TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Kumail Nanjiani, grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, soaking up as much American pop culture as he could get access to. He's since become a part of American pop culture. He started his performing career in the U.S. as a stand-up comic. He became well known for co-starring in the HBO comedy series "Silicon Valley." He was nominated for an Oscar for co-writing the comedy drama "The Big Sick" with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, based on their experiences when they started dating and she came down with such a serious case of pneumonia, she had to be put in a medical coma. He proposed soon after she came out of it, which was a shock to his parents, who were hoping he'd have an arranged marriage with a Muslim woman. In Karachi, he managed to find superhero comics, which he loved. Last year, he played a superhero in the Marvel movie "Eternals." He was the first South Asian superhero in a Marvel production.
Now he stars in the Hulu drama limited series "Welcome To Chippendales," about the backstory of the famous club that in 1979 became the first to feature male strippers doing sexy, choreographed routines for an audience of women. Nanjiani plays Steve Banerjee, an immigrant from India who founded Chippendales and was undone by his own corrupt business practices and by taking out a hit on his own choreographer, who had become his rival. In 1993, Banerjee was charged with hiring a hitman to kill the choreographer, for attempted murder of three former Chippendale dancers, as well as for arson and racketeering. In 1994, he died by suicide in his jail cell. When we first meet Banerjee in the series, he's managing a gas station in Los Angeles. He appears to be a modest, hardworking man.
In this scene from the first episode, he's been invited to dinner at the home of his boss, the owner of several gas stations. He offers Banerjee a promotion. To the boss's surprise, Banerjee declines.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WELCOME TO CHIPPENDALES")
KUMAIL NANJIANI: (As Steve Banerjee) I've been meaning to speak with you about this for some time now, sir. I have made the decision to leave.
ELIYAS QURESHI: (As Mr. Singh) But what will you do? How much money have you saved?
NANJIANI: (As Steve Banerjee) As of Monday, $44,000.
QURESHI: (As Mr. Singh) Forty-four thousand dollars? How is that possible?
NANJIANI: (As Steve Banerjee) Actually, it's $44,155. I rounded down because I didn't want to brag. But you pay me $2.60 an hour. Multiply that by 70 hours a week, 52 weeks a year by five years - that comes to $52,000, of which I have managed to save 90%.
QURESHI: (As Mr. Singh) Ninety?
NANJIANI: (As Steve Banerjee) I have no social life to speak of, sir. All I do is sleep and work. For food, I eat expired sandwiches from the station.
QURESHI: (As Mr. Singh) If you have $44,000, that's nearly enough to own your own gas station.
NANJIANI: (As Steve Banerjee) That's true.
QURESHI: (As Mr. Singh) So why not just work with me for a few more years and...
NANJIANI: (As Steve Banerjee) Sir, I do not want a gas station.
QURESHI: (As Mr. Singh) What do you mean, you don't want a gas station?
NANJIANI: (As Steve Banerjee) That was my dream when I came here. But that was seven years ago. My goals have changed. I have changed.
GROSS: Kumail Nanjiani, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love your performance in this. Congratulations. I feel like we're seeing a different side of you.
NANJIANI: Oh, thank you. Thanks so much for having me.
GROSS: You know, the character that you play, the founder of Chippendales, starts off kind of like the stereotype of the model minority, you know, the model immigrant, and it ends with murder and suicide. The story, the arc of the story in the Hulu series is how he got from being, you know, this model worker at the gas station to these corrupt and murderous practices. Did you have any reservations about playing an ambitious South Asian immigrant who turns into a successful businessman and a criminal?
NANJIANI: I did. You know, so this project first came to me in 2017, right after "The Big Sick" had come out, and suddenly, you know, after going from, like, clawing and fighting for every little opportunity, suddenly I was having things come my way, and my head was spinning a little bit. And back then it was a movie. And Rob Siegel, who also created the series, had written a script, and he said the guy who created Chippendales was this Indian immigrant and ended up, you know, taking a hit out on his choreographer and doing all this stuff. And at the time, I didn't know whether me playing an Indian immigrant who's such a bad guy was the right thing to do. This was 2017, so if you think politically where we were at the time, you know, it was a very specific period of America. And my...
GROSS: You're talking about the Muslim ban period under Trump.
NANJIANI: I mean, exactly. Exactly. And so I just felt at the time that this wasn't the right thing for me to do. The way I had seen America was sort of different. I guess I perhaps had been a little naive, but I just felt like me doing a show with a brown guy who's - who does bad things might not help the cause. And then this project came back to me last year, and my feelings on it had changed a little bit. And I felt like I just wanted to play characters who were complicated and layered and messy and not necessarily play sort of noble characters. You know, I sort of - I decided that me trying to portray brown people as only good wasn't a valuable practice anymore.
GROSS: Your character, you know, Steve Banerjee, has no sense of humor. Is that hard to play when you're a comic - somebody who, like, probably wouldn't get a joke, let alone tell one?
NANJIANI: (Laughter) You know, that was the thing I was most intimidated about when I took on this role. I was like, can I play someone who really isn't funny at all? Or if he is funny, he's not funny on purpose.
NANJIANI: I didn't - so I was really, really intimidated, like, you know, to play someone who's really not charming or a people person or good at public speaking or anything. It's sort of - you know, every acting role I've done to some degree has that part of my personality in it, the desire to be funny, seeing that as a value worth having. In my personal life and in the characters I play, I want to portray a sort of confidence that puts people at ease. And so 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 sort of 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 would not want to watch me as someone who doesn't have that in him, because maybe me without that isn't compelling.
GROSS: He defines success as making a profit, period, and it gets to the point of making a profit no matter what it takes. And he's been discriminated against as an immigrant from India. He's been insulted and humiliated because he's South Asian. But then he ends up discriminating against Black and Latino people. And I'll play an example of this. At one point in the story, there's one Black Chippendale dancer in the group, and he's the only dancer that's not featured on the first edition of the now famous Chippendale calendar. And so the dancer, Otis, goes up and confronts your character, Banerjee, and asks, like, you know, why aren't I on the calendar? Why am I the only dancer who is not on the calendar? And here's how you respond.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WELCOME TO CHIPPENDALES")
NANJIANI: (As Steve Banerjee) I thought about it. I really wanted to put you in it 'cause I loved the pictures. But ultimately, I felt it would be bad for sales.
QUENTIN PLAIR: (As Otis) Bad for sales how?
NANJIANI: (As Steve Banerjee) Well, it's one thing for women to enjoy you in the privacy of the club. But hanging in their home a naked Black man in full view of their husbands - you know how white people are. They get threatened. At the office, the boss can see it.
PLAIR: (As Otis) I think people can handle a shirtless Black man, Steve.
NANJIANI: (As Steve Banerjee) Most can, but not all. We want them to buy the calendars too.
PLAIR: (As Otis) This isn't the South. This isn't Mississippi or Alabama in 1967.
NANJIANI: (As Steve Banerjee) Otis, Otis, not a day goes by I don't experience some form of racism in this city. I assume the same is true for you?
PLAIR: (As Otis) Yeah. Yeah, of course. I guess I just never expected it from you.
NANJIANI: (As Somen Banerjee) You can't take this personally. This is business.
PLAIR: (As Otis) Business.
NANJIANI: (As Somen Banerjee) And in business, there's only one color that matters. Do you know what color that is?
PLAIR: (As Otis) Yes. Green.
NANJIANI: (As Somen Banerjee) Green. See? You get it.
GROSS: That was my guest, Kumail Nanjiani, in a scene from the current Hulu series "Welcome To Chippendales." You know, in other times when he is accused of racism - 'cause at one point, he starts banning Blacks and Latinos from coming to the club because it's not good for business. You know, white people won't like it, and they're the majority. And his attitude is, it's not my fault people are racist, which is a very peculiar response. But this is an example - and this isn't the only example of it - of when someone who is discriminated against becomes the person discriminating against another racial, ethnic or religious group. I'm wondering if you've seen that happen a lot yourself.
NANJIANI: I certainly have. I mean, I remember - you know, right after 9/11, I lived in Chicago, and I would have people be racist to me on the street. You know, it happened probably four or five times within the first couple months after that. And it wasn't all white people. I had people who were racist to me, who had also, I'm sure, been discriminated against. And it was sort of this big epiphany for me. I thought that people who had been discriminated against would have this understanding and not want to sort of pass the buck, so to speak, try and do what they had experienced, try and, you know, do that to someone else.
But that was not the case. I was surprised. I expected white people to be racist to me, but I had not expected Black people to be racist to me. I had not expected Asian people to be racist to me. So I've certainly, certainly experienced it myself, firsthand. And the other thing that sort of struck me about that clip is it speaks to Steve's morality, which is entirely about money. You know, that's his entire morality system. If you're successful, you're a moral person. If you're not, you're not worthy. And that's a mindset that I sort of learned by being in Hollywood, actually. I saw people...
GROSS: Oh, that's interesting. Yeah.
NANJIANI: Yeah, because, you know, I started doing stand-up in 2001. And I saw how people treated me when I first moved to LA, and I see how people treat me now. People - because I have a little bit more success, people treat me as a more valid human being. So I think that directly speaks to that. You know, if you're successful, people think that you're more worthy. So I think there's a lot going on in there. And then, the other clip that you mentioned sort of, that we didn't hear, is him justifying, it's not my fault other people are racist. That was something that I wanted to put in there because I did want to hear Steve trying to justify him being undeniably racist. How does he - as someone who has experienced racism, how does he justify being racist to other people? So I wanted to have that in there.
GROSS: So you wrote that?
NANJIANI: Yes. That little part where I say - it's this conversation I have with Irene where I'm saying, you know, if - white people would be uncomfortable if there were Black or Latino people in here. They are the ones who are racist. It's not my fault. I just want to be successful within the system that I did not create. So there are sort of two different times when he says that. And both of those little moments were moments that I wrote because I wanted to just voice that part of his head.
GROSS: You know, in terms of people who have been discriminated against discriminating against other people, I mean, Pakistan, the country that you're originally from, was created as a kind of safe country for Muslims when it broke away from India. But even within Pakistan, there have been conflicts between Shia and Sunni Muslims.
NANJIANI: Yeah, and I'm Shia, you know? And Pakistan is majority Sunni. So I'm very, very aware of that. We'll go to - you know, we'll resort to violence over the tiniest of differences. I think sometimes here there's this sense of, you know, the Muslim world as being this one united front. Nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, we really find the tiniest reasons to dislike each other. I remember my mom said not to reveal that I was Shia at school because she was afraid I'd be bullied. And you always knew, you know, who the other kids were that were Shia in school because you had seen them at the mosque on Friday. So it felt like you had this secret society.
And I've been to religious sermons, to Shia religious sermons, where I had the imam saying negative stuff about Sunnis. And I remember, as a kid, thinking, oh, this is not good because I know there's violence, and this guy, what he's saying up there is just going to add fuel to that fire. So, yeah, it's - that sort of discrimination has been a part of my life since I can remember.
GROSS: Were you bullied in school because you were Shia and not Sunni?
NANJIANI: I actually wasn't because nobody knew that I was Shia. I sort of hid it from people. But there was a term for us. They called us (non-English language spoken), which means cockroach. So that was sort of a derogatory term for Shia.
GROSS: Whoa, really?
GROSS: Like, for most Americans, they don't really understand the difference between Sunni and Shia. Outside of that, Shia is minority in some countries and majority in others. Like, Iran is majority Shia. So could you articulate one of the reasons of why Shia were viewed as cockroaches?
NANJIANI: So the difference started right after the Prophet Muhammad passed away. And, you know, he was - it sort of - right after that, it was, who's going to be the religious and political leader of the region? It's called a caliph. And so there was disagreement about who should succeed him. Shias believed it should be his nephew, and Sunnis - I mean, at the time, there were no Shias or Sunnis, but there was a group that believed it should be his son-in-law. And there's another group that believed it should be his nephew. And so soon after the - right after the prophet died, this rift happened immediately. And there was a big battle between the two factions, and the Shia faction lost. And we commemorate that loss every year.
GROSS: My guest is comic, actor and screenwriter Kumail Nanjiani. He stars as the founder of Chippendales in the current Hulu series "Welcome To Chippendales." He's a co-creator, executive producer and writer of the series "Little America" based on the true stories of immigrants to America. Season 2 begins Friday on Apple TV+ We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF LIZZO SONG, "JUICE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with comic, actor and screenwriter Kumail Nanjiani. He stars in the current Hulu series "Welcome To Chippendales."
Talk about whether you changed yourself physically. And as a background to this question, I should say, you shot the movie "Eternals" - it came out last year, so I'm assuming that you shot that before shooting "Welcome To Chippendales." And for "Eternals," which is a Marvel movie, you played a superhero who has this kind of cosmic energy he can use as a weapon. And you basically worked out for nine months. And you look like one of the Chippendale dancers. You're so muscular. And that really became a thing on social media, you know, pictures of your body.
But for "Welcome To Chippendales," you play somebody who is not in touch with his sexuality, at least not what from we see, and isn't in touch with his body at all. He's just rigid most of the time. And even the suit that he wears, because he always wears a suit - even the suit that he wears, which looks like it's made out of 1970s, rigid polyester, that only adds to his stiffness. He looks like his suit is his body armor. So it's such a contrast to the strength and power and body-ness (laughter) of the Marvel movie.
NANJIANI: Yeah. That's very insightful, the way you describe his suit as being his body armor. That's how I always thought about it. So for "Eternals," I actually, you know, worked out for a year and a half to get that because I felt like, this is a guy who's vain, who loves how he looks and feels. And he's proud of, you know, his body. And so I wanted to create a body that I thought that this guy would be proud of, you know? And then for - to play Steve Banerjee in "Chippendales," it was the exact opposite of that. There's not much material on him. But I saw a picture of him with all the Chippendales dancers. And there was this pudgy, Indian, nerdy guy in a big suit with all these shirtless, white Adonises.
NANJIANI: And it really felt like he was the king of a world that wouldn't have him as a member, except that he's the king of that world, that 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 be completely different from all these people around him. So there's a physical difference to that, you know? And then also, just his relationship with his body is very different. You have all these men, including Nick De Noia, you know, Murray Bartlett's character...
GROSS: The choreographer.
NANJIANI: They're all very fluid. They're all very in touch with their bodies. They seem to be 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 does not like how he looks. He does not like his body. He's sort of like a block of granite just sitting there. And he uses suits to cover himself up. And so his physicality - you know, he's very stiff - comes from a couple of different things. One, it comes from just the contrast to everyone else around him. I wanted to create a character who moved very differently, sort of almost like RoboCop, you know?
NANJIANI: I, a little bit, based his movements on RoboCop, the way he moves his neck and stuff. And then secondly, I felt that this character, in trying to figure him out - you know, it took me a long time to figure out how to play him. And eventually, the image I got of him was this fire inside a block of ice, you know? So outside, he's very rigid. But inside him, I think, in his belly, there's this fire that he's very, very scared of. And every molecule in his body is working all the time to try and prevent that fire from coming out. And so that's also where the rigidity comes from, you know? The stiffness comes from him really trying to hold that fire inside his stomach.
GROSS: That's a great description. So when you changed yourself physically to play the founder of Chippendales after having played a really well-muscled Marvel superhero, what did you do to change your body image? Did you go about trying to lose the muscles you worked so hard to get?
NANJIANI: I gained more weight, basically, because I get so much from exercising mentally that I didn't want to let that go. Now, I exercised way less while we were shooting just because I have less time. But there's nothing else in my life that gives me that sort of grounding that I get from working out now. I just ate a lot. And I ate a lot of bad stuff. I was basically eating four, quote-unquote, "unhealthy" meals a day. I ended up gaining about 25 pounds on top of what I had just to sort of - you know, I wanted my face to be rounder. And I just wanted to feel, physically, a little bit uncomfortable.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is comic, actor and screenwriter Kumail Nanjiani. He stars as the founder of Chippendales in the current Hulu series "Welcome To Chippendales." We'll be right back after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF VAN AND MCFARLAND SONG, "DISCO BEAT USA")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with comic, actor and screenwriter Kumail Nanjiani. He stars as the founder of Chippendales in the current Hulu series, "Welcome To Chippendales." He's also a co-creator, executive producer and writer of the series "Little America," based on the true stories of immigrants to America. Season Two begins Friday on Apple TV+. Nanjiani co-starred in the HBO comedy series "Silicon Valley" and was nominated for an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for the semi-autobiographical comedy drama "The Big Sick," which he also starred in. Last year with the movie "Eternals," he became the first South Asian to play a superhero in a Marvel movie.
You know, we were talking earlier about strip clubs where women are ogled by men, or Chippendales, where men are ogled by women. And you became the ogle-ee (ph), the person who was being ogled, while you were in "Eternals" and working out for "Eternals" because there were photos of you on social media, you know, with your, you know, six-pack abs and everything. And it became a thing on social media. What was it like for you to have your body be the focus of attention, especially having grown up in Pakistan where, like, body modesty is a, you know, a real thing?
NANJIANI: Honestly, I haven't spoken about this too much, but I've thought a lot about it. 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 - you know, 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. You know, if I'm - I was hanging out with actually Annaleigh, who plays my wife, Irene, on the show, and she was surprised at how many people just feel comfortable commenting on how I look to my face. So it's - I have a complicated relationship with it. I don't - I do not regret releasing those pictures because they did change my life. However, I do wish it didn't occupy as much of my headspace as it does.
GROSS: You know, what you described is how I think a lot of women feel, especially like young, attractive women or people who are going to be insulted because they're not attractive enough. Their bodies are commented on a lot by strangers, by men in the street.
NANJIANI: Yeah, that's something I've thought about a lot, too. I think I understand, like, 0.00001% 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 in 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.
GROSS: So you grew up in Karachi, Pakistan. Your family is Shia Muslim, which - as we spoke about before, that's the minority Muslim group in Pakistan. The majority Muslim group is Sunni. In your 2007 show, "Unpronounceable," you talked about seeing your father come home after spending days stitching up corpses to make them presentable for bereaved families. And I confess I haven't heard the show, but I read about it in Vulture. So let me be honest about that. And you also described like everyday violence, curfews, strict conservativism around sex, women's rights, and gay people were all part of growing up. What was the violence about when your father was stitching up corpses?
NANJIANI: I'm sorry. It might be emotional for me to talk about, so I'll do my best. It was Shia-Sunni violence, and I think that specific time there was an attack on a Shia mosque during a prayer service. And, you know, a lot of people were killed. And I've seen pictures of it. You know, it was about as bad as you can imagine. And so when that happened, they put out a call to, you know, to doctors to come and help try and - just try and present - put the bodies in a way that would be presentable to family members. So my dad volunteered, and he went. And he did that all day, you know, which, wow, that's a tough job. And I remember seeing him coming home that night and just how shaken he was. So, yeah, that's a very, very formative memory of my life. And I think that fear of violence was very present.
You know, it's hard to talk about for many reasons for me. It's hard because obviously it's emotionally difficult to talk about. It's also tough to talk about because there aren't many representatives of Pakistan in American pop culture. And so I find there are certain aspects of Pakistan that are difficult for me to talk about just because I'm the only representative and I don't - I would rather represent Pakistan in a positive light. And there are - you know, it's a wonderful place. There are many positive things about it. But there are also certain realities of Pakistan that, you know, that are a bit uncomfortable for me to to talk about just because I don't - I haven't figured out how to do it yet.
GROSS: No, I appreciate you saying that. And, you know, this isn't the best comparison. But, you know, my family's Jewish, and my parents were always afraid of speaking negatively about Jewish people in front of people who weren't Jewish. And even certain, like, Jewish comics who would tell jokes about being Jewish, my parents would only laugh if the audience was exclusively Jewish because if there were people who weren't Jewish in the audience, my parents would see it as like, you're insulting the Jewish people in front of other people (laughter), you know?
GROSS: They're not in on the joke. You're making us look bad.
NANJIANI: Yeah, exactly. It's a laughing with. There's no laughing at allowed. Exactly. You know, so I have, like, a WhatsApp group with my Pakistani friends, and we talk about all these issues. But I'm always a little bit reticent to raise them in mixed company, as you said.
GROSS: Well, thank you for talking about that. You know, the leader of the Shia when you were growing up was the Ayatollah Khomeini - right? - when you were growing up in Pakistan.
NANJIANI: That's right. He...
GROSS: And he was the leader of Iran who took over, you know, at the end of the Iranian Revolution that overthrew the Shah. And he's the person who really brought in, like, extreme fundamentalist Islam and dress codes and, you know, beard codes for men. And it was, like, an incredibly repressive society that he created in Iran. What did you think of him as a child, knowing that he was, like, the religious leader of your end of Islam?
NANJIANI: I mean, he was sort of like our pope, right? I only had very positive feelings about him. Being raised very religious, he was a figure that loomed really large. And I remember - this will sort of speak to it. I was a big fan of Mad magazine as a kid, you know? I would go to the bazaar. We had a bazaar every Friday, and you could just sort of buy Mad magazines that didn't sell in other countries. They'd slash the cover, or they'd mark an X with a Sharpie on the cover and then sell it for really cheap, then ship it to Pakistan and, I assume, other countries. And so I would buy these magazines, and a lot of times I watched - you know, I read the Mad magazine parody of it before I watched the movie.
But I remember I was reading the Mad magazine parody of "Ghostbusters II." And, Terry, I don't know if you know the movie "Ghostbusters II," but Vigo the Carpathian is this evil character from history, and there's a painting of him, and he comes back to life. But in the Mad magazine version, Vigo was replaced with Ayatollah Khomeini. So he was the evil character in this Mad magazine parody. It was a painting of him, and he was coming back to life and, you know, portrayed undeniably as evil. And I remember being really, really affected by that because I was like, these are two things I love - Ayatollah Khomeini and Mad magazine. And turns out they really don't like each other. It was kind of this big moment for me, and I didn't know what to think. I mean, I was just a little kid.
GROSS: Did you choose a side?
NANJIANI: No (laughter). No, I didn't choose a side. You know, I was just like, all right, I guess I'll be carrying this contradiction with me for the rest of my life.
GROSS: Are you still carrying that contradiction?
NANJIANI: I would say so, yeah. I mean, you know, I think my parents - I don't want to speak for them, but they carry that contradiction, too. My parents live here now, and they're still very religious, Shia Muslim, but they have become a lot more liberal in their ideas for society, you know? They really have. I'm very, very proud of them for that. They've become a lot more welcoming to people of all, you know, races, religions, sexualities. And I don't know if they would always have been as welcoming as they are now. But there's this other side, you know?
GROSS: Let's take another short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Kumail Nanjiani, and he's starring as the founder of Chippendales in the new Hulu series "Welcome To Chippendales." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALLEN TOUSSAINT'S "EGYPTIAN FANTASY")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Kumail Nanjiani. He stars in the current Hulu series "Welcome To Chippendales," based on the life of the club's founder.
My understanding is you hadn't seen stand-up comedy before coming to America. I guess that's not a thing in Pakistan, even though there's a bunch of, like, successful Pakistani stand-up comics in America now.
NANJIANI: Yeah. I had seen - there was one stand-up comedian named Moin Akhtar, and he used to sort of do impressions. So I'd just seen that. But I hadn't even seen him do stand-up. I'd seen him host awards shows and stuff. So I really hadn't seen anything that was the kind of observational stand-up that is still, I think, the - sort of the dominant form of stand-up here. Like, I'd never seen - or even the kind of personal stand-up that also happens here, I'd never seen that brand of stand-up at all until I moved here. I'd only seen, like, impressions and stuff.
GROSS: So what was the first stand-up you saw, and what was your reaction to seeing it?
NANJIANI: I don't remember the very first one I saw, but I remember 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 him sort of doing a greatest hits of his entire career. I think it's about an hour and 40 minutes. It's a pretty long stand-up special. And it just blew me away. I couldn't believe that you could just be on stage doing jokes and that people would pay you money for it, you know? 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 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 sort of, you know, earth-shattering for me.
GROSS: When you started watching American stand-up, like, I think this would have been the period when so many male comics were doing very, very explicit sexual humor. That may have been very shocking to you.
NANJIANI: It was. And I have never been a fan of potty humor. Like, since I was a little kid, I never liked it. I never liked, like - I never thought - I mean, I can't believe I'm saying this on your show, but I never thought farts were funny (laughter). I don't know if that's ever been discussed on your show. But I remember kids really thinking that was funny, and I never thought that was funny. And so even when I did stand-up, I never, ever talked about anything that I would consider filthy, you know? I don't really do sex jokes or any sort of bawdy humor jokes or anything like that. I just never thought that that stuff was my bag.
GROSS: I could see how it wouldn't be, too, growing up the way you did, in a very conservative, even sexually repressive kind of country.
NANJIANI: Yeah. And I was also - now I'm, honestly, putting this together in real time as I'm talking to you. You know, growing up, I was sort of raised to believe that the body was bad, that everything - all of the body's desires are bad and that the soul, or brain - you know, they're sort of used - soul and mind are interchangeable - 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, you know, 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. Wow, having an epiphany right here.
GROSS: Was food an exception to that, though? 'Cause the body wants food, and food is a really important part of Pakistani culture.
NANJIANI: It is. But even so, overeating is also considered bad. Like, you're not supposed to overeat, and, you know, you're not supposed to waste any food on your plate. So since I was a little kid, I've also been taught that eating past the cessation of hunger is a sin.
GROSS: How much did you have to work on your reconciliation of past and present when you were preparing for "Eternals" and pumping up your body? And when you were preparing for "Welcome To Chippendales," you had to overeat to get more of a sense of pudginess. So, like, you're really defying all the things you were brought up to believe to play those roles.
NANJIANI: Yeah. I had never thought of it like that. First of all, I want to say it's really cruel that we had such limits on how much we could eat because Pakistani food is absolutely delicious. And then, to limit how much we can eat, it just feels really unfair. 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 reward. And I didn't really start thinking about it or trying to come to terms with it until after I was done with "Eternals" because doing "Eternals" brought a lot of those issues up to the surface. And I realized after that, that I thought about food in a specific kind of way that I needed to explore and revisit.
And actually, 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, you know? 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'd been thinking about food.
GROSS: And is it more easy now to, like, regulate what you eat without it being, like, a repressive thing?
NANJIANI: It is. I've started to be better about listening to my body. What Steve and I have in common is I have spent many years being disconnected from my body or not liking it. And so doing "Eternals" felt really weird because suddenly, people was (ph) talking about my body in ways that were desirable, and I was completely unused to that and also uncomfortable with that. And so since then, I'd been doing work to be more in touch with my body and to listen to it more. And, you know, actually, Emily said it to me a few days ago. She was like, you've become a lot better at listening to your body.
And that really makes sense because it was something that I was ashamed of, that I was told - only wanted bad things for my whole life, you know? So my work the last few years has been to be a more synthesized person. There were times where I would be, like, really angry all day. And then, later, I'd have a glass of water and realize, like, oh, I was just thirsty.
NANJIANI: That's what it was. I was completely out of touch with my own desires. I'd go to a dentist, and he said to me - he's like, oh, you clench your jaw 'cause - you know, your jaw hurts. And I was like, no, my jaw doesn't hurt. He says, yes, it does hurt. And I was like, I'm telling you, my jaw doesn't hurt. And then, I started meditating, relaxing. And then, my jaw started hurting. And I realized, oh, my jaw has been hurting for years. I just wasn't aware of it until just now.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is comic, actor and screenwriter Kumail Nanjiani. He stars as the founder of Chippendales in the current Hulu series "Welcome To Chippendales." We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with actor and screenwriter Kumail Nanjiani. When we left off, we were talking about how he transformed his body to portray a Marvel superhero and then again to portray the founder of Chippendales, who was out of touch with his body. Through these transformations, Nanjiani learned a lot about himself and about acting.
Was there some kind of technique or exercise that you went through to get more in touch with your body?
NANJIANI: A few things - meditating, you know, doing body scans where you just sort of sit quietly and really try and feel how your feet feel on the ground, how your butt feels on the seat, if there's any sensation, you know, in your eyes or your jaw or your fingers, like really, really doing that work, trying to get in touch with that. And then I think exercising helped me, too, because in quarantine, when I was really, really stressed out, for those - for about a year and a half, we didn't leave the "house. Emily, you know, because of her condition that we talk about in The Big Sick," she's in a very high-risk group. I was I was terrified to do anything. And instead, I just worked out all the time. It's the only thing that tethered me to reality was working out. 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. You know, I believe that. I think you can, like, carry tension in specific parts of your body. And releasing that was a very cathartic experience.
GROSS: So did getting more in touch with your body also help you as an actor?
NANJIANI: Oh, definitely. I'm realizing in the last couple of years how limited I had been in my acting because I was not thinking of my body as a tool, You know. When I would work on a character, I would just work on the lines. And actually, my co-star, Martin Starr, he was in "Silicon Valley" with me, one of the best actors I've ever worked with. He was like, when we finish the show - or we finished one of the seasons of the show, Season 3 or 4, he said, can I give you some acting advice? And I was, like, terrified. But I said, he's too good. I have to hear everything he has to say. And he said - I said, sure. And he said, it's not in the lines. The acting is not in the lines. And I - at that moment, I knew exactly what he meant.
And then since then, the way I approach acting, it really is very, very body based. So if you look at, you know, me in "Eternals," it's someone who's very fluid, who's very proud of himself. The way he walks is very different from the way Steve walks. The way he uses his body is very, very different. So that really, really changed acting for me. It just gave me something to hold on to. And it made me way less nervous. I realized, for years, I've been nervous as an actor because I knew that there was a lot I wasn't doing. And now, I mean, I still have a lot to learn, but I'm at least working to get access to different parts of myself for every character I play.
GROSS: I know that you've said that people used to say, hey, Kumar...
GROSS: ...Referring to another South Asian character. And you said in reaction to that that they used Kumar as a way to stereotype you, and that one day you hope you reach the point of name recognition where people could say, hey, Kumail, to stereotype other South Asians. So have you reached that point of name recognition yet?
NANJIANI: (Laughter) I don't know. Maybe I have. If I have, I apologize to anybody who's being yelled at by people driving by in cars because I know it's not a good feeling because it really did happen. Someone called me, someone yelled, hey, Kumar, where is Harold? That's what they said. And so if someone else is being racist through that using my name, I'm sorry. And, hey, things turned out pretty well for me.
GROSS: Well, Kumail, it's just been wonderful to talk with you again. I'm so glad we did this. So, you know, good luck with the rest of the Hulu series, "Welcome To Chippendales," and the second season of "Little America." It's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
NANJIANI: Well, thank you so much for having me. This has been a thrill.
GROSS: Kumail Nanjiani stars in the current Hulu series "Welcome To Chippendales." He's also an executive producer and co-creator of the series "Little America" based on the true stories of immigrants to America. Season 2 premieres Friday on Apple TV+. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, tech journalist Casey Newton will explain how Elon Musk is transforming Twitter politically and financially and why advertisers are pulling out. And even Musk admits Twitter is in danger of going bankrupt. We'll also talk about a Supreme Court case that Newton says could make life more difficult for tech platforms without doing much to address harms. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.