In the midst of success, Aziz Ansari wants to pay it forward

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Story highlights

  • Aziz Ansari scored four Emmy nominations on Thursday
  • 'Master of None' star says he aims to spread opportunities to other diverse actors in the business
  • Ansari was inspired to foster emerging talent by comedian Chris Rock

(CNN)Aziz Ansari is mastering the art of being himself.

After more than a decade on the standup comedy scene, and six years on NBC's "Parks and Recreation," the actor took a leap in 2015 by creating "Master of None," a deeply personal and biting comedy in which Ansari plays a 30-ish actor much like Ansari, albeit with much less success. On Thursday, the breakout series scored four Emmy nominations, including Best Comedy.
    CNN talked to Ansari a few hours after he heard the nomination news. He said he had yet to share his excitement with his parents, Shoukath and Fatima Ansari, who are also the show's unexpected stars and an integral role in one of the season's most affecting episodes, entitled "Parents."
    Below, Ansari talks more about the gratifying reaction to the episode, finding a home at Netflix, and shares how he's hoping to use his success to foster more diverse talent in the industry.
    How was it to see the reaction to that "Parents" episode specifically — it was the episode you were nominated for as director and writer.
    It was crazy because it had a reach far beyond what I expected. So many people have come up to me, from so many different backgrounds. White people have even come up to me and been like, "I'm white but, man, that 'Parents' episode." [Laughs] I think everyone has some kind of strange relationship with their parents and this episode sort of explored that for me, and Alan [series co-creator Alan Yang], and I'm just glad it resonated.
    You are the first South Asian actor nominated in a leading role category, which kind of boggles my mind, because we're going into the 68th Annual Emmys...
    Right? There's never been a South Asian person nominated in a leading role? I didn't know that. That's crazy.

    How does it feel to be breaking this glass ceiling?
    It's cool. I think that it's just great because there is so much diversity in the nominations and in the work that everyone's creating and it's really cool. I'm very proud to be among this current crop of Peak TV, if you will, with people making exciting material that feels like the real world.

    You wrote in a New York Times essay earlier this year that you wondered sometimes if you were trying hard enough to do your part for diversity. I think the nominations prove you're doing a lot, but what does "trying" look like going forward?
    In the first season, we were a new show, and we didn't really know what we were doing. In the second season, it's like, OK, we're an established thing that's done pretty well. You're in a position where you have a little bit more power, and you realize you can create opportunities for people. I always think about Chris Rock, who's a friend of mine. He really goes out of his way to foster new talent, and look out for talent that other people might not be looking out for. I try to do the same. The show is ultimately about seeing things from other perspectives, and hearing outsides voices... so it fits in with what we do with the show thematically.

    Must be really cool to see there's an appetite for these different faces and voices, too.
    I think the show is a testament to the idea that when someone watches something, or sees a script from some of our stuff, they might go, "Eh, I don't know if a mainstream audience could really relate to this," which basically means, "I don't know if white people will get this." And this tells them, "You know what? That's bull****." We've all been watching stories about white people forever. Every minority has to sit there and watch this white guy go through stuff. People can relate to any problem, or story, as long as it's well written. If it's good characters, funny, interesting, it will work. I think that's proven with the show.

    Tell me about working with Netflix as a show creator. They're obviously inundated with pitches these days. What do you think helped yours stand out?
    I think they just really believed in me and Alan and the ideas we had for the show. We had a certain, for a lack of a better word, vision for what we wanted to do. We were really specific, and they just really trusted us and believed in us, and let us do what we want. They let us play.

    Do you think talking about it [diversity] has helped? It feels like the TV community is having them [conversations about diversity] more than movies.

    I think it shames people into not just billing their movies and TV shows with just white people, yeah. I do think it helps because ultimately they realize, "Oh yeah, that's kind of f***ed up. You can't do that." [Laughs] That's not the real world. People aren't going to buy it anymore.
    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.