The Magicians’ Arjun Gupta on Hollywood Diversity and Penny’s Portrayal in the 4th Episode

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Arjun Gupta plays Penny on Syfy’s The Magicians and has a lot to say on diversity in Hollywood. I spoke with him about the current climate and Penny’s portrayal in the most recent episode.

[Editor’s Note: Spoilers for The Magicians fourth episode, “The World in the Walls.”]

Outside of his exciting new role on The Magicians, Gupta is a busy guy. He co-hosts a podcast called American Desi with Akaash Singh and started the Ammunition Theatre Company in LA with other actors. You may also know him from roles on Showtime’s Nurse Jackie (as nurse Sam) and ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder (Laurel’s boyfriend Kan). But as an actor of South Asian descent, Gupta found himself in an interesting spot in tonight’s episode of The Magicians.

“That could not have been handled better,” the actor told me of the very specific change in character for the “fake Penny” featured in Quentin’s mind. “I remember that John McNamara, he reached out to me, this before we even started filming the season. He reached out to me like ‘Hey, I have this idea. I want it to be in Quentin’s mind and all these characters are going to be different. And I want Penny to [have] this really stereotypical Indian accent.’ He asked me, ‘I don’t know that much about the culture, can you help me with what kind of stuff to look at?’ And he just handled it with so much class and made me feel really comfortable about it.”

He went on, “The most important thing about it was we comment on it when real Penny comes in and calls Quentin out for the stereotype. For the racism inherent in that. That was what allowed me to feel comfortable and that was part of the whole point of that storyline was to show just how ignorant Quentin can be and the bubble that he lives in which just continues to enforce, for Penny, just why he dislikes Quentin so much…But I think it’s just really fun and I think it’s a great way of talking about it.”

When Gupta read the script he assumed they’d have to change one particularly strong line to something more tame, like “racist piece of crap.” But no, McNamara told the actor it would stay as-is.

“I’ve never been so excited to say, ‘you racist motherfucker,’ ” Gupta told me. “And then I was talking to John and he was like ‘I want you to slow that down and take your time with that.’ They really wanted to lean into that moment in the show and I think it comes across.”

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If you’ve watched Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series Master of None you may have had your eyes opened to some of the specific issues facing South Asian actors in Hollywood. The “Indians on TV” episode specifically discussed the portrayal of well, Indians on TV, especially as it relates to the accent Gupta described.

“And things are shifting, I mean we feel the paradigm shift happening. Masters of None was a great show,” he told me. “And I’m speaking very specifically to the South Asian characters at this moment but we’re feeling that shift happen. I’m a part of and beneficiary of that shift with [The Magicians] and what I get to do. I think it’s a necessary conversation.”

Gupta also told me working with a diverse cast, like on How to Get Away with Murder, makes a “huge difference” to him as an actor.

“I’d been fortunate even before that working on Nurse Jackie, which was my first show where they took a chance on me. The character of Sam in Nurse Jackie, they were looking at — I think they had someone on hold who was this short, white, bald guy and they were like, ‘You know what? This is New York. This is a hospital. We want to show what hospitals in New York are really like.’ There’s a multitude of faces, and colors, and genders — and everything at a hospital in New York. And so they opened up that casting call and I was the beneficiary of that,” he said. “I mean, not to take away from what I brought to the table but they had to open the door first as well.”

He also praised creator Shonda Rhimes for the strides she’s making on television. “I think she said it better than everyone, and I will continue to steal it as much as I can — She’s not diversifying TV, she’s normalizing it. And it’s hugely important to a person of color, like I am, to advocate for that normalization whether it’s in TV, whether it’s in film, whether it’s in theater. That’s why I started a theater company out here in L.A. to attempt to do that for the theatrical landscape here. It’s a huge part, it’s a huge part of what I get to do.”

THE MAGICIANS -- "The World in the Walls" Episode 104 -- Pictured: (l-r) Arjun Gupta as Penny, Rick Worthy as Dean -- (Photo by: Carole Segal/Syfy)

Gupta told me he’s had South Asian people reach out to him on Twitter to thank him for his work. “They were like, ‘Hey man, we never get to see an Indian be badass, or a South Asian guy be badass.’ That’s important for me to fragment that kind of image for my community of people,” he said.

As diversity conversations are happening more and more in Hollywood and in the world at large lately, the actor warns of being too harsh against those who may not know what they’re talking about.

“I think that we shame ignorance too much. And I think that we need to, if we really want to improve and we really want everyone to improve which should be the goal, then we have to have much more compassion for ignorance,” he said. “We have to allow for the space for ignorance to be shown so it can be dealt with. But as soon as we shame ignorance, it just crawls back into the hole, it crawls back into the darkness and we cannot shed any light on that and that is not the way forward.”

“The people know they have a voice now whether it’s because of Twitter, and sure, it’s like toddlers with their voice right now because they’re being really irresponsible,” he continued. “But people are understanding that they have a voice and so they’re saying, ‘Hey, that’s not reflective of the world that I live in. That doesn’t make sense and that’s not ok with me. And you know what? I matter,’ and can say that. Whether it’s a tweet, whether it’s a Facebook post, whether it’s writing a blog. And I think we’re reaching a tipping point where people are ready to say enough is enough, let’s be better, we can be better.”

The Magicians airs Monday nights at 9/8c on Syfy. Stay tuned to The Nerdy Bird as we’ll have more with Gupta, including his thoughts on Penny, fanfiction, and comics, later this week. While you wait, why not take a look at my earlier interview with showrunner Sera Gamble?

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4 Responses to “The Magicians’ Arjun Gupta on Hollywood Diversity and Penny’s Portrayal in the 4th Episode”

  1. dreamlife613 says:

    Agreed, great interview. As an Indian, it’s been refreshing to see Gupta’s version of Penny. In many ways he’s just so unlikable – he’s mean, he’s got a chip on his shoulder – but he’s also incredibly honest. I’d much rather have this kind of character than a token Indian character. I thought episode 4 was really amusing and I think in a way it made Penny and Quentin understand each other much better.

  2. lkeke35 says:

    Great interview. It really made me think about his character and I’m starting to get a better feel for Penny in the show, now.

  3. […] to enact their vague scheme. Watch the JLU episode instead. The Magicians inexplicably did a very similar plot on the same night but […]

  4. Great interview! I enjoyed The Magicians’ adaptation of “For The Man Who Has Everything” more than Supergirl’s.