Ajay Naidu on Diversity in Hollywood and His Roller Coaster Ride from Child Actor to ‘Office Space’ Icon

Ajay Naidu Crazy Famous Doctor

As the Mad Scientist of ‘Crazy Famous,’ he reached into real-life drama to make the character work for him.

Ajay Naidu has been in the game for a while. He first appeared on the big screen when he was 14 years old, in the Michael Keaton dramedy Touch & Go. A series of successful roles led him to The Cosby Show, but before filming began he decided acting was no longer for him. He threw himself into punk rock and school work. Eventually, though, Naidu realized the acting bug had never left his body. He returned in Richard Linklater’s SubUrbia, which led to a role in the cultural phenomenon Office Space. He hasn’t stopped working since. He’s performed for Darren Aronofsky, Ridley Scott, Terry Zwigoff, and Griffen Dunne. He is excited for the future of the industry, but he also knows there are still plenty of mountains left to climb.

In his latest movie, Crazy Famous, Naidu plays a psychologist struggling to control a patient desperate for fame. As he states below, there are no small parts, and Naidu was confident that he had something to offer this wild movie that jumps from goofy Dream Team-like comedy to Zero Dark Thirty. We discuss the process of finding your character, as well as the opportunities for Asian-American actors in Hollywood. And yes, we geek out over Office Space.

Crazy Famous is a strange little movie.

Yes.

I was just kind of curious how it came across your desk initially.

Bob Farkas also produced a film that I was in some time ago called Dinner Rush, which was a very, very, very cool movie back in the days of 9/11 and it had a tremendous cast and it was a total ensemble movie. It really works.

So, I think it happened that… it was an offer. It’s funny. I know there are no small parts and all that stuff, but it’s probably the smallest part in Crazy Famous, but it came to me through Bob. It was an offer. The previous film that we had done together was really, really wonderful.

What did you think of the script when you read it?

It seemed to play really beautifully on the page. The movie itself, conceptually, is really, really interesting and on the page it read really, really cool. Then, to be the doctor and to be… The people in authority, in the movie, are the crazy people. I like that contradiction. I also have an inkling and a love for mad scientists in things, so I got a sense of that in reading it and I thought, “Oh, cool,” because the mad scientist isn’t even looking for himself anyway. That is why I connected to it.

Were you ever concerned that the director, Paul Jarrett, couldn’t pull off the tonal shifts that occur in this movie?

Yeah. Yeah. I was never…

It’s a wild script. It goes all over the place.

I don’t concern myself as to whether or not a director can actually pull it off. I try to stay in the world as how I read it. I didn’t have concerns as to whether or not he could pull off a tonal shift. But, in order to make that kind of movie, it is a looming suspension of disbelief. It seemed very, very practical on the page. It didn’t seem weird to me on the page. I wasn’t too concerned about that. I thought if they shot what they had in the page in the right way, they would be able to get something.

So, it is a weird little movie. To answer your question about whether or not he could pull off the tonal shift, I don’t know whether or not he was successful. That’s up to everybody else.

Yeah, I think it’s a roller coaster ride. While you’re watching it, it’s just so bizarre seeing what’s around the next corner.

Right. Yeah. The thing that I like about this movie is that it addresses the idea of fame as a drug, as a chemical reaction, and as an instinctual thing that we all desperately need. We all need food, we all need warmth, and we all need to be appreciated.

We need our tribe, whatever that means. That’s what football is and basketball and all that stuff. Bob Farkas grew up in a world of helicopter parents in basketball. The story is sort of a meditation on the negative effects of living your dreams through your children and trying to garner that. We ended up with this president as a result of the fame drug. That’s all this guy ever really wanted, to be famous and to be accepted and that’s a really empty, empty thing.

Social media is the same thing, likes and all that stuff. This subject matter is old hat already, but nevertheless, the exploration is always worthy I think.

I think, personally, going through the hell that was last year and whatever may come, every movie seems to be speaking to the misery of the now.

Absolutely. Yeah, I completely agree. It’s strange. It was sort of fortuitous that the movie was made when it was made, and it was all before all of this. It kind of fell right into the now in a very synchronistic way, serendipitous. We didn’t know that we’d be in this landscape when the movie was made.

Your character, Dr. Manning, as you say, is a kind of Mad Scientist. Are you drawing from a particular cinematic character?

Not really. Basically, when it comes to medicine and health care and all of that, doctors, as part of particular institutions, have responsibilities to their superiors as well as their patients. I think the kind of balancing act that these guys have between having to do what they’re told and also practice what they would like to practice is the thing that I initially was looking at.

The character, to me, has been really cauterized by having become a cog in the larger machine of that, of what he’s forced to do. He’s under the pressure of the government. It’s kind of like he knows he doesn’t stand a chance of really rehabilitating this man, or at least I think he feels like he doesn’t stand much of a chance, or he’d like to think that he had a chance, but he knows that it’s not really there. That’s what I was trying to gear the performance towards. The humanity of knowing that it’s futile.

The thing is patients in psychiatric rehab have a big responsibility themselves towards healing and curing themselves. It takes work. Dr. Manning is the kind of guy who, unless someone can actually allow their vulnerability to be expressed, he just tries to stay cool-headed and dry so that the guy can reveal himself. When the guy gets violent, he sedates him, and when the government tells him to interrogate one of his prisoners — I mean, one of his patients… Because it’s the government and you could lose your job and your work and all that stuff, he does it no questions asked. But then he immediately backs out and says this isn’t in my job description. Once he’s doing torture, he backs out. The character is capable of torture, but then there’s a limit.

I feel that anyone who’s going to do that has to be somewhat cold and somewhat mad. You know what I mean?

Sure.

But, at the same time, because the world of the movie is pitched as so pedestrian, and in the now, and kind of not very tricky until it gets really tricky, my goal was to stay really neutral and kind of not magical. I didn’t want to give it any sort of existential thought. It was very, very practical. Doctors are very practical. So, like that.

So, you’re not finding inspiration from any kind of film or performance. You’re pulling from the page.

I’m a magpie actor, which means anything that springboards me into my imagination is in full play. To me, whenever anyone asks me do I prefer film or theater or whatever, or any kind of project to one other kind of project, the answer is no. Whatever I’m working on, I try to make it my favorite thing that I’m doing because that’s where I find joy.

I feel from everything. The inspiration I found for this one is my own sister suffered greatly from bipolar, manic-depressive, schizoid disorder and she had this doctor initially in the beginning of her illness that she thought was Satan. She fully believed that he was in league with the Devil. He was as bad as Hitler to her. If he died a miserable death, that would’ve been too good for him. I remember the guy and he wasn’t that bad a guy. He just wasn’t emotional and he had funny glasses and a funny beard. He did not connect emotionally with people I think because he’s dealing with people that are way crazy.

So, I kind of took Dr. Manning from that guy, from my sister’s doctor. He was just a normal guy who kind of didn’t really… Just wanted people to come to their own conclusions. If there is a guy that I think is a good silhouette for a character or for a story, I definitely just take it. My inspiration comes from all kinds of things. Sometimes it’s just music. Sometimes it’s just the fact that I laughed or giggled openly when I was reading something without meaning to. When that kind of thing happens, I get an overwhelming sense of joy and then I’m attracted to fleshing it out more. I’m just looking for… I’m an actor that looks for a springboard and then dives.

You’ve worked in film, theater, and TV, but you’re a musician as well. You’re a dancer. A creative renaissance man. Yet you don’t crave one medium over the other?

No. Like I said before, whatever I’m doing at that moment is always the most satisfying to me. I think that dancing, music, film, theater, all of those things are a logical progression towards narrative and storytelling. I like stories. In the basic living room sense of let’s pretend, I like to do that really, really well. I like to play, “Okay, let’s play cops and robbers to the hilt.”

I was the kind of kid in school where when I got shot as the robber or whatever, I laid there until the end of recess because you’re dead, so you commit. I always got mad. They’re like, “Oh, no, man. I’m alright. I’m getting up and now I’m going to…” No, man. You got shot. You stay down.

I like stories. So, dancing happened to me and music happened to me as an extension of narrative. I started break dancing when I was a little, little, little boy. So, it just was what I did. Acting came later, and music. I grew up in Chicago. The DJ culture was massive. I grew up in such a way that that was normal, that all modes of creativity are fair game, especially if you’re feeling the need to do it.

Right. But where does that motivating force come from to drive you into all these different creative endeavors?

I guess I’m just trying to enjoy myself and have fun. You have to do what you want to do in order to get what you want to get, so if I feel like break dancing for a while, clearly there’s something in me that’s like, “Man, you need to be break dancing right now so you can get happy,” or, “You need to be writing words,” or you need to be doing these things.

I rarely get anything I audition for. Things come down the pike to me. I wish that I got stuff more, and I never get cast in anything really, really bad, which is kind of lucky, but it would probably pay better to get cast in more and more bad things. I don’t know how that formula happens, but I just do what I want to do in order to get what I want to get. The drive and the energy towards it, I just really, really like music and dancing and I really, really like acting. It’s fun. It’s fun, fun, fun. It comes out of the fact that I want to do it, I want to make money having fun.

You’ve been in this business for a long time.

Yes.

I love Touch and Go. I love that era of Michael Keaton. How has your experience in Hollywood changed since those early days of childhood performance?

That’s a really, really good and salient question. It’s changed drastically from each episode.

When I started as a young man, I was the lead in a movie opposite Michael Keaton, that I got from an open call. So, I was a star instantly. Then, on the next movie I did, Fred Savage was the lead and everyone’s like, “Listen, man, you’re not shit. You just play the bully in this, so sit quietly there and don’t try to get anything…” I was like, “Wow.” It was completely different. Then I went to Brazil and I was a lead in another movie. Then I quit when I was like 14 to go be a punk rocker and go back to school and stuff like that. I was really already a little bit disillusioned with things. I was getting ready to be Cockroach on The Cosby Show, which was offered to me, and I turned it down and went back to school.

Then, a couple years later, because my experience with people, with adults, my friends… Back in Hollywood people talked to me like I was a grown up. So, when I went back to school, I’d be like, “What the fuck is this teacher talking about?” I’d be like that. I don’t really have time. So, I was getting ready to drop out. My father begged a really, really ambitious theater teacher to take me to Stratford. I went to Stratford and remembered why I wanted to be an actor and I started studying classically. By the time I got out of school, the first movie I got was Rick Linklater’s SubUrbia out of conservatory and then I went back to Hollywood and I was like, “Wow. Things are really, really different.” I really enjoyed it a lot in that time.

Then, things changed again and things got really kind of racial for a while. Now, people are like, “Yeah, we’re not going to do that anymore.” Their whole schtick is they’re not going to play stereotypes and they’re not going to do all this stuff. I grew up in a world where I started not playing stereotypes, then played stereotypes, and now I’m in a world where kids are talking about how they’re not going to play stereotypes. They never had to do that. They never had that fight. I think it’s a little bullshitty for this generation to play the race card because they’ve never really been up against it.

I feel like I’m an old schooler. I go to the Marmont and there’s all these young youngsters around and whatever and the bellman knows me. It’s very love-hate because no one is going to look out for you out there, but when you’re doing well, people really show you the red carpet. I’ve had it both ways, but now as a full-grown man with a little boy and all that kind of stuff, I have to admit that I’ve always been happy in Hollywood. I’ve always enjoyed the adventure of it and I hope to continue to stay until the end, even though there’s no really staying or not staying.

Are opportunities opening up for Asian-American actors?

Yeah, they are, fully. Now I think things have changed significantly, specifically in the last few years because the kids have been so revolutionary and so outspoken about it. I think certain things have changed but certain things have not. The things that have changed are the opportunities are far greater. There are many more. But, the thing that hasn’t changed is the breadth of talent that is capable, actually, if there were roles that would be considered stereotype or ethnographic or whatever, the range of talent to actually fill those roles with dignity is still very minimal. You know what I mean by that?

I think so.

I just mean that there’s a lot more opportunities, there’s a lot more people, but the talent is still… The cream will still rise.

Well, I appreciate your time, Ajay. I’m going to let you go here in a second, but this is the obligatory Office Space portion of the interview.

(Laughter) Absolutely.

I hope you’re not sick of answering Office Space questions.

No, Office Space is a tremendous film and I’m glad that I had one of those in my life.

What’s the best thing that happened to you coming out of that experience, being attached to something that was so culturally iconic?

I think it’s the thing that’s made me… The best part about it is the fact that people identify with that story so very much that they’re willing to give you open arms just as a result of having participated in that telling.

I talk about this a lot. The kids at that time, that were coming out into the work world that were going to be doing that, were going to be faced with the kind of dehumanization that was portrayed in Office Space. That’s what they had. That’s what they were in and that’s what they had to look forward to. It’s wild, it’s frightening, and apocalyptic, and kind of miserablist. It’s funny because it’s truth. Like Dave Chappelle says, “Everything is funny until it happens to you.”

That movie, just having given the audience that kind of joy, there’s nothing like it. Yes, it’s been wonderful for my career, and yes it’s helped me get in doors, and for whatever reason it’s helped me personally a great deal. The movie itself is very, very loving towards people. They respond to that.

I see how when you direct something with the intention of giving people dignity and love, it goes right into the movie. You can see it seeping out of the thing. Everyone in that is very, very vulnerable and deep and fully realized and we empathize. The empathy that that movie has created is what I think is the best thing I’ve taken away from it.

 

Crazy Famous is now available on VOD, Digital HD, and DVD.

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Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.