In my very first review of Chuck, I commented that Vik Sahay’s Lester was the “most underrated TV character currently on television.” Three years later, I’m pretty proud of my initial assessment of his glaring talent, and now assert that Vik Sahay is the most underrated actor currently in Hollywood.
After I spent a few embarrassing moments gushing over my love for Lester, Mr. Sahay generously dished on his experiences with Jeffster!, what it meant saying goodbye to Chuck after five years, and his thoughts on East Indian roles in Hollywood today.
JK: I wanted to let you know that I’m a huge fan of Chuck, and I think it’s pretty much common knowledge that Lester was the funniest character on the show.
Vik Sahay: Oh, you did not just say that.
JK: Oh I said it! I’m also going to say that he’s possibly the funniest character in TV history.
Vik Sahay: Wow, Jennifer, you are quickly becoming my favorite person on earth, you know that.
JK: That’s great to know. So, truth time: I know that you and Lester are both from Canada. How much of Lester is based off you?
VS: Internally, very little. I think Lester is a very damaged, damaged boy, and has a lot of hurt and anger in him. I think that obviously manifested in many lashing ways, and I don’t have quite that. I think we share a certain kind of intensity, a certain kind of focus, but ultimately I think the overlap is minimal.
JK: That’s a little disappointing, but also kind of good to know.
VS: I’m sorry I’m not a more damaged person for you. I’m sorry I didn’t try to kill my best friend.
JK: I guess that’s OK. Did you have a role in how Lester shaped and developed as a character?
VS: It’s interesting, I mean, not directly. I never sat down in the writer’s room and said, “This is what I think should happen,” but I do improv a LOT when I’m working. A lot of it doesn’t get on the air, but I feel it gets into the air, and it creates, at least immediately on the set, a kind of energy, a kind of vibe, a kind of history between characters, and I think the writing room would watch that and kind of get a feel of where to go. I had no idea what was going to happen for Lester and Jeff in season five, but wow, I kind of loved it.
JK: I saw on the special features that the cast and writers talked about how much you ad-libbed, and how you improv-ed the most out of the cast. Do you have a background in improv?
VS: First of all, I didn’t realize they said that, and that’s scary. [Laughs] I don’t really officially have a background in improv…Improv for me isn’t just about jokes and being the funniest. I think it’s a really good way to investigate a character and flesh it out and create relationships. I’m the kind of actor that will insanely go out in character in public places and improv with real people and see how that goes, and it helps me create and get into the blood of whoever I’m playing. It’s kind of more an acting methodology than it is for show, but I believe in it both in comedy and drama a great deal. The easiest time to do it is when the writing is fantastic; that’s the irony of it. The better the writing, the more you can risk and flush out in improv. Obviously the Chuck writing was top-notch, so I got to dive in.
JK: Absolutely. So when you say that you improv-ed in real life and you take it to real people, what does that look like?
VS: I’ll go out to a restaurant or a bar and I’ll be Lester. I’ll have reacted to things as Lester, which didn’t always end well, but it allowed me to feel how convincing the character was and where it was at, and to live it and be it so when I got on the set to shoot it, it was seamless. What was really important to me was, as insane a character Lester really was, I never wanted to be winking at the audience and letting them know, “Hey it’s me Vik behind here, and I’m really good guy!” I just wanted to be in the full mania of Lester Patel. Before we started shooting, I went and did research and spent time in the BuyMore equivalent around Canada where I’m from, and found people that I wanted to put together to be Lester. So it was really important for me to serve the character that way, and that’s one of the ways I did it, by traveling the streets in character.
JK: Since the inception of Jeffster!, how hard has it been to field those phone calls from the record companies?
VS: It’s all mass; they just came flooding, and obviously they feel that I should be on tour with Adele, and I think that’s right. I think we have the same voice. [Laughs] No, there have obviously been some online bits here and there, and people asking for the album and what’s next, and [whether] there’s going to be a tour, but you know, all I can say is that at one point that was a definitive no, but now Tim [Jones, Chuck composer] and I have had a couple of chitchats about the possibility of putting something together. That’s all I can say and that’s all I really know at this point.
JK: So what I’m hearing is that there’s hope and there’s a window for a Jeffster! tour!? And that door is not closed?
VS: Just by saying that, you’ve opened the door wider. [Laughs] But yeah, there’s sort of a slim, tiny bit of sliver, slim, tiny bit of a slim, sliver, tiny bit of a potential maybe something, I don’t know, potential of a maybe sliver of a slim.
JK: That was a lot of qualifications. I’m impressed by how many times you said “sliver” and “slim.” So, point taken, but I think that’s enough for us to hold on to some hope, and it will keep us warm at night. Do you have a favorite Jeffster! song or performance?
VS: The whole journey of it was incredible for me. I don’t know if I have a specific song that I like best. I found the whole thing initially just so horrifying and scary, and so much pressure. We didn’t have a whole lot of time to work the songs. Honestly, the whole collaboration in working with Tim on the music, and learning how to put a song together and learning how to break down vocals: it was my garden within my garden on Chuck, and it was my special extra thing I got to do, except I had no idea how to do it. I knew nothing about, and it was an amazing mountain-climb of a journey working on all of these songs.
JK: It was a journey for the audience, as well, and to see Jeffster! develop into something huge and then to see Jeffster! leave with a whole orchestra behind it was phenomenal for us.
VS: It was really exciting to do, to culminate to that song. It’s such a difficult song, and to be on a big stage like that with an orchestra; it culminated into such a beautiful peak and I’m grateful to the writers for that.
JK: On that note, have you had any vocal training? Was that what inspired Jeffster!?
VS: I was completely in foreign territory; I knew nothing about it. I had sung on stage a little bit in class, but I had no idea how to approach it at all. …The other aspect of it was that I never wanted to let my ego of wanting to sound perfect get in the way of who Lester was. I was very tempted to take singing lessons on the hiatus, but I resisted the urge because I wanted the way Lester was learning the songs to be the way I was learning the songs, so there would be no separation between his journey and mine. I didn’t want to get ahead of it and all of a sudden [have it so that] he’s this perfect singer. That wouldn’t make character sense to me.
JK: One of the reasons why I love Lester so much (and of course in addition to the craziness and intensity he brings) is that he’s pretty much the antithesis of what a stereotypical Indian character would be. I think that means a lot to viewers to be able to see a character like Lester who is Indian-Canadian and Jewish and also is just hanging out with a group of people and up to regular, crazy things that aren’t necessarily associated to his race and his ethnicity. Do you have any opinions as to that?
VS: I hear you, and I was talking to a friend of mine the other day who is an East Indian actor, and he said, “It’s possible that in the future people will look back at this moment with Lester, and go, ‘That’s one of the first times we were represented in a capacity that made us a normal part of the mainstream,’ and that we weren’t on TV talking in an accent.” That moved me to no end; it’s so beautiful to hear because that is important. You know, I lead first as an actor more than with my ethnicity, but the industry doesn’t always reflect that. I’m very grateful to be given all the leeway I got, and then when the ethnicity was used, I thought it was used so funnily and so well, and so perfectly and at the right time. When they cast me, they had this idea that Lester was Jewish, and they didn’t get rid of that idea; they kept it. So I give a lot of credit to [Chuck creators] Josh Schwartz and Chris Fedak for that, and it was a real pleasure to do because I never thought about his ethnicity, except when I needed to use it. It was just really about being this guy, this dude, this person, and I’m realizing how special that is.
JK: I think it really is, and I think your friend really encompassed what it means to a lot of viewers, too, for a lot of the Asian-American viewers, to be able to see such a funny character…To be able to actually develop this character who has his own experiences and who has his own personality that isn’t associated to this stereotype meant a lot to me and I think that’s what meant a lot to the viewers as a whole. So… that’s AWESOME.
VS: That’s amazing, it means so much. And to be clear, I have no problem playing an East Indian character. I enjoy digging into my culture and representing it, as long as it’s represented well, and that it’s a three-dimensional character. That being said, it was great to play a character whose name is “Lester,” which is obviously not remotely an Indian name. And I could feel that; people would talk to me about “this guy Lester,” and they wouldn’t go, “that Indian character,” and that was great.
JK: So prior to landing the role of Lester, did you feel like you were encountering offers of stereotypical East Indian roles, or Indian roles that were not so three-dimensional?
VS: Well, less so. You know, I’ve been very lucky. I’ve played some great roles. When they’re East Indian, they’re fleshed out, and when they’re not, they’re just people. I’ve been very lucky because I know what’s out there, and I read what’s out there. I do think it’s changing a lot; I’m in the midst of looking at scripts and reading scripts. You know, almost in a funny way people have become maybe oversensitive to it that they’ll say, “No accent. Your character is East Indian and he’s from India and he was born in India and he just got here, but no accent.” At that point, I’ll go, “That makes no sense. I understand that you’re trying to be politically-something here, but he’s got to have an accent, and that’s okay, as long as it’s not the joke and as long as it doesn’t make him an idiot.”
You know, I’ve been very lucky in playing those roles, or avoiding those roles, but yeah it’s out there. It’s absolutely out there, and sometimes I have an instinct to really want to take those stereotypical roles myself, so I can take responsibility for them and go, “I’m going to flesh it out. I’m going to play it; I’m going to not let it get sold down the river by someone else who may want to do that. I want to take it on and take the responsibility for it.” But yeah, it’s all an evolution.
JK: Absolutely. There’s been some blame on actors for taking on stereotypical roles. I think your approach is very interesting: if you are in a position where you are taking the role, to at least try to make the character more dimensional. Is that something that should be on the actors?
VS: This is an incredibly, incredibly rough profession. I don’t blame anybody for anything. I understand it; I understand what you got to do; I understand you need to get your foot in the door and you have to make money. I get it all. I’m just speaking for myself; it’s a matter of going “OK, dig in, and lead artistically, lead creatively. You don’t have to be offended culturally; you can be offended artistically.” It’s not just that this is an East Indian corner store worker who is the idiot. It’s not a great role, period. If I’m going to take it on, I’m going to make it a project about him and who he is and create as much dimension, and include as many jokes as I can with it.
JK: That’s a great point, and a very valid one. Going back to Chuck, what was it like saying bye after 5 years? Was that a real tear at the series finale?”
VS: That was a real tear. That moment was an incredibly emotional hybrid of what Lester was going through and what Vik was going through, shooting my last scene at the BuyMore, and it cracked me, and the cameras were rolling. The whole season was tough to shoot. All of this stuff of me wanting to stay in character was very difficult, because all of these emotions were pulling you out of it. And you’re saying goodbye to something that has meant the world to you, so yeah, it was very emotional.
JK: Do you remember or reminisce what your audition process was like?
VS: For me, it was insane. I don’t know if you know this or not, but I originally read for the role of Morgan. First of all, it’s an insane audition process. You go back five times for the role, and each time there’s more and more people until there’s 40-50 people in the room with you, and you’re reading. [Eventually], it came down between me and Josh Gomez. I THINK he got the role.
JK: I think he might’ve- that’s the rumor.
VS: Word has it he’s got it. [Laughs] And you know, it was nothing but heartbreak. I’m not one of those actors who’s like, “I got thick skin for the rejection of this business.” I am hurt badly each time. And then a couple of days later they offered me the role of Lester, and it’s amazing how far it’s come because I didn’t even remember him from the pilot. I was like, “What? Who is he? Oh this person here who says this one word?” I said, “No, I don’t really want to do it.” So luckily, my brilliant manager said, “Yeah, you’re doing it.” So I went, and for whatever reason, I found an opening and began to improv like crazy in the pilot. Fedak and Schwartz and McG allowed it and encouraged it. None of it made it into the pilot, but there was something there. I began to do one episode at a time, and there was a little more here and little more there, until the second season, when they made us part of the main cast. And then one fine day, they said, “Hey can you sing? Because you’re gonna!” and Jeffster! was born.
JK: And God smiled down on the world that day. What can you tell us about the Season 5 DVD release?
VS: For me, there’s sentimental value. If there’s a DVD to own, it’s going to be the Season 5 DVD. It’s going to be filled with emotion, it’s going to have the last episodes on there, some great behind the scenes and gag reel. We got very lucky in knowing when the end was coming. That’s a very different vibe from having it yanked from under you and I think you feel that throughout the season and in the behind the scenes bits here and there.
JK: That helped the viewers and the fans, where we were bracing ourselves. It was all that much more poignant when it came to an end. So can we expect any Jeffster! special features?
VS: Well, [Chuck Season 5DVD] comes out in May, and you’ll just have to grab it!
JK: I see you’re going to be in American Reunion. [The American Pie] movies have been a cultural icon for displaying the transition from high school to adulthood. Can you talk a little bit about your role in it?
VS: I play Stifler’s boss, and we go head-to-head in the movie. It was a phenomenal experience, and I can’t speak more highly about it. I found it to be absolutely fantastically written. I thought the writing was the best, potentially, of the series, and being on set was surreal because these characters are so famous…I think this one really has that charisma and the appeal of the first one, the one that created that phenomenon, so I have a great feeling about the movie as a whole.
JK: Were you able to use your improv skills at all with the scenes?
VS: I certainly did. There have been a couple of screenings, and I don’t ever watch myself, so I haven’t seen it, and I don’t know how much is there.
JK: We’re all looking forward to the Season 5 DVD release of Chuck and seeing you in American Reunion. Do you have any advice for a budding actor who wants to make it in what you acknowledge is an incredibly difficult profession?
VS: Everyone’s on their own journey and their own path. One of the keys to it all is to be incredibly diligent in your craft and in the art of it, and to invest in it and to become good at it. It’s an industry that can seem to be all about the external, but make no mistake, you increase your odds of making it if you’re just a fantastic actor, and that should be the goal. That’s what I continually aspire to. So that’s what I got
JK: Awesome. Is there anything else that you wanted to share before we go?
VS: It’s hard to even end these conversations because it’s Chuck, and it’s the fans, and it’s the experience of five years that will really remain with me for a long, long time. I’m going to miss the hell out of it.
JK: We will, too. And the last season was so good!
VS: I really, really loved the way it ended for Jeff and Lester, and I really think it was a great redemption for Lester after being a pest tolerated by everyone else but Jeff. He finds fandom, which is his heart’s desire. For a guy who’s so tough to love, the Germans came through with the devotion he’s craving. It makes sense to me because he’s not for all markets. He’s not a hamburger; he’s a Wiener Schnitzel. He finds his niche in a faraway land, so it ends with him embarking on a new journey, which I just love.
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Sigh. And that’s that. Vik Sahay: intelligent, thoughtful, charming, incredibly funny, and ridiculously talented (and sexy as hell, obviously). Be sure to catch Vik Sahay on Chuck’s Season 5 DVD release this May, and American Reunion, out in theaters everywhere on April 6, 2012. And regardless of the slim sliver of a chance, I’m still crossing my fingers for that Jeffster! tour.
Photo #2 courtesy of Rebekah Schoenbach