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Interview: Kumail Nanjiani on The Big Sick’s Real-Life Love Story

Nanjiani discusses standing up to racists, whether he might be a desi Sidney Poitier, and more.

Kumail Nanjiani
Photo: Amazon Studios

Kumail Nanjiani was following a well-trodden path when he came to the United States from Karachi for college, majoring in computer science (though he did muddy the waters a bit by co-majoring in philosophy) and then working as an I.T. guy (though, he says, he wasn’t much good at it). But somewhere along the way he strayed from the path. He traded Islam for atheism; became a stand-up comic, writer, and actor with a talent for appearing in zeitgeist-y shows like The Colbert Report, Key & Peele, and Silicon Valley; and married an American woman who’s neither Pakistani nor Muslim.

The Big Sick, a smart, emotionally honest rom-com that Nanjiani co-wrote with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, is a fictionalized retelling of their courtship, which started as a guilty secret he kept from his parents, as his mother set him up with a series of nice Pakistani-American girls in hopes of arranging a marriage. In New York this week to promote the film, Nanjiani talked to me about how his relationship with Emily has made him a better man, the pros and cons of arranged marriage, and whether he might be a desi Sidney Poitier.

I have this theory that you’re the desi Sidney Poitier, or one of them. There may be a couple others, like Aziz Ansari, maybe Kal Penn.

[laughs] No! Really? Guess who’s coming to dinner! That would be great.

Poitier was countering negative stereotypes about black people in the 20th century, which he did by being regally charming and hyper-civilized. And you are countering stereotypes about Muslims in the 21st century, which you do by being charming in a funny, approachable way—and by being really into the cool-nerd part of American culture, which is a very millennial thing.

Yeah, well it’s not like I chose to try to do that stuff—

No, and I don’t think Poitier did either. But I think you both got kind of anointed by Hollywood or the culture at large to do it.

Oh. Wow! I think that it might be part of it. [laughs] “He doesn’t look like us, but he likes the stuff we like, so that’s something. He plays video games—probably more than us!”

You’ve played a lot with subverting stereotypes, like in your response to a heckler in The Big Sick, where you basically say: “You got me! I’m a terrorist! I’m working as a stand-up comic because it’s a good way to stay out of sight.”

I actually had to come up with that line because I would get heckled with racist stuff in real life while doing stand-up. The first time that somebody heckled me like that, I was, like, stunned. I didn’t know what to do. Then it happened again. And I was stunned again. I think it was after the second or third time where I was, like, all right—just to feel comfortable, I’m going to have to come up with a line that I can say [back in response].

When somebody heckles you with racist stuff, everyone in the crowd hates them, but they also want you to respond and take back control of the room. That’s very important. The audience has to feel safe, like “This person knows what they’re doing.” And if the comedian gets rattled, even though they’re on the comedian’s side, it makes the audience feel unsafe—and it makes them feel bad for the comedian, which isn’t a good look. There’s no recovering from that. So I came up with that line, and if someone would say something racist to me, I would say that line, people would love it, I’d take back control of the room, they would hate that guy, and I would move on.

The scene in the movie was written as the genesis of that moment, where I’ve had racist stuff yelled at me, but I haven’t figured out how to deal with it. In this scene you see my character figure out how to take control of it for the first time. And then he loses control, because Holly Hunter goes, you know—she goes awesome. Not insane, awesome.

Speaking of Holly Hunter, the parents play a much bigger and more nuanced role in this movie than usual in a rom com. I liked that, partly because it levels the playing field a bit between the two kinds of marriage your character is thinking about.

Right!

One thing I’ve learned after being married for many years is that marriage is a joining of two families, not just two people. So things are likely to go much better if the two families have similar values and get along, which is a lot of what arranged marriage seems to be about. We romanticize romantic love in our culture because we’re all about individualism, but a lot of other cultures see people first as part of a family, not as individuals.

Right.

So I thought it was interesting that in this film you weren’t able to commit to this woman until you had met her parents and bonded with them over caring for her when she was so ill. In real life, do you think you would have married Emily if you and her parents hadn’t gotten along?

I honestly don’t know. I always go, “Even if you hadn’t gotten sick, I think we would have ended up together,” and Emily goes “I’m not so sure,” because her understanding of me at that point was: “This is a guy who will never stand up to his family.” So, I don’t know. But I think what you said is exactly right. Arranged marriage is more of a pact between families, but one of the things in our movie is that even with “love” marriages, as we call them, it’s still two families coming together. That’s still important. It should be a consideration in a way that it isn’t because people are always, like you said, “Soulmate! I will fight for the one! Love conquers all!” It’s just a simplistic way, I think, of looking at it. I think it’s why a lot of relationships fail, is because people mistake passion for love and they don’t consider all the other stuff that goes into being in a long relationship with someone.

People don’t really think of relationships as changing. They think: “We’re together, and that’s it.” With Emily and I, Emily always says the relationship is almost like a separate thing, and it needs to be worked on and it needs to evolve and change as you evolve and change, because you don’t stay the same person. That’s kind of how we wanted to set [the film] apart a little bit from all the other rom coms, because other rom coms end when the couple gets together, but the more interesting stuff happens after that, when the couple’s revealing themselves to each other.

Kumail and Emily sleep together in the first five minutes. Everything happens right after that, like trying to not see each other—the moments where you give a little piece of yourself and the other person is supposed to reciprocate. The first act is the story of Emily doing that and Kumail not being able to.

The arranged-marriage model gets respect in your film too. Of course it can’t work if the two people just have no chemistry, but that woman who could do magic—I forget the name of the actress who plays her, but she’s really good—

Vella Lovell. Yeah, she’s amazing.

You really felt like, if Kumail wasn’t in love with Emily, he probably could have been happy with her. She’s so cool, and they get along really well.

Yeah.

And of course, your parents in the movie have an arranged marriage.

And my brother. And my parents. And most of my family in real life. That’s what we wanted to show with Vella: The only thing wrong with her is that she’s not the person that Kumail is in love with. That scene had to come after my character realizes that. He’s been in love with Emily and not been able to admit it to himself, which is how I was in real life. And there’s a point in the movie where he realizes: “I’ve made a huge mistake and I love this woman.” That scene [with Lovell’s character] happens right after he’s made that realization. So it shows us that he now understands that he loves Emily, and it also shows that Kumail’s lack of decision-making does have consequences.

All of these women [that Kumail’s mother keeps trying to set him up with] are real women. These aren’t just jokes. These are real women with real lives and loves and wants and desires, and Vella is on board for this plan, even if Kumail isn’t. Kumail is hurting people by not being true to himself.

You’ve talked in other interviews about making other important shifts in direction after you committed to being with Emily, like doing comedy full time instead of becoming a computer programmer. Is there something about your relationship with her that makes it easier for you to be bold in other parts of your life? Or do you think you were just ready to try new things at that time of your life, and marrying Emily happened to be the first of those things?

I was doing comedy before Emily, but once we got married I started doing comedy that was much more personal—and, I think, better. And I quit my job.

Right. You quit your day job and committed to the comedy in a new way.

Being with Emily helps me be a better me than I was, and I hope she feels the same way. Because we have such a great, stable relationship, it gives me courage to take chances in other parts of my life. Also, she gives me a lot of confidence. It’s like, “Well, if someone as great as this thinks I’m great, there’s gotta be something that I’m doing right.” [laughs] I don’t know if she hadn’t gotten sick, if we’d have ended up together. But I do know that if we hadn’t gotten together I wouldn’t be doing as well, career-wise. I would still be in Chicago, doing the open mics that I was doing when I first started stand-up.

What’s the process when you and Emily collaborate on things like the screenplay for this movie?

It’s really fun. I mean, it’s work, but that’s what I like about what we do, is that our work is fun, and it’s tremendously satisfying. Basically, we write the first drafts of scenes on our own. I go “I want to do these scenes” and she goes “I want to do these scenes” and then the scenes neither one of us want to do, we divvy them up too. We go off, write the first drafts on our own, email them back to each other, rewrite each other’s stuff, send them back, rewrite again, and then both approve it, so by the time that [producer] Judd [Apatow] or [director] Mike [Showalter] or [producer] Barry [Mendel] sees it, we’re on like the fourth or fifth draft.

Before that, do you sit down together to talk through what you want the scenes to be about?

Yeah. During the big brainstorm process you don’t write down very much. You’re in a room with a board and cue cards and you’re sort of throwing ideas at the wall. The first draft we wrote, which was “write down everything you have, everything you can remember, how it made you feel,” that was sort of like our clay. That was this really unwieldy four-hour movie that had everything in it. At one point in there Mike came on, and it was like, “Okay, now let’s structure everything we have.” And then we were able to take that raw material and say, “Let’s put this piece here, let’s put this piece here” and do different iterations. That was both of us sitting in our garage, a lot of times with Mike, moving scenes around on the board. Then we passed off the scenes and started writing. Once we had done that and we all liked it, we would send it to Judd and Barry, and they would approve it or give us notes. And once that was approved, that’s when we started writing the final draft of the script.

Were there things you learned about storytelling by obsessing over The X-Files for your “The X-Files Files” podcast that made The Big Sick a better movie? Because you really studied The X-Files for that podcast.

I did. I did! Honestly, the biggest thing I learned doing “The X-Files Files” was that I talked to a lot of people—writers, creators, stars—who had made this thing that I truly loved, that I thought was magical. And I thought these people were magical and they had, like, stardust or whatever. I talked to the guy that did the music—

Yeah, I read an interview where you talked about that. You said you realized coming up with the theme song was just a process where he kept trying things without knowing if they would work.

Yeah! That’s the biggest thing I learned. I mean, there are people who are geniuses. But generally, it’s just people who are working really hard. Something great isn’t just the stars deciding to bestow a great story on you. It takes sweat and work. Perfect stories can come out, but working on them is messy and imperfect. That’s also what I learned from listening to a lot of commentaries from my favorite movies. It was [some of the creators] talking about all the decisions that they made and the second-guessing and third-guessing and rewriting and all of that. That gave me a lot of confidence. It was like, “Oh, right, this is hard for everyone. It isn’t just hard for me.” [laughs]

And even if little Disney bluebirds aren’t singing around you as you put your thing together, that doesn’t mean it’s not working.

Exactly! Exactly! For the longest time when I was doing comedy, I thought things would show up just completely done, and that’s not the case ever.

I have to ask one Silicon Valley question. Statistically speaking, what are the odds that Dinesh and Gilfoyle will elope before the series ends?

[Whispering] I really hope it happens! [Back to his regular voice] I can’t put numbers on it, but I truly think it would be great. I think the Internet would explode. I would love it.

I think they’re meant for each other; they just don’t know it yet.

[laughs] Or maybe they know it and that’s why they’re upset.

Elise Nakhnikian

Elise Nakhnikian has written for Brooklyn Magazine and runs the blog Girls Can Play. She resides in Manhattan with her husband.

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