Traversing the spectrum with Nik Dodani

Photo by Derek and Drew Riker

Photo by Derek and Drew Riker

Chad White

Being a multi-hyphenated comedian is the norm in today’s entertainment world. Those who take the stage are now expected to act, write, and much more than just tell jokes on stage. But some are taking it a bit further. Take Nik Dodani. Not only does he do comedy but he also reaches into drama as well. When he’s not taking the stage, he’s co-staring in movies like Alex Strangelove and Behold My Heart – both with stellar casts.

I recently had a phone conversation with Dodani to talk about his role in the new Netflix original series Atypical.

I just saw Jennifer Jason Leigh on Conan last night and she showed this clip that was just amazing. It painted [Atypical] in a completely different light than I thought it was going to be.

Nik Dodani: That’s awesome! I haven’t seen that yet. I gotta go check that out.

What drew you to that show?

Dodani: Atypical is a really special show in the sense that it is telling a story that we can all relate to, touching on themes such as what it means to be normal. It’s from the perspective of someone who’s on the autism spectrum. It hasn’t been done before in this particular way because it’s really centering the story of someone with autism. You have shows and movies and plays that touch on and have characters who have autism, but this one, you’re in the mind of someone who has [autism]. You’re watching the story from their perspective. That’s what really drew me into it. The way it talks about such a serious issue with levity is another reason. We talk about serious issues. It’s really cool to see the way the show was written in a way that was relatable and let people lower their guard and take in this heavy topic.

I’m glad you used the term “relatable” because this show is super sweet. It reminds me a lot about the show Speechless in that – Speechless is a show about a kid with cerebral palsy and his parents and family are trying to make it seem like he can do anything he wants – and it seems like they’re essentially the same kind of deal.

Dodani: I think they’re really similar. I think it speaks to a broader trend we’re seeing. We’re seeing more stories that center on folks with disabilities. It’s cool to see different stories being told. How it’s being told offers a different lens to the experience. I think it’s cool a show like Speechless, like Atypical other shows like The Good Doctor that’s coming out. It’s a really awesome trend we’re seeing.

Atypical is a show that’s a lot about love. What kind of role do you play in the main character’s life and his journey to love?

Dodani: I play Zahid who is Sam’s coworker and only real friend. He takes it upon himself to teach Sam the ways of dating and women and sex and love. He gives him a lot of advice that he thinks is great advice but is definitely not. He, more than any other character in the show, treats Sam just like anybody else. And he just want Sam to get laid. That’s where Zahid is coming from. This season, they get closer and I think Zahid becomes more entuned to Sam and the way he thinks and the way he behaves and his ridiculous behavior to that. He just wants to be Sam’s wingman through and through and help Sam go along.

How has being on the set of this show helped with your writing and also with your own stage presence when you’re just telling jokes?

Dodani: Being on the show has really helped me with understanding timing specifically. So much of the way the Zahid dialogue is written is very dependent on the timing. It was a really cool learning experience for me to be on set for three and a half months or however long we were on set to work with the other actors and collaborate with the writers and find the voice that works; the rhythm that works. Zahid is the only character on the show that doesn’t have a serious, dark storyline. A lot of it rested on being able to deliver on the weird, zany things he says. It really taught me a lot about performance and timing.             

This is the first big time series that you’ve had a pretty large role on.

Dodani: Yeah! I really love that this is the first big thing I’ve done. Being in every episode was really incredible thing to shoot. It was a really awesome experience to watch a whole season and to play a role in a show about Sam’s family. It's been a really incredible experience to play a small part in helping Sam tell his story.

I was looking at your career trajectory. You have a lot of standup experience. But, when I see these later moves in your career like the roles in these Netflix movies and independent films, they’re all drama. What’s your standup to acting ratio going on now these days.

Dodani: I started when I was about 12 years old and I got my first job when I was about 14. Acting was a thing that drew me to performance and the arts. It’s notoriously one of those careers where you can do what you want to do but it’s notoriously unpredictable. A few years ago, I started to do standup as a way to express myself creatively and to have an outlet. I got lucky in that sense because it stuck and caught on. Standup really took off from there. Since then, they fed each other. Standup fed off the energy of acting and vice versa. I would say it’s fairly even but who knows where it’s going to go from this point.

Since you’re straddling the line between comic and dramatic actor, was it easy to switch between light hearted stuff on a Netflix show only to go into a tragic area when you’re shooting something like Behold My Heart?

Dodani: I really enjoy that because a lot of comics have a dark side to [themselves]. Being able to do more dramatic stuff satisfied that part of me and the part of me that wants to tell serious stories. With the standup, it satisfies the part of you that makes people laugh and have a good time. It’s a really cool experience to be able to do both.

Check out Nik Dodani’s website, follow him on Twitter, heart him on Instagram and watch Atypical on Netflix.