In a wide-ranging chat with Dax Shepard on his sobriety and his career, Hank Azaria opened up about the controversy surrounding his former Simpsons character Apu.
Azaria, who is white, voiced hard-working Indian Kwik-E-Mart owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon for decades until stepping down from voicing him in 2020.
The controversy began after Indian comic Hari Kondabolu‘s 2017 documentary The Problem with Apu, which blamed the character for years of racist bullying.
“I really didn’t know any better,” Azaria told Shepard’s podcast Armchair Expert. “I didn’t think about it. I was unaware of how much relative advantage I had received in this country as a white kid from Queens.”
The actor said he was initially “hurt and upset” that he was being blamed for the situation. Azaria said he leaned on his growth from sobriety with processing the blowback constructively. “I wanted to educate myself…I didn’t want a kneejerk reaction.”
“I read, I talked to a lot of Indian people, I went to seminars,” Azaria said. “I’m continuing to make amends.”
“Structural racism is about blind spots,” he explained, telling Shepard that the character was based on Peter Sellers‘ brownface portrayal of Hrundi V. Bakshi in the 1966 film The Party.
“At the time, Indian people were very upset with that portrayal back in 1966,” Azaria said. “I couldn’t be possibly passing along structural racism more perfectly, at least in a show business context, by taking something that was already upsetting and going, ‘Oh, this is wonderful!"”
With clearer eyes, Azaria said he’s passionate about speaking about how he’s been “doing the work,” and said, “part of me feels I need to go ’round to every single Indian person in this country and apologize.”
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