Kumail Nanjiani Goes Big
Kumail Nanjiani swears he’s the same guy. Just bigger. “All people have known of me from the last year and a half is that I put on muscle,” says the newly jacked comedian and actor from his home in Los Angeles. “Nothing I’ve done has come out except for that. So it’s interesting to see people who will be like, ‘Oh my God, he’s really changed. He’s not the same guy. He’s really changed!’ Even though they’ve seen nothing with me.”
Best known for his breakout role as the computer programmer Dinesh Chugtai on the HBO sitcom Silicon Valley, and for writing (with his wife, Emily V. Gordon) and starring in the oddball romantic comedy The Big Sick, Nanjiani made a stable career out of playing characters who were nerdy and sweet but sort of soft. His 2013 stand-up album, which was literally called Beta Male, abounded with jokes about video games, dislodging a porno from a VCR, and being afraid of spooky noises in the attic. Now, Nanjiani cuts an altogether different profile. Physically, at least.
In preparation for his role in The Eternals, the latest entry into Marvel Studios’ ever-expanding “cinematic universe,” Nanjiani — who was nicknamed “chicken shoulders” as a kid growing up in Pakistan and co-hosted a podcast with his wife called The Indoor Kids — set about remaking himself. He’s gone from a scrawny kid to a sort-of-pudgy adult man to a boxy, square-jawed beefcake at ease among the mountains of muscle that line modern superhero cinema. It’s an impressive transformation. But beyond all the hard work and boring meal-planning, Nanjiani’s new body tells a whole story — an epic tale of one chicken-shouldered kid’s scramble to the hallowed halls of jockdom, and the cultural ascent of nerdery itself.
It’s sometimes hard to remember — or even conceive of — but when Marvel kicked off the modern superhero movie revival with 2008’s Iron Man, it was seen as a bit of a gamble. At the time, Iron Man wasn’t likely to be a first-round draft pick for anyone putting together an all-star superhero team. The character didn’t have the cultural resonance of Batman or Superman — or even Marvel-branded heroes like Spider-man or the Incredible Hulk. To a lot of people, Iron Man was a Black Sabbath song. Or a Ghostface Killah album. But anchored by a memorable, quippy performance by Robert Downey Jr. and moved along by some fleet, fun direction courtesy of Jon Favreau, the film turned out to be a hit. And the Marvel formula was minted. The company didn’t need to tap into a relatively small fan base of dedicated, ultra-nerdy readers of superhero comics. It could, effectively, create those fans. A decade-plus later, as Marvel Studios pictures dominate the global box office, the studio has made nerds of us all.
But Nanjiani swears he was always a nerd. “I was the guy who was into video games, sci-fi, horror, superhero stuff, like, way more than anybody around,” Nanjiani explains, before further clarifying, “Like, you know, way, way, way more. After the summer, kids would come [back to school] and their skin would be darker because they’d been out in the sun. My skin would be lighter — because I hadn’t left the house. Because I’ve been playing Shinobi and Golden Axe and watching Gremlins over and over.”
Nanjiani watched the ballooning popularity of nerd culture a bit suspiciously. He was worried that all the stuff he liked would get watered down as it entered the mainstream. He even felt a bit possessive. “There was a moment where I was like, ‘Wait, but this is my stuff. This is not your stuff. I should have this stuff,’” he recalls. “But I got over that pretty quickly, because to me, the joy of being able to talk to a bunch of people about superheroes or sci-fi or horror or video games nullified that gatekeeping instinct. As a kid, I didn’t have people, really, that I could talk to about this stuff. Now I have a ton of people I could talk to about this stuff!”
Today, he finds himself smack dab in the centre of the conversation. Eager to look the part of a real-deal superhero, Nanjiani began putting on weight. In late 2019, he started sharing photos of his new body. “I never thought I’d be one of those people who would post a thirsty shirtless,” began one lengthy Instagram caption that accompanied a glamour shot of the actor looking physically unrecognizable. Online conversations curdled. Some worried they had lost a beloved, relatable nerd-culture icon. Some claimed that Nanjiani was being unfairly forced through some Marvel–Disney workout gauntlet. There were jokes about steroid use. In fact, Nanjiani made the decision to get into shape of his own volition, without studio pressure. He says that The Eternals director Chloé Zhao was herself shocked to see the transformation.
The conversation turned again. Others claimed there was a double standard in criticizing Nanjiani’s bro-up. After all, other pop culture Nice Guys — like Chris Pratt and The Office’s Jim Halpert−turned−Jack Ryan John Krasinski — went through similar transformations. Was Nanjiani judged more harshly because he was South Asian? (Again, Nanjiani has said that it was precisely because he was the first South Asian Marvel superhero that he wanted to make sure he could believably go toe to toe with Thor or Captain America.) In the weeks leading up to the film’s release, online conversation turned once more. In response to one fan’s online assertion that spoiling The Eternals should be punishable by a $1 million fine, the ironized ranks of so-called “Film Twitter,” whose members exhibit a vigorous hostility toward Marvel fare, began circulating fake spoilers that Kingo (the character played by Nanjiani) dies in the film. For the benefit of his own sanity, Nanjiani filters out these comments. He just can’t bring himself to be bothered.
“I just don’t read anything anybody says about me,” he explains before launching into some armchair neurobiology. “I don’t think our brains are meant to get feedback from that many people at the same time. I go on Twitter, you know, and I look at my replies; it’s just like so many people saying stuff to me all the time — positive, negative, whatever it is. It’s an overload. It stresses me out, no matter what. So I just have to completely, like, try and disengage from all of that.”
Among the nastier criticisms, there was that one gravely serious worry: had Nanjiani, a confirmed “beta male,” crossed the aisle? Was he betraying the long-suffering brotherhood of geeks and indoor kids to run with the alpha dogs? He says no. “It is the nerd–jock thing,” he says. “I completely understand. If I had a comedian who I loved, and he was a nerd to me, and suddenly he, like, changed the way he looked and looked like one of my oppressors? I would feel betrayed! I would feel upset. I mean, I really worry…but I know I’m not any different.”
He says the pandemic has compounded the problem of people mistaking him for a big-time jock. (A recent glossy magazine shoot that saw him re-enacting scenes from classic ’80s action movies probably didn’t help, either.) But opinions seem to be levelling out a bit. After all, it has been almost two years since Nanjiani posted his first thirsty bro-up photo on Instagram. Fans are acclimatizing to the new look and realizing that he is, to a large extent, still the same dorky guy at heart. “Now, because of this press, some inter- views and stuff are coming out,” he says, sounding a bit relieved, “and people are like, ‘Oh, he changed his body but he’s still talks in the same nerdy voice.’”
Nanjiani is quick to point out that, in his previous iteration, it’s not like he was some hopelessly shy loser. Even on the Beta Male album, he exudes confidence. He doesn’t act any differently. He doesn’t think any differently. Except now, he says, he might have a tougher time selling his older jokes about being afraid of people. Because in the years he spent training for The Eternals, Nanjiani learned how to fight. And dance.
Drawing from ancient mythology and science-fiction serials, The Eternals comics proved a heady change of pace from Marvel’s more relatable (and bankable) costumed heroes. This wasn’t Peter Parker, bitten by a radioactive spider and thrust into the world of adult responsibility.
“I just don’t read anything anybody says about me. I don’t think our brains are meant to get feedback from that many people at the same time.”
This was an epic battle, waged across eons, between different races of genetically souped-up humanoids. Like the comics circa the 1970s, the contemporary Marvel Cinematic Universe is digging deep into its fictional lore. If the MCU brass learned anything way back with Iron Man, it’s that even relatively untested heroes can still make a massive impact. To wit: Marvel’s recent film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a modern martial arts epic starring Canadian Simu Liu in the title role, proved a sizable hit despite the character’s broader status as a relative unknown. Nanjiani also cites 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, another blockbuster based on a more obscure Marvel Comics imprint, as a prime example. By this point, for a certain (large) audience, the MCU brand is the draw, even more than any given character. As Nanjiani says, “I hope people know enough of the MCU and trust it enough that they’ll go out and see a bunch of superheroes that they haven’t heard of before.”
Among the new team’s mostly unheard-of heroes is Nanjiani’s Kingo. In the comics, the character takes the form of a Japanese warrior, active in the feudal era. He defended against the Mongol invasion and mastered the ways of the samurai warrior. In the modern age, he wields his skills on the silver screen as a charismatic Japanese film star. The movie changes things up a bit. Nanjiani’s Kingo has been living in India. And he thrives not by making sword-and-sandal epics but by hiding in plain sight as a major Bollywood film star.
“I’ve seen a lot of superheroes where their superpower weighs heavily on them,” Nanjiani says. “This guy’s different. He loves being a superhero. He loves having these powers. He loves using these powers. He loves fighting…A lot of superheroes are pressed into duty because of the way the world is, or the powers they have, or the responsibility they feel. Kingo loves being a movie star. He loves being rich. He loves being successful. And he loves shooting lasers out of his fingers.”
The revised characterization was an opportunity for Nanjiani to tap into his own background — though the actor is quick to clarify that Kingo himself is actually not Indian or Pakistani, but rather an extraterrestrial superhuman posing as a South Asian humanoid. Still, it was a chance to indulge his own childhood obsession with Indian cinema.
“I grew up watching Bollywood,” Nanjiani recalls. “I know that world really, really, really well. Basically, up until the ‘90s, I know almost every Bollywood movie ever made. Those people who are big in Bollywood are basically kings. I don’t want to think gods — be- cause nobody’s a god — but they have this mythic power that they carry with them.” To prepare for the role, Nanjiani watched films and interviews with major Bollywood stars, like the Hindi-language superstar Shah Rukh Khan, whose global box-office take marks him as one of the biggest movie stars currently working. Nanjiani also wanted to communicate the full breadth and beauty of Bollywood to Western audiences watching The Eternals. And that’s where the dancing comes in.
As Nanjiani sees it, if Hollywood audiences know anything about Bollywood, they probably know, first and foremost, that it’s a major film production centre, and second, that the movies themselves feature a lot of lavish dance numbers. “Our duty then becomes,” he explains, “to portray the thing that people know in a way that is very, very authentic, and in the way that most Americans don’t know.” He didn’t want to embrace the irony, or perception of arch, cartoonish melodrama. He didn’t want to do a Bollywood dance sequence in a way that was, as he puts it, “winky-winky.”
So the production hired 50 dancers, all of South Asian origin, who were familiar with the form. And they mounted a big-ticket Bollywood dance sequence. It was another rare opportunity: not only to explore the far-off reaches of the Marvel Comics back catalogue but to acquaint modern blockbuster audiences with cinematic styles they may only be aware of in broadly caricatured or stereotyped form. “Let’s portray the joy, the excitement, the passion,” he says. “This should be like a badass, awesome secret. We want this to really feel like an actual Bollywood movie set. So it was tremendously important that we get that stuff right.”
It’s stories like this that may help ease any lingering worries that Nanjiani has absconded from the dingy basements and Games Workshop backrooms of comic book culture to mix in the gym lockers and frat houses with the beefy, square-jawed jocks. Even when he’s shredding himself into the best shape of his life to play an ancient, genetically altered guardian of the galaxy who can blast laser beams from the tips of his fingers, he still manages to mount a rococo, Bollywood-inspired dance sequence. More than a turncoat in the pop culture wars, he may well manage to ease tensions between the betas and the alphas — an ancient enmity that, like the battles between Marvel’s various races of superhumans, is seemingly eternal.
For all the hype around his new movie (and his new body), Kumail Nanjiani is still the same guy. He remains — proudly, and even a bit defiantly — an indoor kid.
Lead image: Sweater by FENDI (price upon request).
Photography: Shane McCauley
Styling: Jeanne Yang (The Wall Group) & Chloe Takayanagi
Photo Assistant: Dan Patrick
Grooming: Kim Verbeck (The Wall Group)