The Simpsons' Hank Azaria apologises for voicing ‘racist’ character

It's been more than a year since Hank Azaria officially stepped away from voicing Springfield's resident convenience store owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon on The Simpsons.

And now the actor has issued an apology for voicing the ‘racist’ character, in a revealing interview on Dax Shepard and Monica Padman's Armchair Expert podcast.

"I've had a date with destiny with this thing for about 31 years," Hank said on the episode, before going on to personally apologise to host Monica — the daughter of Indian immigrants — for portraying a character who has had such a negative impact on the Indian community for so long.

"I know you weren't asking for that, but it's important. I apologise for my part in creating that and participating in that.

"Part of me feels like I need to go around to every single Indian person in this country and personally apologise. And sometimes I do when it comes up."

The Simpsons character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon
Hank Azaria voiced the character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon for nearly 30 years on 'The Simpsons.' Photo: 20th Century Fox

Last year, producers of the popular series announced that white actors would no longer voice characters of colour, which has already resulted in Alex Désert replacing Azaria as the voice of Carl Carlson and Kevin Michael Richardson taking over the role of Dr. Julius Hibbert from Harry Shearer.

Hank voices a range of other notable characters in the series, including Chief Wiggum, Moe and Comic Book Guy.

As he recounts during the interview, it was the release of comedian Hari Kondabolu's 2017 documentary, The Problem With Apu, that first made him aware of those consequences.

"I got called out publicly," he said. "I got cancelled — however you want to put it. And really intensely."

The actor also admits that, at an earlier point in his career, he likely would have responded to being "cancelled" with a lot of "defensive feelings, a lot of hurt and a lot of anger."

Hank Azaria speaks at the AMC's
Hank stopped voicing Apu last year. Photo: AP

But he credits his time in Alcoholic Anonymous with providing him with a framework for how to proceed.

"I needed to shut up ... and listen and learn. And that took a while. This was not a two-week process: I needed to educate myself a lot. If I had not gotten sober, I promise you it wouldn't have taken much wine for me to be in my feelings one night and fire off a Tweet that I felt justified in firing off. Some kind of defensive, white-fragile tweet. Boy, was I glad I had a system in place where I could look at this thing."

As part of his three-year learning process, Azaria says that attended seminars by the Soul Focused Group — and is currently training to become a seminar-leader himself — and spoke with many Indian-American colleagues, including Utkarsh Ambudkar, who voiced Apu's nephew on a 2016 episode of The Simpsons.

He also remembers speaking with a 17-year-old high school student who broke down while talking about how Apu has shaped perceptions of his culture.

"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?' I was like, 'Yes, my friend — I will tell them that.'"

Azaria credits all of those voices with helping him honestly confront how Apu was ultimately "an example of structural racism" in the entertainment industry.

"To me, participating in structural racism is about blind spots," he told the hosts.

"I really didn't know any better. I don't love the term 'white privilege,' but it applies. I prefer 'relative advantage.' I was unaware of how much relative advantage I had received in this country as a white kid from Queens. I didn't think about this stuff, because I never had to. There were very good intentions on all of our part [with Apu]. We tried to do a funny, thoughtful character. Just because there were good intentions doesn't mean there weren't real negative consequences that I am accountable for. Part of my amends for all this is that I'm continuing to educate myself."

Shows producers have said Apu will return when a new actor is cast.

Reporting by Ethan Alter.

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