. We discussed Shakespeare, marriage, and his new business venture, an app called Rebtel.
Out: You recently performed TamingoftheShrew in classic Shakespearean style, as a woman. What was that like?
Maulik Pancholy: It was incredible. The atypical part of it in terms of Shakespearean style is that I had like 4-and-a-half-inch heeled boots on and a gold corset that cinched my waist down into numbers I didn’t think I’d ever be able to get into. There was something really fierce about getting to feel that power. And I also think she’s one of Shakespeare’s great female roles. It’s a pretty controversial play, but I think at its core, she’s a pretty tough cookie and it was fun to play that.
Can we expect you to do any theater in New York anytime soon?
I don’t have anything lined up theater-wise. I did a Broadway play last year. I did It’s Only a Play, and I loved it. And I’ve done a handful of off-Broadway shows. I think being on a TV series that shot in New York, I was in New York but not really available to do theater. So I’d love to do more theater.
A lot of Asian Americans have recently opened up about racism in Hollywood. What has your experience been with that?
I’ve definitely experienced that racism on a lot of levels. When I first started in the industry, it was definitely more overt. You had to play the sidekick character with an accent, and it’s mostly making fun of you for being different. For me, it was mostly characters who were laughed at for the way they ate and spoke and dressed. But now I feel like it sometimes still happens, but it plays out more subtly in terms of not being able to play the lead. I’m still playing the sidekick even if it’s more respectful. So for example, being able to do a Shakespeare play, playing a woman, just really breaking through all of those boundaries was really important to me.
Would you say you face similar struggles as a gay actor?
Yeah, I think so. Even though, for example, we’re seeing such a growth in the number of Asian Americans on TV and we’re also seeing a number of gay characters on TV, I feel like whenever I’m given a script and it’s an Asian American character or a gay character, I’m so aware of how it’s being used. Like, are we laughing at this character because of who they are or are we laughing along with them because of the things they’re putting out into the story? I think the industry’s changed so much, but there are still people worried about being out for that very reason.
Is there any advice you’d give to those people?
I’d say being out has only improved my life on all levels, and I haven’t actually faced any sort of weird backlash from the industry. In fact, I’ve played straight characters since I came out and I’ve played gay characters. It hasn’t felt limiting. So I’d say be true to yourself. But having said that, I do understand where those fears come from.
You recently partnered with an app called Rebtel. How does it work?
It’s so easy. It’s a free app you download on your phone. As soon as you get on the app, it asks if you want to upload your contacts. It shows you who else has Rebtel, and it gives you the opportunity to invite other people. From the app itself, you can pay for a calling plan. What I use it for is to call people in India. It’s $10 a month, which is actually quite inexpensive if you compare it to other calling plans to India. And you have to have the app but whoever you’re calling, they don’t have to have it. You can call a landline. You can call a cellphone. You don’t have to be connected to the Internet. It doesn’t use your data plan. You’re using phone lines, but you’re paying for Rebtel as opposed to paying for an international call. It’s actually really inexpensive and super easy to use.
Why was this important for you?
I went back to India after a long time. We used to go a lot when I was younger, but then you get older and life gets in the way. A lot of my family had moved to the states. But I went back to India three years ago. It was actually the trip where I got engaged. We reconnected with so many family members. I have a ton of second cousins there, and these are cousins who are my age who I grew up with. We’d go to India for a month at a time, and I’d spend weeks playing with them. Now they’re married and have families, and they’re starting their own businesses.
And I really wanted to stay in touch but the thing is, you have to get a plan for your cellphone and it’s very complicated. You’re paying a monthly charge for this many minutes, and if you go over, it’s this. Or you pay per minute, and the per minute plans are almost $3 a minute to India. Or you have to be connected to the Internet through another app, and you have to be at home to make this call or use your data, which who knows how much that’s gonna cost? So for me, I just don’t have to think about it. I have the app, and it’s so easy.
Is India a destination you’d recommend for LGBT travelers?
Yeah, we got engaged there. We traveled together. We did the south and the north. We stayed everywhere from a small hilltop village in the south to one of the palace hotels in Udaipur, and we didn’t encounter any homophobia. And right before we went, they’d reinstated Section 377 which basically criminalizes homosexuality. But my sense of being on the ground was that people were very loving and very happy to have us there. And it’s such a beautiful country. I know so many gay couple friends who’ve traveled there with no issue and in fact loved being there.
We recently celebrated a year since marriage equality. How has married life been for you?
By the time we got married, we’d been together for 10 years. So I sort of thought we’d do this because it was important for us to make a commitment to each other. But we kind of just thought of it as a big party where we’d invite all our friends and family. Instead, having gone through it, I really understood why the practice of getting married has been around for so long. There’s something really beautiful about having a ton of friends and family witness your love for each other, and in a way, I feel like it’s intangible. It’s like an intangible shift. Even after 10 years, I felt a shift where I’d said out loud in front of all these people to him that he is the most important person in my life, and I will do everything for him. There’s something that really shifted for me which is great.
So what’s your secret for making it work that long?
I feel very lucky because I have someone who loves me very much and cares about me and shows up for me even when I’m being crazy. And I think that’s probably it, that we both respect each other and love each other. If we ever fight, we always make up really quickly. We just support each other in everything.
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