'The Big Sick' Stars, Writers on How Trump's Campaign Affected Muslim-American Romance

Courtesy of Michael Priest Photography

“Islamophobia is not new. It’s been around in America for forever. Trump is not an aberration. Trump is a reflection. Trump is us. He didn’t change anything. He just brought a lot of things into focus," Nanjiani said during a THR Talks panel at New York's 92nd Street Y.

The Big Sick has received acclaim since its Sundance Film Festival premiere on Jan. 20, which aligned with the inauguration of President Donald Trump. And the stars and writers of the film spoke about how Trump's campaign and the political climate in which they were making the movie affected what ended up on the screen.

“I think it’s great that we filmed this movie before the election,” said co-writer Emily V. Gordon during a THR Talks panel discussion moderated by The Hollywood Reporter's senior film writer Tatiana Siegel at New York’s 92nd Street Y on Thursday (Nov. 30).

If production took place after the 2016 election, Gordon said, there would have been a lot more pressure on the meaning behind the film. “We would have been heavy-handed with making sure we have the right message. And are we saying the right things? I think we had the luxury, in some ways, of just wanting to tell our story,” she said. “The revolutionary stuff we were trying to do was just show a Muslim family hanging out and just being a ‘normal’ family just like anyone else.”

Gordon was joined by co-writer and star Kumail Nanjiani and castmembers Zoe Kazan and Ray Romano.

In this social media-dominated era, Nanjiani said that he thinks the film successfully reaches an audience that he may not agree with politically. “Directly talking to people about an issue, I really don’t think it does anything. I don’t think anybody changes their mind. I think what online has devolved into is two very defined sides just yelling at each other. There’s no real conversation,” he said. “That’s why I think our movie works … we weren’t even trying to do it. I think if you make stuff that has your values in it, maybe that’s a better way of changing people’s perspectives.”

The Big Sick, which is based on Nanjiani and Gordon's real-life romance, tells the story of Pakistani immigrant and Muslim Kumail (Nanjiani) and American Emily (Kazan), who fall in love as they try to navigate the culture clash between their families. The love story becomes even more complicated when Emily contracts an illness that results in her being forced into an induced coma. 

“The movie would work if it was any other couple. It’s a movie about love and about family and everything, so that’s the beauty I think of the movie is there’s a message there, but you’re not trying,” said Romano, who plays Emily’s father, Terry. “I think that’s the best way to receive a message.”

While the film is not intentionally political, the 2016 election was on the minds of the cast and crew during the filming process. “It’s not like we were making the movie in a vacuum. We made it in the summer of 2016 and the debates were going on. [Trump] started his campaign by saying all Mexicans were rapists, so we knew he was a racist,” said Kazan. “It’s not like any of this is new. He didn’t invent [racism] on January 20. I at least felt some awareness as we made it.” She added, “I don’t think any of us were thinking about the movie being political ever, even bringing it out on the day of the inauguration. My feeling was we’re putting a ray of good into the world and that’s the best thing that I felt that I could do on that day.”

“Islamophobia is not new. It’s been around in America for forever. Trump is not an aberration. Trump is a reflection. Trump is us,” said Nanjiani. “He didn’t change anything. He just brought a lot of things into focus.” Nanjiani agreed with Kazan’s statement that the film acts as a positive addition to the world in these tense times. “The world did change after the election. It does feel different and the movie feels different coming out and we were very happy to have this movie come out that humanizes people that you don’t generally see humanized in American popular culture.”

The Big Sick quickly became one of the most successful films of 2017 and grossed more than $54 million worldwide. Following a well received first showing at Sundance, Romano was skeptical that the film would be praised internationally. “I know from experience that sometimes the Sundance audience can be very energized and they can love a movie and it still doesn’t mean it’s a good movie. When we were in there and they were crazy, pessimistic me is like, ‘All right, just stay reserved.’ Then we went to another screening and it was the same thing … I started to realize, ‘I think we have something here.’” Once the film received a 98 percent freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Romano said, “I forced myself to smile.”

“It’s wonderful and extraordinary to feel the audience love,” Kazan said in response the film’s positive reception. “At the same time, I think the thing I keep holding onto, or the thing that I keep treasuring to my heart, is what an amazing experience it was to make it and the feeling that we had on set of every person, from the props people to the costume people, every single person seemed aligned with what we wanted to make,” she said.

Kazan also mentioned how comfortable the crew made her feel, especially considering the current flood of sexual misconduct allegations taking over Hollywood in recent months. “It was just a very warm and neutral room,” she said of the audition process. “There were no women in the room, and so that’s always a flag in some way, and it didn’t feel like a flag that day.”

Nanjiani and Gordon revealed to the audience they have plans to work on another script. “We’re trying to figure out the right project we’re gonna do,” said Gordon. “I think we know what we’re gonna do next. We just have to pull the trigger.”

The pair wouldn’t reveal the concept behind the upcoming project, though Nanjiani did say it would be different than The Big Sick. “I don’t think we would want to do something this obviously autobiographical, at least for a while, but we were like, ‘Do we want to sort of do something in the same world or try something different?,’” he said. “I think what we’re gonna do next is gonna be a pretty different type of movie.”