How Kumail Nanjiani Is Handling All That Award Chatter Surrounding 'The Big Sick' (Exclusive)
By John Boone
For nearly all of 2017, Kumail Nanjiani has been promoting The Big Sick, the semi-autobiographical romantic comedy about a standup comedian who, against his Pakistani family's wishes, falls in love with a white girl, who then falls into a coma. First, for the movie’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and then in March, for a showing at South by Southwest, where it won Festival Favorite. He was at it again for the film's theatrical rollout this summer, and now Nanjiani is once again tasked to spread the gospel of The Big Sick.
"We had three or four weeks off in the middle, and now it's back," he tells ET late in the day on a Friday in November, during yet another press junket. "But this is the gearing up of this next round which we didn't know was coming. But honestly, we are thrilled for the reason that it's coming, which is that we're sort of in this, you know…" he pauses. "Conversation right now."
That conversation is awards season. Beloved by audiences and critics -- The Big Sick was Rotten Tomatoes’ No. 1 movie of the summer -- the film has already won Hollywood Comedy Ensemble at the Hollywood Film Awards and earned two Independent Spirit Award nominations, including one for Nanjiani and his wife and co-writer Emily V. Gordon for Best First Screenplay, an additional six nominations at the Critics' Choice Awards and two Screen Actors Guild Award nominations, putting it firmly on the path to the Oscars.
"It wasn't even something we had even hoped for," Nanjiani says of the awards run, admitting he wasn't aware of the buzz until Amazon Studios told him their plans to campaign. "We were like, 'Wait, what?!' And they were like, 'Yeah, people think this is in the mix for certain things.'" In the mix for the Academy Awards, I posit to Nanjiani; The Big Sick is a certifiable Oscar contender. "Ahh! C'mon!" he guffaws as he folds into the corner of the couch. "Well, it's been a great year for movies, so I'm just thrilled to be one of the movies that is out that's sort of in this... I don't know? Group? I don't know! I don't know what to say."
If you mention the O-word, Nanjiani starts to stutter, shyly giggling and grinning as he attempts to parse his thoughts. But he's quite assured as to why The Big Sick connected with viewers the way it did. "It's great to have stories with white dude characters," he explains. "Most of my favorite movies have main characters that are white dudes. I think that's great. But I also think people do want stories from other perspectives -- not just the people from those populations, I think everybody does! Everybody loved Get Out! Everybody loved Wonder Woman!"
In the case of both of those movies (which, it's worth mentioning, are also part of the conversation), people took to them because they took an established genre and told it from a perspective we'd yet to see. "People talk about our movie as being a rom-com from a different perspective," Nanjiani says. "And the rom-com was a genre that was considered dead and stale and done. It's a great way to bring some life into a genre that is sort of same-y."
Part of the reason Nanjiani is hesitant to discuss the Oscars is obvious. He doesn't want to jinx it, you see. But the other part of it is that a nomination is simply unfathomable. A "bananas thing," as he puts it. Not because he's not proud of the movie -- he most certainly is -- but because it comes from such an unfathomably personal time in his life. The Big Sick is inspired by Gordon and Nanjiani's own relationship and, yes, Gordon's eventual coma. "It was, in a way, a release of a lot of feelings about that event that I hadn't been able to release," he says.
"When you're just sort of living your life, there's no real moment where you can be like, 'And that's done,' you know? Like, when Emily came out from the coma and was feeling better, it was very exciting, but there was no moment of, like, fully letting go of that tension," he adds. Writing the script and then acting it out (with Zoe Kazan in the role of Emily) was a chance to exorcise those emotions. "It felt like getting a time machine and going back and checking off each of the memories as like, Alright, this is not going to have power over you now. This won't have power over you now. This won't be a traumatic experience. I mean, it will be a traumatic experience, but it won't be a paralyzing experience. You sort of get to absolve yourself of all these stresses."
Now that the movie is made, the therapizing is done and The Big Sick has been released to the world (it's streaming on Amazon Prime), Nanjiani is making the conscious decision to have fun. "When I did, like, Letterman, as soon I was done I was like, 'Alright, what's next?' Emily was like, 'You don't take any time to enjoy when you've done something you should be proud of,'" he recalls, confessing he was still racked with nerves until The Big Sick's release. But now? "I'm having a blast. I'm having a great time!"
The whirlwind around The Big Sick would make for a big enough year in itself, but Nanjiani also starred in another Emmy-nominated season of HBO's Silicon Valley, which earned him a Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series nomination for the Critics' Choice Awards, as well as the penultimate season of IFC's Portlandia. He also lent his voice to The LEGO Ninjango Movie, and in October, he hosted Saturday Night Live, becoming the second-ever host of South Asian descent on the long-running sketch series (Aziz Ansari became the first earlier in January).
"I was doing my monologue and it was going well and then I looked over and I saw Steven Spielberg standing there," Nanjiani recalls of being on the main stage of Studio 8H. "And I was like, That's definitely Steven Spielberg, and I stumbled on a word and it really bums me out, because I really liked my monologue. I like how it went, but I stumbled on a word and that really bugs me."
You likely wouldn't notice the moment if Nanjiani hadn’t pointed it out, but watching his monologue, it happens at about the three-minute mark of his standup routine about Islamophobia and reactions to The Big Sick. Highlighting an Internet commenter who said he wasn't into "race mixing,” Nanjiani makes a joke wherein the twist ending of the movie is Nanjiani pulling off a mask to reveal, "Aha! It's me, Chris Pine! I'm a white person." "The only thing we're mis--," he briefly stumbles and recovers, "mixing is Frisbee and golf. Let's go eat some ranch dressing!" One slight mistake in a nearly eight-minute, star-cementing set.
"If I watch it, I see myself noticing Steven Spielberg, then I see myself being in my head, being like, Oh, my God, that's Steven Spielberg, and I see myself stumbling for a second and then -- I didn't know I did this -- I clearly look away from Steven Spielberg, I recompose myself, I take a moment and then I continue with the rest of the monologue." He pauses for a second, shrugs and then laughs. "It's bad that I stumbled, but, also, I can't think of a better reason to stumble than seeing Steven Spielberg. To me, that was that moment you have where you're just sort of like doing your life, like, This is just another gig. This is not a big deal. Oh, my God, that's Steven Spielberg. This is a really big deal!"