Over a year ago, Hank Azaria stepped down from voicing Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the heavily accented Kwik-E-Mart owner on The Simpsons whom he had voiced for 30 years, winning several Emmys for his performance in the process. The decision came after the outcry over his voicing Apu had reached a boiling point in the wake of a documentary called The Problem with Apu, which criticized the character’s outdated stereotypes.
In the aftermath of his exit from the role, during which he also stepped down from voicing other characters of color, Azaria had somewhat side-stepped the criticism surrounding the stereotypes, saying that “it was not my intention.” But the actor has now stepped up to apologize for participating in “structural racism” in voicing the part of Apu.
On a recent episode of the Armchair Expert podcast, Azaria issued an apology for his three-decade portrayal of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon on The Simpsons. He told hosts Dax Shepard and Monica Padman:
“I really do apologize. It’s important. I apologize for my part in creating that and participating in that. Part of me feels like I need to go to every single Indian person in this country and personally apologize. And sometimes I do.”
The actor described several interactions he had over the last few years that made him realize how harmful the character was.
“I was speaking at my son’s school, I was talking to the Indian kids there because I wanted to get their input,” Azaria said. “A 17-year-old…he’s never even seen The Simpsons but knows what Apu means. It’s practically a slur at this point. All he knows is that is how his people are thought of and represented to many people in this country.”
Azaria went into detail about how he got the role all those years ago. In 1988, the actor was asked if he could do an Indian accent, which he based off of Peter Seller’s performance in the 1968 comedy The Party, a film that has also been criticized for its use of racial stereotypes, along with Sellers’ use of “brownface.” Azaria said that when he saw The Party at the age of 15, he saw “no difference between how funny Peter Sellers is as a French guy [in The Pink Panther], or a German guy in Dr. Strangelove, or as Hrundi V. Bakshi in The Party.”
“It’s just funny,” he recalled thinking. “I’m an aspiring voice guy, and I can do the accent, so there’s no difference to me either.” But what he didn’t realize was that “I can feel that way as a white guy, because I’m not living with the consequences of those things at all.”
Those consequences would be brought to his attention in a major way with Hari Kondabolu’s 2017 documentary The Problem With Apu, which sparked the outcry against Azaria’s performance in The Simpsons role, and eventually led to Azaria stepping down. The decision, along with Azaria stepping down from voicing the Black character Carl, came as animation experienced a broader cultural shift toward casting actors of color to voice non-white characters.
Azaria called for other animated series to make changes toward representation as well. “If it’s an Indian character or a Latinx character or a Black character, please let’s have that person voice the character,” he said. “It’s more authentic, they’ll bring their experience to it, and let’s not take jobs away from people who don’t have enough.”
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