Kumail Nanjiani reflects on The Big Sick and his even bigger year
When Kumail Nanjiani decided to make a movie, he took it very personally: The scene-swiping comedian-turned-Silicon Valley actor joined creative forces with his wife, therapist-turned-writer Emily V. Gordon, to transform the story of their courtship — which was first complicated by his Pakistani Muslim parents wanting to arrange a marriage for him, then by Gordon winding up in a medically induced coma — into the Judd Apatow-produced, Michael Showalter-directed The Big Sick, an unorthodox romantic comedy-turned–Sundance darling-turned-box office hit. Toss in the fact that this was the first feature that Nanjiani wrote and starred in, and you’ve got a sensational cinema Cinderella. It took a while to get to the ball, though. “We didn’t start working on this until five years after the events of the film, and I know I needed that,” says Nanjiani, 39, who co-wrote the screenplay with Gordon. “The biggest challenge was just having to go back and think about a pretty traumatic point in our lives, and then try to make a comedy out of it. We knew that we could make this funny, but we didn’t want to kill the reality of it.”
What they created was the year’s most entertaining underdog love story. “The movie is about people trying to connect and the things that get in the way,” he explains. “Generational gaps. Cultural gaps. Language gaps. Gaps of expectations. There’s a line that Holly Hunter’s character says in the movie, where I’m like, ‘I think these doctors know what they’re doing,’ and she says, ‘No, they don’t. They’re just winging it like everybody else.’ To me, that is the theme of the movie. We’re trying to do the best we can, but nobody’s ever done winging it.”
Nanjiani may have been winging it, but this year, he also soared. Here, the man who became one of EW’s Entertainers of the Year reflects on his Big accomplishment.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How do you sum up the ride that was 2017 for you? You made a hit movie, hosted SNL, and Dinesh was temporarily the CEO of Piper Chat on Silicon Valley.
KUMAL NANJIANI: It really did feel like this rollercoaster and you’re just hanging on, and it’s all fantastic. And it all was so unexpected, because there’s really no way to know how things are going to go. I was talking to Emily about this the other day, and I was like, “I think we’re going to remember this year. No matter what happens, we will remember this specific year for the rest of our lives.” It truly has been — it’s been great, you know? A lot of people are like, “2017 sucks!” and I’m like, “It’s great!” [Laughs.] No, it does suck, also.
This is your first feature that you wrote, and your first starring role in a movie. Also starring Holly Hunter. And produced by Judd Apatow. And then a day into Sundance, Amazon buys it for $12 million in one of the biggest deals ever at the festival. You do know it’s not supposed to happen like this, right?
Yeah. Everyone tells me, “Don’t get used to this! It’ll never be like this again!” We were actually in Sundance, it was day 2, we just screened the movie, and we were having dinner with Judd and [his wife] Leslie Mann, and a bunch of our friends, and she was so nice but she pulled us aside and was like, “Just so you know, it’s never going to be like this again, so enjoy it.” Which I thought was very good advice. And she wasn’t being negative or anything, she was just like, “You’re probably deer in headlights and freaking out and don’t know what to do,” but she was like, “Enjoy it. Make an effort to enjoy it.”
You hear of films with a lot of hype selling at Sundance and then they fizzle out. This one went on to box office success, making $55 million. What did that mean to you? What’s the analogy — was it like you get a dessert and then caviar is dumped on top of it?
I mean, caviar on dessert sounds terrible. That would ruin my pie. In my head, when you said dessert, I was like, “Apple pie,” even though it’s not my favorite. That’s the first one I thought of… Your analogy is right, where you’re eating an apple pie and then inside is a Kit-Kat also fully wrapped and you’re like, “Oh my god, there’s a Kit-Kat!” And then you bite into it and it’s not just regular Kit-Kat, it’s Japanese Green Tea Kit-Kat, which is the greatest of all the Kit-Kats!” And then you look behind you, and there’s a whole sack of them and they’re like, “They’re for you. It’s never ending.” It’s pretty great.
What were your expectations when you set out to write The Big Sick?
We didn’t really have any expectations about how people would feel about it. I don’t think you can think about how something’s going to be received when you’re working on it. I think that’s probably detrimental to the process…. You think that it doesn’t matter how people feel about something you made. You’re like, “I want to do this because I want to do this and I want to be proud of it and that’s all that matters.” And you really believe that, and then it gets closer to it coming out, and you’re like, “Well, it would be good if a couple people like this,” and then as it gets closer, you’re like, “As long as a sizable group likes it, I’ll be okay.” And as it’s coming out, you’re like, “I need everyone to like this! A lot!” You can’t really expect it, but it’s been great that we got great reviews and that people went to see it. I remember the first weekend, we’d only opened in New York and L.A., and Emily did surprise Q&As at one of the theaters in New York and it was just so exciting because it was only opening in five theaters in the country and they had showings every half hour and people were lining up to see it, and just to get to talk to the people who were the first people to see our movie, it was just… I don’t know, it was very special. It was a great feeling. I’m glad obviously that so many people seemed to connect to it.
As you delved into the genre of romantic comedies, what were the pitfalls that you were determined to avoid, and how did you want to put your own spin on the genre? Of course, just given the plot line of Pakistani-born comedian dates American woman against wishes of his family, they break up and then she falls into coma, you would seem to be avoiding many tropes off the bat.
I’m a big fan of rom-coms. From the golden era of rom-coms, from the late ’80s to probably the early 2000s, I’ve seen all of them. I’ve seen the good ones, I’ve seen the bad ones. We didn’t really see this as a rom-com, but we were very aware of the conventions, and actually to prepare for this, we watched a bunch of great ones. But we also watched a bunch of not-great ones, and the thing that the not-good ones had in common with each other was the only reason you wanted these people to be together was because the movie was telling you that they should be together. You didn’t really understand their relationship, it was just like, “These are two pretty people so they should be together,” and then the movie pretends like you really care but you really don’t. So we knew that the single-most important thing in our version of a rom-com was that the relationship really had to feel real. And it really had to make sense. And it really had to be something that you wanted to root for, because she goes away for a little while. So you don’t have as much time. You really have to be efficient with that.
And then the other thing that we did was, because I do know rom-coms so well, and the director, Michael Showalter, is also a fan of rom-coms — we were very aware of the conventions, and so we were careful to not replicate them. Sometimes we would subvert them, not to subvert the conventions, but to surprise people and get an emotional reaction. So if in a rom-com, it’s step 1, 2, 3, we would do 1 and 2, and I think people would expect 3 to happen and then we’d do something else. We weren’t trying to deconstruct the rom-com or anything, we were just aware of those conventions because then we could use them to our advantage.
What was the process like of writing this film, in terms of how strictly you felt it had to adhere to your life? The movie takes some liberties, so was it just about making sure it kept the emotional truth of the relationship as you went through draft after draft?
Yeah. The first draft was almost exactly as it happened. It was pretty accurate and factual. And then we were like, “Let’s just try to make a realy good movie.” So we weren’t after that beholden to any facts or anything, but because we had lived through it, we knew what it felt like to go through it emotionally, so we knew what we could change as long as it adhered to the emotional core of our experience. But we had a very good sense of changing something and being like, “No, that feels like a movie, that doesn’t feel how it felt to go through it,” so we had this sort of boundary around the possible movie, because we knew it couldn’t be outside this circle because that didn’t feel like it felt like to live through it, and then slowly the circle closes, and hopefully at the end, the circle is the movie.
Did you think that the subject matter was too personal to write about? And was the distance that you had – because years had passed before you wrote it — ultimately instructive?
Yeah, we didn’t start working on this until five years after the events of the film, and I know I needed that. Because when you go through something traumatic — or at least when I went through something traumatic like this — my instinct was to push it away and not think of it as, try to minimize it power over me, try to minimize the effect it had on me, so for the first couple years, it was like, “Oh, that did nothing. I learned nothing from it. We haven’t changed. It’s all the same.” And then it takes a couple years to be like, “Wait, now that was a pretty big thing,” and then when you think about it, it’s so scary that it’s paralyzing. So it took us five years to be able to start thinking about that stuff, and trying to excavate it and being like, “Okay, clearly we went through something. Neither of us knows exactly how we feel about it. Let’s try to write something and also try to figure out how we feel about it.”
Did the movie — including the scene with the heckler — take on added resonance that you were telling the story of a Muslim family at a time when Islamophobia was running deep and there were calls for Muslim bans from our president?
Yeah. Islamaphobia is not a new thing in America. Or the world. It’s been an issue forever. The stuff that I get heckled about in the movie, that’s based on something that happened 12 years ago, so it’s not something new. It certainly has a little bit more added resonance because I think that stuff is so explicitly in the news right now. But when we were making this movie, we were just trying to convey the experience of being a Muslim person, and a Muslim family in America and we knew that that wasn’t a massive part of the experience, but it is part of the experience. You’re always experiencing the world as a brown guy and people are always seeing you as that.
You’ve said that there was a lot of back and forth over the 9/11 joke. [Emily’s father, played by Ray Romano, asks Kumail for his stance on 9/11, to which Kumail deadpans, “It was a tragedy. I mean, we lost 19 of our best guys.”] Did the truth of the joke ultimately outweigh its edginess?
I think the reason that that joke works is because it comes at a point in the movie where it makes sense with the characters. My character meets Emily’s [Zoe Kazan’s] parents. We’re not hanging out, we’re not talking for awhile, we’re around each other, so there’s this tension. And then we have our first conversation and my character’s thing is that he makes inappropriate jokes, and in this situation he makes the worst joke possible. So the reason I think the joke works is because it comes from this character sort of being in a state of panic, not knowing what to say. It’s the worst joke to make in that situation, and it’s so shocking, and there was some back and forth about the joke. There were people — Emily’s always right, but she would admit it, she thought that the joke was too harsh, that it wasn’t going to work. And there were times when we were sort of rewriting leading up to shooting, and people would be like, “Hey, I think this joke is too harsh,” and we were like, “Well, let’s try it. Let’s shoot it and try it and see how it feels.” And it was a debate even when we were editing the movie. Then the first time we showed it to a crowd, we were like, “Oh, okay. This is okay. This will be good.”
What was the most challenging aspect of making the film?
During shooting, it was obviously how low the budget was and how many pages we had to get a day. But even that was fun. The biggest challenge was just having to go back and think about a pretty traumatic point in our lives, and then try to make a comedy out of it, you know? We knew that we could make this funny, but we didn’t want to kill the reality of it. So that was the hardest thing — having to sort of do self-therapy [laughs] and then also make it a comedy in a way that felt like real life.
How much more work is there to do in Hollywood with portrayals of South Asian men and women in movies and television? Shouldn’t The Big Sick stand as just a sliver of representation, as there is great range in that experience?
We never thought of this movie as portraying the immigrant experience in America. This is our story, you know? I think there really is no way to portray that experience — you just have to tell a lot of stories and then people start seeing themselves onscreen. I think some people expected this movie to really capture their experience, and it didn’t. And it captured a lot of people’s experiences. I’ve heard from a lot of people that said that they really, really connected to a lot of the struggles that my character has, and a lot of the struggles that my family has. But for some people, it wasn’t their experience, and I understand that. So we do have work to do, and I think what we’re learning is that people want stories from different perspectives. It helps obviously having diversity onscreen and diversity behind the camera is important from a societal perspective but I also think it’s financially a good thing. I mean, if you see Get Out, that’s a horror movie from a new perspective, or Wonder Woman. That’s a female superhero movie directed by a female director, and those were both very, very successful, so I think there should be more of these stories, because they also make money. People want to see them.
There was much critical love for this movie, but there were a few pieces by people who liked the film but were critical of the portrayal of South Asian women. Did that surprise you?
We certainly had a lot of conversations about it, leading up to the movie. That was not something that we wanted to do. We wanted to portray everyone as realistically as we could, and give everyone a point of view. There’s a scene that I have with Khadjia [Vella Lovell] at the end where we hear her perspective on it, where she says that she is on board for arranged marriage, and the way that I’ve been treating potential suitors has been unfair. To us that scene was very, very important, because that’s the scene where Kumail understands how selfish he’s been, how there are people hurt by his not engaging with himself or lying to his parents. So that’s why that scene was in there. When we were testing the movie, so many people would be like, “Oh, you could lose that scene.” You could, storywise, but I don’t think you really could, because I think that’s a very important perspective.
That said… the issue is that there aren’t enough stories from South Asian perspectives. No one story can encapsulate the experience of being a South Asian immigrant in America because there is no experience — it’s not a monolith, you know? So we just need more stories. I’d love to see more stories from the perspective of South Asian women or South Asian gay people. And I think the only way to handle this is just to have more stories from these perspectives.
Judd had been wanting to work with you, so he asked you for some movie ideas, which is how The Big Sick came to life. You originally pitched an idea about a witch who came back as ghost, and Judd said, “Do you have another ideas?” Now that The Big Sick is done and a big hit, do you now have time to focus on Ghost Witch? Could this be your next big project?
Oh, yeah. I’ve got a whole franchise in the Ghost Witch shared universe. I’ve got Ghost Witch, I’ve got Ghost Witch 2: Every Witch Way But Ghost. And then there’s a spin-off, there’s a whole universe. They’re all going to cost about $300 million each because they’re all set on Mars, too. There’s a lot. I don’t want to give too much away.
The Big Sick