Credit: Bjoern Kommerell

The cast of the NBC show Connecting . . . shot their parts on iPhones from their actual homes, peppered with a few props. The laundry room in the show is actor Parvesh Cheena’s actual laundry room. The pink kettle in the kitchen is the actual kettle he bought on Amazon. He refers to the downstairs of his townhome as the “set,” and his bedroom upstairs has served as his dressing room. His partner, Eric, even had a small cameo in the show as a delivery person.

His character Pradeep is, mostly, a reflection of Cheena’s real life. “Right now, I am enjoying the fact that people can just be who they are. And we don’t have to talk about how spicy my dosa is or something,” he says. “This is also the closest character to my real life—except I don’t have children.”

Cheena has found himself at the center of shows that, in some ways, have defined an era. In 2010, he played an Indian call center employee in NBC’s Outsourced, as the nation grappled with the economic reality of corporate outsourcing. And now ten years later, Cheena is the lead on Connecting . . . where characters solely interact on Zoom-like video chat, just as Americans do as the coronavirus pandemic rages on.

Using expressive gestures, Cheena exudes a sort of boyish joviality onscreen that makes him lovable. In the show his character wants to “round up the gossip girls,” and speaking to him on the phone, you get a sense that you’d want to divulge your own secrets to him. He’s clearly a people person. Now 41, he has curly hair with a salt-and-pepper beard.

The Indian American’s role on Connecting . . . was a breakthrough moment that is still few and far between: a South Asian American leading a major primetime TV show. Currently on hiatus, the show takes viewers to a world we have known all too well in the last year, where a group of friends connect via video calls and share the challenges of the pandemic together.

But before Cheena’s talents aired for millions on network television, the Illinois native’s acting roots trace back to Chicago, where he launched his career in the hub of improv comedy and theater. Cheena, who attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Roosevelt University in Chicago, grew on the stage at local spots like the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Apple Tree Theatre, and the Lifeline Theatre.

Cheena's acting talents started early on stage in Illinois.
Cheena’s acting talents started early on stage in Illinois.Credit: Courtesy Neena Singh Brar

Cheena’s first role was in elementary school playing Santa Claus in a school play, according to his mother, Neena Singh Brar. Brar moved from Delhi to Chicago in 1970, where she raised her children in the suburbs of Schaumburg and later Naperville, where she still lives. “I was very much into him doing whatever he wanted to do,” Brar tells the Reader. “I’m not one of the parents who says: either an engineer or a doctor.” Brar describes her son as an outgoing, jovial, happy-go-lucky kind of guy, who can be serious at times. Like most proud parents, she buys all the newspapers that have had articles about him over the years.

Since Cheena’s breakout role playing the affable character Gupta in Outsourced, he’s had stints on several shows including the character Sunil on the hit Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. He also has done voiceover work, playing animated characters on shows like Transformers: Rescue Bots, T.O.T.S., and Mira, Royal Detective.

Over the years, Brar says she’s seen Cheena grow through the ups and downs of auditioning in a business that can be finicky. “I’ve seen his happy tears. I’ve seen his sad tears,” she says. “But then he picks himself up.”

One of Cheena’s closest friends, Chicago native Danny Pudi, is well known for playing Abed Nadir on NBC’s Community. The two go back more than 15 years to their time in Chicago. “We talk about everything,” Pudi says. “We can have as much fun discussing a character’s backstory as we do talking about his dog’s puzzle bowl.”

As their careers progressed, the friends eventually found themselves in Los Angeles, where Cheena hosted Pudi and his wife while the couple looked for an apartment. “That’s also the year the White Sox won the World Series,” Pudi says. “We watched the series together and we laughed about how it made sense that as soon as we left Chicago, they won it all. He made us feel at home in a new place.”

Sonal Shah, Danny Pudi, and Cheena
Sonal Shah, Danny Pudi, and CheenaCredit: Courtesy Sonal Shah

Cheena and Pudi are also close friends with fellow Illinoisan and actor Sonal Shah, whose family is in Wheaton. Shah says the trio has a siblings-like relationship and has gone through the roller coasters of the industry together.

“I feel like our love language is creativity,” Shah says of her friendship with Cheena. In their early days, they had been part of cofounding Chicago’s Rasaka Theatre Company, which features South Asian American artists and stories. “We work really hard, and I think that it comes from coming from Chicago with that work ethic.”

These days, Shah continues to work with Cheena in Los Angeles. The two voice sister and brother characters on Mira, Royal Detective, a Disney Junior animated series that features a South Asian cast. They’ve also done web series, shorts, and event cohosting over the years, including for a 2016 Washington event with former President Barack Obama. “We work really well together,” Shah says. “We play off each other pretty well.” Cheena and Shah are currently developing an animated show together for Disney, though they can’t share details.

As the pandemic has halted some Hollywood productions and shifted protocols for others, Cheena’s voiceover career continues from the comforts of his Los Angeles townhome. “I sing at home—the engineers literally take control of your screen and they work Logic Pro and your microphone settings and everything. You literally right now can write, film stuff, create anywhere. So it’s just been such an eye-opening experience that we’re doing projects without meeting.”

Filming for NBC’s Connecting . . . began last August, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. The first episode takes place ten days into the safer-at-home orders in the spring, and the final episode takes us to Election Day, where the story opens with a flashback to 2016, where two characters talk about Lou Malnati’s deep dish pizza while on the observation deck of Chicago’s Sears Tower.

The Zoom-like chats in the show explore everything from love interests between friends to money issues and loneliness. The dialogue-heavy show serves as a sort of time capsule for 2020, with references to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, wildfires, and Dr. Anthony Fauci.

The characters on <i>Connecting . . .</i> solely interact on Zoom-like video chat.
The characters on Connecting . . . solely interact on Zoom-like video chat.Credit: NBC

After casting Cheena, writer and executive producer Martin Gero says the show was able to cater Pradeep’s role to the actor. “He has one of the great faces on television—it just is so expressive and so warm and inviting. You can’t help but be drawn into Parvesh’s gravitational pull when you’re watching him,” says Gero. The show also made history casting Shakina Nayfack as the first transgender person to star in a network comedy.

Though Cheena had roles in the first two Barbershop movies of the early 2000s, he became a familiar face after NBC picked up the TV adaptation of the film Outsourced in 2010. The show was set in an Indian call center of an American novelties company, which sold goods like cheesehead hats and number-one foam fingers. But Outsourced may have been ahead of its time: NBC canceled it after just one 22-episode season. (The cast recently did a virtual table read of the pilot to mark the tenth anniversary.) While loved by some, the show was also plagued with critics from all sides of the ideological spectrum—some believing the show trafficked in Indian stereotypes, others complaining the show celebrated outsourcing jobs to India. But “the fact that we had those kinds of reactions, confirmed for me that we were doing something useful and interesting,” says Ken Kwapis, the show’s creator.

Kwapis, who also launched the popular American version of The Office on the same network, says Outsourced provided an opportunity to tap into a South Asian talent pool that he previously wasn’t as familiar with in Los Angeles. “We are all proud of the fact that we put a show on primetime television with more actors of South Asian descent than ever in the history of [American] television.”

In the show, Cheena’s Gupta is the enthusiastic person at the office that everyone wants to sometimes avoid—in some ways a far more lovable and humane Dwight Schrute. “Parvesh manages to really bring some humanity to that role and really ground that character in reality,” Kwapis says. “That sets him apart.”

Kwapis’s producing partner Alexandra Beattie also worked on Outsourced and found Cheena’s improv background helped develop his character. “There’s such brilliant, subtle comedic nuances that he brings to his work that he makes look effortless,” Beattie says. “He’s amazing with physical comedy with his body. He is able to convey so much and elevate a joke in that way by using not only his delivery, but also the physicality.”

When Outsourced was canceled in 2011, Robert Borden, the executive producer, says he believes it was tougher for the South Asian cast members to get new roles than it was for the white actors. “I think that is not the case right now. I think that has changed.”

That might be the case. Hollywood’s reckoning with casting more diverse actors and telling more diverse stories has continued to gradually gain steam. “For far too long, I think TV shows have not represented the audiences that have been watching them,” Gero says. “And so I think it’s our job as creators to make sure that we’re making shows for everybody. . . . It’s a powerful thing to see yourself in media.” Kwapis agrees: “Now especially in the kind of post-cable streaming era, there’s just a lot more appetite for diversity in front of and behind the cameras.”

“It’s not about checking a box with him. It’s about getting the funniest guy for the role. And he is that,” says director and producer Pamela Fryman, who has directed shows like How I Met Your Mother and Frasier, and worked with Cheena on Friend Me. “There are so many elements that have to come together in the right way to make [a show] successful. He gives me the gift of not having to be concerned about him, because I know he’s going to come through.”

Director and producer Victor Nelli Jr., who worked with Cheena on Outsourced, believes he’s a versatile actor that can play anyone from an 80-year-old woman to a 10-year-old boy. “I think [Cheena’s] midwest vibe is what just makes him great on the set. There’s no pretension.”

While Cheena does have a caustic edge to him at times, says screenwriter Brian Hohlfeld, his warmth is contagious and his humor is disarming. They worked together on Transformers: Rescue Bots and The Rocketeer animated series, and became close friends. Cheena was the emcee at Hohlfeld’s wedding. “He was the one who got the crowd’s attention and made the announcement as we came down the stairs into the reception. . . . I didn’t get to hear it, but I was told afterwards that he slayed.”

Cheena, for one, would like to see more work that dives into what it is to be Indian American. He appears on Stage 13’s Family Style show, which explores Asian American food. He recently played a Patel Brothers grocery store employee in actor and director Sujata Day’s new film Definition Please, which is about an Indian American family in Pennsylvania. “I am ‘Indian light,'” Cheena explains. “I know I like rajma and chawal—I know that that simple dish makes me happy. I know that ladoos make my tongue sing. I know that I like certain holidays because it makes my family happy—or Diwali is just like Christmas, New Year’s, and Fourth of July in one. But it’s not like it’s my constant life.”

It matters that Cheena is making inroads in primetime TV on major networks with characters that aren’t far removed from his actual self. He’s still one of a few in a crop of South Asian American actors on TV that are household names—at least in Brown households. Actors like Cheena, Manish Dayal, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Hamza Haq, and Tiya Sircar are creating representation on television that far surpasses the tired yesteryears of taxi drivers and terrorist number two. Asian Americans are the fastest growing demographic group in the United States, and it’s overdue that South Asians are in leading roles to better reflect the reality of America today—especially in a year when even the new vice president of the United States is half South Asian American.

The fate of Connecting . . . is as uncertain as the pandemic’s end (the show reportedly didn’t generate a large enough audience), but Cheena remains optimistic about future projects. “You’re not too big for any audition,” he says. “Comedy is comedy: I don’t have anything against one show than the other. It’s all a chance to tell someone’s story.”  v