Actor Maulik Pancholy DRA ’03 is best known for his roles as Jonathan, the uptight assistant to NBC exec Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) on “30 Rock”, and the drug-dealing dweeb Sanjay Patel on the comedy series “Weeds.” Earlier this year, he appeared in “Horrible Bosses” and currently stars on NBC’s new comedy, “Whitney.” WEEKEND talked to Pancholy on Wednesday over the phone about his fondest Yale memories, acting inspirations and why Tina Fey is not a horrible boss.
Q. We’re in New Haven, Connecticut. The year is 2002. It is a Saturday night. Where is Maulik Pancholy, and what is he doing?
A. I’m probably at the Yale Cabaret at 11 or 12 a.m., rehearsing or with friends. And later I’m going to the Anchor Bar for many fun nights I can’t remember any more. And then I’m probably going home to get some sleep and rest my instrument.
Q. So not Toad’s.
A. You know, I never saw a concert at Toad’s! I never hung out there. There was an Irish bar on Chapel that was one of the big hangouts for drama students, but not Toad’s.
Q. Tell me about your MFA program at the School of Drama. What were your best experiences?
A. Well, in my year, there were 15 actors — I think they still have that, around 15 or 16 people. We got to be really close. It’s pretty insane how close you get. You’re in class all day long, then you’re in plays. A lot of classes are really personal, letting your own life and experiences in to become a better actor. One of my favorite classes was a clown class. It’s not like “big shoes” clowning — it’s about trying to find your funny and your inner clown. It is a lot of being childish, but it’s also about describing the most amazing or saddest thing you’ve ever seen with no words. We were all terrified because you had to be so honest, and if you weren’t, it wasn’t funny. But I really grew in that class.
Q. What was your first paid acting job?
A. God, the first thing that pops into my head was “The Me Nobody Knows.” Every community theater does that show. [I did it] in Tampa, Florida in high school.
Q. You got paid for that?
A. Yeah, we got paid all of maybe, like, 200 dollars.
Q. What does Jonathan do when he goes home at the end of each workday? Does he drink or take bubble baths?
A. Can we make this a multiple-choice question? Yes, all the above. When he goes home, a large part of what he does is also getting ready for the next day. We get little glimpses [of his personal life] that Tina [Fey] throws in now and then. He has this artistic side, where he makes a poster for Jack Donaghy because they’ve been demoted. There’s an episode where he casually mentions his community theater project.
Q. Jonathan seems to be in a constant state of ‘FREAK OUT AND DIE.’ Do you draw on any horrible anxieties of your own for this role?
A. I would say that part of what drives Jonathan is this obsessiveness he has, and his need for perfection and “how dare Liz Lemon interrupt Jack Donaghy?” I have my own — and this isn’t diagnosed, so I use this term loosely — OCD. I like things where they are and I’m a perfectionist, so that’s the part of Jonathan that I totally relate to. When I first got out of Yale, I had a temp job as an executive assistant at Estee Lauder — I was the Assistant to the Assistant to Evelyn Lauder, who’s part of the Lauder dynasty. So it wasn’t anything like 30 Rock is, but I did work in an environment with business dealings.
Q. What’s the best piece of advice Alec Baldwin has ever given you?
A. He told me about how he gets to work with so many actors who are in it for the fame, and you can see it in the way they work — asking “Did you get it? Did you get it?” after every take. For great actors, it’s about “Let’s get it right,” and I thought that was great. It’s so selfless. You’re there to create a TV show or play and your job is to really do the best you can, as opposed to getting your take and leaving.
Q. Give me one good reason to hate Tina Fey. Because from what I can tell, she seems like the greatest person alive.
A. Despite having the career she has, there’s nothing to hate about her. I’ve literally never seen her be mean to people, and she runs the show with such ease and grace. From the guest director down to someone who’s in the background, she’s nice to everyone.
Q. What was your favorite scene to have filmed on “30 Rock”?
A. My favorite scene was singing “I Will Remember You” to Jack Donaghy [when Donaghy is demoted from an office on the 52nd to the 12th floor of NBC]. I thought it was brilliant writing, and I loved the idea that it meant so much to him that he couldn’t say it in words. That was so fun to shoot.
Q. Tell me about this play you were in, “Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom.”
A. That was in 2004. We put it up on the eve of the Republican National Convention, right before the election. It was a play that started in the UK, based on real letters from prisoners in Guantanamo, and testimonials from people in the state department in the British government [and] people who were working at Guantanamo. They brought it to New York, and we did it at the Culture Project. It’s amazing. I played a 21-year-old British kid who had been picked up and put in prison. While there, he lost his eyesight, and [his part] was literally the real words he’d written to his family. It was pretty exciting to do at that time, with so much going on, with the war and the National Convention.
Q. Pretty different from your work on “30 Rock” and “Weeds.”
A. People know me for doing comedy on TV, but I love doing theater. That’s why I went to Yale.
Q. Jonathan and Sanjay end up stuck in a broken-down elevator together with little hope of being saved. What happens, and who kills who first?
A. What would happen? I feel like at some point a bag of weed would fall onto the floor, and Jonathan — who I’m sure has a [Citizens’ Arrest badge] — would arrest Sanjay, but only after he smoked a little bit himself, and [he] would arrest him while he was high. I don’t know! They might walk out of the elevator holding hands.
Q. Fill in the blank: “Weeds” makes the world a better place because _.
A. Because I dig it? I think when “Weeds” first came out, it was doing something different. It introduced an insanely strong female character, and it really pushed the boundaries. And the writing was so good.
Q. What current TV show would you like to get involved in? Dream job?
A. To be honest, “Whitney” feels like the dream job. I’m having an amazing time. We’re filming Episode 7 right now. The writing’s really smart, the cast is insanely bonded and we’ve all become really good friends. I think Whitney is so talented and relevant.
Q. Your character on “Whitney”, Neal, is described on the NBC website as a “modern-day Renaissance man, who is sensitive, cool and knows a little bit about everything.” Somebody at NBC must love you. What’s the deal with this character? How can this guy even exist?
A. I think what’s cool [about this character] is that there’s an exterior-ness of perfection, but Whitney’s created three dimensions with all these people. He’s smart and sophisticated and knows how to make his girl happy, but as time goes on, you realize he’s not always in control. He thinks he has a handle on stuff, and the unraveling of that is a side of him that we’ll get to play with.
Q. Wikipedia tells me you and Jason Segel [“How I Met Your Mother”] share a birthday. Have you guys bonded over this?
A. I didn’t know that! I’ll invite him to my birthday party.
Q. Well, he’s also six years younger than you. You are 37, correct?
A. [Quietly] … Yes.
Q. So how do you look so young? No, but really — I want detailed skincare, health and fitness tips.
A. I have this secret formula that I’ve actually patented. It’s a youth serum. If I ever quit my acting career, that’s how I’m going to make money. No, I have no secrets.