Familiar as a stand-up performer and as sarcastic computer programmer Dinesh Chugtai on HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” Kumail Nanjiani has been working steadily almost a decade, but he is about to go big when his acclaimed “The Big Sick” hits theaters next on July 14.
The film, a romantic-comedy, is based on Nanjiani’s real-life relationship with his now-wife, Emily Gordon. The pair co-wrote the script, and Michael Showalter (“Hello, My Name is Doris”) is directing with Judd Apatow producing. The movie portrays their courtship, struggle with cultural differences — she’s American, he’s from Pakistan — and the impact of an unexpected mystery illness. The film also stars Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily’s parents.
Born in Karachi, Nanjiani, 39, moved to the United States at 18 to attend college in Iowa. The film opens with him as a striving comic in Chicago. He soon meets-cute with Emily (Zoe Kazan) and then the push-pull of a new relationship ensues. He was in Boston recently, to do stand-up inspired by the film with his “Big Sick” co-stars, Romano, Aidy Bryant and Kurt Braunohler, at the Wilbur Theater. Before he took the stage, I sat down with Nanjiani at the Four Seasons Hotel, where he promises whole-heartedly that “The Big Sick” is not a disease-of-the-week tearjerker.
“Our movie is a really grounded comedy about families. It’s just about people trying to connect and the things that get in the way,” he said.
Nanjiani is silly and serious, just like his character in the movie. He laughs when considering what’s easier — putting together Ikea furniture or writing a script with your wife.
“I think putting together Ikea furniture is harder. I don’t feel a sense of satisfaction at the end,” Nanjiani said. “With this (script) I’m like, ‘Oh we did something.’ With Ikea furniture, I’m like, not to rip on Ikea, ‘OK. I made something but it’s kind of slanted and it’ll fall down and I’ve got extra pieces and I don’t know where they go.’ I get no sense of satisfaction from assembling furniture.”
Turning more serious, Nanjiani said writing with Gordon was “smooth sailing,” even though the script went through many rewrites in the five years from inception to screen.
“The bumps were actually really helpful for the movie and our relationship,” he said “Going through something like this, which can be so difficult, it’s a big crazy thing. We definitely felt like a team.”
“The Big Sick” has a lot of layers. It’s part comedy, part family drama, part romantic-comedy, culture clash and medical mystery. Nanjiani said he was worried about finding a balance.
“We were writing a movie about a woman in a coma. It’s life or death. Are people going to feel like it’s shallow to laugh?” he said.
Nanjiani said he took inspiration from one of his favorite movies –— “Tootsie.” He said he studied how Sydney Pollock follows his serious moments with a joke. “It doesn’t have to be a really funny joke, but there has to be a little joke. So, like in ‘Tootsie,’ something serious happens, then there’s a joke. That’s a good way to go.”
His instincts were spot-on. “The Big Sick” premiered to raves at January’s Sundance Film Festival, where Amazon snatched it up for $12 million.
“We found we could actually put in a lot more jokes than we thought,” he said. “The first cut we showed to an audience versus the last cut we showed, there are probably 30 more jokes and 30 more laughs in it. We realized if you ground the people and the story in a real place, then you can do a lot more comedy than you think. And, actually, the comedy allows you to go to the more emotional places. The comedy buys the audience’s trust and they’ll go with you to a place that might seem dark.”
As Emily, Kazan (“Revolutionary Road”) spends the second half of the film in a medically induced coma. (Spoiler alert: She lives). Without missing a chance to deliver a joke, Nanjiani sums up the solution to the problem of losing his leading lady for a chunk of time. “If the second lead in the movie is going away,” he quipped, “bring in Holly Hunter and Ray Romano.”
Hunter, an Oscar-winner for “The Piano,” and Romano, beloved for his sitcom “Everyone Loves Raymond,” play Emily parents who fly to Chicago from North Carolina when their daughter becomes ill.
“By the time Emily falls asleep, you’ve spent enough time with her, that you know her and can miss her,” he said. “And you also have these amazing new actors and characters coming in, and also that those actors and characters remind you of Emily ... In a way, her parents could sort of be surrogates for that character and her presence is still felt.”
Nanjiani said they took great care in keeping Kumail and Emily’s relationship genuine.
“I love rom-coms, but a lot of romantic comedies end when the couple gets together,” he said. “I think the stuff that happens after a couple gets together is really more interesting. In our movie, she and I meet four-and-half minutes in.” And 35 minutes later, he says, you’re at the point where most rom-coms end. “We really wanted it to feel, in a way, that the first act is its own story.”
Nanjiani’s traditional Pakistani parents wanted him to have an arranged marriage, but when Emily got sick, it changed everything. Nanjiani vowed to marry Emily and go against his parents’ wishes. Much of the humor in “The Big Sick” stems from these cultural clashes. Everything is “great” now, but Nanjiani said he still has reservations about his parents seeing the movie. The New York premiere was on June 20, but Nanjiani said it wasn’t the first time his parents saw the film. “I sent a link to my brother, instructing him to sit with them, watch it with them, in case they have some reaction and he’s there to manage it. I can’t have them watching this alone.”
When it’s suggested that there’s a natural sequel here, Nanjiani says with a laugh: “Well, that would be a whole other thing. It would be complicated, starting with what you would name the baby, raise the baby, it starts right from the beginning.”
On May 22, Nanjiani returned to his alma mater, Grinnell College in Iowa, to deliver the commencement address. He encouraged graduates to “have sex with an immigrant.” (“We’re going through a really tough time right now and it would just be really great for morale.”)
“When I gave my speech, I’m like, ‘This is the thing that’s going to be the takeaway,’ and I stand by that advice,” Nanjiani said. Despite the levity, Nanjiani said being back in Iowa and seeing 400 excited graduates decked out in their caps and gowns was more emotional than he expected.
“It really took me back in an unexpected way to my graduation (in 2001) and I started feeling all this stuff I felt then, like excitement and fear and nerves and not knowing what was going to happen next ... It was also a lot of pressure. I don’t have any advice for anyone. I’m still trying to figure it out,” he said with a laugh.
Up next, Nanjiani will get ready for the Sept. 22 release of, “The LEGO Ninjago Movie.” In it, he voices the blue ninja, Jay, whose weapon of choice is nunchucks and his power is lightning. Nanjiani thinks a moment about what his personal superpower (ability to fly) and weapon would be.
“Since I was a kid, I had these flip books with Bruce Lee doing nunchucks moves, and I would watch it over and over. I had plastic nunchucks. They are the only weapon where if you’re not good at it you’ll hurt yourself way more than you’ll hurt anybody else. I was never good at it, but that’s a cool weapon to be good at. I love Ninja Turtles and my favorite is Donatello, and he just has a stick. I don’t want that. I want nunchucks. It’s a stick with a chain in between. It looks beautiful.”
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.