When Kumail Nanjiani was first offered a part in Welcome to Chippendales, he didn’t jump at it. It was 2017, and President Trump was putting travel bans in place. The role was Somen “Steve” Banerjee, the founder of Chippendales who was undone by his own corrupt business practices. “I didn’t know whether me playing an Indian immigrant who’s such a bad guy was the right thing to do,” Nanjiani says. He worried that playing “a brown guy who does bad things might not help the cause.”
Nanjiani grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, soaking up as much American pop culture as he could; he has since become a part of American pop culture himself. He started his performing career in the US as a stand-up comic and became well-known for co-starring in the HBO comedy series Silicon Valley.
Nanjiani was nominated for an Oscar for co-writing the comedy drama The Big Sick with his wife, Emily V. Gordon. In 2021, he played a superhero in the Marvel movie Eternals. He was the first South Asian superhero in a Marvel production.
When the Chippendales project came back around a few years later, Nanjiani had a different perspective. “I just wanted to play characters who were complicated and layered and messy and not necessarily play sort of noble characters,” he says. “I decided that me trying to portray brown people as only good wasn’t a valuable practice anymore.”
The Hulu Drama limited series tells the back story of the famous club that, in 1979, became the first to feature male strippers doing sexy, choreographed routines for an audience of women. In 1993, Nanjiani’s character, Steve Banerjee, was charged with hiring a hitman to kill one of his choreographers, for attempted murder of three former Chippendales dancers, as well as for arson and racketeering. In 1994, he died by suicide in his jail cell.
On the impact stand-up had on him when he first moved to the US
The first one that really hit me really hard was Jerry Seinfeld’s HBO special. It was called I’m Telling You for the Last Time — and it was his sort of doing a greatest hits of his entire career. … It just blew me away. …
When I’d seen stand-ups doing impressions in Pakistan, I was like, ‘Oh, I can’t do that. I don’t know how to do impressions.’ But suddenly I saw a normal guy in a normal voice on stage telling jokes and being paid for it. I was like, ‘OK, I think I could do that. If stand-up is also that, then maybe I could do it.’ It really, really crawled up my spine. It was earth shattering for me.
On the challenge of playing Banerjee — a character who isn’t funny
When I took on this role, I was like, can I play someone who really isn’t funny at all? … Every acting role I’ve done to some degree has that part of my personality in it – the desire to be funny … to put people at ease. …
This guy didn’t have any of the things that I consider to be my strengths as a performer, you know? So it was really scary. I didn’t know how to take those things out of my instincts. And if I’m shutting down such a big part of my personality, what’s left? I was scared that people wouldn’t want to watch me as someone who doesn’t have that in him, because maybe me without that isn’t compelling.
On his character being an outsider
There’s not much material on [Banerjee], but I saw a picture of him with all the Chippendales dancers, and it was this pudgy, Indian, nerdy guy in a big suit with all these shirtless, white Adonis-es. And it really felt like he was the king of a world that wouldn’t have him as a member. … He had to sort of be the boss to be able to buy his way into that society, but he doesn’t fit.
So to me, that was such an important part of the story that he was completely different from all these people around him. … You have all these men, including Nick De Noia, Murray Bartlett’s character, the choreographer, all very fluid. They’re all very in touch with their bodies … very comfortable in their skin. They’re good at moving. They’re OK being shirtless. And I wanted this character to be created in contrast to that. So he doesn’t like how he looks. He doesn’t like his body. He’s sort of like a block of granite just sitting there — and he uses suits to cover himself up.
On how he changed his own body for his Eternals role — and how it felt to have photos of his transformation go viral on social media
It felt, for a brief moment, powerful. And then after that, it was by and large negative. In the beginning, having that reaction from people – I’d never had that reaction before and I think part of me had always wanted it – it felt powerful. It felt really exciting. And then pretty quickly after that, it felt reductive, it felt naked, it felt vulnerable. And it made it so that the discussion of my body exists in the public sphere. It made it so that I can walk down the street and someone will just come up to me and say something about my body. That still happens all the time. … I have a complicated relationship with it. I don’t regret releasing those pictures because they did change my life. However, I do wish it didn’t occupy as much of my head space as it does.
I think I understand like .00001% of what women have been going through their entire lives. The big difference, of course, is that I don’t feel scared walking alone in a parking lot at night — you know, that power differential isn’t there. I feel like sometimes with women, men catcalling them or something feels a little bit like taking ownership of something that’s not theirs. Men are sort of, in a way, taking power away from women at that moment. I don’t have that. When someone comments on my body in public, I don’t feel that there’s like a power differential there, really. However, being reduced to how you look, that’s obviously still a big part of it.
On why he doesn’t like body humor that much
Growing up, I was sort of raised to believe that the body was bad, that all of the body’s desires are bad, and that the soul wants goodness and the body wants bad. And so I guess my entire sense of humor is based around that dichotomy, too. So the fact that I didn’t like any body jokes was because since I was a little kid, I was taught to sort of be ashamed that everything my body wants or does.
On being raised not to overeat or waste food
It’s really cruel that we had such limits on how much we could eat because Pakistani food is absolutely delicious. … I’ve always had a weird relationship with food. I’ve always had guilt or regret associated with it. I’ve always used food as a punishment or as a reward.
I didn’t really start thinking about it or trying to come to terms with it until after I was done with Eternalsbecause doing Eternals brought a lot of those issues up to the surface. I realized after that that I thought about food in a specific kind of way that I needed to explore and revisit. … Preparing to play Steve in Chippendales actually did a lot of that work for me. I realized that I had been so rigid with food and used it in so many unhealthy ways and then forcing myself to eat unhealthy amounts of unhealthy food in a way got me out of that trap. It’s still work to do, but it was freeing for months to just eat whatever I wanted, to eat as much as I wanted. It sort of freed me from some of the ways that I’ve been thinking about food.
On the catharsis he felt from working out during the COVID-19 lockdowns
I was really, really stressed out for about a year and a half — we didn’t leave the house. Emily, because of her condition that we talk about in The Big Sick, she’s in a very high-risk group. I was terrified to do anything.
And instead, I just worked out all the time. It was the only thing that tethered me to reality. … And sometimes after a very heavy workout session, I would start getting really emotional and crying because I think my body was finally releasing emotions that I had been holding onto for years. I believe that I think you can carry tension in specific parts of your body and releasing that was a very cathartic experience.
Heidi Saman and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited the audio of this interview. Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.