"We made something that we were very proud of," says Kumail Nanjiani of The Big Sick, a film that he and his wife Emily V. Gordon co-wrote, and in which he stars, about a crazy time in their life a decade ago when Gordon suddenly had to be hospitalized with a mystery illness and Nanjiani had to sign-off on putting her into a medically induced coma. This indie — which, believe it or not, offers at least as much comedy as drama — premiered at Sundance, sold to Amazon for a near-record $12 million and went into wide release on July 14 (Nanjiani and Gordon's 10th wedding anniversary), garnering a 98 percent favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes (bettered, among 2017 releases, by only Get Out's 99 percent) and grossing more than $50 worldwide. "I can't even wrap my head around how well-received it was," Nanjiani marvels nearly two months later. "It's been very exciting."
Nanjiani, who was born in Karachi and raised in a religious household, came to America at the age of 18 — with a decent grasp of English and a great appreciation of American pop-culture — to attend college at Iowa's Grinnell College. While an undergraduate, he became "obsessed" with stand-up comedy and, by his senior year, performed a 35-minute set himself, which went well enough to confirm his desire to pursue a career in comedy after graduating. He moved to Chicago and spent the next five years working an I.T. job by day and doing stand-up by night.
At the end of one performance, he was heckled, not for the first or last time, but this time not with racist epithets, but in a playful way by an attractive young woman who, he later found out, was Gordon. That happened at the end of 2006. Soon after, they started dating. Eight months later, Gordon was hospitalized and, during her 12 days in a coma, Nanjiani realized that he wanted to marry her if she ever came out of it. "I sort of weirdly fell in love with her through her memory and through her parents," he says quietly. Three months later, in July 2007, they were married.
In August 2007, Nanjiani performed a 90-minute, one-man show called Unpronounceable (named after the way a Customs official described his name upon his arrival in the U.S.). From that, he landed a manager, a showcase and then an agent, which prompted him and Gordon to move to New York in October 2007. There, he became a part of the stand-up scene, which included old friends T.J. Miller and Thomas Middleditch, who would also appear with him on Silicon Valley. ("It's just completely random that we all ended up on the show together.") By 2009, his profile had risen to the point that he did a set on Late Show With David Letterman and had a recurring part on The Colbert Report.
Also around that time, Nanjiani began to wade into acting. He had started doing comedy tours as part of Michael Showalter's troupe, which led to his first TV writing opportunity, which, in turn, led to his first TV acting opportunity. He went on to appear on three seasons of the TNT drama series Franklin & Bash before being let out of his contract to pursue opportunities in TV comedy. One audition led to his casting as nerdy computer programmer Dinesh Chugtai on Mike Judge's HBO series Silicon Valley, which has been nominated for best comedy series for all four seasons it has been on the air. ("He knows he's a loser," Nanjiani says of his character, "in the same way that [Seinfeld's] George Costanza does, but they're always trying to get out of that, they're always reaching beyond their reach.") During the show's run, the actor also has made memorable guest appearances on Veep and Inside Amy Schumer (in perhaps its most celebrated episode, "12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer").
But even before Silicon Valley put Nanjiani firmly on the map, he and Gordon had been developing The Big Sick in partnership with producer Judd Apatow. Nanjiani and Apatow had appeared together on a podcast at the 2012 SXSW Film Festival, and Apatow invited Nanjiani to pitch him an idea. Nanjiani received permission from Gordon to use their shared experience as the basis for a script, and eventually convinced her to help him write him. (One joke that he fought to keep in the film, which ended up playing like gangbusters, refers to 9/11. "I thought that joke was so funny, and Emily and Mike — and they'll both admit it — were so against it," he says with a chuckle.) Early on, Apatow was convinced that Nanjiani should play himself, even before others saw him as an actor. And Nanjiani took the job seriously, enrolling in acting classes for the first time and studying monologues from other movies about people in comas. But, ultimately, all he had to do was think back to what he and Gordon had endured, in different ways, together, and he was right in character.
"You can't try and guess the audience's reaction," Nanjiani now says of making comedic movies. "All you can do is make something that you like and hope that the audience connects to it, because that's the only gauge you have. I feel like that's the problem with a lot of these big studio movies — they're trying to guess what the audience wants, and you can never do that. All you can do is make something that you would like." For him, that also means showing more brown-skinned actors onscreen in parts of substance, as opposed to stereotypes. Nanjiani notes that, when he was starting out, he always was mistaken for Kal Penn, the Harold & Kumar actor: "Now there's a lot more people that they can confuse me for!"