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Kumail Nanjiani says after getting “jacked” for his role in the upcoming Marvel film The Eternals, he’s questioned the kinds of messages his transformation sends about masculinity, saying other men have started reacting to him more aggressively.
In an interview with GQ, the actor spoke about how his life has changed since December 2019, when he posted an image of his changed physique for the superhero film. It was a decision he made on his own and one the Silicon Valley star told the magazine has him feeling better than he ever has. But it was a change — which he passed on calling “getting in shape” — that saw director Chloé Zhao “get a little upset” at him for “changing my body to look a certain way.”
Zhao told the magazine that she felt Nanjiani already had the right personality mix to play his character, Kingo, and just “wanted to make sure he didn’t feel like he had to do it for me.” So while the change wasn’t driven by any directive from Zhao, the actor did admit the appearance of other Marvel heroes influenced how he physically prepared for the role.
“If I’m playing the first South Asian superhero, I want to look like someone who can take on Thor or Captain America, or any of those people,” he said.
He went on to say that representational choice has seen his body increasingly become the focus of media attention, and it’s something he’s grown tired of talking about. “I’ve found out over the last year and a half, since I did that picture, that I am very uncomfortable talking about my body — and it’s become less and less and less comfortable.”
Part of that, Nanjiani said, is driven by the kind of toxicly masculine messages that can come with having a body like ’80s action stars Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“It is aggression. It is anger. A lot of times, we are taught to be useful by using physical strength or our brain in an aggressive, competitive way. Not in an empathetic way. Not in an open, collaborative way,” he said. “It’s the same thing when you have all these guys, like, asking people to debate them on Twitter. That’s the same as arm wrestling. It’s about defeating. And that’s what the male ideal has been: Dominating. Defeating. Crushing. Killing. Destroying. That’s what being jacked is.”
But his treatment in the media isn’t the only thing that’s changed. Nanjiani said that while he’s used to experiencing racist aggression in his daily life, he’s started to see men respond differently to him due to his body in a way that he, at least initially, couldn’t comprehend. That includes one instance at a gym that saw someone get “alarmingly aggressive” after the actor asked someone to put on a mask.
“It felt like I had printed out a picture of his grandmother and peed on it,” Nanjiani recalled. “I just see the little child inside them, like a little child pretending to be a big, strong man. It’s laughable, if it wasn’t so fucking devastating — and causing so many problems in the world.”
He added. “I just want to be like, ‘Dude, if you learn how to cry, you’d just be a lot happier.'”
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