Idol Chatter

Albert Brooks may be getting all the press for “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World,” but his costar, Sheetal Sheth, deserves a moment in the spotlight, too. In the film, Sheth plays the young assistant hired to help Brooks in his mission to discover what makes Muslims laugh. It’s her highest-profile role to date, and she handles it gracefully–just as she does the press junket in which a bunch of reporters, including me, screamed questions at her for half an hour.

“Looking for Comedy” opened to lukewarm-at-best reviews–including that of my colleague Dilshad Ali–but Brooks and Sheth are obviously proud of the film and discuss it passionately. You can read what they had to say about “Looking for Comedy” here, but since much of what Sheth talked about in the interview was interesting but off-topic, here are some interview “outtakes,” Idol Chatter’s version of DVD extras.

As a young actress trying to establish herself, Sheth has had to battle Hollywood’s pigeonholing of people of color. An NYU film-school graduate born in New Jersey, she’s often forced to audition for “ethnic roles”–only to be told that she’s not actually “ethnic,” despite her dark skin and Indian heritage.

“A lot of times what I find is that when they want to cast ‘diverse’ or ‘ethnic’ they think it means black. I’ll literally go in for something, and they’ll say, ‘You’re not ethnic,'” she says. “It’s funny they even think like that. I go through interesting things every day in terms of that whole thing.”

And then there are the times when directors are looking for someone who looks just like her–but putting on an exaggerated Indian accent is the only punch line in the script.

“There’s a difference between something being funny because of the character vs. the ethnicity,” she says. “And then I’m like, ‘Here’s the deal. I’m not funny right now because of what you’ve written or because of the character. You’re laughing at my accent and this persona you have, the idea of this stereotype, and I’m not interested in it.'”

“Looking for Comedy” offers her a role with a funny character and an Indian accent, Sheth says. As someone who’s spent extended periods in India visiting family, the question, she adds, was what that accent should be.

“I didn’t want to do this very general accent that you hear a lot, that’s this kind of stereotypical thing that you hear a lot, like Apu from ‘The Simpsons,'” Sheth says. “And so it felt like, from her education and the way she was brought up, it’s very British influenced in India, and so we needed to be that.”

With roles in indie-flicks like “ABCD” and “American Chai“–together with her appearance in “Looking for Comedy”–Sheth says she’s been happy with the work she’s found and is working full-time as an actress, despite the hurdles she’s faced. So whatever the accent she uses, you may be hearing Sheetal Sheth’s name more and more in the coming years–though, if she’d listened to the veteran show-biz people who advised her in years past, it would actually be some other name you’d hear.

“When I graduated from NYU, and I was meeting people, and I met with my very first manager… we had this great meeting, and at the end of the meeting, she’s like, ‘Great, can’t wait, so excited, which one of your names are you going to change?'” Sheth says. “It may sound naive and silly, but it really never occurred to me it would be a conversation I would have to have as often as I do… All of a sudden, I’m a professional actor, and it’s something I deal with every day.”

You can watch a clip of Sheth in “Looking for Comedy” by clicking here.

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