Nasim Pedrad of Chad talks to Awards Daily about how hair and makeup helped with improvising on set of the TBS comedy series and the research she did to get into Chad’s Lebrons.
Even though it’s a TV series, Nasim Pedrad’s performance as Chad on the TBS show by the same name has all of the elements of an Oscar-winning performance. It involves an actress changing her physicality and looks (think: Nicole Kidman in The Hours); it boasts a sophisticated emotional range (tears and laughter, sometimes in the same episode); and it features a memorable musical number (when Chad discovers K-pop).
It’s hard to find a comedic performance this year that includes so many moving parts. But Chad, in which Pedrad plays a 14-year-old Persian boy struggling with his identity in high school, is one of the most pleasant surprises of the year, in both Pedrad’s performance and vision of the show (she also serves as series creator).
I had the pleasure of chatting with Pedrad about how the idea behind this show came about, what it was like playing against IRL teenagers, and whether she felt any pressure playing a young boy.
Awards Daily: One of my favorite films is Clifford from 1994, where Martin Short plays a 12-year-old boy. I couldn’t stop thinking about that while I was watching Chad. Were you at all influenced by that? Where did the genesis of this show come from?
Nasim Pedrad: Oh gosh. I’ve actually worked with Martin Short, and he’s truly the funniest.
AD: Oh, that’s right. On Mulaney [Fox show starring John Mulaney from 2014]!
NP: Yeah. The genesis of the show—I really just wanted to create a character that I could have a lot of fun playing, should I get an entire season of it, let alone the potential of more. Once I cracked the character and felt like he was making me laugh, that was what was really exciting to me in terms of wanting to see it through and build an entire narrative around him. It’s a very character-driven show, I would say. That was really important to me. But beyond the character feeling fun to play, I just thought it would be a really cool experiment to tell a coming-of-age story where the teenager at the center of it is played by an adult who’s in on the joke and has some distance from that time in our lives, where the stakes feel so high. I thought you could push the comedy so much further potentially if you had an adult playing Chad because funny moments get to be funnier and less sad if you’re just sitting there watching an Iranian child suffering through some of these heartbreaking moments, but rather an adult who has some distance from it. When I felt like it could enrich the comedic performance and the comedic sensibility of the story, that was really exciting to me and felt like worth exploring.
AD: You’re adding distance to it, but at the same time, when I saw you as Chad, I didn’t recognize you. I felt like, “Hmmm, I know this person.” What was it like getting into this role in makeup and physical preparation?
NP: Exactly what you just said was the hope—you know there’s an adult in there, but my hope was that people would eventually just buy that I’m this character and suspend their disbelief enough to laugh at how ridiculous he is. I’m thrilled that you felt like you were able to do that.
I got really lucky with an incredible team around me that helped bring his visual aesthetic to life, which was a very delicate thing. There were some wigs that on a man would have totally worked, but on me, just looked like a woman with a short haircut. That was a lot of trial and error in us figuring out even what his physical appearance looked like. But once we landed on that, it helped fuel the performance in terms of me just playing with the character. It was one of the reasons I decided to play a young boy, because of the wig and the eyebrows, the posture, and the binder under my shirt and the baggy clothes. I felt like I could just get as far away from myself the actor and really disappear into this little dude. Once that all came, I was able to improvise as him. How does he sound? What are his idiosyncrasies? What are ways that he stumbles over his words even? Some of the more fun things that happen organically when you’re finding a performance were helped by what hair and makeup and wardrobe were able to pull together in terms of what Chad looks like.
AD: Did you ever think about making this character female? With so much focus on growing up as a woman right now, I love that you made the focus on a teenage boy.
NP: Yeah, I was such a tomboy growing up. (Laughs) I understand how it can be a little confusing to people why I chose to play a boy, but it’s actually a very familiar zone for me. I grew up with all male cousins as a kid. I was not someone who discovered my femininity until much later in life.
AD: Same here, by the way. (Laughs)
NP: So you totally get it! I had no interest in girly things. So I didn’t feel uncomfortable in that realm, but also I really felt, because I’m an adult woman, I wanted to just be able to slip into a character, to feel as far away from myself the actor. Because it’s a boy, there are more components to his physical construct like the wigs, eyebrows, and binder. I felt like all of that was really helpful to the performance. In figuring out who the character is, figuring out what the comedic dynamic is with his best friend, sister, and mom. It’s also a show about adolescence. I thought it would be interesting to explore the uncompromising pressure of being a bro nowadays. Chad is someone who’s caught between childhood and adolescence, and a lot of the kids around him are a lot more advanced. They’re experiencing things he’s not yet ready for. With regards to playing a young boy, I thought it would be interesting to explore what a young boy feels pressure to be nowadays, especially at a high-stakes environment like high school where people are maturing at such incredibly different rates.
AD: What’s it like playing against teenagers while also portraying someone of the opposite gender?
NP: Short answer—it’s hilarious. When the director yells cut, you really feel the age gap. They’re constantly asking what the words they’re using mean. Honestly, not dissimilar about hair and makeup coming together—that being helpful to the performance—acting opposite actual teenagers was really helpful to the performance as well. They really help ground the show. Not even just the teenagers, the family as well. They’re engaging with Chad so earnestly as if he were really just a 14-year-old boy, not one played by an adult woman. It’s really helpful to me and helps me disappear into the character and feel like we’re on an even-level playing field—me and these other 14-year-olds—and we’re dealing with things kids in high school deal with. Certainly at the center of this show is an incredibly awkward 14-year-old who is constantly getting into his own way, more than anyone else. The actors that I got I feel like I lucked out so hard. They’re so amazing. They really help the show, which does have this really being conceit at the center of it. They make it feel honest and grounded.
AD: Yeah, I talked to Ella Mika, who plays your sister Niki. She mentioned that there was a lot of improvisation on the show, which I thought was awesome. I didn’t even realize it. How much improv is there on the show?
NP: I would say from myself, there’s a decent amount. And part of that is just me wanting to keep it fun and exciting and fresh. By the time I get to shooting these episodes, I’ve already spent 14 weeks in the writers’ room, so the dialogue is very familiar to me. When you hear anything that many times in a row, it starts to inevitably feel stale. So improvising is how I get to keep it fun and exciting. At this point, I do feel so comfortable in the character that it’s just fun to go off-script and try something in the moment and see if that leads to a fun little tangent. Sometimes things can feel really spontaneous and special when they come out of something like that rather than a moment that’s been rehearsed to death. Again, super lucked-out with the cast around me, that they can not only hang, but that they can improvise themselves.
AD: I keep thinking about young men growing up right now; there’s a lot of controversy around teenage boys. Did you feel any pressure to present them realistically but also to be a positive representation? I like when Chad says he is a feminist.
NP: Yeah, that’s a great question. I’ll say this. One thing I was really excited to explore on this show—What if the kids around Chad aren’t traditional bullies in the ways we’ve seen coming-of-age stories? What if for the most part they are pretty tolerant and accepting of him but it’s Chad that gets in his own way more than anyone? They’re not actively bullying him; they just find him unremarkable, which to him is even worse. (Laughs) He just can’t get anyone to notice him. I think the pressure Chad finds to be a certain way, what a cool American boy in his mind is, that pressure comes from himself more than anything, the idea and images that he’s inundated with.
Part of the reason why I wanted to set the story in present day, as much as I wanted to speak to my own experience as a very awkward adolescent navigating what it meant to fit in in an American high school, I also think that kids today deal with things I didn’t have to deal with that are interesting to talk about. These curated images on social media that kids have to deal with, the constant exposure of the Internet. Those things I didn’t have to deal with as a kid, but they made sense to explore in the world of Chad because he’s already trying to navigate fitting in and trying to be accepted by his peers. Social media raises the stakes so much more. i wanted it to feel honest about what kids today deal with. That was really important to me and so I interviewed a bunch of 14-year-old boys to make sure we got that right. That was a fun process in the beginning, just to interview children who had no idea why they were talking to me. Because we are dealing with the natural themes of adolescent, whether it’s sexuality or masculinity or even things bigger than adolescence like racism, I did want to make sure we were as honest and authentic as possible.
Megan McLachlan is a freelance writer that lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, The Cut, Paste, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thrillist, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @heydudemeg.