‘There are more stories to be told from every ethnic group’

By Indira Laisram
Parvesh Cheena // Pic supplied

For actor Parvesh Cheena, growing up in the United States, the one thing he found himself doing like many other Indian-American kids was code switching cultures between Indian life and American/white culture. “Indian dosas for dinner after grilled cheese sandwiches from lunch. We would mix as well as separate our identities like any other minority group,” he reflects.

And with an ethnic name, he once told on television that he got called Parvert, Parmesan Cheese, among other things. By the same token, he also likes playing pranks and needling people, he says with a laugh in another interview. With such a comedic side to him, not hard to fathom then why Cheena is such a humorous talent.

In a career spanning two decades, Cheena has played many different characters and is well known for his comedy roles. As Gupta on the series Outsourced and Sunil on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, he has won great acclaim.

He has voiced many characters on animated shows like Disney Junior’s T.O.T.S, Disney’s The Owl House and Transformers: Rescue Bots. He also plays the voice of Zulius in Netflix’s Centaurworld and stars in Apple TV’s comedy series Mythic Quest. The nine-episode series follows a fictional game development studio working on its latest expansion.

Cheena also starred in NBC’s ensemble comedy Connecting that follows a group of friends trying to stay close (and sane) through video chats as they share the highs and lows of these extraordinary times. He joined the cast of Family Style Season 2 which debuted on September 2020 on Stage13.com, YouTube and Facebook. He will next be seen in Music produced by Sia, opposite Kate Hudson and Maddie Ziegler.

Cheena, who currently stars in Shining Vale (about a dysfunctional family who moves from the city to a cursed house in a small town) alongside Courtney Cox on Starz, is raring to talk about the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI ) Victory Alliance, which works to build a political power across the United States. In the light of the acts of violence against the Asian-American community, Cheena wants to see AAPI grow and unified both for “political as well as artistic endeavours” (more on that below).

Parvesh Cheena // Pic supplied

In an exclusive email interview to The Indian Sun, Cheena talks about AAPI, and more.

Did you always want to be an actor?

Yeah. I had to play King George III in a 3rd grade performance about the American Revolution. My improvised “hmmph” to George Washington slayed the audience. I was hooked.

What do you have to say about brown representation in the Western arts scene?

It’s growing. Every day. There are more stories to be told from every ethnic group. As Australia has its own indigenous and Aboriginal people who are having their stories be told, America’s own indigenous folks aren’t nearly represented on our screens as other groups. Even the largest growing population, our Latino/Latinx siblings need more stories about their communities. The definition of what it means to be an American artist is changing just as Australia changes as well.

Tell us about AAPI, your association with it and what it means to you.

For me, the association began around the start of the 2010s when our Asian communities started consolidating and advocating for themselves as a whole AAPI/Asian community. We Indians and other folks from subcontinent were now allying with our eastern Asian siblings. I mean, Asia is a huge continent. At our film festivals from LA Asian Film Fest to our Asian and Pacific Americans in media committees with our performer union SAG-AFTRA to APALA—the larger Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, the AAPI movement is growing. Unified for political as well as artistic endeavours. The solidarity against the rising attacks against the AAPI community across the United States shows how we can come together to support groups under attack.

You have had a good run with your career. How did you know how to make good choices along the way?

I don’t. I say yes to too much and am not selective. The end result is a mix of me constantly saying yes to opportunities because I worry what happens when people stop asking me to help tell their stories. I’m an actor and storyteller. I’m also the product of the mix of Puritanical and Capitalist thinking here in America where you are a lazy person if you’re not working all the time. So I gotta work to be of value and successful. I also have that fear that as an out gay Indian-American character actor, that I should be grateful with whatever work I get. I never feel like I’m owed or earn anything. My broken view on my career is that I should be so grateful to be cast in anything. We are working on it in therapy.

Parvesh Cheena // Pic supplied
Did the fandom from playing Gupta on the series Outsourced and Sunil on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend surprise you?

No. Not at all. We all find our projects and bands and TV shows and movies we love. We join our Discord servers dedicated to our different fandoms. I know how much Outsourced meant to brown folks from the Indian diaspora back in 2010. I know how the Crazy-Ex musical theatre kids felt seen with song and production numbers galore. Funny. I’m working with Michael Hitchcock from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on an NBC Peacock project called The Resort as we speak.

What are your thoughts on Indians and the general acceptance of gays in our society?

My thoughts on Indians? I like them. They are nice. Watching Priyanka win her season of Canada’s Drag Race is popping up in my mind. Being a part of the Disney Channel cartoon Mira Royal Detective with so many international South Asian talent was a delight.

And to the general acceptance of gays in society. Yowza. That’s a big one. I would say this. It feels that more of our cisgendered gay and lesbian folks are realising gains in equality every year. However, we are seeing our right-wing political parties—across the world, not just in America—attack and go after our trans siblings. Attacks on trans youth and their health choices and sport activities are all under threats by archaic institutions. It falls upon all of us to protect trans youth. And for all of us in the LGBTQIA+ communities, we must be vigilant on our rights being taken away.

Lastly, what’s in store in terms of future projects?

There is always VoiceOver. I love this aspect of our industry. I’ve got more episodes of Mira Royal Detective, TOTS, and The Owl House for Disney as well as some Craig of the Creek for Cartoon Network. An upcoming episode called Grandma Smuggglers has my character Raj and his family played by my real-life best friends Sonal Shah and Danny Pudi.

Shining Vale just finished on STARZ. That was a fun project.

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