Hasan Minhaj talks Independent Spirit Awards, 'Everything Everywhere' and South Asian representation in Hollywood

The former "Daily Show" correspondent recounts thinking "Harold and Kumar" would be the only time he felt seen.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 07: Hasan Minhaj attends the 16th Annual Stand Up For Heroes Benefit presented by Bob Woodruff Foundation and NY Comedy Festival at David Geffen Hall on November 07, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bob Woodruff Foundation)
Hasan Minhaj will be hosting Saturday's 30th Film Independent Spirit Awards. (Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bob Woodruff Foundation)

Hasan Minhaj admits he’s not “the Questlove” — meaning all-knowing poobah — of independent film. “He’s the Encyclopedia of cool shit,” Minhaj says of the Roots’s drummer-turned-Oscar-winning filmmaker.

But Minhaj, the host of the 30th Film Independent Spirit Awards does vow to watch every single movie and television show nominated before Saturday’s festivities, which will take place under a giant tent on a Santa Monica beach and streamed live on IMDb.

“It's required,” the comedian and Daily Show and Patriot Act alum tells us in an interview ahead of the Spirit Awards. “They actually hold your eyelids open, Clockwork Orange-style.”

That’s a joke, obviously. There are dozens upon dozens of titles in contention this year, with the multiverse sensation and Oscar favorite Everything Everywhere All At Once leading the way with eight categories, followed closely behind by the Cate Blanchett-starring orchestral drama Tár with seven (also up for Best Film: Bones and All, Our Father, the Devil and Women Talking).

'Everything Everywhere All At Once' (A24)
Everything Everywhere All At Once (Photo: A24)

Minhaj has seen Everything Everywhere. “I was on tour in Phoenix and people online were like, ‘You need to watch this movie, because it changes everything. If you're a creator or a creative person, it changes everything that you think is possible about moviemaking.'"

The sleeper hit is favored to become the Spirit Awards’ third Best Film winner in four years to have an Asian director (or in this case co-director, since the film was helmed by both Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) after Lulu Wang’s The Farewell in 2020 and Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland in 2021. It’s also likely to be the second Asian-led Best Picture winner at the Oscars in three years after the Korean-made Parasite triumphed two years ago.

Between those films and the 2018 box office hit Crazy Rich Asians, East Asian representation in Hollywood has made major strides in recent years.

Minhaj, an Indian Muslim-American raised in Northern California who often discusses his cultural heritage in his standup specials (Homecoming King, The King’s Jester), is hopeful a similar wave follows for South Asians in Hollywood. The signs, he points out, are promising.

“I think we're doing great,” he says. “I'm so excited about the young crop of talent that's out there. I've been watching all the shows that are South Asian-led and I'm seeing just these really young talented actors and actresses. Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Megan Suri [both actresses in Never Have I Ever], Iman Vellani [Ms. Marvel], there's so many of these kids that I'm watching and I'm like, ‘Oh my God, you are so talented, so amazing, so funny. You're [doing] everything that I wished I could have auditioned for or been a part of when I first moved to Los Angeles in 2009. So I've seen an incredible growth and I'm so excited about the possibilities of what's to come. It's just the beginning. That's what's so cool.”

Minhaj, 37, fondly remembers the first time he felt seen by mainstream Hollywood. He was in college at the University of California, Davis, and went to see the 2004 stoner comedy Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle starring Kal Penn and John Cho.

“I still remember that movie poster was half of John Cho's face, half of Kal Penn's face. And I remember leaving that movie theater that day with a buddy of mine and I go, ‘Well, that's the last time we're gonna see two leads like that in a movie.’ And little did I know, that was just the beginning. That was almost 19 years ago. But still feels like it’s the beginning… We have a long way to go, but I'm very excited.”

Minhaj first rose to prominence as a correspondent on The Daily Show in 2014 — Jon Stewart's last hire before he left the show. “It’s the best job in comedy,” Minhaj says. But the comedian has segued more and more into acting since leaving that post in 2018, with roles on Apple TV+’s The Morning Show and in movies like Rough Night, The Spy Who Dumped Me and Disney’s upcoming Haunted Mansion remake.

This week, though, he’s been the latest guest host to fill in at The Daily Show since Stewart’s replacement, Trevor Noah, left the show at the end of last year.

Minhaj won’t say who he wants to see permanently become the next host of Comedy Central’s late-night staple, but he will say how demanding the position is.

“I think whoever takes that seat and sits behind that desk, they just have to have a love and a reverence for the institution and what it represents in culture,” he says. “And hopefully whoever does it pours all of themself into it. I was lucky enough to work with Jon and Trevor and I saw intimately how much effort and energy and passion that show requires. So whoever does it, I wish them nothing but the best. And I hope they bring all of themselves to it. Because it takes everything out of you. It's gonna take everything to do that show.”

The 2023 Film Independent Spirits will stream live on IMDb and YouTube Saturday, March 4 at 5 p.m. ET / 2 p.m. PT.