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," said Kalyan, whose family roots are in India.
"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."
Although the public hasn't seen the show yet — it debuts Thursday on CBS — social media users haven't forgotten the criticism Lorre faced over "The Big Bang Theory" for its stereotypical representation of Indian astrophysicist Raj Koothrappali.
But Kalyan said that the script is flipped in "United States of Al."
"The character who is the foreign presence isn't the butt of the jokes," he said. "He's the one holding up a mirror and going, 'Are you all aware of how ridiculous you are?' "
Afghans in the writers' room
Kalyan, who was born and raised in South Africa before moving to England and then to Los Angeles, plays 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.
The writers' room includes four Afghans, he said, as well as a military adviser. He also learned to speak some words in Pashto, a regional language.
"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," he said.
Both leading characters 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 said about his character. "He's back to rediscovering who he is beside that which he's identified with his whole adult life."
Yet the show is a comedy, right down to 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 in the line of 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," Kalyan said. "But at the same time, there is a lot of humor."