Kumail Nanjiani is known for his comedy, his work ethic and his love for video games. If you follow him a bit, you’ll also know that he’s had a bit of a unique journey to where he is now during his career. His film, The Big Sick talks about that in detail. And while he was in Boston during his comedy tour with other members of the cast (Ray Romano, Aidy Bryant and Kurt Braunohler), he spent some time speaking about the film, his personal life and the rigors of stand up comedy.
Cinematic Essential: Great show last night?
Kumail Nanjiani: Yeah, it was really fun. It’s just tiring to do a full day of travel and press and then a show, because stand up is fun, but it is work and it is expending energy. So you kind of just have to prepare for it a little bit all day. Then afterward, prepare for today.
Do you do anything to hype you up backstage before a routine?
If I’m really feeling it, I jump around and stuff, but last night didn’t. Because really, if I have high energy when I walk out, that can carry me through the first like 20 minutes and on this tour I’m only doing 20 minutes. But last night I just ambled on stage and I was like, “Okay, I have to find this energy now.”
How long did it take you to get comfortable with getting on stage and doing your thing?
I think Margaret Cho said that every five years you have a breakthrough with standup. I think that’s true. The first five years on stage it’s sort of like sheer panic and each time you’re just like swearing to stay alive. The next five years you’re like, “Alright, I’m comfortable on stage.” And that’s when you start figuring out who you are or who you want to be on stage and finding your voice. Then at the end of ten years, hopefully, you’re comfortable on stage and you have a decent sense of the stuff you want to talk about and how you want to talk about it. And then it keeps changing. I would say, for me the first five years were very challenging. Fun but challenging.
What the reason for having both a standup routine and a one-man show back then?
Well, what we wanted to show with that was this character is trying to grasp with this side of himself that he’s too scared to tackle and 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 and how he feels different from them and how he feels connected to them. He clearly wants to tackle all that stuff, so that is meant to be a little part of himself that he wants to be more than just doing observational bits. And 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.
Are you a fan of those types of shows?
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.
And that’s in 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 likeness 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 felt I fit in. When I was a kid, I definitely felt I was 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 like 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 for different generations?
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 who’ve sort of not rebelled 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. 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 one kind of 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.