Kumail Nanjiani on His New Rom-Com The Big Sick and Being a Brown Leading Man

By
Image
Kumail Nanjiani. Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by Getty Images

When was the last time you saw a brown leading man — a real heartbreaker of a romantic hero — in a movie that didn’t come out of Bollywood? Or an American rom-com that delved into the inner workings of a Muslim family? Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon didn’t set out to write their Sundance hit, The Big Sick, which is based on their unusual, cross-cultural courtship, with the goal of being rom-com pioneers. But it has been a wonderful side effect.

If you only know Nanjiani from his work as unlucky-in-love Dinesh on HBO’s Silicon Valley, you’ll be amazed at just how hot he can be in this film, throwing deadpan banter back and forth with the movie version of Emily (Zoe Kazan). He’s also a commitment-phobe who hides his girlfriend from his parents (who want him to marry a nice Muslim girl), and probably would’ve thrown everything away had Emily not gotten severely ill and been put in a medically induced coma. (The movie is funny, I swear!) Judd Apatow liked the script so much he made it the first independent movie he’s ever produced, with Michael Showalter coming onboard as director. We caught up with Nanjiani last Friday morning, just before President Trump issued his travel ban (see Nanjiani’s excellent Twitter account for reactions), about his Sundance experience, his love of rom-coms, and why brown heartthrobs are about to have their moment.

I know you mostly as Dinesh, a very different role. Were you getting offered romantic leading roles or did you feel you had to write one for yourself in order to get one?
No, I was not getting offered romantic leading roles. [Laughs.] I’ve always played some version of a nerdy guy or something like that. I mean, one of my story lines on Silicon Valley is that I am very bad with women! That’s one of Dinesh’s main characteristics! I wasn’t getting offered romantic leads of any kind.

Was it something where you were like, “I’m hot, I can do this!” Why did you want to pursue it?
Rom-coms have been one of my favorite genres of movies since I can remember. My favorite movie of all-time is Four Weddings and a Funeral, and then When Harry Met Sally, and Annie Hall is top five. So that’s a genre I really, really love and I’ve been a fan of since I was a kid. This didn’t really come from a desire to be like, “Oh, I want play a lead in a romantic comedy!” — although clearly I did and I’m very excited to do that. The impetus was that Emily and I had something sort of big happen to us that’s a very personal part of our story. We knew that we wanted to write a movie and tell this story in a way that could be palatable and entertaining to a lot of people. It came from that. It wasn’t reverse-engineered, like, “I want to be the lead in a rom-com, so let’s think of a story.” It was more like, we have the story, let’s write it, see if anybody wants to make it, and I’ll play myself.

Was it all on your mind that in American comedies you never see a Pakistani or Indian or East Asian guy in the lead? I actually wrote a piece for Vulture about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and how revolutionary the character of Josh Chan was — because I’m Chinese and it was so great to see a Filipino bro as the object of lust.
Yeah, you don’t really see a lot of Asian men as romantic leads particularly. I mean, we have Asian leads in action movies and stuff, but we haven’t seen romantic leads. You know, my concern was, is there going to be somebody who will make this movie because — spoiler alert! — I’m a brown guy and we haven’t seen a brown guy be the lead of an American romantic comedy, as far as I remember. My question was, “Are we going to get money to make this movie?” And my concern continues to be that I hope people will go see this movie, because I do think a lot of different kinds of audiences will connect with it. I just hope that there’s a market for somebody who looks like me as the lead of a rom-com, you know? That’s the step we’re at now.

It’s funny, because I know at least three different people who’ve had your experience dating outside of their culture and their parents trying to set them up for an arranged marriage, so you at least have that audience.
I think so! And I think there’s an audience for immigrants, or kids of immigrants, who have the set of identity issues that my character has in the movie, and the issues I have in real life. It’s a very relatable thing for people like that. All week at Sundance we had people coming up to us and talking about their cross-cultural romances and whether they worked out or not, and a lot of them didn’t work out because of cultural incompatibility. We also had a lot of people coming up and telling us stories about loved ones who’d been really sick, or them sort of dealing with a sickness, so I think that’s a very relatable thing too. It’s cool to be able to mix two different, relatable events into one movie, you know?

What do you think it is for you and Emily that worked out with the giant cultural difference? Was it the sickness?
Emily and I still sort of do this thought experiment to see how things would’ve been had she never gotten sick. I like to believe we would’ve ended up together anyway, and Emily is not as sure! She obviously saw my issues more clearly than I saw them back then, so she says, “If I hadn’t gotten sick I don’t know how you would’ve gotten the courage to say this to your parents.” And like in the movie, in real life, it’s not that I got the courage to tell my parents. I was just too emotionally exhausted to not tell them. It didn’t come out of some strong decision; it came out of the desperation of not being able to hide it anymore. It just poured out of me, like in the movie. So that’s an interesting question, and one we’re not sure about. Emily’s like, “It’s good I got sick,” and I’m like, “No! It’s not good that you got sick! That will never, ever be a good thing!”

Did you have any fun reactions from ladies at Sundance that you wouldn’t have gotten as Dinesh? Any throwing of panties?
No, I was hanging out with my wife the whole time, so the panties would not have been ideal. [Laughs.]

But people are bold! They get inspired!
I think people are so cold at Sundance they don’t want to give up any layers.

Yeah, and I bet no one had exposed boobs for you to sign.
There’s none of that. Everybody’s pretty covered up. [Laughs.]

Before you met your wife, were you more like Dinesh or this movie’s Kumail on the awkwardness scale?
I was pretty awkward. The version I play in the movie is a lot less awkward and more confident with ladies than I ever have been in my whole life. We made that decision because we felt the contrast between where he is and where he needs to go is just a longer journey. So in real life I was very awkward, but that move where I write down her name in Urdu, was the [pick-up] move I’d used a couple of times. I’ll admit it. So I was not good with ladies, not at all. But that was a pretty good move, the writing of the names in Urdu. That was a solid move.

Wait, and is that how you met Emily? Did you write her name in Urdu?
I did. Yes. I wrote her name in Urdu.

And she called you on it?
In real life, she did not call me on it! It wasn’t until much later she was like, “Hey, that was so charming!” and I said, “I hate to tell you, but I did that a lot.”

Do you think that any of this confidence is going to bleed over to Dinesh? Is Dinesh going to have more success now that you’ve done this movie?
That would be a spoiler! We’ll talk about this after season four.

I root for him so hard. He’s so great!
Thank you! He needs and appreciates your support!

I find it really interesting that brown or Asian guys aren’t leads in American rom-coms, when you see tons of hot dudes who are major stars of the national cinema of India, Pakistan, China, Hong Kong, and so forth. Why do you think it is that it’s so hard for that crossover to happen here?
I think — [coughs] still getting over my Sundance cold …

You took off your underwear. Not enough layers. That was the problem.
[Laughs.] I think that whenever there’s an ethnicity or race that starts showing up in pop culture, when they first show up, there are a lot of stereotypes. Long Duck Dong in Sixteen Candles, that was one of the first Asian characters, and that’s only 30 years ago, but you can see what a huge leap we’ve made in those 30 years. So I think when Asian dudes first start showing up in stuff they were seen as being nerdy, and that’s why Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, like you said, that’s why that’s so cool. You see these leading, hunky Asian dudes. For brown guys, we’re still sort of in the phase of coming out of being really nerdy, awkward guys. Community did a lot to make a brown guy be a specific person — Danny Pudi is a weirdo, but he was a really different, specific kind of weirdo. We’re still in the phase where we’re stereotyped as either nerdy dudes or terrorists, and I think we’re transitioning out of it, hopefully.

No more terrorists!
Yeah! Having Riz Ahmed in Star Wars, I hadn’t seen that before! A mainstream, American, big action movie with a brown guy as an action star.

This is actually rom-com week at Vulture. Sounds like you’re super into them.
I’m a massive rom-com head! Like, every rom-com in the ’90s and early 2000s, I’ve watched. Showalter and I, we have like an encyclopedic knowledge of rom-coms and we referenced a lot of them while we were working on this movie.

What were your influences for this one?
When Harry Met Sally was really, really good because it has both perspectives. Usually with a rom-com, it’s either just the guy or just the girl. In our movie, that was very important because one of the romantic leads disappears for half the movie, so she has to have a strong enough perspective in the first third that her presence is felt through the whole middle of the movie. And then when she comes back, one, you’re excited to see her again and, two, she’s driving the action of the third act in a way that’s believable. Also, what I really liked about When Harry Met Sally is that rom-coms generally end with “Happily ever after, they’re together!” and you don’t really see the negotiation that is part of every relationship. I think the really interesting stuff starts after the rom-coms end, and When Harry Met Sally is really about the relationship between these two people. Another example is Sleepless in Seattle, which I love, but it ends with them meeting for the first time. You never get into the nitty-gritty of being with or getting to know someone. And When Harry Met Sally does a great job of showing these two people getting closer and further apart, and the up and down of the whole relationship. That’s why the first act of our movie is just two people meeting, falling in love and then breaking up, so that’s kind of its own complete movie. We really wanted to show the back and forth that goes into a romantic relationship. And then the one I’ve watched the most is Four Weddings and a Funeral. I think that’s such a funny, charming movie. We talked a lot about that one, the way it’s shot. Also, I started doing stand-up because of Hugh Grant’s speech at the beginning of that movie. And we reference Hugh Grant in this movie too, if you remember!

Wait, remind me.
Oh, I just show a picture of myself and she goes, “Where did you get the idea for the hair?” and I say, “Hugh Grant.”

I do remember! Did you find anything hard about being the romantic lead? Or were you a natural?
I think the hardest thing for me doing this movie was definitely revisiting some of the difficult emotional aspects of it. Playing the romantic part of the relationship was really fun. Like, “Hey, you’re a beautiful girl, who in real life is a friend of mine,” and you just flirt with her! All I had to do was try to be with Zoe, who’s such a phenomenal performer and a great presence. What made me nervous was revisiting what it’s like to someone you love be in a coma and not being able to do anything about it. We really wanted to capture the helplessness that [Ray Ramano and Holly Hunter, who play Emily’s parents] have. That was the toughest part.

That came across. I laughed, I cried.
Thank you! That was always going to be our biggest challenge, how do you make a movie about someone being in a coma funny without ever losing track of the fact that someone’s in a coma? Like, reality has to stay there. You can’t ignore that. So the funny stuff has to come out of the stress that these characters are under dealing with the situation that they’re not used to.

I heard you did a panel here with John Cho and it turned out you both had movies with people in comas.
Yeah, both of us had coma movies at Sundance! Actually, I told him this. He’s a romantic Asian lead and that’s not something you see. So even though he doesn’t like to take on the pressure of that, it’s true, he represents a new kind of movie star, I think.

He’s been a pioneer for a lot of people. For me, he was the first Asian guy in movies who was like Asian guys I knew in real life.
Yeah, totally, and he’s very humble, so he won’t give himself credit. Really, just by him being himself and being a very charming, handsome, great actor, he changed a lot of people’s perceptions.

Kumail Nanjiani on Making a Rom-Com About a Woman in a Coma