Big sick Banerjee: Kumail Nanjiani’s transformations have landed him a role of a lifetime

Actor talks playing the real-life Indian villain onscreen and his latest dilemmas about being a comic performer

Entertainment Desk January 11, 2023

Kumail Nanjiani, best known for playing various versions of himself since making his 2017 breakthrough with The Big Sick, has opened up about his latest role in an interview with The Guardian, and reflected on his journey as a comic actor.

Nanjiani, now 44, has revealed how difficult it has been for him to succeed as a comic performer, especially since his craft has always required him to be vulnerable in public without feeling shame. “It took me years to feel comfortable in myself on stage and once I could be, I opened up to being even more vulnerable,” he shared with the outlet. “It was an arc of getting more and more personal, cresting with The Big Sick, and then realising that maybe my career doesn’t have to be so nakedly autobiographical.”

Nanjiani reenacted his early romance with his wife, Emily Gordon, in The Big Sick. He made himself known in the US stand-up circuit with his comic routines referencing his upbringing in Pakistan and navigating through his identity as a Muslim American. Wise, nerdy and prone to speaking really fast onscreen, Nanjiani, in real life, is quite different, as per the outlet. And his recent change – on and off camera – has paved the way for a new role, one that places him in the 80s nightlife, where he plays the founder of the male stripping franchise, the Chippendales, in Welcome to Chippendales.

His move away from his autobiography, which began in 2019 with him being cast as the superhero Kingo in the Marvel film Eternals, has led to this new phase in his career.

When the actor posted two pictures of himself on Instagram, sparking a conversation about his bodily transformation, his eight-pack hit the feeds of a million and went viral. Many praised him for getting ripped while others bullied him. “I didn’t see myself any differently when I had that bodily transformation,” Nanjiani recalled. “People’s reactions were different, though, and it’s still different. There are people who think that I’ve completely changed as a human being because of how I look. But all I did was spend 40 years a certain kind of way and then a year and a half a slightly different kind of way.”

Now, Nanjiani is keen on putting the discussion of his body aside. Perhaps because Eternals didn’t catapult him to Hollywood’s leading man status. A year on, he is back in action, with another career-shifting role, portraying Somen “Steve” Banerjee on the small screen. Banerjee is the real-life founder of the Chippendales. Set in the sordid, money-grubbing 80s, Welcome to Chippendales documents India-born Banerjee’s descent from hard-working immigrant to a prejudiced, profiteering businessman who obsesses over rivalries with competitors and business partners, leading to arson, murder-for-hire and a high-profile court case.

This role required a different kind of bodily transformation. “I’m playing a Scarface-type of guy, someone who gets really corrupted and goes evil. It’s the kind of role that would probably never come my way again, so I had to say yes,” he shared. It is a true-crime story, hardly needing any of Nanjiani’s usual antics.

According to The Guardian, the show is anchored in Nanjiani’s performance as the forthright Banerjee, who sees the strippers’ work as the means to a wealthy end. “I knew that if I was going to do a good job with this character, he had to feel like someone who does not fit into this world of abs and gorgeous hair. I wanted to look different from that,” ushered the actor.

This meant that after years of healthy eating and exercise, Nanjiani had to resort to consuming only junk food for this role. “I needed to gain weight and I did it how you imagine anybody would do it, which is eating whatever you want, whenever you want, and then eating when you don’t want to eat,” he shared. “I ate fried chicken and french fries, cheesecake, ice-cream, cookies and doughnuts.”

When asked if it at least made him feel good, Nanjiani lamented, “It started off being really fun and it never got miserable. But it did end up being less fun than I had imagined. It wasn’t healthy.”

While shape-shifting into Banerjee, Nanjiani also found himself justifying his character’s corrupt behaviour. “That was something I could understand. Even though Steve is so far removed from my life, you can’t judge a character when you’re playing them; you have to find a point of connection. Mine was that I understand what it feels like to come to America and try to succeed in an industry that’s not built for our success, to fight against that current every step of the way. That’s how Hollywood is.”

While reenacting Banerjee’s unlawful actions, Nanjiani even found himself rooting for him. “I felt like Steve was justified in doing everything he did and that it wasn’t his fault. It was everybody else’s fault. It wasn’t until I watched the first cuts of the final episodes that I understood he’s a very bad man. We’re both ambitious, but it is never enough for him. He wants to succeed against all odds, which is sort of admirable, but then not recognising when it’s time to be done is a horrific quality.”

Success seemed a long shot for Nanjiani when it came to starting out in comedy. Moving from his home of Karachi to attend college in Iowa, Nanjiani caught the bug for stand-up by studying routines of Mitch Hedberg and Zach Galafinakis. By the time he graduated in 2001, audience reactions to a Muslim man on stage weren’t exactly friendly.

“I only got into stand-up because I wanted to write jokes. It was a necessary evil,” he said. “I hardly performed before 9/11 and afterwards things suddenly shifted; I found being on stage miserable. People thought it was okay to yell racist stuff at me. I had to pre-write specific comebacks to take control so I wouldn’t lose the rest of the audience,” he shared.

He added, “If you’re on stage being yourself and you don’t do well, the audience is rejecting you and your personal story, whereas, if you’re playing a character, they’re just rejecting your persona. So, it took a long time for me to open up to that scrutiny in talking about myself. Just talking about a movie, I liked took years.”

Eventually, audiences began resonating to this hard-won vulnerability and Nanjiani started booking tours with the likes of Galifinakis, culminating in his first TV special in 2013, Beta Male. But even two decades after his first stand-up performance, Nanjiani feels racist attitudes have gotten worse.

“By and large, it was unacceptable to be racist in the public sphere back then. George Bush even quoted the Qur’an in a speech – could you imagine Trump doing that?” he pointed out. “Now, I feel like racist language has become much more acceptable in mainstream circles. I told myself back then that most people still saw me as American. I’m not so sure any more. I really want to do more comedy, but I don’t know what people want me to talk about any more.”

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