Kumail Nanjiani’s Feelings

The man in the Marvel suit confronts his body.

Photo: David Alekhuogie for New York Magazine
Photo: David Alekhuogie for New York Magazine
Photo: David Alekhuogie for New York Magazine

Kumail Nanjiani would like to remind everyone about his brain, but I’ve brought him to the gym to talk about his muscles. He gets that this is all people — especially men — have wanted to talk about since the photos. You’ve seen them. He strikes a superhero pose, his shirtless torso slicked with baby oil, displaying branching veins that crisscross his arms like a complex irrigation system. Brows arched, he gazes at something in the middle distance — more muscles? He posted them from the set of Eternals in December 2019, the culmination of a 14-month process that began almost immediately after the director Chloé Zhao cast him in the movie as a (roughly) 7,000-year-old Earth defender named Kingo. There was no mandate from Zhao or the studio to remake his body in the mold of the Hollywood Chrises. This was all him. If he was going to be the first South Asian superhero in a Marvel production, then he wanted to look like a guy who could stand in a lineup alongside Captain America and Thor and the rest of them. Plus Kingo lives in the modern-day world as a Bollywood superstar. I mean, have you seen Hrithik Roshan? Have you seen those melons?

These were the rationalizations he gave to Zhao and the studio as he embarked on a serious quest filled with trainers and nutritionists and a cardiologist. Really, he just wanted it in a primal, adolescent way and has wanted it since he was a kid so painfully shy he worried shopkeepers thought he was ugly. This was his chance, and if he didn’t take it at the age of 40, he never would. He would enter the Marvel laboratory as a fan and emerge as a superhero. A comic-book dream.

For about a year, he basked in the honeymoon glow of his body. He went on a publicity blitz. He appeared on Jimmy Kimmel, where a chandelier of the heretofore verboten sugary confections dangled around his head; he discussed his banging bod on Dax Shepard’s podcast, Armchair Expert, with Rob McElhenney, who had similarly transformed his body as a bit for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia; topping it all off was a photo shoot with Men’s Health where he recreated cinematic moments of male virility from American Psycho, X-Men, and Die Hard. He felt — dare he say it? — confident. In a perverse indictment of the industry, his body got him better job offers. Not even action-hero stuff — just regular-guy roles as husbands and dads. It was as though his getting built like a Mack truck had finally allowed Hollywood to think, Now that’s a regular Joe.

Then the whey protein curdled. About a year and an ongoing global pandemic later, a paparazzo snapped a photo of Nanjiani in his gym’s parking lot. He looked, well, huge. The internet, bored and mean, latched on as it does. He became a punching bag; people had already been debating if Nanjiani had taken steroids on Reddit forums with names like “Natty or Juice?,” and now the speculation had an acrid smell. Something shifted in the public perception. Nanjiani had popped an edible and was in the middle of rewatching The Crow when he first saw the tweets. They were merciless and sometimes funny. He felt like an insecure teenager again. “The way I look has been way too important to me,” says Nanjiani, now 43. “And so to hear a bunch of people reaffirming my own darkest thoughts about myself was very difficult.” Then Bean Dad, a man who was teaching his daughter about self-reliance or something, became Twitter’s main character, and the internet briefly moved on to the next carcass. “I was like, Thank God for Bean Dad.

The virality of the first tabloid photo encouraged the paparazzi to tail him more. When he caught one of them snapping his picture around his house, the man simply thanked him for the photo. Nanjiani was irate, but he didn’t respond. He started wearing baggy sweats and hoodies to the gym; he tried a trick that he had heard George Clooney employed — wearing the same clothes every time he went out so the pictures became unsellable.

For the first time in his life, Nanjiani started seeing a therapist regularly. He began to realize that even the praise was dangerous, because the issue was not actually his body but how he thought about it. He was pure lines and angles, but he still felt a wash of body dysmorphia seep in whenever he looked in the mirror. Nothing was ever good enough. His ideal shape was Arnold Schwarzenegger from his Pumping Iron days. And even if he achieved that, who knows? He might still fixate on the problem areas. His shoulders, for one, have always been a real bugbear for him. He could spend hours scrolling through photos of bodybuilders with massive delts, the kind that look like two buttery brioches cooling atop your arms. When he was younger, kids would make fun of him and call him chicken shoulders. You might say, But chickens don’t have shoulders. And he’d say yes, exactly.

So that’s why he’s showing me how to do shoulder presses. I’m seated at a weight bench, and he instructs me to press the dumbbells, squeeze upward, and really focus on that mind-muscle connection. We do some lateral raises (for the shoulder caps). His heart isn’t really in it, though, in part because he doesn’t want to be the workout guy anymore. The past year left him vulnerable and pensive, questioning his role in his own pillorying. He realizes he’s experiencing a hot-celebrity version of what women, fat people, and disabled people experience on a daily basis. Even though his physical transformation was driven by personal angst, his public image had become a larger-than-life projection, a giant before-and-after billboard. His body was either a symbol of toxic Hollywood standards or #goals #fitfam #fitspo. He was something to criticize or defend, aspire to or take down.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why Nanjiani’s physical superhero transformation riled people when comparable ones undergone by funnymen like Chris Pratt and Paul Rudd were met with an unslakeable thirst. It’s possible we’re approaching the uncanny valley of muscularity. (Even a recent photo of Chris Hemsworth inspired some backlash.) The fashion bloggers Tom and Lorenzo suggested a racial double standard may be at play, writing, “Unhealthy body images can’t be considered a problem only when a brown man exhibits one.” Another theory, lobbed by Nanjiani’s wife, Emily V. Gordon, is that some might feel a sense of betrayal. That Kumail was “one of us” — an extremely online relatable nerd who built a fan base by doing things like launching a video-game podcast, The Indoor Kids, with his wife, co-hosting a wildly popular comedy show in the back of a comic-book store, and starring as the loveless and anxious computer programmer Dinesh on HBO’s Silicon Valley. Audiences liked the niche he occupied, and maybe they wanted to keep him there. Maybe there was a feeling that Kumail Nanjiani should know his place.

Hollywood is not that different from high school; there are roles and rules, and Nanjiani is someone who knows how to make the system work for him. He had done the bit parts and scaredy-cat roles. Doing Marvel felt like what his entire life had been leading up to. Who better to play a comic-book superhero than someone who has loved that shit since childhood? There was never any question: When he got the part, he was going to look the part. He would do it, and he would do it all again.

Photo: David Alekhuogie for New York Magazine

Our waiter, Jason, is enamored with Nanjiani.

After the desultory workout at the gym, we get lunch down the street. Nanjiani orders a Diet Coke and an egg-white omelet with onions, basil, chicken, and a side salad. Feeling inspired, I get the “power green” salad with grilled shrimp.

“You’re looking really ripped these days,” says Jason, a mid-size bear, thick and bearded with a chest tattoo and kind eyes peering over his face mask. “I think your biceps are better than Chris Hemsworth’s, in my opinion.”

“Oh my God,” Nanjiani says, laughing. He’s dressed casually — a blue T-shirt and chino shorts — old clothes that fit differently on a new body. “Thank you. That feels great. Did you get that?” he asks me.

“Yeah, I’ve been man-crushing on you for a while,” Jason continues. I ask if he felt that way before the abs and brick jaw. “Yeah,” he replies. “I have a thing for furry Middle Eastern guys. So, how often do you go to the gym?”

“Every day.”

“No rest day?”

Nanjiani inhales. “No, unless I really feel like I need it mentally or physically. But instead of not going, I’ll just do an easier workout. I like going. I get something out of it.”

“Maybe one day I can be huscular like you.”

“What is huscular?” Nanjiani and I both ask.

“It’s husky and muscular at the same time.”

“Aren’t you already huscular?” I ask.

“No. I wouldn’t say so,” says Jason. “I’m still being pigeonholed into this ‘bear’ category that I’m kind of embracing. I just weighed myself, and I’m at 240. I want to achieve some sort of peakness. I want to be like a Jersey-juicehead gorilla dude.”

“I’ll tell you, man, it’s very easy to get obsessed with that number on the scale,” says Nanjiani. “It’s a tough thing. It’s deceiving. You become obsessed with it. I certainly have, and for me, it’s not great to weigh myself every day. I could tell you what I weigh today.”

“What did you weigh today?” I ask.

“163.4,” says Nanjiani. “I know exactly what I weigh every day, and if I could change something, I would love to not have to think about that.”

We exchange glances after Jason leaves to put in our order. “It’s like I planted him,” says Nanjiani. “Listen, I appreciate it. He’s a super-nice guy. But you feel very seen in a specific way.”

Men just react to him now. Gay guys flirt. Straight guys flirt. Out in the wild, a guy bumped into him and then looked him up and down like he was spoiling for a fight, which is really just a form of flirting. Brospeak at the gym often takes this tone of heightened repression — a way to find intimacy when that’s not allowed. “I’ve been more keyed into this masculinity stuff,” says Nanjiani. “I started following a lot of bodybuilders on Instagram. I think about it more, and it has never seemed … more pathetic. It’s really like, Oh, all of our problems basically come from men not feeling their feelings.

So here we are, three men at a table, each imagining their greatest form. The one I pictured for myself was not Jason’s or Nanjiani’s, but it carried the same wish that an ideal body would somehow lead to a better life. Seeing his body activates some deeper fantasy inside people, an undercurrent of longing and shame, the sense that if they could just get it together, they could do this too.

Photo: David Alekhuogie for New York Magazine

Nanjiani grew up internalizing a divide: The soul was good and the body was bad. America was a cautionary tale of the sins of the flesh transmitted through popular culture like MTV and Cindy Crawford ads. He was born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, to Shia Muslim parents: His father is a doctor and a well-respected member of the community; his mother is a fantastic cook, second only to her mother. In high school, academic success was how he measured his self-worth. He didn’t feel attractive or popular or cool, but he could study really hard.

In his third year of high school, Nanjiani transferred to Karachi Grammar School, which the city’s elite attended. Most of the kids at KGS had been going to school together since childhood. He immediately became a target because he liked a girl that one of the popular kids liked too. They made his life miserable; they heckled him when he tried out for the cricket team; they egged his house. “You know that thing where you’re going to a new school, and you’re like, They don’t know. I can be cool now? They knew right away,” he says, laughing.

His high-school experience may have been the original wound — the one that created the psychic prism through which he would see himself. Recently, Nanjiani reconnected with some high-school friends he had stopped communicating with when he came to the U.S. He was just trying to forget about the whole era — shove it into a black hole of forgetfulness. A couple of years ago, one of them reached out and asked him why he had stopped talking to them. They were hurt he had ghosted them. “Honestly, I thought the only reason people would be friends with me was because they felt bad for me,” he says. “That’s when I realized, Oh, they really liked me. I started crying when this guy said, ‘No, we’re friends; we like you.’ Crying over something that feels so basic.”

Nanjiani moved to the States to get his undergraduate degree at Grinnell College in Iowa, a private school halfway between Des Moines and Iowa City. He was an international student, and he found his classmates genuinely curious about him in a hippie, liberal-arts sort of way. He was quiet at first but worked to overcome his social anxiety. His first year, he took a writing class called Story, Storytelling, and Audiences as a challenge to work on his fear of public speaking. The Decameron was on the syllabus, and at the end of the semester, each student told a story for the rest of the class. Nanjiani’s reads like an episode of The Twilight Zone: A guy stuck in a room grows increasingly paranoid, believing there are other people there with him. In the end, he discovers there’s a transmitter emitting sound waves that are controlling his mood. “The story was fine. I’m not like, Wow, this story’s really good,” he says. “But I think it described a big part of my life — a guy feeling stuck in a room — and it still describes some of me. I’m realizing now I probably was trying to communicate something I wasn’t able to communicate in other ways.”

Comedy helped him get the kind of affirmation he was looking for. His college friends saw him as “the funny one.” One of his best routines ever happened on campus. “I felt like I’d discovered a superpower,” he says. “It wasn’t until then that I realized I was worth anything.” The high of making people laugh, controlling a room, and killing a set is still bigger than any compliment anyone can give him about his body. The muscles are nice, but the jokes feel like an extension of his true self.

The first one he wrote went like this: “I’ve always wanted to have a unit of measurement named after myself. ’Cause all the cool scientists have ’em. Joule. Newton. Mr. Kilometer. But I want something cool, you know, like, ‘Turn the torpedoes up to five Nanjianis!!’ ‘Five Nanjianis’?? It’s way too much power! Most people can’t handle one Nanjiani!!” And then he would smile. The joke reminds me of another one he tells during his 2013 stand-up special, Beta Male. In this case, fame is a ward against racism and belittlement. Nanjiani recounts a time when he stepped out of his car in Orange County and a guy pulled up and screamed at him, “Hey, Kumar! Where’s Harold?” He stewed about the incident for days, and he realized it was because he felt helpless. “I want to be so famous that I’m the pop-culture reference that people would make to try and be racist to me,” he says in the special. “So I’d just be walking down the street, and a car would go by and go, ‘Hey, look, it’s some kind of Kumail Nanjiani! Oh, fuck, that is Kumail Nanjiani!’ ”

Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani act like high-school sweethearts who miraculously still like each other after 14 years. As the story goes, they met at one of his comedy shows in Chicago. He asked if Karachi was in the house; she woo-hooed. Gordon grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was a comedy nerd; he was a nerd comedian. They both felt like outsiders as kids and found solace in pop culture. They shared a lot of the same references — horror, sci-fi, Indiana Jones, Mortal Kombat, Soulcalibur — but she liked that Nanjiani’s perspective was slightly askew. One of her favorite jokes of his is about how he would be the guy who would die first in a horror movie because he went looking for a cat; the movie, from his perspective, would be about tracking down a missing feline.

The three of us are sitting underneath a makeshift tent covering a restaurant parking lot — a ubiquitous feature of the Los Angeles outdoor-dining landscape. Nanjiani has ordered steak-frites, Gordon branzino. For them, the pandemic revived fears they thought they had long buried: the trauma of Gordon’s becoming unexpectedly ill (she has Adult Still’s disease and is immunocompromised), which forced Nanjiani to sign a release to allow doctors to place her in a medically induced coma for eight days. They turned that experience into a movie, 2017’s The Big Sick. They thought they had processed all of that, but it turns out they weren’t quite finished.

“It’s become this pattern in our relationship since then where I have designated myself her caretaker,” says Nanjiani. “And it’s been the thing we’ve fought about the most, where I’m not trusting her to take care of herself. And now, in the pandemic, it’s come to a head, and I’m realizing I have been unfair to you,” he says, turning to Gordon. “In trying to protect, but really trying to control, you. And — ”

“Oh, no, no, I would not even say ‘control,’ ” she interjects. “That’s a very strong word to use. You’re trying to control the uncontrollable, which is an illness. You cannot control such a thing. Nobody can.”

Maybe it’s because Gordon’s first career was as a therapist, but the pair alternate easily between emotional processing and riffing — a dual tone that carries throughout The Big Sick. That screenplay, which was nominated for an Oscar and won an Indie Spirit award, placed them even further in the public view as a unit. They had already been working together for years, on The Indoor Kids (and then a limited-edition podcast during quarantine called Staying In With Emily and Kumail); Nanjiani hosted a comedy show with Jonah Ray in Los Angeles, which Gordon produced, that grew so popular it became a Comedy Central show, The Meltdown With Jonah and Kumail. Currently, they’re working on a bunch of other TV and film projects: the second season of the Apple series Little America; a feature adaptation of an Edward Gorey story, “The Doubtful Guest,” with Nanjiani set to star; an unannounced “relationship movie that incorporates sci-fi elements.” He wants to do it all, and he wants to do it with her.

The protectiveness goes both ways. Gordon knows that Nanjiani is the more public-facing one, which means he’ll bear the brunt of any criticism for decisions they both make. In general, her emotions come quickly to the surface, whereas his tendency is to push them down and out of sight. (He has been working on that.) That dynamic compounds the fact that Nanjiani is more restricted by public scrutiny, whereas she’s freer to offer her opinion. Take, for instance, Silicon Valley. Obviously all of the characters are nerds, but didn’t the plotlines about Dinesh’s being ugly have a strange tinge to them, I ask? They communicate through eye beams.

Nanjiani on the set of The Big Sick with his wife and co-writer, Emily V. Gordon in 2017. Zoe Kazan played Emily in the film. Photo: Nicole Rivelli/Lionsgate/Courtesy of Everett Collection

“What did you not like about that specifically?” Nanjiani says lightly, deflecting the question to Gordon.

“I did not like that you were considered unattractive on the show,” she replies. “That really fucking bothered me.”

“And that there were entire story lines around it,” he says. “That stuff does get to you, where you’re like, Aww … that’s not a great feeling. I love everyone on the show, and I never voiced this concern. Maybe I should have. Other actors did when they had stuff that they didn’t enjoy doing. I understand that story line ended up being funny. But yeah, parts of that didn’t feel great.” He pauses. “You can say whatever you want, Emily. Go for it.”

“The assumption that he’s not attractive did feel a little bit tied … because when you look at those men …” She takes a breath. “If I were ranking completely objectively … ”

“Oh my God,” he breaks in. “Completely objective ranking! Somehow my husband is No. 1!

“Even my mom would call me and be like, ‘Why are they saying that about him?’ ” she says, dipping into a southern accent. “ ‘I don’t understand.’ But yeah, it bugged me. I didn’t like it.”

“Generally speaking, a big part of the ascribing of things that happens is sometimes it puts a filter on the world, and brown Asian men are completely desexualized,” Nanjiani says.

“Or hypersexual and that’s the joke,” adds Gordon.

“Right. Because they’re not threatening,” says Nanjiani. “It’s like, Oh, it thinks it’s hot. That kind of thing. I don’t hold it against any of the actors who’ve had to do that stuff, because getting jobs is really hard. It shouldn’t be the job of any one person to upend an entire culture.”

He often felt that way on the set of Silicon Valley. He knew his co-stars, Thomas Middleditch and T.J. Miller, from his days performing comedy in Chicago; as a group, Nanjiani says, they didn’t know how to behave on set. They often went off-script, endlessly improvising as opposed to learning their lines, extending the already long days. “We were not trying to get the scene. We were just trying to be funny and one-up each other and prove that we deserved to be there,” he says. “It would take us eight or nine takes to get anything that was useful.” And then there was the trouble with Miller, who was eventually written off the show for his on-set behavior: He would show up late and act disrespectful toward other members of the cast and crew. The actress Alice Wetterlund, who did a guest arc starting in the second season, said Miller was a “bully and a petulant brat” and that the other cast members had enabled him. Of Nanjiani, she tweeted that he was “the worst person I have ever worked with lmao,” but did not go into specifics. (Wetterlund did not respond to a request for comment.) “I had no idea she was having issues on set. She did not bring them to me while we were shooting,” says Nanjiani. “We certainly let him bully us around. I certainly did. It was some of the most difficult shooting days I’ve ever had. It made me retreat inward rather than focus on other people’s experiences. I should have been more aware and keyed in to those around me.”

In general, Nanjiani doesn’t want to name names or cast blame. He has always moved through Hollywood with a sort of watchful pragmatism. His first TV appearance was a bit part in 2008 as an Indian reporter on Saturday Night Live. It was the first and only time, he says, that he leaned into a South Asian accent for comedic effect. He felt his parents wince a little bit and decided afterward that he wouldn’t do that anymore. “I hold nothing against them,” he says of SNL (he points out that he did guest-writing stints for the show and hosted it in 2017). It wouldn’t be the first or last time he would be asked to do an accent for auditions. He has endured his share of racist heckling at comedy clubs; there was the ugly incident when he was hosting the Indie Spirit Awards and a photographer on the red carpet told him, “Smile, you’re in America now.” But even his old comic friends, guys that he has known for decades, will still make dumb terrorist jokes. When that happens, he doesn’t do anything. “I don’t laugh. But I don’t say, ‘Hey, don’t do that,’ ” he says. “Even reacting feels weak. When someone’s racist to you, there’s no way to win.”

In his stand-up, Nanjiani largely sidesteps his childhood in Pakistan and his thoughts on Muslim identity, but in 2007, he wrote and performed a one-man show called Unpronounceable. He talked about seeing his dad come home after spending a day stitching up corpses to make them presentable to bereaved families. Everyday violence, curfews, and a strict conservatism around sex, women’s rights, and gay people were all part of growing up. He has a distinct memory of going to get bun kebab with his friends after school when they saw a guy get shot in the middle of the street. He would have nightmares about it. He performed the show fewer than ten times, before stopping in part out of fear that he would create problems for his family in Pakistan.

Nanjiani has complicated, ambivalent feelings about growing up Shia, a minority religion in Pakistan and a target of sectarian violence. He is critical of both fundamentalist Islam and Islamophobia in the West. He feels out of step with second-generation Muslim Instagram culture — people he calls “Samosa Muslims” — where everything is a celebration of the religion. There’s something unprocessed in how he talks about his upbringing, which he readily admits. You can see it in how he places it in the background of The Big Sick. In that film, he keeps his relationship with Emily (played by Zoe Kazan) a secret from his family, who present him with a series of Pakistani women as potential partners. Movie Kumail humors them, despite having no intention of entering into an arranged marriage, and in turn keeps his family life a secret from Emily. Eventually, she discovers a box of photos of the potential brides his family has tried to set him up with. That portrayal of them — as a group of discarded photos — became a flashpoint in conversations around the film. Why were the Pakistani women depicted as the unappealing, disposable alternative? Nanjiani initially felt defensive about those criticisms; now he accepts them. “Our movie was the first one in a long time where there were multiple Desi female characters, and the first few you see are reduced,” he says. “People wanted to see themselves. It’s something I completely regret. I would not do it that way now.”

Ultimately, The Big Sick is more interested in how Kumail emotionally compartmentalizes his life than it is in exploring why he does it. Maybe the only person Nanjiani doesn’t feel like he has to pretend for is sitting next to him, talking about how her potatoes are turgid. The times he feels most himself are when he’s hanging out with Gordon at home. “I have an issue with being in the moment. I’m always thinking about something I did wrong, or thinking about what I want to do in the future,” he says. “And the times when I feel like I don’t want to be anywhere else is when it’s just me and Emily having a long meal or watching a movie. Those are the only times where it’s like … No notes.

Playing Kingo in Eternals in 2021. Photo: Sophie Mutevelian/Marvel Studios

We’re at Republique on La Brea when I witness Nanjiani eat a simple carb. He has assiduously avoided them in our previous meals — the image of the actor with an untouched mountain of French fries is burned into my brain — but he has allotted the calories for this moment: brioche French toast with maple syrup. Its simplicity belies its decadence. “You have to try it,” he says, cutting me off a bite. A million flaky molecules shatter in my mouth. “You’re going to see me start getting the sugar sweats,” he says.

He usually saves these things — cakes, pies, pastries — for Fridays. He used to call them cheat meals, until people on Instagram started criticizing him for the term, saying it suggested a disordered relationship with food. Which, sure. So instead he started calling it dessert night, or simply described the thing he was eating, or just stopped posting about it entirely, which is probably the right move. Humans aren’t built for this much feedback. He has always had a fraught relationship with food, and the physical transformation changed that in a way that he still hasn’t come to grips with. Getting to this point was a case study in extremes: During the bulking phase, he strapped electrodes to his muscles and drank four protein shakes a day; during the cutting phase, he crash dieted and intermittently fasted.

But he declines to get into all that. Nanjiani doesn’t think anyone should do what he did. These were self-imposed conditions with a deadline. The irony of all this is he doesn’t want people to feel bad about themselves the way he felt bad about himself. It wasn’t until the criticism arrived that he really reckoned with the cost of the pursuit — or that he, like his character in Eternals, Kingo, is a movie star, one whose mere existence sends ripple effects into the world. For Nanjiani, Kingo is an ideal, and his body is just one part of that. He is joyful, confident, and loves life. He isn’t plagued with self-doubt or body-image issues. He can bear the weight of the world. He can be what people want him to be. “Kingo really is a better version of me,” says Nanjiani. “He doesn’t have the inner saboteur, which literally just makes me jealous of a character I play. Weird feeling.”

I felt a familiar ache when I saw those photos of Nanjiani. A few years ago, I did something similar — on a more modest scale — for a story. The pitch was that I would spend 100 days trying to achieve my ideal body, and I would see if it changed my life. Would I be more confident, have more energy, jump around doing parkour on benches? Would I get laid more, get more taps on Grindr and free drinks at the bar? Would I like myself more if other people thought I was hot? I enlisted a trainer whom I would work out with about five days a week. When he asked me about my fitness goals, I said I wanted “those stupid lines that point to your dick.” I did fasted cardio in the mornings, weighed my food on a scale, and used Pam cooking spray (gross). My breakfast was usually six egg whites and one whole egg; I would hard-boil and shell them, then toss the yolks into a plastic bag like a goblin. I brought a chicken breast to a holiday party at a beer garden. Sometimes I felt incredible, and sometimes I felt insane. By the end of the journey, I could confidently say that I had failed. Like Nanjiani, I had a photo shoot, only there was no chest plate of triumph. Even though I had intellectually understood this could happen, I believed, naïvely, that I could have it all.

I felt embarrassed by my want. Lowly. Desperate. I had hoped I could somehow transcend the meanness of racism and homophobia with 16 individuated abdominal muscles. I wonder if that’s what triggered high-minded people on the internet: that Nanjiani — who was smart and funny and relatable and handsome — would still want to look like a hot jock. His achievement is incredible, but it is also an expression of anxiety: of muscles that he hopes will affirm his value.

He tells me this isn’t what happens. New body, same issues. (It did make it harder for him to roll over in bed, though.) While he was building a comedy career, he had put his anxieties about his body into the background. Getting muscular invited an old demon back into the house. The demon took up too much space; it put its feet on the table and ate all his food. “This prison has never been tighter, man,” he says. “Having other people decide how you feel about yourself — none of that goes away. It’s all still there. What you have to do is somehow figure out how to have self-worth from within yourself. I don’t know how to do that, but I’ll let you know once I find the key.”

It might have something to do with finding the right people. He has two group chats with friends. One is made up of his old comedy buddies; another is a newer group of people he started playing video games with. If something great happens, the former rags on him; the latter will just be supportive. No jokes. What a revelation! He’s trying to feel less buffeted by other people’s opinions. His natural instinct is to make the bullies like him — somehow convince them he’s cool and worthy. He’s trying instead to control how he reacts, to have a little perspective.

Take this troll on Reddit. They would tear him down every time he posted something online. Nanjiani couldn’t help it; he was bothered. Then he learned something. “He also regularly posts on sub-Reddits about drinking your own pee, like tips and stuff,” he says. “I was like, Oh my God. I’ve been letting someone who drinks their own pee decide how I feel about myself and what I do. There’s nothing wrong with drinking your own pee! Do whatever. Like, you don’t know what people are going through.”

Kumail Nanjiani’s Feelings