EXCLUSIVE: How Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon Turned Their Happiness and Heartache Into 'The Big Sick'
By John Boone
It's not uncommon for an actor to play a character with their same name, especially when the part is written for the actor and based on them, like Jason Segel and Jonah Hill playing "Jason" and "Jonah" in Knocked Up. Typically, though, the character at least gets a fictional last name, like when Amy Schumer became Amy Townsend for Trainwreck. But in The Big Sick, a rom-dramedy about an aspiring standup who must navigate the expectations of his more traditional Pakistani parents and his secret girlfriend's coma, Kumail Nanjiani plays "Kumail Nanjiani."
"Huge oversight," Nanjiani laughs, sitting in a suite at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. "I hadn't thought it through. And I didn't think it would be an issue! I'm, like, working on the acting and all that stuff, and I got to the hospital and they gave me my nametag and it said 'Kumail Nanjiani.' I was like, 'Ohhh, s**t. Should have changed the last name...' But it's fine. Everyone knows it's me."
"I thought it through," Emily V. Gordon, who is married to Nanjiani and co-wrote the script with him, chimes in. Her character in The Big Sick, played by Zoe Kazan, is renamed Emily Gardner. "Not so much him."
It's understandable why Nanjiani might not have thought to change his name for The Big Sick, considering just how autobiographical the movie is. In 2006, when he and Gordon first met, he was living in Chicago, trying to make it as a professional comedian. She heckled him during one of his sets, which spurred an unexpected romance made complicated by the fact that Nanjiani's conservative parents planned to arrange a marriage for him with a Pakistani girl of their choosing. Then Gordon, who was working as a therapist at the time, got sick. An unidentifiable and seemingly life-threatening illness required that she be put in a medically induced coma for eight days, and give or take a few details, that's pretty much exactly how it plays out onscreen, as directed by Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name Is Doris), produced by Judd Apatow and starring one half of the real-life couple.
"For me, it wasn't that I was trying to recreate my relationship with Emily," Nanjiani says of reenacting moments from their life with Kazan. He is dressed in a blue sweater and looks to his wife next to him on the couch. "I was trying to talk to Zoe playing Emily -- it's a different character -- and have a relationship with this person, and not pretend like I'm talking to my wife."
Gordon, in a lace dress with floral appliqués and a Kazan-like fringe bang, agrees. "I was watching an actor who was saying lines that I had written, talking to an actress who was saying lines that I had written," she explains. "That kind of helped that distancing for me. But definitely, during the break-up that Emily and Kumail have, I was, like, cursing at Kumail in the monitors, because you were fighting the way that we fight and I was like, 'Ahh! That bastard!'" Nanjiani chuckles and turns back to me, "I have my fighting style."
Still, Gordon understood the situation might have been slightly strange, and she opted not to sit in on auditions for the "Emily" role. She says Kazan's take on herself is less controlled than she was at the time, especially after waking up from her coma. "Whereas I had already had people so worried about me that I was like, 'I don't want them to worry! I'm totally OK! Everything's fine!' And then I would just start crying when I would watch commercials," she deadpans. As for how similar the Kumail Nanjiani onscreen is to the Kumail Nanjiani sitting across from me, Gordon says they're similar, although certain traits -- his squirrelliness, his fear of commitment and habit of avoiding reality -- have been heightened. "Judd would say, 'So, what were you thinking when you were dating Emily and had this arranged marriage? Were you going to do an arranged marriage? What were you going to do?'" Nanjiani recalls. "And I was like, 'I don't know!' I was just not thinking about it."
In the end, crafting The Big Sick was more about capturing the emotional honesty of that time -- "kernels of truth," along with certain dialogue directly lifted from their life -- than nitpicking historical details. "The audience doesn't care that most of this happened. They just want a good movie," Apatow tells me in a separate sit-down. "During the development, we definitely said, 'Well, that's what happened, but it's kind of boring. So, maybe we could spice that up a little bit.'"
But despite any amount of distance Gordon and Nanjian have created between themselves and the Emily and Kumail you will meet when The Big Sick opens June 23, not to mention a decade passing, the years spent making this film has been a deeply therapeutic process in which they revisited what was both the best and worst time in their lives. Nanjiani reflects, "Obviously, the worst was Emily being sick. But leading up to that was great! Even though I had pressure from my parents and stuff, again, part of not thinking about it was that I would feel the pressure and then I'd put it away and hang out with Emily. It was a strange time where we were both in Chicago. I certainly felt like I was in limbo...And it wasn't until Emily and after she got better that we both changed our lives. I look back at Chicago, at times, as good and bad. It was honestly hard for us to go back for a couple of years. Now we go back, and it's good."
The movie ends just shy of giving their love story that same closure ("We were like, 'The ending should feel like a beginning'," Nanjiani says) but among the film's credits are photos of Nanjiani and Gordon, "The Real Emily," on their wedding day, an Islamic ceremony attended by both of their families.
"It was three months after I got sick that we got married," Gordon exclaims. "At one point, we were like, 'We should have that in the movie.' And everybody was like, 'That feels too made up. It feels ridiculous.' But in reality, that's exactly what we did."