Danny Pudi On The Universal Appeal Of ‘The Tiger Hunter’

Danny Pudi is best known for his portrayal of Abed in NBC’s but that might not always be the case. Since the end of Community he’s found roles that put some distance between him and that familiar, distinctive character. In the new film, The Tiger Hunter, directed and co-written and by Lena Khan, Pudi’s own family history closely aligns with that of his character, Sami. A gifted engineer from India who moves to Chicago in the late 1970s, Sami comes to America expecting to have a top-level job waiting for him. After arriving, he learns that the job he was counting on no longer exists. Forced to take a temporary position while he desperately searches for work that will allow him to stay in the country, Sami has to reassess his expectations on his career, his love-life, and what it means to be a success. Last week, while Pudi was listening to some Aaron Neville, we got the chance to chat with him about what led him to the role, the increased representation in film and TV today, and the universal appeal of the American dream.

What drew you to starring in The Tiger Hunter initially?

It connected to me at a personal level, because my dad immigrated from India to Chicago in the 1970s. And the story The Tiger Hunter is about a young man named Sami, who journeys from India to Chicago in the 1970s to pursue his dream of becoming this great engineer. In many ways, it mirrored my own family’s journey here. I’m a child of immigrants. My mom immigrated to Chicago in the 1970s from Poland. So there’s all these themes and stories that resonated with me.

At the same time, it was a chance to work on something I had never done before. I’d never worked as a lead in an indie film where I’d have to really kind of work in comedy and drama. And that for me was really exciting. It was a cool challenge, and fun and different. So, there was a personal connection to me, and also, in terms of just work-wise, creatively, it was super exciting, a very fun challenge to take on.

Did that personal connection you had help you bring the character of Sami to life?

I think so, yeah. I mean, I spoke with Lena a lot. You know, we didn’t have a ton of time to really work on this script. It’s an indie film, so you’re dealing with short timelines, and we had to film in India and Los Angeles, which is really cool. So, a lot of it was based on stories that I had heard growing up, or stories of relatives coming to America, and the challenges they faced. At the same time, this sort of idea of America offering all these opportunities that people were excited about… and then also having to sort of balance that feeling, [that] ambition, as well as representing your own family, and hanging onto those traditions and values that you grow up with.

So, there’s all those feelings that I was familiar with, same time, it’s a brand new character, something I’ve never played before. And Lena and I worked together very closely all through the course of the film, while really finding Sami’s own beat and rhythm. And, like few of the characters I’ve played recently, he’s also smarter than me. He’s an engineer, so there were some things that I definitely had to learn. Like in Community, I had to brush up on pop culture pretty much weekly. In The Tiger Hunter, I really had to brush up on radio waves and microwave engineering. And, thankfully, Lena and Google exist today.

Lena had said something that despite this being a male-dominated film, it’s one that’s told through the heart of a woman. How did that translate day-to-day on set?

It was wonderful. I’d never worked with an Indian-American female director and writer before. Since then, I’ve worked with Nisha Ganatra on an episode of Better Things, but this was my first time really working on a project that was, with a vision, was completely through an Indian-American female’s perspective. That was super exciting for me, because even though it’s a story about Sami, she was also operating this whole other point of view. At every scene we would talk, we would group before every single scene we shot, and talk about what Sami was going through, talk about his internal struggle and where he was at at this point of his journey, and kind of like giving me a sort of reminder of all the ways to play scenes. And that was really exciting.

And for me personally, I grew up surrounded by strong females, so that was very comforting. My mom, my sister, my grandma, and that was so familiar in many ways for me as well.

Along with the story about an immigrant, the notion of someone struggling to find their way in the world, and be a success, is relatable as well.

I think that’s, in many ways, this story. You know, it’s trying to figure out who you are, and sometimes it’s hard to find out who you are when you’re surrounded by everything that you know, everything that’s familiar, and everybody who’s kind of telling you who you’re supposed to be. And so I think for Sami, it really takes kind of stepping away, where he doesn’t know anybody, to really discover who he is and how he really is his own person who’s just as valuable, and his journey is just as important as his dad’s, as Ruby’s, as his mom’s. And sometimes it really takes him saying goodbye and really stretching yourself, putting yourself in really unfamiliar territory to do that.

If there’s anything that this summer has shown, it’s that audiences are eager for more interesting, diverse stories, too.

To be honest, I didn’t grow up with many sort of, I guess, characters that I could relate to, or find myself really being like “that’s me” on screen, whether it was television or film, growing up. You know, and times have changed. And I think there is a little bit of momentum right now with those coming out, like The Big Sick, but also in terms of storytelling, like Master of None and The Mindy Project, where we’ve been able to see more authenticity, and also more variety, in terms of the Asian-American experience. And that, to me, is just really exciting.

That’s another big reason why I was so happy to be part of this film, because it’s another sort of like step toward showing my own family’s story in some ways. You know, it’s a fictional story, and there’s a lot of comedy in it, but there are definitely a lot of elements of truth to it. And there are moments where Sami makes mistakes. You know, he’s not a perfect human. Yes he’s an engineer, but he makes mistakes. He’s also got this great love story with Ruby, played by Karen David, who’s incredible. And he’s got all these funny friends like Rizwan Manji. And Iqbal Theba, who played my dad in Community, is potentially my father-in-law in this movie. Potentially. Allegedly.

But if you would have asked me ten years ago if it was possible for a film like this to exist, I would’ve said, “I don’t know. I would like it to be.” But now that it’s actually getting a theatrical release, and there’s diversity behind the camera, it’s written by an Indian-American female, it’s produced by an Indian-American female, that, to me, is really cool. And, I think it is a universal story. It’s about a guy pursuing his dreams, juggling the expectations of his family and his father, as well as trying to win this girl, the love of his life. The challenges are unique, in that, it’s from the perspective of an Indian-American coming to Chicago in 1979. And I think audiences will see something new, hopefully, in that.

So, I’m very excited about it, and I hope it inspires more diverse storytellers. I’d like to see stuff that I haven’t seen before. My favorite shows recently have been things that feel like, only that person could’ve told that story, or it’s something new to me, you know? And whether it’s Atlanta or Fleabag, they feel very authentic because I feel like they’re telling stories that really resonate.

Aside from that, and the fact this story takes place in 1979, the notion of a bunch of overqualified scientists who have to drive cabs and work as valets to make ends meet, all while crammed into a single apartment, will resonate with a lot of people today.

Yeah, that’s a good point. I think, in many ways, I think it’s sort of the ideas and the dreams we have for ourselves and the realities around us, and really trying to figure out who we are — who we are in this moment. And I think Sami’s journey is a lot of redefining his own definition of success. I think, in some ways, coming to America you have these ideas of becoming a really great engineer, he’s just working out in a way where he’s able to impress Ruby, win this girl, and at the same time really kind of define who he is in terms of this great person that can make his father and his family proud. And when things start to fall through, he has to really redefine that, really kind of look into himself to say, what really is success, or how important is my ambition versus my own sense of being, and my duties as a member of my own family and my community, juggling all those things.

I think that will resonate with people today, because I think a lot of people have had that sort of experience where things don’t go according to plan. We still have to sort of figure out who we are in this moment and, you know, adapt. And I think Sami has to do that, and he’s lucky because he meets some really great people around him, who sort of help him maneuver.

And there’s many parts of the film that I get excited about, but one of my favorite parts is at the end of the film where Sami starts to remember all these moments in his life where he’s reminded of all the good things that were already there in his life, all the little things around him that bring him joy, and that make him who he is. All those moment [that] are shared with the people you love and the people around you. I’m hoping all those things are little things that people connect to and if not, I hope people laugh. And it’s a joy to be a parade of awesome polyester.