After more than 30 years in showbiz, Zenobia Shroff has a mainstream breakout with “The Big Sick,” playing Kumail Nanjiani’s mother. The actress, an accomplished classical Indian dancer and sketch comedy artist, has been featured in several indie movies in Hollywood and Bollywood. She also teaches inner-city kids dance and movement. Shroff got the part in a circuitous way: 10 years ago, she auditioned for, but didn’t get, a role in Mira Nair’s “Monsoon Wedding” but casting director Loveleen Tandon remembered her, and told “Big Sick” casting director Gayle Keller about her. Shroff is featured in a half dozen scenes, including the ending in which she doesn’t speak but says volumes with her expression and the turn of her head.
“I have grown up surrounded by women like Sharmeen [Kumail Nanjiani’s mother]. There is not a mother on the Indian subcontinent who does not want her son to marry within their religion or community and get a ‘real job’! So, in a sense, she is very much in my blood so to speak. I have met her million times. So I really drew on those encounters and experiences, which I too have personally encountered so many times.
“The special thing about this situation is I am the ‘Kumail’ of my family, so in the scenes I really used that family dynamic to push up against him.
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“My entire audition of five scenes with Kumail was improv. Barry Mendel, our producer, said, ‘Drop the script.’ So I had a sense that improv would be a part of it. When you are working with comics it’s a natural part of the process. It comes organically. So, of course, once we were on set we also improv’ed quite a bit. The best moments come from that.
“I did the audition and was told to go back the next day. The next day I did the five scenes with Kumail and Michael Showalter [the director]. There was a lot of improvisation on the second audition, we improved all five scenes. I don’t speak Urdu, I speak Hindi. We only spoke in Hindi, there was no Urdu.
“I have been acting for over 30 years and all your training and experience, whether it’s improv or sense memory or anything else always stands you in good stead on set.
“I did meet [Nanjiani’s] parents. His father was keen to meet Anupam Kher [who plays Nanjiani’s dad]. We met at the premiere. [Nanjiani’s mother] is a lovely woman, softer than I portrayed her.
“I can’t make biriyani. I really don’t. I can microwave [store bought] biriyani.
“A lot of people in the South Asian culture felt that the parents of Kumail need to be there more. Holly [Hunter] and Ray [Romano, who play co-scribe Emily V. Gordon’s parents] were much more fleshed out. But that was not the story and you follow the story.
“Hopefully there will be a sequel. I’m very appreciative to be cast, it’s changed the scene for me after 31 years in this business.
“ ‘The Big Sick’ changed the game for me. I have really good representation, I’m auditioning for networks and platforms. I have booked a recurring role in ‘The Affair.’ I ran into [comic] Hasan Minhaj and he said, ‘Zenobia, is that (the actress) from ‘The Big Sick?’”