Utkarsh Ambudkar: ‘Once upon a time, they wouldn’t put a brown face on the billboard’

Ambudkar: ‘I would do the 8 Mile thing, and you’d get a hundred dollars and a bottle of vodka if you won’  (CBS)
Ambudkar: ‘I would do the 8 Mile thing, and you’d get a hundred dollars and a bottle of vodka if you won’ (CBS)

Utkarsh Ambudkar isn’t sure what you know him from. For the longest time, he was fielding falsetto fangirl screams for Donald, the lightning-fast emcee he played in the joyous 2012 college a cappella comedy, Pitch Perfect.

Lately, the squeals of delight when someone recognises him are more varied. If he’s in Pacific Palisades, for instance… well, honestly, in the fashionable LA suburbs, they’re still clamouring for Pitch Perfect.

“But if I’m in Africa,” says the 38-year-old American, “it’s Barbershop” – the long-running film franchise fronted by Ice Cube. “If I’m at JFK, it’s usually The Mindy Project because the folks working at that airport are generally West Indian, south Asian and Caribbean.”

And a few weeks ago, when Ambudkar was queuing up at Disneyland with his family, he met a new and entirely welcome kind of fan for his hit CBS sitcom Ghosts. “It’s not the same type of enthusiasm that I’ve got from Pitch Perfect or Never Have I Ever,” he explains, taxonomising modern fandoms as only an actor/comedian/rapper with his wide-ranging CV would know them. “There’s sort of a rabid energy to that, which is exciting, but it comes with an undertone of, ‘I want to eat you’.”

The love of Ghosts – which was America’s most-watched new sitcom last year, overtaking even the critically acclaimed Abbott Elementary in the ratings – is wholesome, subdued, personal. It’s a stranger confiding, as Ambudkar was recently told, that his show is the “only way I can get my family to sit in a room together”.

On the endearing comedy about a couple who inherits a haunted mansion, Ambudkar plays Jay, a chef who gamely agrees to his wife Sam’s dream of converting the decrepit property into a B&B. The complication is that Sam – played by New Zealand actor Rose McIver – can see and speak to the ghosts. Jay can’t. Based on a BBC series starring Charlotte Ritchie and Kiell Smith-Bynoe, the premise “tickled” Ambudkar, who after 13 failed pilots across the years, wasn’t especially keen on auditioning. Waiting to board Disneyland’s The Incredibles ride, though, Ambudkar was grateful he’d changed his mind.

“After a while you can get a little cynical and jaded,” he tells me over a video call from a rental in Montreal, where Ghosts is filmed. “And because we’re comedians, too, you can hide behind humour and jokes. But what’s under there really is like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to get hurt again. I don’t want them to say no. I don’t want it to get cancelled. I don’t want to be mistaken for Aziz Ansari again’.”

Ambudkar fidgets in his office chair. In front of him is a black baseball cap, which he tries on before deciding he prefers himself without it. He’s wearing thick black-acetate glasses. His voice is twangy; sentences are peppered with linguistic flourishes. Though it’s his zippy, razor-sharp rapping that earned Ambudkar his Hollywood break, our conversation feels meditative, unrushed. That he’s still annoyed it took him until the age of 36 to appear on Broadway – with his 2019 show Freestyle Love Supreme – suggests he’s very self-critical. Critical of the industry, too.

Utkarsh Ambudkar at 2022 Comic-Con (Getty)
Utkarsh Ambudkar at 2022 Comic-Con (Getty)

“Once upon a time, they wouldn’t put a brown face on the billboard,” says Ambudkar. “It was frustrating for a lot of years to see peers break through in ways that I couldn’t because the roles just didn’t exist.”

“No computer nerds, no sidekicks” is the shorthand by which he’s chosen parts over the years, with a conspicuous asterisk next to the 2021 action-comedy Free Guy. (“Unless it’s with Ryan Reynolds and then it’s like why not?” he offers as an amendment.) It’s an impulse that reflects the “responsibility” he feels to the wider south Asian acting community not to perpetuate the stereotypes he’s found limiting.

“The people who came before me had to go through all kinds of nonsense in terms of the roles that they were asked to audition for,” Ambudkar tells me, pointing to south Asian actors like Aasif Mandvi and Sarita Choudhury. “My generation has benefited from their hard work and hopefully we can lay the groundwork for the next generation,” like his young co-stars on Mindy Kaling’s sunny high-school comedy Never Have I Ever. (Ambudkar plays an English teacher.) “Those kids will go on to have, like, Tommy Hilfiger campaigns and just be a part of society in the way that it seems like a lot of other people are.”

I’m coming up on eight years sober now but I was not sober then

Philosophising comes naturally to Ambudkar, who was prone to “existential crises” even as a kid growing up in the Maryland suburbs. He was also incapable of sitting still: always building things, inventing songs. Ambudkar developed into a joker as he got older – a detour away from his childhood earnestness that he considers a defence mechanism. “[I was] compensating for the fact that I wasn’t perceived as attractive by my peers.” Or maybe he just didn’t think they perceived him that way. Even Ambudkar, who, for the record, has sky-high cheekbones and arguably the best head of hair in Hollywood, can’t be sure anymore.

Nor does it matter. He was lucky enough to have a drama teacher who helped him channel all his uncertainty and creativity into performing. Ambudkar does not have stereotypically south Asian parents – the ones who, in the sitcom version of his life, would have steered him away from theatre in the direction of med school (though his mother, Indu, is a senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health and his father is a cancer researcher). Instead, he went on to NYU’s Tisch School For the Arts, where he freestyled in the dorms with a pre-Childish Gambino Donald Glover.

Utkarsh Ambudkar on stage with ‘Freestyle Love Supreme’ (Hulu)
Utkarsh Ambudkar on stage with ‘Freestyle Love Supreme’ (Hulu)

He also used to battle-rap. “I would do the 8 Mile thing, and you’d get a hundred dollars and a bottle of vodka if you won,” says Ambudkar, who still releases music under the name UTK on Spotify. “And I was underage so the bottle of vodka was great.” The Tony-winning producer Orin Wolf caught his performance one night and introduced him to some guys he knew who needed performers for their improv hip-hop show. It was 2004, Ambudkar was 20 years old, and “the guys” included Broadway’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, Anthony Veneziale and Thomas Kail. “Lin and I started rapping with each other, and we were like two pups from the same litter who were just separated at birth,” he tells me.

The act was called Freestyle Love Supreme, and in some way, shape or form, this peculiar group, bonded by the rare ability to freestyle their way through an 80-minute comedy show, has been a part of Ambudkar’s life ever since. His relationships with its members track closely with the contours of his personal life – for better and for worse.

Let’s start with an example that’s “worse”. When I ask Ambudkar about why he didn’t move to Broadway with Miranda’s Hamilton after playing Aaron Burr in the musical’s early workshops, his answer is straightforward. “I think there was a real possibility that that role was mine to lose. And I’m coming up on eight years sober now but I was not sober then.” Even at his best, he thinks it’s possible that Leslie Odom Jr – who won a Tony for his portrayal of Burr – would have swooped in and captured the role, but he’ll never know for sure.

Utkarsh Ambudkar in ‘Never Have I Ever’ (Netflix)
Utkarsh Ambudkar in ‘Never Have I Ever’ (Netflix)

“I took a big swig and I missed,” he tells me, seamlessly riffing on how drinking got in the way. But he’s not glib about it. “I think it really hurt when the show blew up. I think I felt left out. I think I felt like I had missed a huge opportunity,” he says. “And then we do a lot of work when you get sober. There’s this secret group of people and they all take care of each other, and you do some work and you do some writing and you look at your life and you take stock of it.”

In 2019, Ambudkar finally did make it to Broadway, and he did it with his friends. In honour of the group’s 15th anniversary, Freestyle Love Supreme moved the show they’d cobbled together in Midtown basements to the Booth Theatre. They even won a special Tony for it. Ultimately, his relationships with Miranda and Kail and the rest of the group are better than they have ever been. “Those are my big brothers. They’re just big brothers who wanted their little brother to be healthy and happy.”

You branch out, you find love, have kids, start doing your own stuff, writing your own material. And you’re like, ‘OK, I kind of like this little thing I’m doing’

They’re also collaborating as much as ever. Kail, who directed Hamilton and Freestyle Love Supreme on Broadway, just produced World’s Best, a movie Ambudkar wrote for Disney Plus. In 2021, Ambudkar appeared in the Netflix adaptation of Tick, Tick…Boom!, directed by Miranda.

Besides the second season of Ghosts, which premiered on Thursday, Ambudkar is starring in Netflix’s live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender. There’s going to be a fourth season of Never Have I Ever. Success has found Ambudkar later than he wanted, but he’s philosophical about that, too.

“You branch out, you find love, have kids, start doing your own stuff, writing your own material, making your own music, doing Broadway, winning Tonys all this stuff, rapping at the Oscars,” he says, describing his career as he saw it – idiosyncratic but satisfying. “And you’re like, ‘OK, I kind of like this little thing I’m doing’. You swear off doing any more TV pilots, and you end up booking America’s favourite new show.

“And that’s when they’re like, ‘Oh, now we’re going to put you on the billboard’.”

The second season of ‘Ghosts’ was released on 29 September on CBS. The series is also available to stream on Paramount Plus