Cultural Healing: Kumail Nanjiani transforms personal crisis into witty tale of a singular courtship

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“She’s a walking, talking spoiler alert.”

That’s how comedian Kumail Nanjiani described the woman standing by his side, his wife Emily V. Gordon, as they presented footage from the film they wrote together, The Big Sick, at CinemaCon in Las Vegas in late March. Those who don’t know the real-life story behind their movie will certainly be in suspense as they watch this semi-autobiographical tale of their courtship. A few months after they started dating, something Nanjiani kept a secret from his devout Pakistani Muslim family, Emily suddenly became extremely sick and had to be placed in an induced coma. Nanjiani stayed by her side until her doctors found the cause of her confounding illness and brought her out of the coma 12 days later. Three months after that, they wed—even though Nanjiani’s parents had assumed he would someday enter into an arranged marriage as dictated by their culture.

Rom-com, culture-clash comedy, drama, medical mystery—this Amazon Studios and Lionsgate release (opening June 23) somehow juggles all those elements adroitly enough to be a complete audience-pleaser, one of the undisputed hits of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It helps that it was nurtured by two big names in comedy: director Michael Showalter (Wet Hot American Summer; Hello, My Name Is Doris) and the ubiquitous Judd Apatow as producer.

We met with the disarming and funny Nanjiani and Gordon in Las Vegas, and followed up on the phone with Showalter. All three concede they were walking on a high wire turning this scary episode into light entertainment.

Nanjiani recalls, “Right from the beginning when we were first talking about this movie with Judd, he was like: The big challenge is gonna be making this funny. ’Cause it didn’t feel funny to go through, it doesn’t feel funny to think about. But we understood that the idea of normal people dealing with a really abnormal situation could be funny.”

Gordon adds, “There’s gallows humor in those kinds of situations, but we also didn’t want the humor to be like: Oh my God, did we almost unplug her? You want it to be grounded and not make fun of the situation. Just people doing their best in a tough situation.”

“We put a lot of work into the script and were very aware of the challenge of navigating [all the different elements],” Showater attests. “For me and for all of us, figuring out how to have the movie be funny and fun while acknowledging that something really serious is happening was challenging. It was really the big needle we were trying to thread with the whole movie: How do you find humor in something that’s inherently not very funny?

“You hit roadblocks along the way and you certainly have your concerns. It’s very delicate. One little misstep can really affect the whole thing. From the earliest stages, that was always the challenge: how to take this story and treat it seriously but at the same time allow the audience to laugh. It was a little bit of a dance that we had to do.”

“The thing we were surprised about when we were editing the movie was that it could actually support a lot more jokes than we thought,” Nanjiani reveals. “The heart of it is very serious, we don’t want to make fun of it, but as we were showing people the movie and editing it, we realized we could put in a lot more jokes and it wouldn’t break the reality or the tone.”

Meeting the vivacious Gordon in person, it’s hard to believe she at one time faced such a dire medical crisis. (Her rare inflammatory ailment, adult-onset Still’s disease, is now managed with medication, careful monitoring and exercise.) How did she feel about exposing this part of her life in a screenplay? “It’s something we talked about a lot. I was a little more resistant about having our story be out there. I don’t talk a lot about having been very sick and in a coma—it’s not something that comes up that often. So I was like: Now suddenly everyone is going to know something about me that’s pretty intense. But it’s really been lovely, actually. Now there’s this shorthand. Usually when I tell people, we sit down and have this long conversation. And the movie’s like a shortcut…”

“Spend nine dollars,” Nanjiani interjects.

“…And then we can chat. There are still certain details that didn’t work in the movie, and we also felt: This can kind of just belong to us. Even if you know this movie backwards and forwards, you don’t know us, you don’t know exactly everything. We just kept that.”

The screenplay naturally takes liberties for dramatic purposes; in the film, unlike real life, the couple breaks up before Emily (played by Zoe Kazan) is struck ill. “The advantage we had going through this was we knew all the specific details that were grounded in reality, we knew the emotional arcs,” Nanjiani explains. “So we knew we could change the specifics of situations, and as long as the core details and the core reality felt right to us, then we could take minor excursions from the truth that got to that core emotion.”

“Judd was really good with that,” Gordon adds. “He was like: If we’re going to change this, who is the worst person for this character to have to sit and hang out with? What’s the worst situation for this character? And let’s calibrate it from there.”

One of the greatest changes was the depiction of Emily’s parents, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. “My parents are lovely Southern people and they kept saying, ‘I just want to be naahce [nice] in the movie.’ And I said, ‘We can’t have you be nice, nothing’s interesting in a movie when everyone’s nice to each other all the time.’ They had no marital issues whatsoever, there’s no cheating—they want me to say that over and over. And there was less conflict, to be sure—they loved Kumail from the start and they kind of see Kumail as my protector.

“Well, they do now,” Nanjiani interrupts, “but we had moments of tension. When you’re going into something this intense with people that you genuinely don’t know that well, it’s interesting when you have your first fight. I’ve only ever had one fight with your dad, and it was in that period.”

“My family is very Southern and we’re very much, ‘The doctors are right, just listen to the doctors, they’ll fix everything.’ Whereas Kumail was challenging them at every turn.”

The portrait of Nanjiani’s parents (played by Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) was also tweaked. “The situation with the arranged marriage was all real, and Emily was a secret, and I did tell my parents about Emily while she was sick—that was real,” Nanjiani explains. “But in real life, when I told them and I was devastated, their reaction was: All right, what do you need? How do we take care of you? They were very nice and very supportive. As soon as Emily came out of the coma, they were like: What have you been doing? Then they got angry. I had a talk with my parents about the movie—I told them it’s similar, but the difference is in the movie you don’t react as well as you did in real life. And they totally understood that.”

Apart from its blend of comedy and crisis, The Big Sick is unusual as a rare American film with a South Asian romantic lead. Nanjiani was once a staff writer on director Showalter’s 2009 Comedy Central series “Michael & Michael Have Issues.” Showalter remembers, “When I first saw Kumail doing standup, all the way back when Kumail and Emily moved to New York, he was hilarious. I remember thinking right off the bat that he was very special and talented. His sense of humor and his sensibility, his timing and his point of view, I always thought: Wow, this guy’s really funny and talented and unique… It’s been really exciting to watch his career just continue to grow and evolve.”

Showalter knew Nanjiani was ready to take on his first lead in a movie: “It’s obviously like him, but I knew how serious he was about taking on the role not just comedically—he was really excited about the more dramatic aspects of the story. He takes acting very seriously and he’s very passionate about it. As a director, that’s all you can ever ask for, someone with that kind of dedication… So I felt very confident.”

“The impetus wasn’t: I want to be a lead. The impetus was: We wanted to tell this story,” Nanjiani notes. “We were lucky that Judd was very onboard for that—Judd believed that I could play this part. In this business, people don’t want to take risks, and if you look, Judd is one of the producers who’s taking risks with new talent, giving them their first big shot: Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham, Seth Rogen and Jason Segel back then. He just likes finding new talent, and if he believes in you he’ll get behind you. And that just gives you so much confidence.”

As for the cultural significance of Nanjiani’s casting, Showalter says, “It’s great to have a new kind of protagonist out there. That’s the world we live in and it’s great to see new kinds of stories.”

The director also strove to make the Pakistani family story relatable to any audience. “Obviously, the big cultural difference is the arranged marriage, but personally, I would think many people will feel: Well, gee, that’s kind of how my family is. That was a big thing for me, not to draw difference but, if anything, to find places where it was similar.”

Chemistry between the two leads was also essential. “We did an audition process and saw a lot of really great, talented actors,” Showalter notes. “We were all excited for Zoe to come in and we were all fans of hers, as someone who’s done a lot of great theatrical work and all these great independent films. She’s very versatile, but I haven’t seen her in a role like this. She brings an interesting counterweight to Kumail, because Kumail is very comedic and Zoe has a depth to her that we thought might play interestingly against Kumail’s energy. She came in and read for us and blew us away.”

Nanjiani is probably most familiar to American audiences as one of the tech geniuses on HBO’s Emmy-nominated comedy series “Silicon Valley.” (He also had a very racy scene in last year’s Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates that he’s firmly instructed his mother never to watch.) But it wasn’t until they visited the set of The Big Sick that his parents were truly impressed by his career. “My parents have been here like ten years,” he notes, “so they didn’t know that HBO is this prestigious channel that’s been making really great artistically and commercially successful stuff for decades, and that ending up on a show for HBO is for most actors a big deal. They don’t have that cultural context—for them it’s like: This is a funny show, we like it, but they didn’t know it was a popular and critically successful show.”

Gordon, a former therapist, has a thriving career as a writer and producer, having published pieces in The New York Times, The Atlantic, GQ and many other magazines and written for NBC’s “The Carmichael Show” and Comedy Central’s “Another Period.” Currently, she and Nanjiani are writing an episode for the reboot of “Amazing Stories” being overseen by producer Bryan Fuller.

Nanjiani and Gordon made a great comedy team at the Amazon Studios luncheon at CinemaCon. Nanjiani joked, “We went with Amazon because they obviously care about their films and because of their commitment to the movie theatre experience... And because we literally get everything else from Amazon, so why not a distribution deal?”

But seriously, folks, movie exhibitors will be pleased with Nanjiani’s views on the theatrical experience: “It’s truly the best way to watch movies. When people are watching at home, they’re on their phones. We have a rule at home: If we’re watching a movie or TV show, we do not look at our phones. I just finished ‘Silicon Valley’ and Emily just finished up her [pilot] pitch, so we have a little more time and we’ve been going to see more movies. We love to be able to go multiple times a week. I’d love to see every movie I want to see in the theatre.”

Chances are one of those movies will be this summer’s likely sleeper hit, The Big Sick.