Playback: Kumail Nanjiani on ‘The Big Sick’ and the Need for Representation

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

Kumail Nanjiani somehow finds time to do it all, whether starring in a hit television series (HBO’s “Silicon Valley”), hosting awards shows (last February’s Film Independent Spirit Awards) or pouring his heart out onto the page to tell a very personal story with the upcoming release “The Big Sick.”

The new film tells the story of how Nanjiani met his wife, writer Emily V. Gordon, and the medical crisis that nearly turned it into a tragedy. It debuted to great success at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and was acquired by Amazon for a hefty sum, but it certainly took a lot of confidence to expose such an intimate experience to the world. But Nanjiani never thought about it in those terms.

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“Since when I first started stand-up, I never felt like I was confident,” Nanjiani says. “I don’t think too far ahead, so the bad thing is I don’t plan, but the good thing is I don’t think of possible negative consequences. If I want to do something, I’ll just kind of start doing it and not consider, ‘What if it doesn’t happen?’ I’ll just do it until it does or doesn’t. So with this movie, that’s kind of how it was. We started working on it and I never considered that we wouldn’t get to make it. And also, when you have Judd [Apatow] working with you, he gives you a lot of confidence. From the beginning, the deal with Judd was, ‘If you can write a really good script, I’ll make this movie with you. But it’s kind of on you to work on it.'”

The process of writing the film first started out as catharsis, but as it became closer and closer to a greenlit reality, Nanjiani says Gordon needed some extra convincing. And soon enough, the two found themselves reliving their harrowing ordeal, which is something that was difficult to shake in the moment.

“The sense memory of being in a hospital — and it had been about nine years since that stuff happened — just the lighting, the smell of tape, the smell of medicine, the sterility, the sounds, the weird beeps, the sounds of wheels on linoleum, all that stuff took both me and Emily back immediately,” Nanjiani says. “So it was actually more of a struggle to not go back to that sad space.”

Featuring elements of Nanjiani’s stand-up, the film fits somewhat into a slew of stand-up-centric projects of late, from Showtime’s “I’m Dying Up Here” (about the ’70s Hollywood comedy scene) to HBO’s “Crashing” (from comedian Pete Holmes). But Nanjiani was cognizant of that and didn’t want “The Big Sick” to feel of a piece with these other projects, and he discovered during the process that he needed to dial some of those elements back anyway.

“The movie has five storylines: It’s me and Emily, Emily’s sickness, me and my parents, me and Emily’s parents, and the stand-up,” he says. “We realized in editing that the first four stories intertwine and bump against each other and complicate each other and have a ripple effect. The stand-up story is on its own. It doesn’t really complicate anything. So we ended up actually cutting a lot of the stand-up storyline. David Alan Grier had a bigger part in the movie, and he was fantastic, but unfortunately you’re watching it and you realize, ‘OK, the stakes are this woman could die, and these inter-generational and intercultural conflicts, and then whether I’m going to get into the Montreal Comedy Festival.’ The stakes seemed so much lower than the others.”

And of course in the middle of Emmy season, we have to touch on a bit of TV. Nanjiani discusses his work in “Silicon Valley,” which is in the middle of its fourth season right now. He takes particular note of an interesting pattern in creator Mike Judge’s work.

“He really thinks that structures are really funny,” Nanjiani says of Judge. “He sees the ridiculousness of big machines. That’s what ‘Office Space’ is about, people that don’t fit into those big machines. Ultimately the tension of our show is Silicon Valley is this big machine, there’s a way certain things are done, there’s a way success is achieved, and all of our characters don’t fit into that machine. And us not fitting into that machine highlights the absurdity of the machine.”

For more, including talk of Nanjiani’s comedy inspirations, what a normal day of shooting “Silicon Valley” is like and what the importance of representation means in today’s movie-going climate, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.

Subscribe to “Playback” at iTunes.

Kumail Nanjiani photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback podcast
Dan Doperalski for Variety

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