Kumail Nanjiani would like to rewrite this article. I’m not saying he thinks I was mean or wrote poorly or got something wrong. I’m saying he can’t help himself. The night before we meet for coffee in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles, he was a presenter at the Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas. He promised his wife and sometime cowriter, sometime co-podcaster, sometime co-producer, Emily V. Gordon, that he wouldn’t touch the copy written for him. Then he rewrote it. Three times. At least.
He’s rewritten every movie part he’s ever had. “Emily is like, ‘People have written this and rewritten this, and they’ve thought about all of this. Why do you think you can come in and know better than everyone else?’ ” Nanjiani says. “I don’t know better, but I do know what I would rather do. That’s all I have.”
What Nanjiani has, beneath his mellow demeanor, is panic about not being perfect. Comedian and actor Jonah Ray, who cohosted Comedy Central’s The Meltdown With Jonah and Kumail for three seasons, remembers throwing a wrap party with him at a bar. A blackout struck, and Nanjiani kept walking around saying the party was ruined even though everyone was having a good time. When they first decided to put on a weekly live stand-up show together, Ray and Nanjiani discussed their goals. “I told him I wanted to give comics stage time, have stage time myself, and have fun. Kumail said, ‘I want it to be the best show in town,’ ” Ray says.
“It’s not an ego thing, it’s a form of self-protection. But I want Kumail to be able to trust,” says Gordon about his need for control. “If we’re going to a restaurant, he will absolutely research 15 other restaurants and say, ‘Are we sure we’re going to the right one?’ I’m like, ‘Let’s have this experience, and we’ll have another one another time.’ ”
While Gordon, a former couples therapist, hasn’t been able to tame that fear of imperfection, she has been able to direct it toward projects that require Nanjiani to be fully involved. They co-wrote The Big Sick, the 2017 film that told the story of the medically induced coma Gordon was put in shortly after she and Nanjiani had broken up (which was largely due to the fact that his parents wanted him to have an arranged Muslim marriage). The movie—in which Nanjiani starred, with Zoe Kazan in the role of Emily—was produced by Judd Apatow, who asked Nanjiani to write it and then requested three years of rewrites. “Most people just get frustrated and quit when the writing takes a long time,” Apatow remembers. “Kumail stayed very focused. He cared so much.”
“Removing yourself when you’re writing is one of the hardest things to do,” says The Big Sick director Michael Showalter, who had hired Nanjiani as a writer for his 2009 Comedy Central series Michael & Michael Have Issues and then was brought on by Nanjiani to direct both The Big Sick and the upcoming comedy The Lovebirds, in which Nanjiani will costar with Issa Rae. “It could have felt like a diary. They allowed their story to be told in a way that other people could feel it was theirs, too.”
Nanjiani and Gordon are co-writing a second movie, as well as coproducing Little America, an upcoming series for Apple TV+ based on true stories of American immigrants. And a lot of Nanjiani’s type A–ness is being funneled into transforming his body. He’s drinking his single-origin pour-over coffee black, taking a rare break from consuming protein (he’s trying to eat 200 grams a day to put on muscle). His trainer affixes electrodes to his body to contract his muscles as he lifts weights, which hurts like hell, but he’s inspired by the extra soreness. When Nanjiani—5’9″ and about 145 pounds—went for a physical for insurance purposes for The Lovebirds, he asked his doctor about putting on muscle. “He made these comments like, ‘Why? You’re going to be a superhero?’ ” Nanjiani says. “And in my head I was like, ‘Yeah, motherfucker, I’m going to play a superhero.’ ”
There has been unconfirmed speculation that he’s joining The Eternals alongside Angelina Jolie and Richard Madden, in Marvel’s big post-Avengers franchise. “I think superhero movies have a unique position of getting some pretty subversive stuff in there and having people watch them,” he says. After the presidential election, Nanjiani took to Twitter to air his liberal views. “Talking directly to people doesn’t really work, because people have these message boards where all their ideas are being agreed with, and you really can’t combat that.” Three days after the 2016 election, Nanjiani and his Silicon Valley costar Thomas Middleditch were at a bar a mile from this very coffee shop, where they were harassed by Trump supporters who called them “cucks” and asked them to go outside to fight before a bouncer kicked them out.
But more than making political points, Nanjiani is excited to play a superhero because it allows him to get inside the pop culture he devoured as a strict Shiite Muslim growing up in Karachi, Pakistan. After moving to America to attend Grinnell College in Iowa, Nanjiani started doing stand-up comedy, delivering a deep knowledge of American culture through an immigrant lens. “He used to have this joke about how when he played video games, the bad guys were all from his neighborhood in Pakistan,” says Natalie Morales, who worked with him in his upcoming action comedy Stuber and the Fox sitcom The Grinder. “I don’t know who he would be if he grew up here,” Gordon says. “We were talking about Ferris Bueller, and he said, ‘I always thought he was a bad guy.’ In the culture he was raised in, Ferris Bueller is a liar and a rule breaker. There’s an interesting push-pull in him that I don’t think would exist if he had been raised in America.”
After Nanjiani and I finish our coffees, we get in my car and head to Button Mash, a retro arcade and restaurant. In the car, he gets a call from a doctor who’s just run some blood work for him. His cholesterol is genetically high, and the doctor tells him it’s down more than 10 points, to 176, but suggests he get on medication. Nanjiani tells the doctor he’s going to try to x it on his own. “Cholesterol is a number, and I can game-ify it. It’s like a video game thing. I never put in codes. I never use ‘Continue.’ I always start over at the beginning,” he says. At the arcade, he beats me easily at WWF WrestleFest, wins in overtime in NBA Jam despite taking the Michael Jordan–less Bulls (licensing issues), and keeps putting tokens into the Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles game even though I am so bad the screen keeps telling me to “Press buttons.” When I mistake one generic-looking damsel in distress for another, Nanjiani says, “You are so sexist.” Which is something he’s been thinking a lot about lately. Not my sexism particularly, but society’s. He took on the role of a nervous Uber driver in Stuber—who picks up a cop temporarily blinded by LASIK (played by former pro wrestler Dave Bautista), out to avenge his murdered partner—as a way to address these issues. “I read the script and I was like, I think that there’s some stuff that’s unexplored here. I think under the guise of a traditionally guy movie, we can talk about what it means to be a guy today,” he says. “I truly think most problems in the world come from guys who are not in touch with their feelings. I was like, If we get a dialogue between the older generation, who’s more comfortable showing anger, and the younger generation, who’s a little more woke but also has stuff to learn, then this movie would be worth making.” So, of course, he asked the Fox executive if he could rewrite it. (And, I’m assuming, if the executive could please not tell Gordon about this rewriting.)
He started thinking about masculinity after taking his first acting class, to help him express gradations of emotion in a Silicon Valley scene. “It changed my life, not just my work. [My teacher] was like, ‘You’re feeling anxious.’ And I was like, ‘No, I’m not.’ ” Eventually, he realized she was right. Years before, a doctor had told him that his jaw must hurt because of his teeth grinding. But it didn’t. Then, after the acting class and starting meditation, he realized that his jaw actually did hurt a damn lot.
What Nanjiani has been feeling lately, besides a lot of pain from this weird electric muscle stimulation workout, is naked. It started when he was on an Oscar campaign for The Big Sick. As he walked red carpets, he says he could feel himself becoming more famous. “Articles went from saying, ‘This is a great breakthrough role for him’ to talking about me as an established Hollywood person,” he says. People took photos of him in public without asking and then tagged him on social media. “I was about to present at the Oscars, and listen, I love the Oscars. I’ve been watching them since I was a little kid. I had them on VHS and watched them over and over. And I started to think, ‘I don’t want to present.’ Not because I was nervous. Because I didn’t want people to look at me anymore.”
But just as he willed himself to get over every other obstacle—being an immigrant, his parents’ expectations, his less-than-superhero-size frame—he’s going to get over the desire to hide. When he and Gordon went to see Avengers: Endgame, a group of people a row behind them were loudly mocking the trailers. Including one for Men in Black: International, which Nanjiani appears in (as the voice of an alien) quite a bit. “I turned around and I was like, ‘Hey, I’m actually in that movie,’ ” he remembers. They went silent for the rest of the trailers. “I felt so great about it that I was like, No matter how good the movie is, the highlight is already over. I was one of the Avengers.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of ELLE.
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