Kumail Nanjiani: “I love being nice – but I want to be serious now”

The most likeable man in Hollywood has had enough of being liked. He explains his big dramatic gamble in 'Welcome To Chippendales'

Kumail Nanjiani knows what everyone’s thinking. He knows he’s succumbed to the cliché. After years of being a successful comic actor – in shows like Silicon Valley and movies like The Big Sick and Marvel’s Eternals – Nanjiani’s taking on his first big dramatic role, in a TV series about the bizarre, tragic life of Steve Banerjee, founder of male strip troupe The Chippendales. He knows what you’re thinking because he’s thought the same thing. “For years I would see these great comedians start acting and then at some point they do the dramatic role and you think, ‘Oh god, they’re trying to be serious now’.” He breaks out into a huge, unapologetic grin. “I want to be serious now. I get the appeal.” Nanjiani has had enough of worrying about what other people think. He’s enjoying being a little bit bad.

Yes, it is a cliché for a comedian to try drama to show they have range, but it doesn’t automatically bestow credibility and award nominations. You have to actually be good at it. And Nanjiani is really good at it.

Kumail Nanjiani

Welcome To Chippendales is the kind of bizarre true story you feel you should have already known. There’s been a documentary series about it and a book, Deadly Dance: The Chippendales Murders, on which the new series is based, but it’s still not a particularly famous true crime story. In 1979, Somen ‘Steve’ Banerjee, an Indian immigrant who’d built up some savings from his job running a petrol station, launched a male strip club, calling it Chippendales because he thought it sounded classy. The country’s appetite for oily men in thongs surpassed even Banerjee’s expectations, making him rich. But financial success never satisfied him. He wanted to be so successful that everyone would have no choice but to respect him. His desperation for power resulted in tragic ends for several people.

“It’s wild, right?” says Nanjiani, eyes wide. “I find him kind of a pitiful figure, which I didn’t when I was playing him… I think a truly powerful person doesn’t have to yell and this guy yells a lot… You can’t demand power. It has to come to you.” The role of Banerjee first landed on Nanjiani’s desk five years ago, after The Big Sick came out. That, the true story of how he met his future wife, Emily V. Gordon, just before she went into a coma for three months, was the biggest project of his career, earning him an Oscar nomination for screenwriting. “That was my first time being the lead in anything. I suddenly had opportunities and I wanted to keep doing comedies.” He had absolutely no desire to be a serious actor. “I wasn’t worried if another dramatic role didn’t come my way because I was OK with them never coming my way.”

“I would try to be funny on ‘Chippendales’ and the director would tell me off”

Five years later, something changed. “I did an episode of The Twilight Zone – the Jordan Peele reboot – where I played a guy who gets really dark… I found it thrilling and exhausting and felt like I did a good job.” He did. He got an Emmy nomination. When Chippendales came back to him, he thought he might be able to bring something to it. “I was still intimidated,” he says, but he felt he wouldn’t totally blow it. And he really doesn’t. As a person, he’s naturally likeable, so it’s easy to initially root for Banerjee to make a success of his daft scheme. Then Nanjiani shows the very dark depths of this man’s need for acceptance. His innate niceness makes the transformation all the more disturbing. It’s particularly impressive because Chippendales is a funny show but none of the comedy comes from Nanjiani. The funny roles go to The White Lotus’ Murray Bartlett as Banerjee’s business partner, Juliette Lewis as a cokey costume designer and Annaleigh Ashford as Banerjee’s wife. “It was nerve-wracking not to be able to fall back on stuff that’s in my wheelhouse,” says Nanjiani. “Sometimes I would [try to be a bit funny] and the director would be like, ‘No, don’t do that’.”

The show has already gone down well in America and landed on Disney+ in the UK last week, to largely positive reviews, so Nanjiani knows he didn’t screw it up. He knows his first dramatic turn was a hit. He seems easy and confident today. He looks nothing like he does as the nerdy, doughy Banerjee. At 44, he looks incredibly fit: square-jawed, thick-haired and with biceps challenging the sleeves of a white t-shirt that was definitely chosen for bicep-y reasons. He looks like a star. Five years ago, when the role first came to him, he didn’t. And he didn’t act like one. Until relatively recently, he didn’t really want to be one.

Kumail Nanjiani

 

Nanjiani doesn’t – thankfully – have much in common with Steve Banerjee, but there is one area of overlap. Both travelled from South India to America as young men. Nanjiani grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, and moved to Grinnell, Iowa at the age of 18 to study philosophy and computer science. Unlike Banerjee, Nanjiani didn’t come to America planning to take it by storm (nobody moves to Iowa to take the country by storm). “I wasn’t one of those people who was like, ‘I’m gonna go to America and I’m gonna make it!” he says, doing a sarcastic fist pump. “I wasn’t like Arnold Schwarzenegger, like “I came to America with $20 in my pocket”. He had a mission and he accomplished it. I was much more wishy-washy. I was like, ‘I guess computer science because then I can get a job’. Then I got a job and was like, ‘Wow, I’m really bad at this and this is not fulfilling in any way’.”

The way Nanjiani tells it, his entire career has been a series of fortunate accidents. He says comedy “just sort of happened” when he was in college. “I started watching stand-up comedy for the first time and thought, ‘I love this too much to not try it. I’ve never done it but it hurts not to do it’.” This is patently nonsense. Nobody becomes a stand-up by accident. Standing in front of a group of strangers and trying to make them laugh is such a masochistic, painful, highly-unlikely-to-succeed thing to do that you have to really want to do it. We put it to him that he must have been ambitious to keep doing it. He’s having none of it. “I loved it, but I hated it because of what it took from me,” he says, not making much sense. “It was so hard to just walk up on stage. My heart was in my mouth. I was smoking then and I would smoke four cigarettes before I went up. Drinking a lot of Red Bull… It was painful.” This still makes no sense as a reason to keep doing something you don’t like. “It was painful but slightly less painful than not doing it.”

The Big Sick
Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick with Zoe Kazan. CREDIT: Alamy

He struggled on through this apparently unbearable torture for about six years, moving from Iowa to Chicago because of its big comedy scene. Then in 2007, he married Gordon. Gordon, now a successful writer and producer (she co-wrote The Big Sick), was at the time a therapist and clearly a levelling influence on Nanjiani. “That was the year I thought, ‘I guess I should try and become a professional comedian,” he says. He got a couple of small roles on episodes of Saturday Night Live and The Colbert Report, but had no real ambitions to be regularly on screen. He got a job writing for a sitcom called Michael & Michael Have Issues, but in another instance of the universe insisting he become successful against his will, the show’s creators asked him to be in the show. “I started doing work in the scenes and thought, ‘Oh this is really fabulous’.” The show was cancelled after seven episodes, but the damage was done. Nanjiani wanted to be an actor.

He got a pretty primo supporting role on Franklin & Bash, a legal comedy-drama starring Breckin Meyer and Mark-Paul ‘Zack from Saved By The Bell’ Gosselar, but it wasn’t for him. He wanted to do a half-hour comedy series, so asked to be released from his contract. He almost immediately found the role of computer programmer Dinesh on Silicon Valley, which ran for six seasons (and got some vague use from that computer science degree).

Eternals
As Kingo in Marvel’s ‘Eternals’. CREDIT: Alamy

The show was a huge hit, nominated for 41 Emmys, and made Nanjiani if not a household name, at least a households-beyond-his-own name. He was famous enough to be auditioning for other roles with some expectation that he might actually get them. Although he found those roles were all basically the same. “All the parts I was auditioning for were like cab drivers and 711 employees and stuff,” he says. “There weren’t parts for brown people who just happened to be normal people. We had to be terrorists or cab drivers.” He only really saw one way to get better roles: “you have to write things for yourself”, which is exactly what he did with The Big Sick, which was one of the best reviewed films of 2017 and made $56million on a budget of $5million. It taught Nanjiani that showing the world what you wanted to be, instead of hoping things would change on their own, was his path to a better career. That was never more true than when he played the role of Kingo in Eternals.

To play a Bollywood star/superhero in the Marvel universe, Nanjiani decided he should look like a superhero and beefed up accordingly. When he posted a picture to Instagram showing his gym-honed body, the internet reacted with shock, like he’d broken a rule about how regular-guy comedy actors are supposed to view their own bodies. He, quite fairly, doesn’t like talking about his body – when it’s no longer considered acceptable to talk to movie stars about their weight, why should he have to just because he’s ‘surprisingly buff’? – but he knows it made people see him differently and he enjoyed the benefits. “I started auditioning for parts that weren’t race-specific,” he says. “I was suddenly auditioning to play guys like ‘Dan’ and ‘Eric’.” And, because Hollywood is full of visual learners, he started getting more job offers. “Whenever I do a certain kind of thing, the next few things that come my way are just like that thing,” he says. “After Big Sick, it was romantic comedies. After Eternals, you get action-y movies.” You’ll notice from his CV that he didn’t take the easy route and do those action movies. “I don’t want to repeat myself,” he says. “I want it to be difficult.” And it still is. He knows that getting people to think of him as more than the sweet, approachable guy is going to remain tough. “Something like Chippendales wouldn’t have come to me if it wasn’t a true story,” he says. “They needed a brown guy to play that character. If it was just something [fictional] someone had written? I don’t think they would have come to me.”

“The weight of representation is paralysing”

Nanjiani feels a bit weird about the position he’s in now. He knows he’s one of a very, very small number of actors of South Asian ancestry who are considered ‘names’ in Hollywood. One of the people he speaks to most often about his career is British actor and musician Riz Ahmed, whose parents are also from Karachi. Ahmed knows what it’s like to have the pressure of ‘representation’ hefted onto your shoulders. “I do not want that weight,” says Nanjiani. “I don’t want the responsibility because there’s nothing I can do and it’s paralysing.” But does he have a choice in whether or not he’s seen as representing others who look like him? “That’s the thing. I kind of don’t.” He looks weighed down just talking about it. “I sort of ignore it, otherwise it will flatten me. I’ve played dickheads sometimes and people get upset at me, like ‘Oh you should be representing us as good’.” One of the reasons he initially turned down Chippendales was because he felt he shouldn’t be part of portraying South Asian people negatively. “I eventually decided there’s nothing I can do with that pressure… The pressure is on me because there aren’t enough of us. Hopefully when there are more of us and we get more opportunities it won’t just be up to me to portray really nice, polite people.”

This is all quite a breakthrough for Nanjiani, being forceful about what he does and doesn’t want. He has a reputation as a very nice guy and he’s still adjusting to acting like he deserves to be where he is. “I love being a nice guy!” he says, almost a note of pleading in his voice, like we mustn’t even consider the fact he could not be. “It’s very, very important to me that people [around me] are comfortable and happy.” But he’s learning to be the tiniest bit more… if not demanding, then at least like someone who deserves his place. “I’ve learned that you can tell people you want to work with them!” he exclaims, as if revealing the world’s most shocking revelation. He then retreats a little.

“It feels a little bit shameless,” he says, “but if there’s a director I love I’ll now reach out and say, ‘I love your work and if there’s ever anything [I might be right for], I would love to audition’… This is very, very new. I feel bad asking for things. I assume they’ll just say no… But I’m learning to pitch myself.” And it’s working. In fact, his next project was a result of brazenly asking. He’s not allowed to say what it is, but in a couple of months he’ll be starting on a comedy, based on something he’s a huge fan of, that he wouldn’t have been in had he not just come out and asked. Well, actually, that’s not quite true. He didn’t ask. “Emily got it for me,” he says with visible pride. “She went up to an executive and said, ‘This thing is really important to Kumail and I think you should put him in it’. And they did!” Look, when you’re one of the nicest guys in Hollywood, behaving with entitlement is a gradual process. Sometimes you need someone to show you how to do it.

‘Welcome To Chippendales’ is streaming on Disney+ now

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