Kumail Nanjiani: “I like to be nice, but now I want to be serious”


Kumail Nanjiani knows what everyone is thinking. He knows that he has succumbed to the cliche. After several years as a successful comic actor — in TV series such as Silicon Valley and films such as Marvel’s The Big Sick and Eternal — Nanjiani takes on his first major dramatic role in a television series about the bizarre and tragic life of Steve Banerjee, founder of the male striptease group The Chippendales. He knows what you’re thinking because he’s been thinking the same thing. “For years I’ve seen these great comedians start acting, and then at some point they play dramatic roles and you think, ‘Oh my God, they’re trying to be serious right now.’ He breaks into a wide, unabashed grin. “Now I want to be serious. I’m getting an appeal.” Nanjiani is tired of worrying about what other people think. He likes to be a little bad.

Yes, it’s a cliche when a comedian tries drama to show that he has range, but it doesn’t automatically give authority and nominations. You really have to be good at this. And Nanjiani is really good at it.

“Welcome to Chippendales” is the kind of bizarre real—life story you think you should have known by now. A documentary series and the book “Death Dance: The Chippendale Murders” were filmed about this, on which the new series is based, but it is still not a particularly well-known true crime story. In 1979, Somen “Steve” Banerjee, an immigrant from India who had accumulated some savings working at a gas station, opened a men’s strip club, calling it “Chippendales” because he thought it sounded stylish. 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 achieve such success that everyone had no choice but to respect him. His desperate quest for power led to a tragic end for several people.

— It’s wild, isn’t it? Nanjiani says, eyes wide. “I find him a pathetic figure, which was not the case when I played him… I think a really powerful person shouldn’t shout, and this guy shouts a lot… you can’t demand power. It has to come to you.” The role of Banerjee first came to Nanjiani’s desk five years ago, after the release of “The Big Sick.” This true story about how he met his future wife, Emily V. Gordon, shortly before she fell into a coma for three months, was the biggest project of his career, for which he was nominated for an Oscar for the screenplay. “It was my first time leading in anything. I suddenly had opportunities, and I wanted to continue acting in comedies.” He had absolutely no desire to be a serious actor. “I didn’t worry if I didn’t get another dramatic role, because I was fine with the fact that they never came across to me.”

“I was trying to be funny in the Chippendales, and the director was telling me off”

Five years later, something has changed. “I starred in an episode of The Twilight Zone — a reboot of Jordan Peele— where I played a guy who gets very dark… I found it exciting and exhausting and felt I had done a good job.” He did. He received an Emmy nomination. When Chippendales came back to him, he thought he could bring something to it. “I was still scared,” he says, but he felt he wouldn’t completely ruin the situation. But in fact, no. As a person, he is naturally likable, so it is easy to initially support Banerjee in order to succeed in his stupid scheme. Nanjiani then reveals the very dark depths of this person’s need for acceptance. His innate amiability makes the transformation even more disturbing. This is especially impressive because “Chippendales” is a funny show, but none of the comedy comes from Nanjiani. Funny roles go to Murray Bartlett from “White Lotus” as Banerjee’s business partner, Juliette Lewis as cocaine costume designer and Annalee Ashford as Banerjee’s wife. “It was nerve—wracking not to be able to resort to things that are in my wheelhouse,” Nanjiani says. “Sometimes I [tried to be a little funny] and the director would say: “No, don’t do that.”

The show has already done well in America and appeared on Disney+ in the UK last week, receiving mostly positive reviews, so Nanjiani knows he hasn’t screwed up. He knows that his first dramatic turn was a hit. Today he seems light and confident. He doesn’t look like a boring, loose Banerjee at all. At 44, he looks incredibly fit: with a square jaw, thick hair and biceps challenging the sleeves of a white T-shirt that was definitely chosen for biceps reasons. He looks like a star. Five years ago, when the role first came to him, he didn’t do it. And he didn’t act like one. Until recently, he didn’t really want to be one.

Nanjiani, fortunately, doesn’t have much in common with Steve Banerjee, but there is one area of intersection. Both traveled 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 did not come to America planning to take it by storm (no one moves to Iowa to take the country by storm). “I wasn’t one of those people who said: “I will go to America and I will succeed!” he says, waving his fist sarcastically. “I wasn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger, like, ‘I came to America with $20 in my pocket.’ He had a mission, and he fulfilled it. I was much more expressionless. I thought: “Probably computer science, because then I can get a job.” Then I got a job and thought: “Wow, I’m really bad at this, and it’s not satisfying in any way.”

According to Nanjiani, his entire career has been a series of happy accidents. He says comedy “just happened” when he was in college. “I first started watching stand-up comedies and thought: “I love it too much not to try it.” I’ve never done it, but it hurts me not to do it.” This is outright nonsense. No one 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 and extremely unlikely act that you should really want it. We told him he must have been ambitious to keep doing it. He doesn’t have any of that. “I loved it, but I hated it because of what it took away from me,” he says, without making much sense. “It was so hard just to go on stage. My heart was in my mouth. Then I smoked and smoked four cigarettes before I went upstairs. Drinking a lot of Red Bull… was painful.” It still doesn’t make sense as a reason to keep doing things you don’t like. “It was painful, but a little less painful than not doing it.”

He struggled with this apparently unbearable torture for about six years, moving from Iowa to Chicago because of the big comedy scene. Then in 2007 he married Gordon. Gordon, now a successful screenwriter and producer (she co-wrote “The Big Sick”), was a therapist at the time and clearly exerted a leveling influence on Nanjiani. “That was the year I thought: “I think I should try to become a professional comedian,” he says. He got a couple of small roles in episodes of “Saturday Night Live” and “The Colbert Report,” but had no real ambitions to appear regularly on screen. He got a job as a screenwriter for a sitcom called “Michael and Michael have Problems,” but in another case, the universe insisted that he become successful against his will, the creators of the show asked him to take part in the show. “I started working on the scenes and thought, ‘Oh, this is really amazing.’ The show was cancelled after seven episodes, but the damage was done. Nanjiani wanted to be an actor.

He got a nice supporting role in “Franklin and Bash,” a legal comedy-drama starring Breckin Meyer and Mark-Paul “Zack from Gosselar’s Saved by the Bell,” but it wasn’t for him. He wanted to make a half-hour comedy series, so he asked to be released from his contract. He almost immediately found the role of programmer Dinesh in Silicon Valley, which lasted six seasons (and received some vague benefit from this degree in computer science).

“After Big Sick, it was romantic comedies. After the “Eternal” there are militants.” You will notice from his resume that he did not take the easy way and did not star in 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 more than a nice, approachable guy will be difficult. “Something like the Chippendales wouldn’t have occurred to me if it wasn’t a real story,” he says. “They needed a brown guy to play this character. If it was just something [fictional] written by someone? I don’t think they would have come to me.”

“The weight of representation is paralyzing”

Kumail Nanjiani

Nanjiani feels a little strange because of the position he is in now. He knows that he is one of a very, very small number of actors of South Asian descent who are considered “names” in Hollywood. One of those with whom he most often talks about his career is the British actor and musician Riz Ahmed, whose parents are also from Karachi. Ahmed knows what it’s like to have the pressure of “representation” on your shoulders. “I don’t need that kind of weight,” Nanjiani says. “I don’t want to take responsibility because there’s nothing I can do and it’s paralyzing.” But does he have a choice whether to consider him as a representative of others like him? “That’s the thing. I don’t think so.” He looks depressed just talking about it. “I kind of ignore it, otherwise it will flatten me. I sometimes played jerks and people got upset with me, like, “Oh, you have to present us as good.” One of the reasons he initially turned down Chippendales was because he felt he shouldn’t participate in the negative portrayal of South Asians. “In the end I decided there was nothing I could do about the pressure… the pressure is on me because there aren’t enough of us. Hopefully, when there are more of us and we have more opportunities, I won’t just have to portray really nice, polite people.”

All this is a real breakthrough for Nanjiani, when he speaks decisively about what he does and what he does not want. He has a reputation for being a very nice guy, and he’s still adjusting to acting like he deserves to be where he is. “I like being a good guy!” he says, almost pleadingly in his voice, as if we shouldn’t even consider the fact that he can’t be. “It’s very, very important to me that people [around me] feel comfortable and happy.” But he’s learning to be a little more… if not demanding, then at least as someone who deserves his place. “I found out that you can tell people that you want to work with them!” he exclaims, as if revealing the most shocking revelation in the world. Then he retreats a little.

“It seems a little shameless,” he says, “but if there is a director I love, I will now reach out and say, ‘I like your work, and if there is ever something [that I could be suitable for], I would love to audition.'”.. This is very, very new. I’m uncomfortable asking for things. I guess they’ll just say no…But I’m learning to position myself.” And it works. In fact, his next project was the result of an impudent request. He’s not allowed to say what it is, but in a couple of months he’s going to start working on a comedy based on something he’s a big fan of, something he wouldn’t have been involved in if he hadn’t just come out and asked. Well, actually, that’s not quite true. He didn’t ask. “Emily did it for me,” he says with visible pride. “She approached the manager and said: “This is very important for Kumail, and I think you should involve him in this.” And they did! Look, when you’re one of the nicest guys in Hollywood, behaving with dignity is a gradual process. Sometimes you need someone to show you how to do it.

“Welcome to Chippendales” is already streaming on Disney+


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