Hank Azaria says he wants to apologize to "every single Indian person" for his voicing of Indian character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon on The Simpsons. After stepping down from the role in 2020 amid years of criticism surrounding the character's racially stereotypical behavior, Azaria opened up about what he has learned since stepping away from the character and his lingering regret.
Speaking with Dax Shepard and Monica Padman on their Armchair Expert podcast Monday, Azaria said he "really didn't know any better" before listening to the outcry sparked in response to the character and decided to educate himself. While the controversy surrounding Apu has been ongoing for some time, it reached a pivotal point in 2017 following the documentary The Problem With Apu, which saw director Hari Kondabolu looking at the larger experience of how stereotypes affect minorities. According to Azaria, he spent the next year or so "doing the work" and "read, spoke to people who knew a lot about racism, spoke to lots of Indian people and went to seminars." One of those moments, Azaria said, came as he spoke with a 17-year-old at his son's school.
"I was speaking at my son's school, I was talking to the Indian kids there because I wanted to get their input," Azaria said. "A 17-year-old ... he's never even seen The Simpsons but knows what Apu means. It's practically a slur at this point. All he knows is that is how his people are thought of and represented to many people in this country. With tears in his eyes, he said to me, 'Will you please tell the writers in Hollywood that what they do and what they come up with really matters in people's lives, and it has consequences?'"
After educating himself, Azaria said he "realized I have had a date with destiny with this thing for 31 years." In 2020, the actor, who is White, announced he would no longer be voicing the character. Now, a year later, Azaria said he still has many regrets for his involvement in perpetuating stereotypes.
"I really do apologize," he said. "It's important. I apologize for my part in creating that and participating in that. Part of me feels like I need to go to every single Indian person in this country and personally apologize. And sometimes I do."
Azaria added that while the show's creators had "very good intentions" and "tried to do a funny, thoughtful character," it "doesn't mean there weren't real negative consequences." He said, "part of my amends for all this is that I’m continuing to educate myself." Azaria added that he is a proponent of people of color voicing characters of color, telling the hosts, "if it's an Indian character, or a Latinx character, or a Black character, please, let’s have that person voice the character. It's more authentic; they'll bring their experience to it, and let's not take jobs away from people who don't have enough."