Kumail Nanjiani: 'Welcome to Chippendales is outside of my wheelhouse'
Eternals star Nanjiani opens up about global stardom, defying stereotypes and his most intimidating role to date.
"I think it’s fair to say if this wasn’t a true story this role wouldn’t have come my way."
Kumail Nanjiani is frank about the reality of being a Pakistani-American actor working in Hollywood. Speaking from his plushly-decorated LA home, the Karachi-born star is taking a turn towards the dark side with true crime drama Welcome to Chippendales. And playing Chippendales founder Somen Banerjee, Nanjiani has found his most testing role yet.
But it did not come easily or quickly to the 44-year-old who had always worked pretty much solely in comedy. He had to face down the early auditions for stereotypical roles as taxi drivers and convenience store clerks, knowing he didn’t want that career. "These Scarface-type stories, about someone who opens a club and breaks bad, there’s no way that comes to me," he says while making reference to a couple of clear inspirations for the limited series that tracks Banerjee from being a nerdy huckster in the Reaganite '80s to plotting the murder of his estranged business partner, who is played in the show by Murray Bartlett.
Nanjiani, who is best known for co-writing and starring in the Oscar-nominated comedy drama The Big Sick, also admits that Hollywood’s readjustment to atone for crimes against representation has led to a reluctance to cast brown men in villainous parts. "Hollywood is second guessing whether people of colour can play bad guys and that can be just as limiting."
Welcome to Chippendales is his first purely dramatic leading role after finding considerable success in the HBO sitcom Silicon Valley, co-headlining the action-comedy Stuber with Dave Bautista and having guest spots in everything from Veep to Broad City.
The move to the dramatic is spurred by his own ambition for his career to not be boxed into any particular stereotype, something that has informed all of his roles. "I don’t think there is anything wrong in playing a stereotype but I decided I didn’t want to do that and it did limit me. I knew if I was to have success it had to be on my own terms otherwise I would be miserable." Nanjiani also feels the weight of being the most prominent Pakistani-American in US culture: "I knew if I played [stereotypical parts] it would hurt my parents a great deal."
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Success is a subjective thing, especially when you live a public-facing life in a career that can disintegrate in seconds, but Academy Award-nominated Nanjiani says he feels successful. It’s something he first realised when he was auditioning for parts alongside white actors and was being offered roles that weren’t specifically written for a person of South Asian origin. "When I was getting parts over other white people, that’s when I realised I was doing well," he says with a wry smile that acknowledges film and TV’s penchant for tokenism.
The idea of success permeates throughout Welcome to Chippendales as it questions the American myth that all things are possible for anybody and the ruthless hypercapitalism of modern society. Nanjiani compares Banerjee’s greed to that of a large corporation. "In America, it’s still true that nothing is ever enough. You have to keep becoming more successful. There’s no good size for a corporation. The only good size is bigger than it was a quarter ago. And I think individuals carry themselves with that same feeling with the 'rise and grind' culture. I think it’s very damaging and detrimental to mental health."
Nanjiani admits there was a time where he was seduced by the culture of success and goal-oriented ambition, but the pandemic made him reevaluate what really matters in life. "My wife Emily is in a high risk category, so we didn’t do anything. I realise this is incredibly privileged but I really enjoyed just spending time with my family and myself." It was a drastic change for the workaholic.
"Once one job was finished, it was always 'What’s the next job?', but now I don’t work so much and want to prioritise my time off." He admits it’s a risky policy in an industry that views its actors like a bank would a mortgage product. "It’s a tricky thing to do in a business that pushes you to be more successful than you were the week before. It’s a fickle life, people forget about you but I’m trying to be more thoughtful about it [my work-life balance]."
Banerjee largely subverts anything Nanjiani has done before in the sense that he is playing someone who has little charm beyond his perseverance to win at capitalism. Nanjiani, despite starting off making his living performing stand-up at always precarious open mic nights, acknowledged that the role "scared" him but made him realise his own skills as a performer. The nature of the role meant he had to almost become an entirely new actor.
"None of the things that are in my wheelhouse are in this project," he says. "I can’t feel back to being funny or what I’d consider any of my strengths and it was scary to strip away my comfort zones." Nanjiani plays Banerjee as a humourless megalomaniac who didn’t need much pushing towards the vile and villainous, which is about as far away from his endearing and affable persona as it’s possible to get. "Without the comfort zones, all that was left was the acting."
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Playing Banerjee also brought him back to an unconfirmed project he had previously turned down, due to feeling his talents weren't up to playing a weighty character. "Before doing Chippendales, I was going to do this movie but there were certain things about it that intimidated me. I re-read it after playing Somen and it didn’t feel scary anymore."
Nanjiani said he has also found it pleasant to move away from playing characters similar to himself after putting so much of his own life into the largely autobiographical The Big Sick. Written with his wife Emily V Gordon, the Oscar-nominated film was an only slightly dramatised version of their relationship. He now admits he never thought their story would be anybody’s but theirs until the reality of sitting in a cinema with hundreds of other people on the night of the premiere. The success of their indie comedy-drama took him by surprise and as a result he found himself "unprepared" for the levels of scrutiny his private life would subsequently face.
"I don’t want everyone to know everything about me," he says, and goes on to admit that he would change certain aspects of the film if he got to do it over again to "protect" himself and his wife.
Though The Big Sick did bring a level of fame he is at least partially uncomfortable with, its success also opened Nanjiani to opportunities he could only otherwise have dreamed of. In the last 18 months, he became the first South Asian actor to feature in a lead role the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Eternals, and 2022 also saw him journey to a galaxy far, far away in the form of the Obi-Wan Kenobi series. Beaming as if he was a schoolboy watching Star Wars for the first time, Nanjiani appears genuinely shocked he got to be a part of the show. "The dreamer wouldn’t even dream. I had all the Star Wars action figures. I still can’t believe it. It was so much fun."
Just as The Big Sick proved Nanjiani as a writer and leading man, Welcome to Chippendales is the next step in that evolution to all-round talent. Viewers will not see the computer geek from Silicon Valley, they’ll just see Somen Banerjee - and it’s Somen Banerjee that has allowed Nanjiani to see just what he is capable of.
All eight episodes of Welcome to Chippendales are streaming now on Disney Plus – sign up to Disney+ for £7.99 a month or £79.90 a year.