Hank Azaria On What It Takes to Change

Hari Kondabolu’s ‘The Problem with Apu’ prompted the actor and producer to learn about his blind spots—and to grow into something more than an entertainer.

A man in a gray shirt and black blazer sits posed in front of a white wall
The actor’s newest role is co-founder of The Human Solidarity Project. Laura June Kirsch

Hank Azaria has won six Emmies, has had a legendary acting career (The Birdcage, Friends, Ray Donovan, Brockmire) and voices some of the most beloved characters on The Simpsons (Moe Syzslak, Chief Wiggum). He’s also a Tony Award nominee and a successful producer. With these and so many other credits to his name, Azaria is arguably one of the entertainment industry’s living greats, but what I find most inspirational about his life and his career is how his “own bad story,” as he puts it, became his “greatest strength.”

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If you missed that story, first you need to know that Azaria has always loved to make people laugh. Since childhood, he has felt compelled to be funny—to cheer people up, to fit in. Maybe to avoid dealing with his own issues. The idea that his humor would cause anyone pain wasn’t on his radar. But in 2017, comedian Hari Kondabolu made the documentary The Problem with Apu in which he pointed out that The Simpson’s character, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, was not only a demeaning racial stereotype of South Asian people but also voiced by a white guy. Azaria suddenly found himself at the center of a controversy and nearly canceled.

At first, he bristled, but Azaria’s familiarity with the Twelve-Step Recovery Model—the actor has been open about his struggles with alcohol addiction—let him see the problem with Apu as “an opportunity for growth as opposed to a curse to resent.” And so he committed to learning more, attending social justice seminars and, ultimately, landing on the decision to stop voicing Apu and to apologize. At one of those seminars, he met the founders of the Soul Focused Group, and that meeting would become the catalyst for a calling. Out of the controversy, Azaria co-founded The Human Solidarity Project, which makes core Soul Focused Group programming available to all for free.

I met up with Hank Azaria at The Smith on the Upper West Side. He was an open book, speaking honestly about his recovery and candidly sharing the roller-coaster of emotions he experienced after Kondabolu released his documentary.

What’s been your favorite role so far? And your favorite character you voice on the Simpsons?

The Birdcage. It meant a lot to me. It was my big break. I was doing a vocal impression of my maternal grandmother. We were Sephardic Jews, Spanish Jews, and they speak a dialect called Ladino, so it was a Spanish-speaking household. I worked on this Guatemalan accent for the role, and it sounded just like Grandma Esther.

[On The Simpsons] it’s definitely Moe. One of my heroes and one of the people I imitated was Al Pacino from The Godfather, which was back when Al was young and his voice was up here. I was playing a drug dealer in a play in LA at the time, and I used that voice, “I’m dying here, everybody’s coming down on me.” And [the producers of The Simpsons] liked it, but they said to make it gravelly. That became Moe bartending.

When did you discover you were a talented mimic?

From the earliest age I can remember, I just was able to do it. I loved doing Bugs Bunny and my family members. As a teenager, I not only would do this for my amusement but also to fit in.  With the tough kids I talked like this, “How you doin? What’s up,” and then with the athletes, I talked a different way: “What’s up, dude?” With the burnouts, a different way. I did it so convincingly that my persona would follow, and I got a little confused, like “I’m not sure who I am.”

On the podcast Dopey!, you mentioned a phase in your adult life when you didn’t know who you were or what you wanted.

I tend to lose myself in others. It’s, “Let me fit in with you. Let me do what you want to do so that you’ll like me, love me and take care of me.” Which is an odd thing because it skips, “Why not just take care of yourself?” but I didn’t learn that.

You felt like you had to go along with the other person’s script.

Exactly. With addicts and codependents, it’s at a really extreme level. I call it the contract and the messy room, meaning there’s this room where you throw in all the junk in your house, like a hoarder’s room. You don’t ever open the door or want to look in there. That’s where all of your pain, trauma, insecurities and low self-esteem are. You find someone else and go, “Let’s just deal with your stuff. You do what you want to do how you want to do it, and you just keep me out of that room.” The problem is it builds up an enormous amount of resentment because twice a month—that’s, like, a literal figure—you kind of want it your way: “Can I pick the restaurant?”

Do you think codependency was part of your addictions?

Absolutely. Whatever the “ism” is, whatever that motor is, that sick motor—alcoholism, food addiction, codependency, workaholism—it doesn’t really matter. I’m such a natural character actor and, let’s say, chameleon, it took me a long time to get onto it because I would round-robin them. If I realized I was drinking too much, I’d just switch it out.

When did you face the messy room?

I’m facing it right now. I haven’t had a drink in 18 years, but it’s one day at a time. I have to recommit every day. It’s like insulin for a diabetic or as my old shrink used to call it, “the plant principle,” meaning you can water this lovely plant every day for 30 years, but you’ve got to keep watering it every day or it’s going to die.

You wrote a beautiful tribute to your friend Matthew Perry in the New York Times. He took you to your first AA meeting and said, “It’s something, isn’t it? God is a bunch of drunks together in a room.” What do you think he meant by that? 

I didn’t know at first. I was like, “They don’t look like God to me. They look weird and scary, and the stories they’re telling about their past are not comforting.” What he meant was that if you put a bunch of drunks in a room or really anybody who’s been through any kind of suffering and they all talk honestly about what they’ve been through, how it made them feel and that connection… we have a saying in the program, “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s connection.” If you listen to others about their honest truth, usually about the lowest depth they were at, and then you share your own, that creates a kind of bond that reduces shame.

Before I researched you, I was a little nervous to ask you about Apu

And then you realized I never shut up about it. The Reader’s Digest version is that I got called out for this character, Apu. I was bewildered and upset. It’s like, “I’ve been doing this character for 25 years. Why is this wrong all of a sudden?” And so I had a professional decision to make. Do I keep doing this voice or not?

On the one hand, I didn’t want to just cave to what back then we called PC pressure. I would jokingly say, “Is this real? Or is this seventeen hipsters in a microbrewery in Brooklyn deciding what we should say?” On the other hand, if I am doing harm, I don’t want to keep doing it. I really didn’t know. It turns out that my not knowing was the actual answer. That’s the blind spot itself.

From working with these guys [at The Human Solidarity Project] I discovered that for white folks, there are two blind spots. One is intention versus impact, meaning my intentions were good, so [my assumption is] I can’t be racist because I did Apu with love, enthusiasm and joy. And I won an Emmy for Apu, so how can that be? But the fact that we have good intentions blinds us to the fact that the impact might be not all that great. The second is that as white folks in our society, we don’t experience the consequences. We experience difficulties, but not those kinds and not so constantly. So it’s very hard for us—hard for me—to believe something’s real that I don’t really encounter. And this opens up a whole conversation about comedy. The thing I get the most pushback on is “Why is it okay to do Groundskeeper Willie’s Scottish voice or to do Cletus who has a Southern voice? Or why is it okay for you to be Police Chief Wiggum? You’re not a cop.” Which I relate to, because those were my first thoughts. What voices are okay or not okay for me to do?

In Hari’s documentary, he explains that one of the reasons it’s not okay is that, for a very long time, there was only one South Asian character represented on television.

Not only that, I’m a Jewish person. I’m assimilated into American society as I’m racialized as white. There’s a little bit of an asterisk because antisemitism is a real thing. But for the most part, I’m a white person in a white society and I’m assimilated. The tipping point for me was finding out that when hate crimes were perpetrated against 7-Eleven owners and convenience store owners, they were called “Apu” while they were being beaten, shot and robbed. That got away from us. So I was like, “Okay, this is real.”

How long did it take to get to the place where you were ready to apologize?  

About two or three years. I went to many, many seminars and that eventually led me to Dustin, Mahdi and Martin. Dustin was my seminar leader. His approach seemed to be very programmatic, connective and not shaming, truth-telling, and loving, which I responded to because I got a lot out of all the seminars I was in, but I got beat up in some of them, too. I was a pretty easy target as a white whale, as it were. But I hung in there because I felt like maybe I deserved some of it. Also, I wanted to learn, and I couldn’t afford to exit the conversation. I needed to make this decision about voicing Apu.

I thought their approach was so wonderful, and I wanted to give them money to help seed the nonprofit and spread it. But they said, “You should join us. You can’t just give us money. We appreciate the money, but become a facilitator and help spread the word.” They educated me on how to do that, and over time, we started sharing that we were all in recovery, which was a happy accident.

Do you have any advice for people who may be feeling similarly to how you initially felt?

I would say that I totally understand. There are very good reasons why you’re in that place. Society does not offer a wonderful template for having this conversation, and I don’t blame anyone for being reactive to it, sick of it, upset by it or triggered by it, but then I would pitch, look us up, The Human Solidarity Project. We’re in a place where you can have this conversation. There’s no ‘gotcha.’ There’s no contention. The way [my colleagues] said it is that they got very good at fighting racism and very bad at ending it… very good at pointing out what was wrong and not good at all at finding the solution.

I read that you are now friends with Hari Kondabolu?

We are friends. I think this year we may even go to some colleges together and give a little presentation spiel about our opposite ends of this.

Talk about a 180.

Realizing what I went through because of what Hari pointed out, my own bad story is actually my greatest strength. Why? Because it connects me with you. It connects me with other people. It gives me compassion, patience, and loving kindness, which I honestly didn’t have enough of before all that trauma recovery. I mean, if Hari and I can have a meeting of the hearts, I think anyone can.

Four men in winter wear stand against a gray wall
(l. to r.) Mahdi Davenport, Martin Friedman, Dustin Washington and Hank Azaria. Courtesy THuman Solidarity Project

Azaria’s movement has momentum

Soon after talking to Azaria, I Zoomed with The Human Solidarity Project co-founders Berwick Mahdi Davenport and Dustin Washington and senior consultant Martin Friedman, who shared their vision of a more unified and equitable world.

How did the Human Solidarity Project come about? 

Mahdi: We’ve been doing this work for 30 years. The approach we’d been taking to deal with racism was not healthy for us. Our lives were in conditions that we weren’t proud of. Health-wise, we had some addictions. Financially, we weren’t doing well. Our relationships were toxic within the social justice community. We had to change and take ownership of ourselves as individuals, and when we did, we created Soul Focused. Our intention was to focus on what was in our soul. Our soul wants us to be happy, healthy, and powerful people out in the world. And then on that journey, we met Hank, and together we created The Human Solidarity Project, which is what the focal point is now. The mission is to bring human beings together because racism is designed to separate people, to break people up. The antidote to racism is human solidarity, but it starts with self-solidarity. You get yourself together, and then you can get together with others in a healthy and genuine way.

How do you know when you’ve gotten yourself together?

Mahdi: I think the work starts when the healing starts. The moment you make a decision that you’re going to transform and you’re committed to it, transformation starts happening.

The Problem with Apu became the catalyst for Hank to learn about his blind spots. But what about people who don’t have that push? How do we get them excited about this work?

Mahdi: Racism makes us all take on a false identity. And you can’t be happy being someone that you’re not. It just won’t work. We know racism has played a major role in that. Sexism has played a major role in that, too. All of these imposed identities are weighing people down right now. We are so far away from who we are authentically, and we believe that we can’t get back to it. Hank will tell you that there was more happiness for him in this work than he ever thought that there would be.

Martin: Once you become racialized, it’s dehumanizing for everybody involved. The racialized idea of whiteness doesn’t reflect who we are, who I am, who you are. We have to be outside of who we are to be able to benefit from being white. That is something that we talk about—white people needing to heal. You don’t usually think about the person on the advantaged side needing that, but there’s sort of a trickiness when you have to heal from something that has been giving you benefits. I could see parallels with patriarchy, where women have been given benefits by going along with it, but there’s a cost.

Mahdi: Unhappiness is extremely expensive. One of the costs is generational impact. You pass it on to your kids when you are pretending that everything is fine when it’s not, and you’re really dying inside.

Dustin: What’s beautiful about everything we’re talking about is that none of us are on the top of the mountain. We’re constantly evolving beings and uncovering more about ourselves. One of the things I’ve told Hank, and I don’t know if he has fully embraced this yet, is that his calling is not necessarily to be an actor or a celebrity. I really think his calling (and he’s living it) is to be a spiritual teacher.

Hank Azaria On What It Takes to Change