Actor Hank Azaria talks career, mental health, racial justice

Emmy Award-winning actor and comedian Hank Azaria and event moderator Dean Jim Glaser are pictured during one of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life’s Distinguished Speaker Series events. Yiyun Tom Guan / The Tufts Daily
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Hank Azaria (LA’87), an Emmy Award-winning actor and comedian, addressed the Tufts community on Friday as part of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life’s Distinguished Speaker Series, as the last speaker of the semester. The discussion was moderated by Jim Glaser, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences.

Glaser began the conversation by asking Azaria about how his experiences at Tufts informed his career trajectory.

Azaria explained that the liberal arts education he received allowed him to explore many subjects from journalism to psychology but his experiences with theater convinced him to pursue an acting career.

“I figured this is a really long shot, pursuing a career in acting. Let me try it when I’m young though because I knew that I would always regret it if I didn’t try it,” Azaria said. “If I [hadn’t] made any headway as an actor, I [was] going to go back to grad school for psychology; I knew because I really enjoyed psychology at Tufts.”

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Glaser then asked Azaria about his extracurricular life at Tufts.

Azaria confessed that while he made meaningful friendships, his extracurricular life was vexed by substance abuse. He then noted that his own experiences seeking recovery, along with seeing others undergo the same path, later inspired him to help bring The Haven at College, an organization through which students can receive rehabilitation services, to the Tufts campus.

“I had a student come out of [Los Angeles] that went to Tufts and ran into some difficulty with drugs and alcohol on campus, and had to take a year off to go get sober and get well and, in talking to Tufts [about] how to support him, we started thinking … is there a better way to support students who might run into this problem?” Azaria said.And I knew a lot of folks in this sober community, which led me to the Haven.”

Glaser later noted that with the COVID-19 pandemic and the presidential election, people are living in a stressful moment. He asked Azaria what advice he would give to people experiencing substance abuse to cope with the stress.

Azaria stressed that one of Alcoholics Anonymous’ precepts is “I can do today,” and said that focusing on each day is a healthy way to reduce anxiety induced by the current environment.

“There’s so much worry and fear of the future in this pandemic and in this political climate, in this wild society we live in right now, that it’s easy to get lost in another program phase in the wreckage of our future,” Azaria said. “If you can just focus on today, and what you can contribute to yourself today and what you can do today and realize that’s plenty, it makes it a lot easier.”

Glaser subsequently inquired about Azaria’s decision to stop voicing Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, an Indian American character on “The Simpsons” (1989–).

Azaria said that he was first approached by Indian American comedian Hari Kondabolu, who considered Azaria’s voice performance to be a white person imitating the stereotypical portrayal of the Indian accent by another white person. Azaria admitted that, indeed, he based his voicing of Apu on actor Peter Sellars’ portrayal of an Indian character.

He then explained the concept of white privilege and related it to his experience voicing Apu. 

“[White privilege] means advantages that I was completely oblivious to that I had as a white person … if somebody decides to make a silly voice about my heritage, I don’t live with it every day in my life,” Azaria said. “Indian people in this country don’t have that luxury, don’t have that privilege. I got this reported to me a lot: They [would] walk into the grocery store, and people would hit them with an Apu imitation.”

Azaria ended with a discussion about the way in which racial marginalization usually translates to the loss of a group’s voice and that in his decision to end his tenure with Apu, he sought to recenter minority voice and representation.

“Not to mention that one of the first things that go in our society when people of color are marginalized or any group is marginalized is quite literally their voice,” Azaria said. “They don’t have a voice like I do, or like we enjoy as white people in this culture, so that’s beyond ironic … So I thought the very least I could do was stop doing the voice.”

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