Nanjiani finds his way in Hollywood
Kumail Nanjiani has a few names for quarantine life. He has divided time firmly between “preHanks/Wilson” and “postHanks/Wilson,” referring to the early COVID-19 diagnosis for Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson. And he has settled on calling the strange, bewildering days of lockdown “The Weirds.”
With his wife, the screenwriter Emily V. Gordon, Nanjiani has been chronicling all the mood swings, anxieties and small comforts of quarantine life from their home in Los Angeles in their for-charity podcast “Staying In.”
The quarantine has given Nanjiani a chance to contemplate a whirlwind few years. Since his breakthrough in 2017’s Oscarnominated “The Big Sick,” an autobiographical romantic comedy he wrote with Gordon about the dramatic beginning of their relationship, Nanjiani has morphed into a leading man.
He played an Uber driver with Dave Bautista in “Stuber.” He voiced a tiny CGI alien in “Men in Black International” and a mischievous ostrich in “Dolittle.” He’ll co-star in the upcoming Marvel movie “The Eternals.” And now, he’s starring alongside Issa Rae in “The Lovebirds,” which debuted Friday on Netflix.
Not all the projects have worked. But even in the disappointments, Nanjiani, 42, has been a bright spot of unrelenting deadpan sarcasm, spiraling neurosis and authentic sweetness.
As a Pakistani-American stand-up comedianturned-actor, Nanjiani is unlike any star before him. He’s now finding his way in a Hollywood where South Asian actors, when they’re cast at all, have usually been typecast. So right now, when Nanjiani isn’t freaking out about the pandemic, he’s contemplating what kind of movies he wants to make.
“It’s honestly during this quarantine that I sat down and sort of thought, ‘What do I want the next five years of my life to look like?’ ” he says.
Nothing captured Nanjiani’s transformation more than a photo he posted in December on Instagram displaying his new chiseled physique, a result of training for “The Eternals.” The photo — a good distance from the computer nerd of his “Silicon Valley” character — kicked off a storm of debate about body image and “the twilight of the schlubs.”
“To me it was important. I was playing the first Pakistani superhero in a Hollywood movie, in a Marvel movie no less,” says Nanjiani. “And it was very important to me that this guy looked like he could hang with Thor or Captain America.”
It’s clear that Nanjiani is motivated partly by taking roles that others might not expect him to. He’s drawn to subverting stereotypes because he doesn’t fit them, anyway.
“I don’t feel like I belong in any specific group. I don’t say that as a way of being like, ‘You can’t put me in a box. I’m so weird.’ I would like to belong to a specific group,” says Nanjiani. “But I don’t feel Pakistani because I don’t live in Pakistan. I don’t feel American because a lot of Americans don’t think of me as American. I do comedy, but I also other things.”
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Actor-comedian Kumail Nanjiani has morphed into a leading man since his breakthrough in “The Big Sick.”