Kumail Nanjiani: ‘For my new role I ate fried chicken, french fries, doughnuts … it was less fun than I imagined’

The comic actor raised eyebrows with his muscle-bound look for his role in Marvel’s Eternals. Now he’s gone the opposite way to play the sleazy founder of the Chippendales

At 44, the comic and actor Kumail Nanjiani is best known for playing different versions of himself. His 2017 breakthrough in the Oscar-nominated romcom The Big Sick saw him act out his early romance with his wife, Emily Gordon, as she became seriously ill, while his wry, self-effacing routines made him a recognisable name on the US standup circuit through referencing his upbringing in Pakistan and reckoning with his identity as a Muslim American. Even his debut TV role as the coder Dinesh in six seasons of the comedy series Silicon Valley saw him draw on his early 20s experiences of working in IT.

On screen, Nanjiani is wise-cracking, nerdy and prone to fits of fast-talking awkwardness. He is Hugh Grant from Four Weddings and a Funeral – one of Nanjiani’s favourite films – repackaged with an American accent, a plaid shirt and a pair of jeans. In real life, though, he seems to be none of that. Speaking over a video call from his LA home, Nanjiani is chisel-jawed and self-assured, taking his time to respond with a considered seriousness. It all points to a recent change – on and off camera – resulting in a new role that takes him far from his own life and into the seedy world of 80s nightlife, playing the founder of the male stripping franchise the Chippendales.

“It took me years to feel comfortable in myself on stage and once I could be, I opened up to being even more vulnerable,” he says. “It was an arc of getting more and more personal, cresting with The Big Sick, and then realising that maybe my career doesn’t have to be so nakedly autobiographical.”

Kumail Nanjiani as Somen “Steve” Banerjee in Welcome to Chippendales.
Strip mine … Kumail Nanjiani as Somen “Steve” Banerjee in Welcome to Chippendales. Photograph: Lara Solanki/Hulu

Nanjiani’s move away from his own biography began in 2019 when he was cast as the immortal superhero Kingo in the Marvel movie Eternals. Marking this new phase in his career, he posted two pictures of himself on Instagram and, in the process, broke the internet. Almost. Gone was his medium build, slim physique, and what replaced it was a topless Nanjiani, gazing off into the middle distance while displaying an eight-pack of abs, sweat-glistened pecs and bulging arms.

The picture hit the feeds of his 1 million followers and went viral. Fellow comic Hasan Minhaj called it an act of “cyberbullying” in a Netflix routine; and Hollywood beefcake Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson praised his gains with the comment “looking great my brother!!”. Nanjiani’s father owns a pair of socks with the picture emblazoned on them.

“I didn’t see myself any differently when I had that bodily transformation,” Nanjiani says. “People’s reactions were different, though, and it’s still different. There are people who think that I’ve completely changed as a human being because of how I look, but all I did was spend 40 years a certain kind of way and then a year and a half a slightly different kind of way.”

It is a thick-skinned statement, one that highlights how Nanjiani is keen to put the discussion of his body behind him. Perhaps that’s because Eternals didn’t catapult him into Hollywood leading man status. It opened in 2021 to mixed reviews, with praise for Nanjiani’s comic performance but criticism for the movie’s overcomplex storylines. Audiences responded in kind, making the film the fourth worst-performing MCU movie to date.

A year on, Nanjiani is back with another career-shifting role and one that has required a different kind of bodily transformation. “I’m playing a Scarface-type of guy, someone who gets really corrupted and goes evil,” he says. “It’s the kind of role that would probably never come my way again, so I had to say yes.”

Nanjiani has gone back to the small screen to portray Somen “Steve” Banerjee, the real-life founder of the Chippendales. Set in the sordid, money-grubbing 80s, Welcome to Chippendales documents India-born Banerjee’s descent from hard-working immigrant to a prejudiced, profiteering businessman who obsesses over rivalries with competitors and business partners, leading to arson, murder-for-hire and a high-profile court case.

It is a true-crime story with hardly any of Nanjiani’s usual comic relief and no redemptive arc. Instead, the show is anchored in his performance as the forthright Banerjee, who sees the strippers’ work as the means to a wealthy end. For a show filled with bare torsos and trousers being whipped off, fans of Nanjiani’s Instagram post will be disappointed to hear that he is one of the only characters to stay clothed. “I knew that if I was going to do a good job with this character, he had to feel like someone who does not fit into this world of abs and gorgeous hair,” he says. “I wanted to look different from that.”

That meant after years of fastidious exercise and dieting, Nanjiani spent much of his preparation time for Welcome to Chippendales eating junk food and watching his muscles begin to slacken. “I needed to gain weight and I did it how you imagine anybody would do it, which is eating whatever you want, whenever you want, and then eating when you don’t want to eat,” he says with a mischievous laugh, before listing an inventory of his choice snacks: “I ate fried chicken and french fries, cheesecake, ice-cream, cookies and doughnuts.” Was it enjoyable? “It started off being really fun and it never got miserable,” he says with a pause. “But it did end up being less fun than I had imagined. It wasn’t healthy.”

As well as getting into the soft shape of Banerjee, Nanjiani also had to get into his mind – especially his justification of increasingly corrupt behaviour as a reaction to the standards of the majority-white society he was working in. “That was something I could understand,” Nanjiani says. “Even though Steve is so far removed from my life, you can’t judge a character when you’re playing them; you have to find a point of connection. Mine was that I understand what it feels like to come to America and try to succeed in an industry that’s not built for our success, to fight against that current every step of the way. That’s how Hollywood is.”

That point of connection went so far that as the story got darker and more violent, Nanjiani was still rooting for Banerjee. “I felt like Steve was justified in doing everything he did and that it wasn’t his fault. It was everybody else’s fault,” he says. “It wasn’t until I watched the first cuts of the final episodes that I understood he’s a very bad man. We’re both ambitious, but it is never enough for him. He wants to succeed against all odds, which is sort of admirable, but then not recognising when it’s time to be done is a horrific quality.”

Success seemed a long shot for Nanjiani when it came to starting out in comedy. Moving from his home of Karachi to attend college in Iowa, Nanjiani caught the bug for standup by studying routines from the likes of Mitch Hedberg and Zach Galafinakis. By the time he graduated in 2001, audience reactions to a Muslim man on stage were becoming fraught.

Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan in The Big Sick.
Ill behaviour … Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan in The Big Sick. Photograph: Lionsgate/Allstar

“I only got into standup because I wanted to write jokes. It was a necessary evil,” he says. “I hardly performed before 9/11 and afterwards things suddenly shifted; I found being on stage miserable. People felt OK yelling racist stuff at me and it kept throwing me. I had to pre-write specific comebacks to take control so I wouldn’t lose the rest of the audience.”

Nanjiani persisted with shows on nights and weekends while he worked a day job in IT support at the University of Chicago. “It would take a lot of effort to not run away before every show but I felt I had no choice,” he says. “There was nothing else that I loved that I also felt I could be good at, if I was given the chance.” Five years in, Nanjiani quit his job – much to his parents’ consternation – and committed to performance. It was a choice that made him more comfortable opening up about himself in his routines.

“If you’re on stage being yourself and you don’t do well, the audience is rejecting you and your personal story, whereas if you’re playing a character, they’re just rejecting your persona,” he says. “It took a long time for me to open up to that scrutiny in talking about myself. Just talking about a movie I liked took years.” Audiences started to respond to this hard-won vulnerability and Nanjiani began booking tours with the likes of Galifinakis, culminating in his first TV special in 2013, Beta Male.

Over its hour-long running time, Nanjiani confidently segues through a series of toe-curling and hilarious personal experiences, from his first memories of crying as a child, to almost being caught watching porn by his mother as a teen. “My parents watch everything I do,” he laughs. “Thankfully, they get a kick out of it and they’re really proud. Once I started getting recognition, they stopped worrying about this being my career.”

Nanjiani had finally put himself on the map, but when it came to acting roles, Hollywood was slow to catch on. “My auditions for years were very stereotypical parts like taxi drivers,” he says. “And then I moved on to being a lot of ‘guys’ – the cable guy, or the delivery guy.” Writing his own roles became an increasing necessity and after a chance encounter with Judd Apatow at the South by Southwest festival in 2012, Nanjiani pitched him his most personal story of all.

Kumail Nanjiani in Eternals.
Bod of work … Kumail Nanjiani in Eternals. Photograph: Sophie Mutevelian/AP

“I told Judd how I met Emily’s parents for the first time in 2007 when she was in a medically induced coma and he told me we had to make a movie out of it,” he says. “Initially Emily didn’t want to do it but she became convinced by the power of the story. It was then four years of back-and-forth where Judd taught us how to write and structure a movie, and how to convert your personal story into something that other people might be interested in.”

The resulting film, The Big Sick, was a critical smash, centring an interracial romance in a traditional romcom narrative and earning Nanjiani and Gordon an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. It plays like a glossy, two-hour account of their love story, beginning with a meet-cute when comedy producer Gordon heckles Nanjiani during one of his shows, before tracing her unexpected descent into a 12-day coma, which was lifted only once doctors discovered Gordon’s mystery illness was a rare condition called adult-onset Still’s disease.

How does Nanjiani feel looking back on the film, knowing such a personal story will for ever be associated with his career? “I’m proud of the film but in doing it, I realised that you’re opening a very private part of yourself to everyone,” he says. “It goes in a specific box in our life and it stays there. It made me more thoughtful about the things that are just for me and Emily, and the things that are for the world.”

Despite unearthing personal traumas on their first film project, Nanjiani and Gordon have been working together ever since, most recently on the 2020 anthology series Little America and a podcast they co-hosted during the Covid-19 lockdowns. “It’s a forever-evolving relationship and you have to figure out what rules to put in place to be able to be a happily married couple, but also a productive creative partnership,” Nanjiani says. “If you’re having an argument with a co-worker, it can only go up to a certain level, whereas when it’s also your spouse things can get personal. Her saying she doesn’t like my idea can feel like a rejection of me. You have to do a lot of work to keep those pieces separate.”

Yet, it’s a process worth pursuing. “I love writing with Emily. We really understand each other’s language and it’s a privilege to be the first person in the world to get to read what she writes,” he beams.

Two decades on from his first standup performances, Nanjiani has clearly gained status in the industry, but he still feels that the racist attitudes he initially faced remain. And, if anything, they have got worse.

“By and large, it was still unacceptable to be racist in the public sphere back then. George Bush even quoted the Qur’an in a speech – could you imagine Trump doing that?” he says. “Now, I feel like racist language has become much more acceptable in mainstream circles. I told myself back then that most people still saw me as American. I’m not so sure any more.”

It sounds like the basis of a new standup show, even though he hasn’t performed in three years. “I really want to do more comedy, but I don’t know what people want me to talk about any more,” he says. “Do they want jokes about my life? And will my jokes before this break still work? I can’t exactly go to a tiny open mic to test it out, since people know me, there’s an expectation now.”

Yet, those expectations are what Nanjiani is starting to challenge in his choice of roles. From superheroes to managers of male strippers, his projects now seem unpredictable and untethered from his own experiences. “I’m shooting a film this year but after that, I don’t know what’s next,” he says. “It feels exciting, going into the unknown.”

Welcome to Chippendales is available from 11 January on Disney+.


Ammar Kalia

The GuardianTramp

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