It's been more than a year since Hank Azaria officially stepped away from voicing Springfield's resident convenience store owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon on The Simpsons — a highly personal decision that ended up anticipating a larger sea change in the show's vocal cast. Last summer, producers announced that white actors would no longer voice characters of color on the long-running animated series, which has already resulted in Alex Désert replacing Azaria as the voice of Carl Carlson and Kevin Michael Richardson taking over the role of Dr. Julius Hibbert from Harry Shearer.
In a revealing new interview on Dax Shepard and Monica Padman's Armchair Expert podcast, Azaria only regrets that the change took so long coming. "I've had a date with destiny with this thing for about 31 years," the actor remarks on the episode, before going on to personally apologize to Padman — the daughter of Indian immigrants — for portraying a character who has had such a negative impact on her community for so long. "I know you weren't asking for that, but it's important. I apologize for my part in creating that and participating in that. Part of me feels like I need to go around to every single Indian person in this country and personally apologize. And sometimes I do when it comes up."
During the course of his nearly half-hour conversation about Apu's legacy, Azaria also shares the story of how we wound up voicing the character during an early recording session for The Simpsons. "It's 1988, and somebody says to me, 'Hey, can you do an Indian accent?' It was, like, one line. I said, 'Yeah, I think so.' And Apu comes out. We're like 'OK, that was funny' and we all laugh. So that keeps going from there, and over the years it develops."
The actor goes on to explain to the Armchair Expert hosts how he modeled his performance after Peter Sellers's controversial portrayal of Indian character in the 1968 comedy The Party — a film he saw when he was 15 years old and eager to pursue an acting career. "When I saw that movie, there was no difference between how funny Peter Sellers is as a French guy [in The Pink Panther movies] or a German guy in Dr. Strangelove or as Hrundi V. Bakshi in The Party. It's just funny. I'm an aspiring voice guy, and I can do the accent, so there's no difference to me either. What I'm not realizing, of course, is that I can feel that way as a white guy, because I'm not living with the consequences of those things at all."
As Azaria recounts to Shepard and Padman, it was the release of comedian Hari Kondabolu's 2017 documentary, The Problem With Apu, that first made him aware of those consequences. "I got called out publicly," he remarked. "I got canceled — however you want to put it. And really intensely." The actor also admits that, at an earlier point in his career, he likely would have responded to being "canceled" with a lot of "defensive feelings, a lot of hurt and a lot of anger."
But Azaria credits his time in Alcoholic Anonymous with providing him with a framework for how to proceed. "I needed to shut up ... and listen and learn. And that took awhile. This was not a two-week process: I needed to educate myself a lot. If I had not gotten sober, I promise you it wouldn't have taken much wine for me to be in my feelings one night and fire off a Tweet that I felt justified in firing off. Some kind of defensive, white-fragile tweet. Boy, was I glad I had a system in place where I could look at this thing."
As part of his three-year learning process, Azaria says that attended seminars by the Soul Focused Group — and is currently training to become a seminar-leader himself — and spoke with many Indian-American colleagues, including Utkarsh Ambudkar, who voiced Apu's nephew on a 2016 episode of The Simpsons. He also remembers speaking with a 17-year-old high school student who broke down while talking about how Apu has shaped perceptions of his culture. "With tears in his eyes, he said to me, 'Will you please tell the writers in Hollywood that what they do and what they come up with really matters in people's lives, and it has consequences?' I was like, 'Yes, my friend — I will tell them that.'"
Azaria credits all of those voices with helping him honestly confront how Apu was ultimately "an example of structural racism" in the entertainment industry. "To me, participating in structural racism is about blind spots," he tells the Armchair Expert hosts. "I really didn't know any better. I don't love the term 'white privilege,' but it applies. I prefer 'relative advantage.' I was unaware of how much relative advantage I had received in this country as a white kid from Queens. I didn't think about this stuff, because I never had to. There were very good intentions on all of our part [with Apu]. We tried to do a funny, thoughtful character. Just because there were good intentions doesn't mean there weren't real negative consequences that I am accountable for. Part of my amends for all this is that I'm continuing to educate myself."
For her part, Padman notes how Azaria's one-line "audition" for Apu more than 30 years ago speaks to the desperate need for Hollywood to diversify its writers' rooms. "There wasn't even one person in that room who could say, 'Actually, I think that's a little bit offensive.'" she says on the podcast. "You need that person's opinion. That's how we fix the structure of it — by putting more people in power to say, 'This is OK, and this isn't OK.'"
As animated shows like The Simpsons continues to wrestle with the legacy of "spoken blackface," Azaria has some pointers on how the industry can move forward based on his own experience. "My first defense was, 'Should I stop doing Cletus as a Southern guy, or Luigi who is an Italian guy?' Where does it end, right?" the actor says. "I even hear the argument: 'Do you have to be a bartender to play Moe?' And 'You're not a cop, so you shouldn't play Wiggum.' I mean, that's just ridiculous. Here's the thing: if it's a character of color in particular, there's not the same level of opportunity there. So if it's an Indian character or a Latinx character or a Black character, please let's have that person voice the character. It's more authentic, they'll bring their experience of their culturalization to it, and let's not take jobs away from people who don't have enough."
The Simpsons airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on Fox
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