Q&A: Sick couple click on, off screen
It helps tremendously that Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, the real life married couple who wrote The Big Sick loosely based on their courtship experience, are so undeniably adorable together.
The pair are making the press rounds in support of the film, which they co-wrote and in which Kumail (best known as the acerbic Dinesh on HBO’s Silicon Valley) stars. Apart from opening up their private life to the general public (“Perform your love for the people,” Nanjiani says), they are aware of the increased scrutiny they may be under — “We definitely can’t argue in public anymore,” Gordon laments.
The comedy, which earned major buzz coming out of Sundance, stars Kumail as a young Pakistani American wanting to avoid an arranged marriage, as his parents desperately wish, but afraid to risk losing them if he tells them the truth. When he meets Emily (Zoe Kazan, in the film), they fall in love, but when he finally admits to her he is expected to marry a fellow Pakistani, they break up. Soon after, after Emily suddenly falls into a coma, Kumail is the one to stick by her in the hospital, confronting her angry mother (Holly Hunter) and lackadaisical father (Ray Romano) as they all sit vigil.
Having been married more than a decade, Nanjiani and Gordon share a sweet camaraderie, evident in their crisscross banter and habit of talking over each other. We met up in a posh hotel suite to talk about Gordon’s real parents, Nanjiani’s philosophy on romantic comedies, and how you go about dramatizing your life into a three-act arc.
The film got such a bounce at Sundance, considering this is all based on your personal life, have there been any regrets about putting it all out there?
Gordon: It is an adjustment. I try to be on their side as much as I can, of like, what a lovely thing that they kind of feel a connection to us. I try not to feel weird about it. But I am, I think, maybe even a little more private than [Kumail], so I try to take any time I feel like things are invasive and just be like, “What an amazing thing that people are interested enough in general to kind of want to connect to you on any level.” And everybody has such great stories that they come up and tell us about their own lives, and that’s such a beautiful thing. What I don’t ever want to feel like is our relationship is this weird commodity. That’s very important, I think, to both of us. We argue just like any other couple, so it’s definitely been an adjustment.
Nanjiani: Our movie is very obviously about us, but it could also be a movie about fighting space aliens or something. If it’s good, there’s a piece of you in it, and people get to experience that, and it should make you feel vulnerable. I think it’s a little unavoidable when you’re writing something ….
How close does the movie follow your actual story? I’m assuming you took some creative liberties.
Nanjiani: Certain things are taken out; certain things are swapped around. We wrote it, initially, exactly as it happened. And then the process from then on was excavating and trying to find the movie from our story. We turned it from our story into a story. And so you find out, actually, this character doesn’t belong, or these two characters should be one character, or it’s actually more dramatic if this doesn’t happen, or if this happens later, or if we make up that this thing happened. We rewrote a bunch to get more at the emotional truth of it. Because when you see a movie, you’re expecting a certain drama, even though if you were going through that drama in real life, it would be very emotional, but seeing it on screen, you don’t feel that. So to get people to feel the real drama, you have to dramatize the actual events a little bit. This is my theory — I just came up with it. Honestly, we wanted people to feel like they really went through the wringer by the end of this movie: They’ve laughed; they’ve cried; they’ve gotten excited; they’ve gotten sad. Everything.
Gordon: And I will say very specifically, my father never cheated on my mother, and they’re very adamant that I mention that.
In many ways, the film plays like a traditional type of rom-com – cute couple meet, break up because of some dishonesty, and then, at the end, get back together – but you also kind of subvert the genre in pointed ways. For one thing, they both screw up at different times. How conscious were you about the conventions you were breaking?
Nanjiani: I love romantic comedies, but I find so many of them are about one character [messing] up and then learning to apologize. Real life relationships are much more interesting. It’s not like anybody’s the bad guy or the good guy. Everybody’s screwing up, and everybody’s being the good guy, and there’s a lot of negotiation going on. We wanted our movie to really capture that. I think in most rom-coms, the entire point is whether they’re going to get together or not. We wanted to do a movie where even if they don’t get together, it’s not really essential, right? By the end, there’s so much going on. There’s her sickness, there’s her —
Gordon: — Whether or not they’re getting back together is almost like, “OK.” Yeah. It’s a nice icing on top.
Nanjiani: It’s my relationship with my parents; it’s her parents’ relationship with each other; it’s her relationship with her parents. There’s a lot of other stuff. Most romcoms are just about two people getting together or not. We wanted to make a movie where that was just one of the 10 things.
I appreciated that you kept closing scenes out before what would normally be the emotional climax of a given situation. Kumail’s emotional hospital bed monologue gets cut off after only a couple of sentences, for example.
Nanjiani: Honestly, I had this problem when we were writing the movie. I would write these complete scenes, and my acting teacher was like, “Suppose you have two dumplings and you want a third. That’s how every scene should end with, like you are wanting another dumpling.”
Gordon: You would always rather leave [the audience] wanting more than give them more than they wanted. I also think, in some of those scenes, there are no words that could be perfect. Not that I don’t think we’re great writers, but there are no words that would be the perfect words. It’s better for you to just like, “God, I wish I could be in on that.” That scene in Lost in Translation, where —
Nanjiani: You don’t hear what … yeah.
Gordon: He goes up and whispers. Perfect. Everyone remembers that because we don’t have any idea.
Nanjiani: My favorite endings of movies are those that feel like, “Wait, what? It’s done? Ah, that was good.”
It’s not a particularly political film, at least overtly, but a movie about a secular dude from a strict Muslim family falling in love with someone outside his parents’ faith seems pretty prescient given our current climate.
Nanjiani: I’m so happy, honestly, that all this stuff wasn’t going on when we were making it.
Gordon: It would’ve affected us too much. We would’ve tried too hard to make a statement had we known. We were just telling a story, and this is how the actual people are, and hopefully, if you find yourself being able to relate to a person who is on paper very unlike you, I think that’s a lovely moment.
Nanjiani: It’s not a political film, and it’s going to be seen as a political film because of the climate in which it’s coming up. I’ll see people who are like, “Look at this propaganda — ”
Gordon: “They’re trying to shove their lifestyle down our throats.” We’re like, “Lifestyle? What are you talking about?”
Nanjiani: If the most radical thing that you can imagine is showing a Muslim person as a human being, then you really have issues.
Comedian Kumail Nanjiani plays a version of himself and Holly Hunter plays his girlfriend’s mother in Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick, which was written by Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, and based on their courtship.