As he logs on to a Zoom video chat, Maulik Pancholy lights up his screen with a languid, boyish charm. Fresh off the set of his new movie Nuked in Arkansas, the actor, author, and activist sits down for a wide-ranging interview with New India Abroad, punctuated with a lot of laughs, a bit of irreverence, and some deep revelations.
Fans of the television series 30 Rock will recognize Pancholy as the devoted personal assistant Jonathan, a man with a penchant for Post-It notes. Devotees of the series Weeds will remember Pancholy as the over-achieving drug dealer Sanjay Patel.
The actor also does voice-overs in two popular Saturday morning cartoons: Sanjay and Craig and Phineas and Ferb.
Last October, the Ohio native — who now lives in New York with his husband Ryan Corvaia — released his second Young Adult novel, “Nikhil Out Loud,” which was published by Harper Collins, and has been named one of the best middle grade books of 2022 by Kirkus Reviews. Here are excerpts from the interview.
NIA: First, tell us about your new movie, Nuked.
MP: We just wrapped on Feb. 1.
I am playing a character named Ishaan. The movie is about a group of eight friends that get together for a 40th birthday party and in the middle of the party, find out that a nuclear missile is headed toward them. They sort of have to deal with what might be the last moments of their lives together.
Ishaan is in a ten-year relationship with his partner. They're a gay couple. They have an incredible relationship, but they have some things that they have to look at. This nuclear missile headed their way forces them to look at those issues. So yeah, it's really, really fun. It's very funny.
But also, I think what's great about this movie is it deals with real stuff and people in high-stake situations. And part of what's fun is the relatability of these human beings having to deal with what they don't know is coming their way.
NIA: When we last spoke, you had just released your YA novel, “The Best At It,” about a young gay man coming to terms with his identity. In this story, the big secret is not about the fact that Nikhil is gay: it is almost an afterthought. What has changed in the three years since you wrote “The Best At It” that allows Nikhil to be so open about his sexuality?
MP: I wanted to write a character who was out in his own way. He's out to his mom and to his friends in one place, but when he moves to a new city, he has to sort of deal with what that's going to be like in this new city.
Also, he's dealing with a level of fame. He's a star voice on a very popular animated series. But to your point, the thing that he's really holding on to has more to do with his relationship with the cartoon and his voice.
When I was on book tour for “The Best At It,” I went to a middle school in Ohio. And the kids in the school, they not only were big fans of a lot of the voiceover work I do, but they also really seemed to be excited about “The Best at It” and that the kid was LGBTQ.
After I left that school, three days later, a group of parents were very angry that an openly gay author had come to speak to their students at the school. They were able to change the way school assemblies are run there, the way teachers are allowed to handle kids dealing with their identities, all in a very negative way.
Those parents shut down a beautiful experience: these kids were really engaging with me and talking about their own struggles with their identities and their own struggles with being themselves. Those parents turned it into something really shameful and negative, which it hadn't been.
And these kids at the school started reaching out to me on social media, and saying: ‘What do we do?’ They were looking at me to be a mouthpiece for them.
And so I kept thinking, ‘Where is their voice in all this? And how can they find a way to take a stand? Who's listening to them? What do they want in this situation?’ And so that's why in this book with Nikhil, the thing that he's really struggling with is: where is his voice? And the manifestation of that is this cartoon character he plays and the fact that he's not sure if he'll get to play it forever because he's 13. And at that age, for young boys, their voice starts to change.
In the first book, I was really exploring finding your identity. And with this book, it's finding the voice and the courage to speak out about the things you care about.
NIA: Going back to middle school after all those years - what was that like?
MP: When I went to visit this school in Ohio, it brought up a lot for me. It brought up 13-year-old Maulik, standing in front of 700 kids and saying: ‘I'm gay.’ It felt slightly terrifying! (Maulik laughs)
But when I put up a picture of me and my husband on a PowerPoint and said ‘I live with my husband in Brooklyn,’ 700 kids started clapping, which was a very unexpected reaction. And then when I said: ‘This book is about a twelve-year-old kid who's just beginning to realize that he might be gay,’ these kids were applauding. And when I asked: ‘have any of you ever felt different in your own lives?’ all these hands went up. These kids wanted to talk about it. That felt very different than the way I experienced middle school when I was a kid: we were not talking about sexuality and identity in those ways at all.
But I also want to be very candid: part of the reason I think this book is important is because there is something aspirational about that moment. I don't think this is happening in every middle school in this country at this moment. We have a lot of work still left to do to get there. There are a lot of kids who are still demonized at their schools for being gay.
NIA: “The Best At It” was banned from schools in Florida and Texas because of its portrayal of a young gay man.
MP: I was hoping to go on a book tour in Florida for “Nikhil Out Loud.” What I heard from Harper Collins, who tried really hard to make that happen, was that teachers and librarians were saying: ‘We would love to have him here, but we're afraid that we'll get pushback and that our jobs would be on the line.’
NIA: So much of both of your books focus on family dynamics. How much of this mirrors your own experience? What was your experience when you came out to your family? Were your grandparents supportive or was there a Nana in your family who did not support your decision?
MP: When I came out to my family, which is like many years ago now, 99.9% of them were incredibly supportive. But I do have some extended family members who I haven't seen in years and years because they don't accept who I am and they don't want to meet my husband, and they don't want to honor the fact that I've been an 18 year, very happy relationship. And so I have dealt with that.
Whenever I talk to young kids about the coming out process or if kids ask at the school districts, for example, what it was like, I want to be honest. Because for me, it's about the fact that 99% of the people were really supportive and that there is a community, and you can find that community.
I tell kids: 'yes, there might be people who will challenge you, who will make your life difficult and who will not support you. But find the people who will love you.' That's an important part of this book.
NIA: So what would you say to parents whose kids come out to them? How can they be supportive of their kids?
MP: I think the big thing is to take it as a part of your child like any other part of them. Acknowledge that it might have been challenging for them to tell you and say: ‘Thank you for telling me. I'm excited to get to know this part of you and I'm here to talk to you.’
Saying: ‘I love you’ is great.
I think it's also important for a parent to give a kid some space, and say: ‘I'm here for you: tell me more when you're ready.’