Kumail Nanjiani is known for his time as a stand-up comic and his role as Dinesh on HBO’s Silicon Valley. Soon audiences will also know him add the lead in his first feature The Big Sick, which is based on the true life story of how he met his wife (and co-writer) Emily Gordon after her health scare forces him into an awkward but necessary partnership with her parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter).
While he in Boston during his comedy tour, he spent some time speaking about the film, his personal journey, and why one-man shows are hilarious.
* * * * *
FOG!: How long did it take you to get on stage and feel comfortable in your voice?
Kumail Nanjiani: You know somebody said every five years you have a breakthrough with standup. I think Margaret Cho said that, and I think that’s true. For the first five years on stage it’s sort of sheer panic, and each time you’re swimming to stay alive.
The next five years is, “Alright, I’m comfortable on stage.” That’s when you can start to figure out who you are on stage, or who you want to be, and start finding your voice. And then at the end of 10 years, hopefully, you’re comfortable on stage and you have a decent sense of the stuff you want to talk about.
And then it keeps changing, but I would say the first five years were very challenging—fun, but challenging.
How much of the standup in The Big Sick came from material you’ve done?
It was mostly standup I was doing around the time we were going through that. I kind of looked back at my old notebook and found material from then because I used to perform differently, so I couldn’t do standup the way I do it now. I had to do it the way I did it then. And if you see, there’s only one point in the movie where I take the mic out of the stand.
It’s just for me and nobody will notice it, but for me that was a big move. The first six or seven years I didn’t take the mic out of the stand. When I took the mic out of the stand it felt different for me—I felt more confident, so I could be more personal because the mic stand is like a barrier between you and the audience, it’s like a wall. And getting rid of that lets you talk to them as yourself.
At least that’s how it was for me. So in the movie the only time the mic’s in my hand is my last appearance.
How long did it take you to get comfortable when it came to making this movie?
Well, we wrote the script for around three years. It was me and Emily writing it and we’d get notes from Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel, one of the other producers. So it was this sort of thing we had been working on, and I knew I would have to act in it at some point.
When we first started writing it, I didn’t feel comfortable with that idea, but I knew at a certain point I’d have to start gearing up to do this on screen. So I would say, about three years into the writing of it, I was like, “All right, we’ve done enough writing and we can keep writing, but now I have to start focusing on the performance aspect of it.”
Maybe two and a half years into writing, I actively started trying to make myself comfortable with the idea of actually making the movie, because the writing of it and the making of it are two completely different challenges.
In the film your character also does a one-man show that’s a kind of Pakistan 101. What made you decide to include two completely separate acts?
What we wanted to show with that is that this character is subconsciously trying to grapple with a part of himself that he’s too scared to tackle, and that he’s unable to tackle. So clearly that one-man show is meant to be the way he feels about his culture, the way he feels about his parents, how he feels different from them, and how he feels connected to them. So that is meant to be like a little part of himself that he wants to be doing more than just observational bits. You’re supposed to see that he’s bumping up against this wall. That was the purpose of this one-man show.
It’s actually based on a one-man show that I did, but the one-man show that I did was after the events of the film and it was actually the first time that I did anything personal. I’m proud of it. It wasn’t perfect. The one-man show in the movie is sort of like a joke.
What draws you to them?
I think one-man shows are so funny. I wrote for a sketch show that Mike Showalter had called Mike and Mike Have Issues, and I wrote this sketch called “Last Lines”. The point was you don’t have time to watch the whole one-man show, and the last line sort of gives you the message. So it was Mike performing the last lines of all these made up one-man shows. So we always thought those really, really self-serious one-man shows were super funny.
What do you feel it does for The Big Sick?
It’s funny and it also allows you to explore important parts of the character. Ultimately, we kind of did it because we thought it was a funny thing, but you can also see Emily trying to challenge him and giving him notes with his career that challenge him personally and professionally. And we want to see that Kumail doesn’t like that.
So that’s kind of the purpose of that one-man show. It does a bunch of different things. It’s also way longer than that. We could do a ten minute thing of just that one-man show. We shot it at this theater in New York and just kept shooting and shooting and shooting. There’s so many different bits of that that are not in the movie.
What’s been the reaction so far from the people in your personal life?
Well, my brother’s seen it and he loves it. My parents have not seen it yet, so we’re all “on pins and needles” for that one. My parents are very excited about the movie. You know, we wrote it for like three and a half years until we got funding for it. So, I called them just to let them know that, “Hey, just so you know, I’m writing a movie. It’s about that period of time. This is how you guys are portrayed, this is how it happened in real life, this is where it deviates from real life.” And they were like, “Okay. Alright.’ And then they came for a visit on-set and they got really excited.
So, they’ve been really excited. They’ve watched the trailer hundreds of times. They just took a picture of themselves (shows the picture) at a movie theater in [New] Jersey next to the poster. They’re adorable. So they’re like really excited for it. My dad looks like he does in the movie too.
What was it like going through the casting process of the whole family?
Well, my dad it was kind of easy, because the actor (Anupam Kher) is like a Bollywood legend. I grew up watching his movies. So, the entire time I was writing the movie, it’s based on my dad, but I saw him saying those lines. I wanted him to play my dad from the very beginning. He looks like my dad. I know he can do the comedy and the drama and all of that. And the singing. He makes up a song in the movie. I was listening to it again and I was like this is a really dirty song. Nobody’s gonna know, but it took me a bunch of times watching it, because I sort of pieced it together and I was like, “Oh God, he just made up a really filthy song.”
So, with him it was easy in a sense that we knew who we wanted and I knew someone who was family friends with him. I had to get the producers on board, and that was easy, because I could just show them clips. And Emily and I watched a bunch of Bollywood movies on Netflix and we watched a couple of his Bollywood movies that I had seen when I was a kid and she loved him. And once I showed the clips to Barry [Mendel] and Mike [Showalter], they loved him. From us trying to get him to actually getting him was like two days. He was very quick.
And casting the role of your mom?
The mom was very challenging, because we needed somebody who could do the comedy and the drama in a way that felt like the same person. And because of the way Hollywood portrays brown people, I found that a lot of the actors were used to sort of going for the laugh in a bigger more performative way. And it really was eye-opening. Obviously, I’ve done auditioning and stuff, so I know the kind of roles that we go out for, but they really were going for the wacky Pakistani thing, you know? Anupam [Kher] was good because he’s from Bollywood. You know, they have nuanced portrayals there. Adeel [Akhtar] – the guy who plays my brother – is British, and they have nuanced portrayals there. And Shenaz [Treasury] – who plays his wife – is also from Bollywood.
So, finding the person to play my mom was challenging. We saw a lot of people. And that was one of the last major parts that we cast, because she had to be like my mom where she’s funny and she’s loving and she can be angry and disproving and put you on a guilt trip.
You know, everybody’s mom is a lot of things and my mom is a lot of different things. So finding that was actually pretty challenging, but when we auditioned Zenobia [Shroff], I was like, “Finally.” Finally, we found someone who could do all those things, because some of them were used to playing the strict mom, which is not exactly what this part is. There are strict parts of it, but there’s a lightness to her and to my mom that we really thought was important.
As a comedian, what shaped your perspective?
It’s hard to diagnose myself, but I would say it probably comes from a feeling of not belonging. Even in Pakistan and having that carry over here, because I was different and felt like I didn’t fit in. This is the most I feel like I fit in. When I was a kid, I definitely felt very shy. I just liked movies and video games and nobody else liked them as much as I did. And I remember always feeling like I wasn’t part of the group, you know? From being a little kid and all the way until college just feeling like an outsider.
Do you feel like this movie is going to play differently from 1st generation to 2nd generation?
I hope so. I think so. I’ve had a lot of people contact me who were in my position who have parents who are more traditional they’ve sort of, not “rebelled” against them but had to negotiate their own identity in the way that my parents never had to. My parents are still like, “We’re Pakistani.” For me, I don’t know what I am and part of the movie is negotiating that. We’ve shown to a lot of older immigrant families and I think we do a good job of portraying both sides so that both those different sets of people who are having very different experiences feel spoken to, hopefully.
The scene where I make the stand, I think that’s something that a lot of people can relate to like ”I reject you culture, it’s not me; or maybe it is I don’t know!” Then my dad in the movie says, “The American Dream doesn’t mean do what you want to do. You still have to care about your family and other people and stuff.” So I think that scene kind of encapsulates both perspectives and shows the challenge of having those different points of views and how it is very difficult for a Pakistani person to be here and deal with non-Pakistani people, but it’s also difficult to deal with other types of Pakistani people.
So, I hope they have different experiences and I hope they connect to it.