Usman Ally is an award-winning theater actor, but lately he’s been making audiences laugh with his characters on small screen comedies.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Ally about his role on the new comedy, Nobodies, and his return to Veep.
When he first broke into television, he played dramatic parts, but after appearing as an ambassador on Veep, he said “it suddenly opened the floodgates, and now I’m predominantly doing comedy.”
He was looking for a way to do more comedic performances, and it seems like that one role was the ticket.
One opportunity that came his way was the role of a studio executive on the new series, Nobodies, produced by comedic powerhouse Melissa McCarthy.
“I was really pleased to be working in an environment that was very collaborative,” Ally said.
Everyone involved from the director, Michael McDonald, to the big name cameos, like Allison Janney, were “on the same page in terms of what we wanted to put out there as a story.”
“That doesn’t always happen on television shows where you all feel you have a part to play in shaping the way the story is being told. That was really exciting for me,” Ally remarked.
The main characters who play the “nobodies” mislead Ally’s character, and he becomes a sort of villain, “making it his goal in life to destroy these three people.”
“It’s a lot of fun to let loose like that and play these extreme emotions,” he admitted, adding that the show leaned into “the nastiness that’s involved in the business” as well as “some of the aggressiveness of that feeling that ‘if you mess with me, I will mess with you even more.'”
I was very excited to hear that Ally would be reprising his role as Ambassador Al Jaffar on the much-anticipated new season of Veep. Although he couldn’t tell me much, he disclosed that his character “features in a much, much larger capacity than in Season 5.”
“The ambassador won’t show up until midway through the sixth season, but, once I do, it’s a big deal.”
Ally is no stranger to playing ambassadors, having played the Iranian Ambassador on Madam Secretary.
Ally approached these powerful and seemingly inaccessible characters thoughtfully. “I’ve done both those roles and in both circumstances, even on Veep, I felt it important to create a level of humanness to these characters so that American audiences would like them.”
That’s especially crucial in this chaotic political climate.
“With the political rhetoric that exists in the world right now, particularly towards the Middle East, and, frankly, towards people who look like me, who are my ethnicity and my background, it’s really important to counter some of that hostility with a level of humanity,” he said.
He set out to make his character on Madam Secretary a sympathetic one. And similarly on Veep, he took what is usually a stoic and unreachable character, and made him to be “a funny, charming guy.”
Veep is known for taking stereotypes and poking fun at them, “but, that’s the human comedy element. I think it’s lacking sometimes in how people from the Middle East are portrayed,” Ally stated. “It was important for me to bring out his charm, to make him very likable.”
Ally is an active proponent for representation and diversity. “I just think it’s really important that we find more appropriate and accurate representation of human beings.”
Whether it’s an ambassador, a studio exec, or “somebody that is not part of the mainstream,” Ally strives to make them “relateable and, at the end of the day, a sympathetic character.”
Does he think television is making progress in terms of diversity? “I’m all about trying to get that word ‘diversity’ back. I feel like it’s been hijacked by the extreme right-wing, and it’s almost become a dirty word,” he asserted.
“Diversity has come to mean that people who don’t deserve it are taking work away from you, or people who don’t deserve something are getting the limelight more than you are. I just want it to go back to meaning that this is accurately representing the world we live in.”
Although there is progress being made, it’s an ongoing battle, but one where people can use social media to affect change.
“I think so much of the changes we are seeing in casting on TV is because people have made noise on Twitter, on Facebook, or whatever it might be, and said that casting a white man in a role that should obviously go to an Asian person is not something [people] are interested in seeing anymore. And suddenly it starts to affect sales, it starts to affect the dollar signs a little bit, and you can see change.”
Ally plays the Hook-Handed Man on A Series of Unfortunate Events. Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) was a big part in helping to create the Netflix series. Ally explained “that [the author] never intended for any of [the characters] to be a specific race, and so he was very open to the casting.”
“It’s very stylized, and I think the opportunities to have a more diverse cast are there,” he continued.
“It opens up the world for larger audiences. You would think that people would want that more, and to bring more audiences to the work, as well.”
A Series of Unfortunate Events is a family adventure show, so that representation is valuable to younger audiences. “It’s important to have that representation, and for young kids to see it—to see that other avenues are open to them if they want to be performers, or just see their lives reflected on TV.”
Ally shared a childhood experience that demonstrates the importance of representation.
“There was a show back in the 80s called Short Circuit. It was this Indian scientist guy who created a robot. I remember when I was a kid and I was watching, I was like, ‘wow, this guy is Indian,’ and I had never seen anyone else like this on [screen]. And then later on, years later, I found out that was a white actor playing that role, and it destroyed me. It ruined me. Those things can have an effect on someone.”
Aside from classic 80s flicks, I asked Ally what he liked to watch on television.
“I’m really into BBC shows. For example, I’m a huge fan of Luther on Netflix with Idris Elba. It’s one of my favorite shows on TV,” Ally said. “I love the British format of having short seasons. [BBC shows] are my kind of go-to. It’s a sense of drama I can relate to. Another show called The Fall that I liked quite a lot, also.”
“In terms of American shows that I watch consistently is Last Man on Earth, just because I’m a big Will Forte fan. It’s a good show. It’s a comedy, but it can get pretty dark sometimes, and I always like that about comedies that can sort of veer into another sort of genre all of a sudden for a little while.”
He also admitted that he thinks he is the last person in America to have watched Breaking Bad, having recently finished the series. “There is so much TV,” he exclaimed.
There certainly is, and it sounds like we will be seeing Usman Ally on a lot of it. I, for one, am looking forward to that.
Nobodies premieres tonight and will air Wednesdays at 10/9c on TV Land.
*Featured image credit: Kotaro Kawashima
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