“I had a whole speech and a whole spiel [prepared],” Dodani told HuffPost. To the surprise of the 25-year-old actor and comedian, series creator Diane English beat him to the punch. “She told me that there was going to be a whole coming out arc, that it was gonna be very nonchalant, and she asked me how I would like it go down,” he said. “We were both really on the same page. What you see on the show was very much what we had talked about.”
Pat came out — and shared an on-screen same-sex kiss to boot — on the Nov. 8 episode of “Murphy Brown,” titled “A Lifetime of Achievement.” As much as the episode was a turning point for the character, it was also a full-circle moment for Dodani, who hits the big screen Friday in “Escape Room” and is best known as the lovable but foul-mouthed Zahid on Netflix’s “Atypical.”
He’d recalled his personal experience coming out as gay to his Indian parents in an early stand-up routine called “Man of Color.” That skit became a viral hit after it was featured in a 2016 BuzzFeed article, and, in turn, helped put the Arizona-raised performer on the national radar.
And though his film credits include Netflix’s “Alex Strangelove,” his character in that queer-inclusive 2018 comedy was straight — all the more reason he was eager to delve into LGBTQ themes onscreen for himself.
“As an actor, you take what you can get,” he said. “But stories of people who are marginalized or don’t really have a voice — those are the ones that attract me.”
As for “Escape Room,” he described the psychological thriller as a “silly, super fun, edge-of-your-seat movie” about a group of strangers trapped in a deadly version of the immersive game that’s become a nationwide trend.
Directed by Adam Robitel of the “Paranormal Activity” franchise, “Escape Room” might not be the type of inclusive narrative Dodani hopes to make his signature, but it did offer some interesting challenges, including the chance to perform some of his own stunt work.
With “Escape Room” so close on the heels of “Atypical” and “Murphy Brown,” it’s easy to deem Dodani a breakout star. He said his recent success makes him feel “fortunate to have come up in a more progressive time” in Hollywood ― one in which a gay Indian-American performer has opportunities to play diverse roles in movies and on television.
“I’ve definitely had moments where I think, ‘Am I being too gay? Do I let this person know that I’m gay? Will it affect my chance of getting the part? Will it affect the way they treat me?’ I think those are things queer people feel all the time in any profession,” he said. “But generally speaking, I’ve been able to be very authentic. Especially on ‘Murphy Brown’ and ‘Atypical,’ I’ve been completely myself, and everyone on set, from the top down to the bottom, has been welcoming.”
Dodani hopes to showcase a different side to the queer Indian-American experience with his first feature-length screenplay: an adaptation of Rakesh Satyal’s 2009 coming-of-age novel, Blue Boy. The book follows 12-year-old Kiran Sharma, who escapes the struggles of suburban life by imagining he’s a reincarnation of the blue-skinned Hindu god Krishna.
Though Dodani has no plans to appear in the film, he couldn’t be more excited by the chance to adapt it for the screen. The project will mark his first foray into long-form writing beyond the scope of a live comedy set, he said.
“After I read the book, I was just like, ‘This needs to be a movie,’ and I knew I had to write it myself,” he said. “It’s kind of the gay Indian ‘Lady Bird’ — really quirky, really funny.”
“To have an openly gay character of color, played by an openly gay actor of color, on a network sitcom is pretty dope.” Actor and comedian Nik Dodani
Meanwhile, Dodani got to showcase his stand-up comedy roots in September when he performed on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” which he described as “an out-of-body experience.”
He’ll turn his attention back to “Atypical” in March, when he’s slated to begin work on the show’s third season. Though the “Murphy Brown” reboot has yet to be renewed for a second season, the actor and comedian is hopeful audiences haven’t seen the last of Pat Patel.
“To have an openly gay character of color, played by an openly gay actor of color, on a network sitcom is pretty dope,” he said. As to which direction he’d like to take the character in, he added, “I would love to see more gay shit. I mean, I’m down for that, always.”