During freshman orientation at Occidental College in 2011, Nik Dodani joined his classmates on a football field in an exercise illustrating the benefits of privilege. Statements were read aloud, such as, “I can marry the person I love in any state.” If a statement applied to a student, he or she took one step forward.
When this particular statement was announced, a 17-year-old Dodani prepared to take a step forward. But before he did, he looked around and saw that several of his peers were unmoved. He reconsidered. He decided to stay put with the other queer kids.
“And then from there, I was just out,” said the 24-year-old actor who was cast this year as Pat, a series regular on CBS’s Murphy Brown revival. He also plays Zahid in Netflix’s Atypical. “It wasn’t really a question of being in the closet, but then there was the journey of realizing that I’m just really gay,” instead of bisexual or queer. When Dodani eventually declared his gay identity to his best friend, Frankie, in a tearful confession at 19, she laughed in response to his anxieties. It was a given that she — and those who mattered — would love Dodani no matter how he identified.
As Dodani recounts his coming-out story at The Standard, Hollywood, men in bathing suits sip pink cocktails by the hotel pool — guests of a fundraiser for the It Gets Better Project, a nonprofit that fights bullying of LGBTQ youth. Dodani’s costars from the Netflix film Alex Strangelove, about a teen coming out, chatted nearby. “It’s intentionally my first gay pool party. They’ve always kind of scared me,” admits the slim actor (who sported rainbow-striped bathing shorts), over a table set with coffee and french fries. “I like to avoid places that make my body dysmorphia flare up.”
Dodani has never avoided conversations about his sexuality. He is a unicorn in Tinseltown — a gay Indian-American actor who has always been out professionally. “It wasn’t a conscious choice,” said Dodani of being out in Hollywood. “It was just kind of ‘living,’ for lack of a better word. And then I started getting jobs and I wasn’t going to go back in the closet. I wasn’t going to pretend that I wasn’t very gay.”
Dodani’s career as a stand-up comic played a hand in this trajectory. Jokes about coming out to his Indian parents, recorded in a 2016 video, went viral after it was reported on by BuzzFeed. “It never really occurred to me that that was a public coming-out,” he pondered. The significance dawned on him when members of his extended family began telling him they were “supportive” of his comedy, “which is their way of just saying we know and we’re OK” with his sexual orientation, Dodani translates.
In retrospect, the revelation was “such a relief” in an industry where there is still “so much fear” in coming out. “I feel so bad for all the closeted actors. I have so much sympathy and empathy and frustration, as well. Not at them — the system, the glass closet, all that crap,” he says, a reference to the various social and economic pressures that keep entertainers closeted.
“I hope that my career shows people that it’s possible to be out and a commercial actor,” he says.
Although young, Dodani has an impressive resume of productions that have advocated for different social issues: Alex Strangelove (coming out), Atypical (autism), and Murphy Brown (freedom of the press and women’s issues). Next is the forthcoming horror film, Escape Room. Dodani acknowledges that, as an actor, “you take what you get.” But he is “drawn towards stories that have more to it, more texture, more dimensions. I think I spend more time on those auditions. I think I care more… I think it’s more fun to tell stories that have an impact.”
In the past, Dodani has made an impact through politics. As a student, he volunteered on Elizabeth Warren’s 2012 Senate campaign and coordinated Laughter Trumps Hate, a get-out-the-vote comedic project for MoveOn.org, before the 2016 presidential election. However, he now shies away from the activist label. “I’m a recovering activist,” clarifies Dodani. “I’m an actor and a comedian, and I think my form of activism is just living authentically.”
That is not to say he would shy away hot-button issues in his comedy — a recent stand-up performance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert addressed coming-out in Indian culture and STI testing. “I’m not the kind of guy to pick up a megaphone at a protest and start chanting gay rights things or race things,” he said. “That’s just not my style. So, I feel like standup was a way for me to talk about sexuality and race and class and family without getting too serious about it.”
Murphy Brown, which was revived in response to the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump, is forthright in tackling political issues. On the show, Dodani plays Pat, a social media director who is tasked with guiding Murphy’s editorial team into the 21st century. Naturally, there are technology jokes — in one early scene Pat holds Murphy’s flip phone like a museum piece. “Look! It opens!” he marvels.
Dodani also expressed excitement at the intergenerational relationship between Murphy (Candice Bergen), a glass-shattering child of the ’60s, and Pat, a millennial who grew up under the Obama administration and “doesn’t know who Dan Quayle is.” The scene is set for a showdown. “Pat is very self-confident, self-assured, [and] is not intimidated by Murphy at all, which is going to be really exciting to see the clashes between the two characters,” he says.
Murphy Brown is itself a generational show. It originally aired from 1988 to 1998, mostly before Dodani was born. However, his mother is a huge fan and Dodani remembers watching reruns of the show as a child. A true millennial, he aimed to binge every season before the show’s September premiere. He was struck by how “subversive” the show was in its time. “I’m excited to see how the writers stay subversive now,” says Dodani — his own character included.
Pat is an out gay character. His sexual orientation is first revealed to his colleague Miles (Grant Shaud), and to America, in an episode when the mismatched pair is mistaken for a couple. Afterward, Pat kisses another man as Miles drives them home. For Dodani, this representation is still revolutionary for network TV. “CBS, it’s America. I feel like seeing a gay, brown guy… makes such a huge impact, even if it’s not a huge part of the storyline or the plot.”
Dodani also acknowledged the impact Pat could have internationally. “There are 1.3 billion Indians, right? That means there’s like 300 million gay ones and yet the visibility is still so shockingly low. It just blows my mind,” he observes. (Editor’s note: Our calculations estimate the LGBTQ population of India to be closer to 135 million.)
In an era when journalism is under attack, Dodani also hopes Murphy Brown can remind viewers of the importance of the media, while also humanizing journalists. “The show is about the freedom of the press. It’s about the First Amendment. It’s about journalistic integrity… and the importance of truth.”
“You think of ‘the media’ as this force of nature, but it’s just people with jobs at a desk who have lives and families and kids and problems,” he adds. “It’s an honor to play a journalist. I feel like I’m seeing things differently.”