Somewhat of a pop cultural fad in America is “The Walking Dead.” The zombie drama, which is based on the same-named comic novels, zipped into AMC in 2010 and had a record-breaking debut. Favorite characters have recently had to contend with a variety of dangers, including walkers, dishonest leaders, and an All-Out war. But in 2017, season 8 witnessed a first with the debut of Siddiq, played by Avi Nash, who was the show’s first Muslim-American character.
In addition to roles in films like “Learning to Drive” and “Barry,” Nash has appeared on television before. For the forthcoming ninth season of “The Walking Dead,” he was elevated to a series regular, making this his first regular position on a major television program.
We talked to Nash about portraying an American Muslim on a program with this much audience appeal, working with renowned performers like Andrew Lincoln, and how his experiences as a multicultural actor shape his thoughts on representation.
The Teal Mango: Congratulations on being upped to series regular for season 9 of “The Walking Dead.” How does it feel to step into a bigger role?
Avi Nash: This is a fantastic opportunity. There isn’t much of a change because when I joined the cast the previous year, everyone made me feel like I was already a part of “The Walking Dead” family. I’ve always collaborated directly and personally with my cast mates, and this year is no different.
The sense of duty I now feel for the project and relaying the story as a larger piece, though, is what I believe is the biggest difference for me. Last year, I could get by by simply concentrating on my character and performing my duties to the best of my ability. You don’t receive all the scripts, and they don’t give you a lot of information. I still have the same level of commitment to my work this year, but I also feel like I have a bigger story to tell and a bigger duty to my castmates and our audience. That is the crux of the matter. As much as I think about my character, I also think about this.
TTM: To start from the beginning a little bit, you joined “The Walking Dead” at the start of season 8. Obviously, the show was and is massive. How did you feel knowing you’re going to step into this insanely popular world? Did you watch it before?
Nash: I hadn’t seen it before. I was aware of its scope and that it was such a significant component of pop culture. The performance was scheduled while I was a resident of London. I was hanging out and making pizza and spaghetti at our friend’s house in Italy with some of my university friends. However, as soon as I sent the self-tape, I had a very prompt callback. I unexpectedly had to leave my friends to go shoot in Atlanta for three days.
I didn’t have time to think about the fact that I was about to appear on “The Walking Dead” because I was on a plane and on set so soon. That was the final thought that came to mind, and it probably didn’t truly sink in until they asked me back for additional episodes later in the year. Actually, the first term of my contract was just three episodes. I had even more motivation to give my character more thought as I began to realize that I would be a part of this intricate, enormous, and global production. There is always work to be done, characters to explore, chances to take, but this time there was the added consideration of “don’t forget, 10 million people will watch this program!”
TTM: I really enjoyed watching Siddiq. It’s interesting to see the show’s first major Muslim-American character. Plus, Siddiq is so vocal about his background and religion and his parents, it’s not just a passing comment about him. I loved his reason for killing walkers, because he believes he’s releasing their trapped souls. Why do you think bringing up all of this is important for you, your character, and the show overall?
Nash: In my opinion, Siddiq’s views are above all a fantastic method to restore a voice of reason to a violent world. The fact that he was unfamiliar with these people and had no knowledge of Alexandria, the Kingdom, Hilltop, Negan, or the All-Out conflict created many challenges for him. This increases the impact of his message even further. We would have expected Rick to listen to Siddiq if he had been his confidant from the start. Instead, Siddiq is exhorting mercy through the prism of both his parents and his religion, finally. Siddiq’s clinging to notions of mercy, goodness, and family has provided a new angle. That presented a fantastic challenge for me as an actor to explore. I was always facing problems, which are what actors want to face. As a result, we are forced to attempt and persuade someone else to agree with us, which is obviously the intended outcome.
TTM: Now that you’re a series regular, should we expect a Siddiq backstory? It would be interesting because his story is different in the comics. Do you know if any of it will come on the show?
Nash: I am quite familiar with his past. The majority of it was handed to me by Scott Gimple, although part of it came from the comics, some from Angela Kang, and some of it was entirely my own invention. I’m not sure what I can say in regards to that. It was initially said to me on the show, and I thought it was a wonderful point of view, that even if all the characters have fascinating, thorough backstories, what makes the program so riveting right now is their will to survive, to help one another, and occasionally to murder one another. The tale isn’t driven by these earlier events, but they do influence their decisions. Having saying that, I would adore a Siddiq episode that explored his history. I would adore creating a sizable flashback or montage. I’m not sure if it would occur, but I also wouldn’t fully rule it out. Maybe they’ll sprinkle in a few nuggets here and there like they have in the past. Siddiq will continue to develop as much as his character will allow.
TTM: You’re getting to work with some beloved actors from the show like Andrew Lincoln and Danai Gurira. You briefly worked with Chandler Riggs even. They’ve been on the show for years now. What is it like to act with them and how does it impact your own process?
Nash: The most amazing thing about acting, in my opinion, is that performers are by nature incredibly interested and inquisitive. I have an innate and internal need to understand how actors create magic whenever I work with them. The first thing that becomes clear when you’re in a scene with actors like Andrew, Chandler, and Danai—or anyone else on the show, for that matter—is how much they invest in each performance. The greatest gift an actor can possess is the ability to offer, be creative, and be present at all times. You can use it as fuel. I’ve had the good fortune throughout my career to collaborate with gifted, sensitive artists. Whether it’s about their method or how they behave on set, there is always something to learn from them. For instance, Andrew is unquestionably a prominent man. He sets a high standard for behavior, with his humility and diligence serving as shining examples.
M: Last season was way more emotional and brutal, those emotions must be challenging to bring out.
Nash: Yes, but less so when, for instance, I’m acting in a scenario with Andy. First of all, working with someone that talented forces you to raise your own bar as an actor, which by itself might help to ease the challenge. We seemed to have a similar process, perhaps from our time in London’s drama school, and some of that history overlapped, which was also helpful. We both happen to be actors who, even after yelling “cut,” don’t necessarily immediately unwind, especially during an emotional scene. It’s fantastic to work with someone who thinks similarly while we process it all. You then speak a kind of common language. As long as you’re prepared to learn and play, the emotions on this program start to take care of themselves because there is such a vast variety of procedures and talent.
TTM: Talking about drama school, before doing that, you were in Stanford and getting a degree in Mathematics and Computational Science. What made you shift gears and move towards acting?
Nash: When I arrived at Stanford, I was a very cocky 17-year-old. It was probably some leftover “big fish in a small pond” behavior from high school, so I was in for a shock when I arrived at Stanford. I suddenly discovered, while in class, that I’m not all that quick or brilliant. In my first math class, I was unable to read the board because I had never encountered true mathematical notation. I had to drop it and enroll in a less challenging course. Stanford soon made me humble. It was really required, and I appreciate you doing it. That gave me the chance to think about who I was and how few of the things I thought I was excellent at actually stood up to the brilliance and intelligence that comes out of a place like Stanford.
But I was still very good at being creative and acting as an extension of that. I was prepared to put effort into it and refine my skills. I believe that even if no one is looking, there is no money, it is difficult, strange, and occasionally impractical, our passion in life should be directed toward that which still makes us feel complete. Acting wouldn’t be something I pursued if I wasn’t content with viewing movies, reflecting on my art, practicing, and growing as a person.
TTM: So then did some part of you always know you wanted to do this?
Nash: I believe that while not always seeing myself as a creative for many years, there was a part of me that always knew I was one. I considered myself to be an intellectual with a creative side. I’ve been able to accept and appreciate my identity as a creative with some intellect during the last two to three years. That change was crucial for me. I took the stage for the first time on a dare my senior year of high school. Because we were the class clowns, a classmate dared my closest friend and I to perform an audition for a play on stage.
He wasn’t there when we were meant to arrive together. I had an audition, and I was cast. Although I found it enjoyable, it still felt like a hobby to me. I didn’t consider it something I would eventually do. I was an artist; I painted and drew, and I intended to major in architecture. For me, acting simply evolved as a result of humility and a deeper self-awareness. I’ll never forget the amazing happiness and the incredible creative expression I had while acting. I believed it was worthwhile to pursue for the rest of my life rather than burying it.
TTM: You also studied at Anupam Kher’s Acting Academy in Mumbai, India. What was that experience like for you?
Nash: Another daring there! I feel like I’m constantly being dared to do something. Because I wasn’t quite ready to admit that I wanted to be an actor, I was taking a cinema course at Stanford kind of covertly.
I also attended my first-ever Hindi class. I wished I could speak my mother tongue. My mother is South American and my father is from Bombay, thus I grew up speaking English basically. When Sameer Gadhia (of the band Young the Giant) and a few of us left that class that night, he just stopped me and said, “When are you going to stop bullsh*t and become an actor?” He dropped out and began a career in music, I believe, in the next quarter. So, after my first year, I decided to drop out and enroll in a six-month program at Anupam Kher’s institution. I spent six months completely avoiding using English. Hindi was used for everything. If I didn’t want anybody to read what I wrote, I would write all of my notes in Urdu or Devanagari.
There, I learned a lot about emotional intelligence and how to deal with things like backstories. I started out having trouble with the language, but towards the end I was speaking fluently and without an accent. It wasn’t easy for me, but the fact that I eventually excelled and finished at the top of the class—if there is such a thing—proved that acting was indeed what I was passionate about, what I would do no matter what, and what I was naturally gifted at.
TTM: As someone who is relatively new to this industry, how do you feel when you go for auditions? Do you feel like you’re seeing more stereotyped roles or has that been changing for the better?
Nash: It’s a fascinating question. Stereotyping isn’t something I typically notice in the auditions I attend. That’s wonderful news, and I believe my team played a role in it.
They are aware of the fact that I wouldn’t be interested in it. I’ve made it clear that I value representation. It’s vital to me to paint a more accurate picture of how diverse the world is. Changing people’s conceptions of what they believe people of color can and should be is one aspect of this. In reality, your potential to be a brilliant doctor, brilliant construction worker, or brilliant performer has nothing to do with your race or gender. I frequently search for and apply for employment that support this idea.
All of this should be taken with a grain of salt, since I am well aware of the fact that I frequently receive audition requests despite not being a white male. It’s intriguing to explore the nature of stereotypes, in my opinion. The business has started looking for the “ethnically ambiguous figure” in an effort to broaden the focus. Now, this either indicates that they are searching for someone who has an ambiguous ethnicity or that they are trying to fill a post in which a white male is not what they desire. I’m able to go out for both of those things because of my dual nature, mixed heritage, and lack of any recognizable white features.
I get to apply for roles that call for Latino or Portuguese speakers as well as South Asian actors. I also choose parts that ask for submissions even when they aren’t exactly what they are looking for.
Despite all, that strategy just represents the first step in addressing diversity and representation. That still amounts to “let me simply acquire a better rainbow of faces” thinking about the issue. The empowering of people whose experiences we don’t see is really what needs to happen. We need to tell stories that depict the reality of people of many races, genders, and sexual orientations. We also need to tell stories in which these characteristics are simply a part of the characters’ makeup and have no bearing on the plot. We are gradually making progress. Although I haven’t seen much yet, there is optimism.
TTM: I think over time, in the last few years especially, representation has been increasing but it’s also accurate representation. Who or what do you think is causing that change?
Nash: Two recent instances that come to mind are Donald Glover and Riz Ahmed. I recently completed watching “Atlanta” season 2, so Donald has been on my mind. He is a prolific creator who isn’t hesitant to push the envelope and raise the bar for black voices in America. Riz is a similarly articulate, candid, and thoughtful artist. I admire how he managed his career, moving from South Asian tales to Muslim-focused stories to now more mainstream work, all without losing sight of what was most essential to him from the beginning.
My upbringing was undoubtedly a whirlwind of various cultural influences because I was raised in the United States by a South American father and a Bombay-born mother. Sometimes the worst question I can get is someone asking me “where I’m from.” But it’s been encouraging to see artists with comparable diverse, convoluted backgrounds start to not just embrace it, but also give themselves a platform to share their experiences.
To that point, I’ve also always found multilingual performers to be fascinating. Rodrigo Santoro, Pedro Pascal, and Tahar Rahim are just a few examples of artists that not only make difficult and fascinating work, but can do so in numerous languages.
In order to support this increasingly complicated world, representation is evolving, and if I can, as an artist, help contribute to and support that complexity, that’s a battle I’m willing to put up.
TTM: Shifting gears back to “The Walking Dead,” you’re attending your first Walker Stalker Con this year in Orlando in August. How do you feel about that?
Nash: Everyone on the cast who attended has only spoken highly of the event. The key point that is always emphasized is how this show affects so many individuals in ways that are beyond our comprehension. My goal during production is on playing Siddiq, being authentic, and contributing to the telling of a story.
However, this character’s difficulties and tale may finally reach a viewer in Texas, Georgia, or anywhere else in the world and accomplish something completely different for them. These traditions enable us to share an experience that, despite my best efforts, I could never even begin to critique. It’s a beautiful chance to not only observe the effects of the event, but also to express gratitude to the fans and to reciprocate in a more concrete way. For us, that is a duty, a privilege, and an honor. I am anticipating it.
TTM: What are some of your upcoming projects you’re excited about?
Nash: So for the next seven months, “The Walking Dead” filming will be my existence. I shot the independent movie “Hosea” in Oklahoma earlier this year. It tells the tale of a prosperous architect who goes back to his small hometown in Oklahoma and rediscovers his first love, who has sadly had a difficult life.
The marriage is the subject of our film, which explores whether or not things will turn out the way you want them to or whether the concept of love is sufficient. Making such a profound, challenging, and moving film was challenging. I’m looking forward to seeing it in a festival setting and observing how spectators respond.
Seasons 1–7 of “The Walking Dead” are streaming on Netflix, while seasons 1–8 are available on AMC.com. Season 9 will debut in October 2018.