Anirudh Pisharody did everything right: worked in a lab for three years, shadowed a gastroenterologist, and earned a bachelor’s degree in public health from the University of Texas at Austin in 2016.
And yet, it all felt wrong.
He hated most of it. Pisharody’s favorite days in the lab were when he was simply left alone for hours, watching Netflix on his phone while doing titrations. The romanticization of public health on television, he said, was a stark contrast to its reality.
“I even took my MCAT and everything,” Pisharody told HuffPost. “My resume was ready to go. I was like, ‘Listen, I’ll give a nine-to-five a try and see what that’s like, right?’ So, when I did this job in D.C., I hated that too. I was miserable. A part of me was like, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.”
Six months in, he found a clause in his contract that allowed him to quit. His then-girlfriend and current wife, Jill, encouraged him to come live with her in Los Angeles, California. She knew that he always loved acting and suggested that while studying for medical school, he could also go to a few auditions. Pisharody took a leap of faith, one that would eventually land him a role in a critically acclaimed Netflix series.
In Season 3 of Mindy Kaling’s hit Netflix series “Never Have I Ever,” which premiered Aug. 12, Pisharody portrays Nirdesh aka Des, an “Indian dork” who studies sea slugs. What Pisharody hopes viewers glean from Des’ journey is that intelligence can be sexy, South Asian men can be sexy and the standard for beauty and attraction is not set forth merely by whiteness.
“Nerdy can be sexy. I think intelligence can be very, very sexy. A brown guy can be sexy,” Pisharody said. “South Asians, anyone from that part of the world, and really any minority can be sexy. It doesn’t have to be white-aggrandizing as if that’s the gold standard. If we can change our perception, we can literally change the world. That permeates throughout every social issue that we have in our current timeline.”
With credits from “The Goldbergs,” “9-1-1” and “Big Sky” now under his belt, the 28-year-old actor is finally on a path that feels good to him. The “Never Have I Ever” role has solidified Pisharody’s place as a household name and a heartthrob, as proven by the deluge of DMs he’s received, but his journey has just begun.
“It’s been pretty overwhelming I would say. This is my first big, big role. People from all over have slid into my DMs and all that stuff, across all social media channels,” Pisharody said “It’s been great. It’s very heartfelt. I’m really happy that it has such a positive effect and finally, people are able to be like, ‘I feel represented on screen.’”
Fresh off a semester at sea, Des is described as a fish out of the water by his mother, Rhyah (Sarayu Blue). She felt her son was struggling to make friends after returning to high school. Being a good friend Nalini (Pooma Jagannathan) enlisted her daughter and America’s favorite chaotic teen, Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) to help Des by inviting him to attend a party with her. Expecting a dweeb, Devi warned her friends that a “cousin” will be joining her at the party, only to be taken aback when Des walked in. “You thought I was gonna be a huge loser based on what?” the Stanford-bound private school hotshot asked her.
“The reason why Devi’’s character is so relatable is that she’s messy. She makes mistakes, which is human. The only way that growth happens is when there’s somebody who’s going to tell it to you straight like that,” Pisharody told HuffPost. “I think everyone needs that person or interaction in their lives, whether it’s an extended relationship like Devi and Des have, or it’s an epiphany type moment, where it’s like, it’s me. I’m the reason that these problems are happening.”
In a first for the show, we see a young, self-assured Indian boy call Devi out on her internalized self-loathing and “mild racism.” The two go on to have a healthy romantic bond, with what appears to be Devi’s first brown boyfriend. Contrary to dating statistics and emasculating, racist stereotypes that position Asian men as “the least desirable,” it’s refreshing for audiences to see a South Asian male love interest at the focal point of a relationship that doesn’t center on whiteness.
But only six years ago, Pisharody wrestled with telling his parents about his decision to pursue acting full-time. With a part-time job and a few short films on his plate, he finally talked with them.
“There was definitely hesitation in their voice, but it was just kind of like, ‘Don’t half-ass it. If you’re gonna do this, go full tilt. Think about going to a conservatory.’ I’m like, ’OK, that’s great!” he said. “But that being said, to this day, my mom will still be like, ‘It’s not too late! You can always be a doctor.’ Maybe once I buy her a house or something like that, it’ll be enough.”
Little did his parents know that they, specifically his father, had instilled the acting bug in him from a young age. His dad, who grew up in Kerala, India, is a huge movie buff, with “The Goonies” and “Indiana Jones” being a couple of the first movies his father introduced to him.
Growing up with his little sister in Round Rock, Texas, a suburb of Austin, Pisharody had what he described as an “idyllic childhood.” He spent his free time playing under lush trees in the sweltering heat, reading “Wolverine” and “Hulk” comics, riding bikes after school and racing to the local gas station for Slurpees.
The tinge of tension in post-9/11 Texas was not lost on Pisharody as a young brown boy, but his community was his shield.
“The South Asian diaspora is pretty much in every country, in every part of the world,” said Pisharody. “There’s a thing called GAMA, the Greater Austin Malayalee Association, and we’d go to functions for that and be involved in the community. The othering, obviously, it’s always going to be present whenever you’re a minority, but thankfully, we had that [community]. We found solace in people who look like us.”
“Nerdy can be sexy... I think intelligence can be very, very sexy. A brown guy can be sexy. South Asians, anyone from that part of the world, and really any minority can be sexy. It doesn’t have to be white-aggrandizing as if that’s the gold standard. If we can change our perception, we can literally change the world. That permeates throughout every social issue that we have in our current timeline.”
When sixth grade came along, it was time to pick an elective. Absent-mindedly choosing what sounded like a “blow-off class,” Pisharody took drama with his buddies. Surprisingly, it felt natural.
“I stuck with it until I graduated high school,” said Pisharody. “I was doing competitions and things like that, where you go do these cold reads, these monologues. It just kind of stuck with me. My parents put on a little bit of pressure, and they’re like, ‘Hey, maybe you should do something a bit more stable.’”
He continued, “Honestly, because I had never seen that much success of a person who looked like me on screen or even on stage, I was like, ‘Oh, well, I don’t think I can really make a career out of this.’ A starving artist has a romance to it, but you don’t want to be a literal starving artist. So I did public health.”
One of the first and few characters Pisharody watched on television that made him feel seen was Sendhil Ramamurthy, who plays Devi’s late father in “Never Have I Ever.” A superhero stan and comic book geek at heart, Pisharody grew up watching the early 2000s NBC drama series “Heroes,” in which Ramamurthy was the first Indian superhero on an American television screen.
“He legit had super strength! He was ripping doors off cars! I remember being like, ‘Wow this is awesome.’ I really want to have some level of impact with other generations, so I can have the same effect that a young me had watching [Ramamurthy] on screen,” he said.“Unfortunately, it’s a diamond in the rough. That happens once every 10 years but thankfully, it’s changing now. I’m glad that I can be a part of that change.”
Now, Pisharody is flipping the script for how South Asian men are depicted onscreen. From playing cancer survivor and firefighter Ravi Panikkar on FOX’s “9-1-1” to Des on “Never Have I Ever,” he continues to dismantle the tropes and stereotypes about brown men in society. What drew Pisharody to Des was his confidence.
“When you go deeper, my character Ravi on ‘9-1-1,’ there are moments when he’s confident, but he’s still a very meek guy. Des, on the other hand, is just extremely confident. He knows who he is, and he’s not apologetic about that. He’s really direct. I love that because I’ll be honest, in my real life, I’m not like that. I feel I’m more like Ravi, so the chance to play somebody who’s uber-confident in themselves and has a jock-like personality is very tantalizing. It really takes me out of my own skin,” he said with a grin.
Pisharody said he got a lot of messages from fans expressing how important it was to see a young South Asian boy, such as Des pursuing and appreciating Devi.
“Media just has that impact,” he said. “It influences people, consciously and subconsciously. I think the more we show brown-on-brown love, Black on Black love, and any love that isn’t white-aggrandizing, the kids of a younger generation will see that. Subconsciously, they think that’s what’s deemed attractive. If I see somebody who looks like that at my school, I shouldn’t be scared to be like, ‘I have a crush on you.’”
While all seemed well during Des and Devi’s honeymoon phase, parents, notably Des’ mom Rhyah, get in the way. Following Devi’s breakdown at her first recital since her father’s untimely death, Rhyah became concerned about the optics of her son being associated with Devi. She ultimately forced Des to break up with Devi. In a move that many South Asian fans online called accurate, in true mama’s boy fashion, Des succumbed to the will of his mother instantly.
Though not a self-proclaimed Des apologist, Pisharody explained his character’s very objective, logic-based rationale.
“Here’s his mom who’s asking him to do something,” Pisharody said. “And then there’s this girl that he’s been dating for a couple of months. He knows that when he graduates, he’s going to Stanford. Is this relationship really going to last? In that vein, he’s like, ‘Listen, I like you, but this is still my mom.’ How can you say no to them? We’re always talking about respecting your elders, respecting your parents.”
Pisharody continued, “I think to Des it seems like a no-brainer, right? It sucks. It’s a terrible situation. But it’s accurate. I wasn’t surprised by it. I think an Indian parent who’s watching is gonna look at their kid who’s like 10 years old or something and hopefully, they’re gonna have the thought of like, ‘Oh, man, I don’t want to be that person.’”
He can’t say whether Des will return for the fourth and final season of Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever” — and rumor has it that he’s not. But right now, the burgeoning actor is currently shooting for the ABC series “Big Sky” in New Mexico. Once he wraps in September, he’s open to doing anything and everything.
“No role seems to me where I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ve done this before.’ With all these amazing writers, producers, and directors out there, everything seems to be just very fresh to me,” Pisharody said. “That being said, if Marvel is listening, I would love to play a superhero. I would jump at the chance. Absolutely.”