Nasim Pedrad on how and why she's playing a 14-year-old boy in Chad
Chad (TV Series)
For five years, Pedrad has tried to make Chad, her new TBS comedy in which she, a 39-year-old woman, plays the title character, an awkward 14-year-old boy who will do whatever it takes to fit in. Entering high school as the series begins, Chad navigates a new landscape, hoping to make friends with the popular kids while balancing an overly obliging best pal, a single (and dating) mother, a doting uncle, an unimpressed little sister, and a flare for the dramatic (as seen in the exclusive clip above).
"People passionately tried to talk me out of it," the Saturday Night Live veteran tells EW with a laugh. "I'd be lying to you if I didn't say it feels like nothing short of a miracle that I'm here talking to you today with the first season under my belt."
Not only did Pedrad finally get Chad to the air, but the showrunner, writer, producer, and star delivered what EW critic Kristen Baldwin hailed as a "cringe-comedy gem."
Ahead of Chad's April 6 premiere on TBS, we talked to Pedrad about getting into the mind of a 14-year-old boy, relating a little too much to Chad, and being mistaken for an actual child.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I need to start with a very important question: Why?! Why are you playing a 14-year-old boy named Chad?
NASIM PEDRAD: "Serious question: Why?" [Laughs] I knew to create my own show as the showrunner, writer, producer, actor, that would obviously be a big undertaking, and so I really wanted to create something I knew I could have a lot of fun playing. And as I was coming up with the character and developing him, it was just really making me laugh. I've played male characters before, but I wanted to make something that felt very honest and grounded, and especially with the wig and the eyebrows, the posture and the slight dropping of my voice, I felt like I could really disappear into this little dude. I also just thought it would be cool to tell a coming-of-age story where the teenager at the center of it wasn't a teenager, but an adult who is in on the joke. Because teenagers don't know what's so funny about being a teenager, whereas an adult could bring that perspective and specificity to the character. But at the same time, hopefully you just watch it and forget that it's me and buy that you're watching this completely flailing but deeply hopeful young man.
I think you succeed there. Even though I do like to imagine some people tuning in and not having any idea about the backstory, just thinking this is some regular teen boy actor.
Like, "What is wrong with this weird young child?!"
You said you've played boys before; was that during your time on Saturday Night Live? It's easy to picture the SNL version of Chad.
Mostly with my friends and family, and then here and there on SNL — but that's a very different thing. Doing a sketch is completely different from creating a character that's supposed to sustain a half-hour narrative that people are expected to resonant with and buy and relate to and empathize with. This is the story of a 14-year-old Persian boy who is navigating his freshman year of high school and on a mission to become popular, and a lot of the comedy stems from the fact that he's willing to get there at all costs. There's nothing he's not willing to do: He'll throw his friend under the bus, he'll compromise his relationship with family members, he'll lie pathologically, whatever it takes. But you know it's coming from such a desperate place that hopefully you can empathize with him and just laugh at it.
You almost respect how thirsty he is. Almost.
Exactly. You remember in the pilot there's a moment where he really just starts to break down, and you realize that all of this posturing can read really thirsty and desperate but there's something behind that, which is this very universal desire at that age to fit in. I think teenagers are already struggling to find their identity and feel accepted by their peers, but then as an immigrant kid you're also sort of caught between these two cultures and it's almost like this extra obstacle to get through. So in an effort to make the show feel grounded, it's actually very personal to my own life and my own experience growing up as an immigrant kid. And I love writing about cringey, awkward adolescence, and I wanted to make something that felt really true to my experience growing up in America as a child of immigrants.
I pride myself on loving cringe comedy, and still there were multiple Chad scenes were I was so uncomfortable that I had to look away, including the scene you just described in the pilot. I couldn't do it, I had to jump ahead a few seconds. What's the balance of wanting to make people look away with that kind of stuff but also making sure they decide to stick around and look back?
You're absolutely right, the show definitely tracks in that awkward, cringey tone, so much so that it became a real fun experiment in the writers' room — but also just improvising on set — with how much we could get away with. And we definitely walked a razor-thin line, probably stepped over it a few times to see if we could. There were definitely times on set where we'd try stuff and immediately be like, "No, that's way too far, we can't. People will absolutely not stand for that." Hopefully you can recover from the moments you need to turn away and just be like, "Oh my God, we survived that?" Because that's the thing about Chad too: He gets his ass handed to him in every single episode, but he's so deeply hopeful that he just like hops right back up on his feet and genuinely believes that tomorrow could be different, almost in a delusional way.
Did anyone ever try to convince you not to do this? Like, "Nasim, this is insane." Or were they like, "Yes, you should play a 14-year-old boy!"
No, people passionately tried to talk me out of it. [Laughs] I wrote the first draft of this five years ago. It's really been a labor of love; it was initially at a different network and thankfully found its home at TBS, which I feel like is such a great tonal fit for the show. But yeah, certainly five years ago and for network television, it confused a lot of people and didn't feel like the safest bet for a TV show. I obviously believed in it and stuck with it, but I'd be lying to you if I didn't say it feels like nothing short of a miracle that I'm here talking to you today with the first season under my belt. It was something that enough people believed in, and it wasn't even in development hell or anything, it just sometimes takes one place to say yes, and I was lucky enough that I found that one place in TBS and they finally gave it a shot.
What was 14-year-old Nasim like? I hope not too close to Chad.
Closer than you would imagine. I loved sports, I was a tomboy, I had all guy cousins. Every weekend we would rent Rocky and watch it and then start beating the crap out of each other for fun. In our minds that was the most American thing you could do. [Laughs] Like Chad, I also was a late bloomer, and that's one of the things I wanted to explore in the show, that at that age everyone is just maturing emotionally at such insanely different rates. Like, a lot of Chad's classmates feel older than him, and he's at this place where, in addition to being a little bit stuck between two cultures, he's also somewhat stuck between childhood and adolescence. He really wants to fit in but he's also desperately clinging on to the innocence of childhood, and we explore that in the pilot, where, without giving too much away, his lie about sex goes a little too well and he's in over his head and not ready for the consequences that ensue.
Let's talk a bit about physically becoming Chad. How long were you in hair and makeup each day?
It's about 45 minutes to an hour.
Wow, that's not too bad.
Yeah, it's funny, people expect it to be a lot longer, but when you take away all the makeup elements that girls usually have to do, it weirdly evens out to a similar time. But it's so critical to get it right, and I had an amazing team working with me to ensure that every little detail, especially when we live in a close-up, still tracks and reads as 14-year-old boy and not adult woman. So I have a very tight wig prep, and the thing that I think really sells it are Chad's eyebrows. Without them, sometimes with the wig it's like, "Is that Kris Jenner?" We can't tell. But the eyebrows really land the plane of a 14-year-old boy. I intentionally make them do that last because it just helps bring it home. Once I'm in hair and makeup, it's really fun to just fall into the character and alter my voice and slouch the way he slouches. It's that transformation that helps me feel like I'm Chad and not Nasim.
Then how did you go about figuring out the exact wardrobe? Because you need to find the balance of not making him look cool while he's also desperately trying to appear cool.
Right, like he's not wearing Supreme. He couldn't pull that off even if he knew about. My wardrobe designer developed a binder of like oversize polos that became his signature look. I wanted to have enough consistency in his wardrobe where if you were to see just like a colorful silhouette of the character, you would immediately identify him as Chad, and that for us become those very generic polo shirts with like blocks of color. From time to time he switches up a little bit, but we also needed something where we could physically hide my body. We've attempted Chad in skinny jeans, and it really doesn't translate.
And I love that you dedicate an entire episode to Chad doing everything he can to get the new LeBrons.
With the social currency of high school, everything feels like the stakes are life and death. I think that's what's so relatable about the show: We all remember what it's like to be in high school, we all remember that desire to fit in and be accepted by your peers. Chad is desperately latching on to anything that can give him social traction at school, whether it's wearing the shoes that other kids would wear, fully embodying somebody else who is not him, or screaming at the top of his lungs, "I'm like you guys!" I also wanted the show to be modern in the sense that it's not even like Chad is being bullied. His classmates are pretty progressive, and they almost don't even notice him, which to him is weirdly worse.
How did you get in the mind of a 14-year-old boy? Were there any in your life who you grilled? Probably best not to just go around on the prowl for young boys to talk to.
Oh my God, I wish I could explain why I feel so seen in the very unbalanced psyche of an awkward 14-year-old boy. I was definitely writing from a very personal space in creating the character, so a lot of who Chad is, even though I wasn't a young boy, is deeply reflective of my own childhood. But even with that, the show is set in modern day, so I wanted to make sure I wasn't missing anything with what it means to be 14 today. So I did set up quite a few Zooms with friends' kids and interviewed them, and it was quite hilarious how willing they were to talk to someone they barely knew about something they had no clue about and then just go along with the rest of their day! But I found that to be very helpful, just to get a sense of what kids are up to today, the things they think about, the things they're worried about. And even though some specifics in that regard have changed, my main takeaway was that high school is still as terrifying as ever. [Laughs]
What was it like acting opposite actual teenagers? Did you fit in pretty seamlessly with them?
It was actually so helpful. It was really important to me that the students around Chad were all actual 14-year-olds, or close to it. I thought it was critical in really grounding the character and making the show feel as real as possible. And aside from that, it was just so helpful for me because these kids were so good and played it so straight and so earnest that you really believe that they are talking to a boy.
You mention grounding Chad, who is a very big character, so was it important to surround him with these normal, rational people? Like you made sure to not have another big character trying to compete with him. Rather you have his best friend Peter [Jake Ryan] and Uncle Hamid [Paul Chahidi], who are two of the sweetest characters I've ever seen on TV and I just want nothing but good things for them.
Absolutely, it was so important. Otherwise the show would have just felt too wacky if everyone was crazy. Literally everything you just said was dead-on. Peter is the opposite of him in the sense that he is so unbothered by puberty, popularity, all of the things that keep Chad up at night. Peter is aloof and could not be less concerned, which is the very thing that infuriates Chad about him. They are best friends, but from Chad's perspective Peter is a full-blown social liability, and yet at the same time he needs him because he's all he has. Obviously on some level he even loves him, but that's where it's fun to explore how Chad is willing to get ahead at all costs, even if it means undermining his relationship with his best friend. And there's just a real shameless quality to the character that made me laugh, just in exploring exactly how far is he willing to go to be popular — does even he have a limit?
There have been so many different high school shows throughout the years, but what did you think was missing from how this crucial time in everyone's lives has been portrayed that you wanted to bring to it? Obviously you did find a very unique angle.
There are so many teen shows, but I felt like they were all a little bit limited by teen acting. Even the best of them couldn't possibly have the perspective that an adult has as someone who has lived through those horrifying years of being a teenager. And I just thought you could push the comedy so much further if you had an adult who is in on the joke playing the teen at the center of the coming-of-age story. And in addition to that, I had never seen a half-hour comedy centered around a Middle Eastern family. So this was such a cool opportunity for me to write something that was authentic to my experience growing up as a teenager, sort of caught between these two cultures, my parents being Persian but me also desperately wanting to be American and to assimilate with my peers. And I think any teenager can relate to the need to fit in; teenagers are already struggling to find their identity and feel accepted by their peers, but then when you're an immigrant kid it's almost like you have this extra obstacle in your effort to fit in because you and your parents are assimilating into a new culture at the same time you're learning about prom, you're learning about what's appropriate to bring as a high school lunch. So it's a little bit like the blind leading the blind.
What was the most awkward situation you found yourself in as Chad? Like maybe you went for a cigarette break and someone didn't realize what was going on and was very outraged to see this little boy smoking.
I remember on a lunch break from shooting walking into a Rite Aid and being close enough to people that the expressions I registered on their face was that they were deeply confused and disturbed. Mostly because I looked enough like a little boy and they couldn't put their finger on what wasn't right. Then there was an incident when I had my very first table read. There's this on-set teacher that is there for the minors and making sure that they're getting all their schoolwork done, and she didn't have any context for what the show was, she was just in charge of the kids, and I was in full hair and makeup for this table read and at one point she turned to my producer and said, "And now this boy Chad, so what exact grade is he in and when am I going to pencil him into my schedule?" [Laughs] And I was like maybe five feet away from her and I was like, "Oh ma'am, no, I'm so sorry, I'm fully a grown woman. But it makes me so happy that you bought it for even just a brief moment!"
Chad (TV Series)