Dear Evan Hansen star Nik Dodani on tailoring Jared to his own identity
Nik Dodani probably looks familiar.
But with Dear Evan Hansen, he gets an opportunity to both step outside his comfort zone singing, as well as more fully embrace his identity to help push his character, Jared, into a place that allows him to be more sincerely himself. (Dodani is a major proponent for South Asian representation on screen, having founded The Salon, a forum for South Asian artists and executives.)
On stage, his Evan Hansen character was portrayed as straight and Jewish, but Dodani requested that Jared's surname change from Kleinman to something Indian (it's now Kalwani). "I was just talking about how cool would it be for Jared to have an Indian last name," he tells EW. "They were actually open to changing Jared's first name to something Indian as well. But I was like, 'No, let's keep it.' I didn't want to touch that piece of it. They were very intentional about making sure the film was more diverse than the stage production."
And after a stand-up set on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert in which the comic discussed his sexuality, director Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) suggested making the character openly gay, too. Dodani agreed, only after discussing what precisely that entailed. "I wanted to make sure it was done properly and not just some random joke thrown in," says the actor, writer, and comedian.
"We had a great conversation about what that meant, how does that impact who he is?" he adds. "How does it impact his relationship with Evan? How does it impact the way he looks and dresses and talks and moves through the world? Because an openly gay teen in 2021 is just such a vibe that is a type of character we really don't see all that often or we're seeing more of lately, thankfully."
That also extended to making some edits to Jared's signature song, "Sincerely, Me" in which he helps Evan (Ben Platt) craft a series of fake emails to prove his friendship with the late Connor (Colton Ryan). "It's funnier, in my mind, with Jared being gay," Dodani adds. "When they're writing all these letters, he is just imagining a very homoerotic friendship between Connor and Evan to push Evan's buttons. It does add a fun levity and dimension to it."
Ahead of Dear Evan Hansen hitting screens this Friday, we called up Dodani to talk about his start in the business, what's next, and what it was like playing Evan's family friend (which, he stresses, is different from a regular friend).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you first get interested in performing and the arts?
NIK DODANI: When I was a kid in Arizona, my parents tried to get me to do so many different things — basketball, soccer, karate, I even tried robotics — and none of it worked. My older sister was in acting class, and I was at that stage in my life where I was just copying everything she was doing, and I'm like, "I want to do that." I then got into acting classes, and I was like 11 or 12 and just went from there. I did a lot of community theater, a lot of student films in Arizona and tried to do the Hollywood thing for a bit. When I was a teenager, my mom would drive me out for auditions, and we would drive to L.A. for a day and drive back at night. Then, I came out to L.A. for college. I got back into acting in 2014 with The Comeback on HBO, and I started doing stand-up in 2015, started writing a few years ago, and that's how it started.
What was your first professional project?
My first professional project was in 2008. It was a pilot for Fox called Living With Abandon by Richie Keen. It was this dark comedy about these six people in an abandonment support group, and in the opening scene, the therapist killed himself. The six of them just only have each other. It's this dark comedy that sadly did not get picked up. But I played this 13-year-old genius kid who was orphaned and abandoned by his parents and was best friends with a character played by Todd Grinnell.
Signing on to Dear Evan Hansen, were you a fan of musical theater and had you seen the show before?
I'm a huge fan of musical theater. It was sadly one of the few shows I hadn't seen live. I listened to the album a bunch. So, I knew all the music. When I got the audition, I don't normally condone this behavior, but I watched the bootleg with Ben because I was like, 'I have to see Ben in the role.' It was incredible. My hope is to go see it in New York when it opens this fall.
When you were listening to the album, did you see yourself in certain roles? Was Jared someone you gravitated toward early on?
Honestly no, because I'm not a singer and I'm not a dancer. So, I would never have imagined myself being in a project like this. When I got the audition, I almost didn't do it because I was just so nervous at the idea of having to sing in an audition. It was my agent who was like, "Just give it a shot, what's the worst that could happen?" And I was like, "I could die." But I did it. One of my friends who's a singer helped coach me for the audition. Thankfully the Jared role, the singing is not heavy. It's more of the comedy, and so, I was like, "If I can just make it funny, then I've done my job."
How daunting was the singing once you got the part?
So daunting. I thankfully had a lot of support from the production. They got me a voice coach here in L.A. When I got to Atlanta where we were filming, I worked with the whole music team for weeks during rehearsal, pretty much going in every day and having a crash course in singing, breath work and diaphragmatic breathing and all that good stuff that is needed to hit a particular note. The fact they weren't filming the music live was definitely something that took a bit of a pressure off.
Oh, but I thought there was a lot of singing live on set even though you also pre-recorded?
Yes, but I don't, candidly. I don't think anyone ever expected me to, and I'm okay with that. Ben and Kaitlyn [Dever] and all them, they definitely they used a lot of the live stuff.
The first music rehearsal I had in person, it was supposed to be just me and someone on the music team. I'm in the room and we're just getting to know each other, and Ben walks in and we hadn't met yet. He was just coming to say hi. Then the music team was like, "Why don't you guys do it together? Why don't you sing at the same time?" I was like, "I'm going to vomit." We ended up singing one verse of "Sincerely, Me," but I sang so softly. He could not hear what I was saying. It was delightfully embarrassing, but everyone was so sweet.
The film is very heavy by nature and you really are the person who cuts through that for us and gives us some levity. Because you're the comedy guy, does that come naturally to you? Or do you feel like that was added pressure to be like, "Okay, I'm the breath of fresh air in this movie?"
It was definitely a challenge to find the right way to be funny. I remember in the table read, I started out really trying to hit the jokes and get the big laugh, but it very quickly became clear after hearing Ben and Kaitlyn and Amy [Adams] and everyone performing this really incredibly sad story that I needed to dial it down a little bit. It was definitely a bit of a challenge to figure out what the levels were, but Stephen Chbosky, the director, was really great at helping me navigate that and keep it consistent and make sure the tone was right.
With both Atypical and Dear Evan Hansen, they have this through-line of mental health in high school and how we treat people we perceive as different. Why are these subjects you keep coming back to as an actor?
Both Atypical and Dear Evan Hansen are projects that encourage people to be your authentic self and not to hide behind some version of who you think you're supposed to be. That's something that has been so real in my own life. Being an Indian and openly gay kid from the suburbs of Arizona, I struggled a lot with being authentically myself. It's something that really attracts me. It's important to share that message with audiences.
What's your favorite project you've worked on thus far in your career?
Alex Strangelove on Netflix was one of the most fun to shoot because it felt like a summer camp. We were in New York, and there were no trailers, so we were all hanging out together all the time. It was also my first time being a part of a project that was queer, and the director was queer and a lot of the cast was queer. This was four years ago, so I was a very eager to gay things up. But I really can't pick a favorite. Dear Evan Hansen was probably the most pushing me out of my comfort zone and the most surreal project that I've ever done. Because of the fact that it was an iconic Broadway production and this insanely talented cast, but also because we were shooting during COVID and it was this wild ride.
What's next for you?
I have a few writing projects that I'm trying to get off the ground. One is a film adaptation of a novel called Blue Boy. It was written by this author named Rakesh Satyal in 2009, and it's about this 12-year-old Indian kid in the early '90s in Ohio who thinks he's turning into the next reincarnation of Krishna. It's this quirky, weird coming-of-age story. I love acting, but I feel like there's something more creatively satisfying about being able to make your own thing. I want to tell stories that are very brown and very queer, and I don't get a lot of scripts that have that when I'm auditioning. What Black Hollywood has done is exactly what I want to be a part of for South Asian Hollywood and create this whole ecosystem of incredible talent and projects that center and star us and are made by us and are for us.