Danny Pudi on ‘The Tiger Hunter’

Actor discusses his personal connection to new film (and '70s fashion)

Sep 20, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


A veteran comedy actor for more than ten years, chances are most TV fans will recognize Danny Pudi from his critically-lauded, six season-run on NBC and Yahoo!’s Community, where he played Abed Nadir, the cult show’s pop culture-obsessed study group member. In the time since, he’s co-starred in Powerless, an NBC comedy set in the DC superhero universe. He’s also become a sought-after voice actor, with a role in the latest Smurfs film, and voicing nephew Huey to David Tennant’s Uncle Scrooge in the highly-anticipated DuckTales reboot. His new film, The Tiger Hunter, finds Pudi taking on his first lead role in a romantic comedy.  

In The Tiger Hunter, Pudi plays Sami, a young engineer who moves from his home in India to urban Chicago in the 1970s. He says goodbye to not only his family, but to the love of his life, Ruby, a girl he’s had a crush on since childhood. With any luck, he’ll live out the American dream, build a life and career for himself in the big city, and sufficiently impress Ruby's father enough that he’ll grant Sami permission to marry his daughter. Once in the States, however, Sami finds himself up against innumerable obstacles, learning quickly that achieving his dream will be more difficult than he ever imagined.

While The Tiger Hunter is, indeed, a comedy, in many ways it’s also a true-to-life immigrant story. Writer-director Lena Khan was inspired by her own father’s journey to America from India. For its star, Danny Pudi, the movie offered a chance for him to connect with his parents and learn about their arrivals to the United States decades earlier.  

Shout! Factory Films will release The Tiger Hunter in theaters on September 22nd. We spoke to Pudi about appearing in the film, and about his own uncanny connection to the story and its setting.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: You’re not only starring in The Tiger Hunter, but you lent a hand in producing it. Can you tell me how this project found its way to you?  

Danny Pudi: I was sent the script through my agents, and I read it and was excited right away, because I felt like [filmmaker Lena Khan] was secretly watching my life and writing about it … My dad immigrated to Chicago [from India] in the 1970s, and my mom also immigrated then, but from Poland. It’s a story about an immigrant’s journey and his dreams, and so I was very excited about that. I’d never been given an opportunity to work on a project like this, which was also written, directed and produced by an Indian-American female. And so it felt personal to me, and exciting, and I wanted to be involved as soon as I read the script. I think I begged Lena and [producer Megha Kadakia] for the job. I called them and told them that I love ‘70s clothing, and that most of my high school dance experiences were always in bellbottoms and polyester. [Laughs] I connected to it in many ways, and so I wanted to help bring this story to life in whatever way I could.

You mention that both of your parents are first-generation immigrants. Are there any moments in The Tiger Hunter that you feel reflect their experiences, at least as far as stories they’ve told you about them?

Yeah. You know, when I read the script, there were certain things that definitely connected with me and my parents’ experience. It’s a comedy, so there are parts that are fictional, but there are parts in the story itself that are inspired by real interviews Lena had done with various immigrant groups. There’s a scene in the film where Sami and his roommates are all switching suits for this job fair, and that’s directly inspired by a story Lena heard where these guys had this one amazing suit, and they were all trying to share it, because it was such a fly-looking suit back then. And so, there are parts of the film that are based on true stories.

For me, it was a chance to talk to my mom and dad about their experiences coming to America. We didn’t talk about it a lot. I hadn’t heard a lot of their specific stories about their journeys to America. I only knew they had to overcome a lot of obstacles and things were challenging. You take things for granted sometimes, and fortunately working on this project I had to talk to my mom about what it was like saying goodbye to her family when she left for America. There’s a scene in the film where I’m saying goodbye to my own mom in India, and I talked to my mother a lot about saying goodbye to her mother in Poland for that scene. I wanted to really get a sense of what it was like for someone to pursue their dreams and go to another country, but at the same time not fully know when they’d see their loved ones again. It was a feeling of excitement, but also sadness, where you felt like you were leaving something and moving into the unknown. The mixture of feelings, to me, was really interesting. It was exciting to work on a script where I had a real reason to connect with my parents in a new way.

Most of The Tiger Hunter is set in Chicago. Was it always that way in the script? If so, talk about a coincidence, considering you grew up there and it’s also where your parents immigrated.

It was! That’s why I felt somebody was watching me when I was sent the script. It mirrored my own life in so many ways. It’s set in the 1970s in Chicago, and most of my earliest childhood memories are seeing photographs of my family in polyester, bellbottoms and dog ear collars, hanging out at Kelly Park in Chicago with big hair and real sweat – actual, real sweat from the 1970s. Even the color palette of the film was so familiar to me, that color scheme of the ‘70s. And so, it was a chance for me to revisit my past and tell a story I hadn’t seen before.

Some of my favorite moments in the film are when Sami is talking to all of his relatives back home in India, whether through letters or on the phone, and they’re all so excited to hear about his new life abroad. Growing up, did you still have family you kept in contact with overseas?

Oh, yeah. We were familiar with all sorts of letters, packages. When I was a kid – and in the movie, when I talk to my [character’s] mom in India, it’s in the middle of the night – we really had to figure out what time to talk to family, because of the different time zones. I remember as a kid on Sundays and on certain holidays, we’d all gather around the phone talking to a relative.

I was talking to my mom about that, in terms of obstacles. You couldn't just call, text, or E-mail relatives at any time, and as a kid I was very aware of that.  For instance, on Christmas Eve, [an uncle] was calling from Poland and we all had to be around the phone at noon in my grandparents’ kitchen. [Laughs] I asked my mom about that – “How did you schedule these phone calls?” – because that was a really interesting, logistical question. And she said you’d basically talk to your family at one time, and then you’d say “Okay, we’ll talk again in a week,” or two weeks, or whatever, at the exact same time. And those were the things that, while shooting the film, felt very visceral to me. It all reminded me of being a kid, from the clothes to the rotary phone. Even the music. Before we made the film, I remember talking to Lena about music. I’d listened to a lot of Cat Stevens. “Sitting” was kind of our anthem. A lot of the music from that time period just felt reminiscent of my own family, and felt like what they would have been listening to.

Can you tell me more about working with Lena Khan? She’s a relatively new name in the film scene.

It was incredible. I hadn’t known anything about Lena – I’d never met her before – and from our very first meeting she had this creative energy, and a very clear vision for what she wanted to do. I knew she had a personal connection to the story because her father had gone through some of these things. I’m sure you can look up some of the stories she’s told about her own father’s journey as an immigrant. At the same time, she had this very clear vision of what she wanted to do and she was able to adapt so quickly. It was so tremendous and valuable, in terms of this being an indie film. She fundraised it herself, she put together the film, she wrote it, directed it, and even from day one it was a very different experience. We weren’t going about it the traditional way. We showed up for our table read on the first day and we were doing all of these chemistry workshops with a coach, all these exercises that explored the relationships that we had. Before we had opened our scripts or done any rehearsals together, I was just staring at Karen David’s hair, trying to recreate my love for her character, whom I’ve loved since I was a child in India. [Laughs] Lena was approaching filmmaking in a different way, and that was really exciting –it was uncomfortable, at times, but it benefitted all of us. We got a lot accomplished in a very short amount of time. Not just here, but also in India.

In terms of the process, Lena and I would meet before every single scene. We’d look at the scene and change some lines, adapt some lines, and figure out where my character was at in that moment of time. Her ability to constantly to approach every single scene as if it was brand new was exciting for me to be a part of. I think it ended up giving us both a great feeling of trust throughout the whole process.

What do you hope audiences take away from this film?

It’s interesting – I think my perspective on the film has changed and evolved over the last few years. In the current climate, the film has kind of taken on a different meaning for me. When I first saw the film, in many ways it just felt like a personal story. It told the story of many immigrants, but it was also very funny and had this great sort of young love feel to it. I think now, too, it still has those elements … I also think it’s an important story right now. It’s a reminder of the people we welcomed to our country, and have contributed in various aspects of our society. That, to me, is something else I hope that people will take away from it.

For me, it helped me connect with my own parents more, and appreciate their journeys. Hopefully, in some ways, it helps other people connect with their own parents, or friends, and see immigrants in a new way.

And, hopefully, it also helps the bellbottom industry. [Laughs] That might be an untapped market right now. They’re really great dancing clothes.

***

The Tiger Hunter opens in theaters on September 22nd, 2017.  



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פנס ראש
September 22nd 2017
6:45am

I love him & Love community. what a great TV show!