After striking comedic and emotional gold in Silicon Valley and The Big Sick, the actor takes his action-star turn in Eternals
Kumail Nanjiani has made dozens of films and TV shows over the last 12 years, but it’s safe to say that when people heard his name they most likely pictured Dinesh, the sad sack programmer he played on HBO’s acclaimed Silicon Valley. That changed in December 2019, when he posted what he called a “thirsty shirtless” shot on Instagram, showing off the washboard abs and action-star pecs he amassed while training for Eternals, the latest superhero flick from Marvel Studios. Suddenly moviegoers were questioning who Nanjiani was and imagining who he could be—for starters, the first Pakistani superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In the film, directed by Academy Award winner Chloé Zhao, Nanjiani portrays Kingo, a super-powered Bollywood star and one of the Eternals, an ancient alien race that, after thousands of years, comes out of hiding to save humanity. As if starring in one legacy franchise weren’t enough, next year he continues to break new ground in the Star Wars spin-off Obi-Wan Kenobi on Disney+.
While most of Nanjiani’s past work would be classified as comedy, he’s actually been pushing boundaries for years—redefining who gets to be in a buddy flick (Stuber) or a rom com (The Lovebirds) and turning the story of his own marriage into a movie, The Big Sick, which earned him and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. He and Gordon have since collaborated on the Apple TV+ series Little America, which brings immigrant stories to the screen, and they recently sold their adaptation of Edward Gorey’s short illustrated book The Doubtful Guest to Amblin.
Calling from his home in LA, Nanjiani shares the one thing that all of these projects have in common: “A story worth telling.”
A lot of people have spent the last year and a half watching tons of movies and TV shows. What have you been watching?
Ooh, I watched so much stuff. I kept a list for about the first half of the year, catching up on a lot of stuff I meant to watch: old classics like Apocalypse Now, The Sopranos, Columbo. Emily and I, when we were fully in quarantine, watched a movie every day.
What was it like watching Apocalypse Now for the first time?
Oh, it blew me away. It was a really hot weekend—it must have been last summer—and that’s a hot movie. I watched it, and I watched it again the next day with Emily, and then the day after that I watched Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now. I got obsessed with all the talk about Brando’s performance and Martin Sheen’s heart attack and all that stuff.
You’ve always taken roles in a wide range of films. What do you search for in a script?
In my writing, I certainly go for what I can’t stop thinking about. But it’s hard when you first start getting opportunities, [after] you’ve worked so hard to get anything. I had years where I had one funny scene in a movie. To be able to do leads or bigger roles, in the beginning being discerning was not as much of a concern. I should have thought about what I wanted and what I didn’t want to do. I just didn’t trust that this window would stay open. Now I try to trust myself. Sometimes there’s intellectual stuff I want to talk about. But more often than that, you just have to connect to it. It’s just a gut feeling. You have to feel like it’s something that you could do, that it’s worth doing. You’d be shocked at how many scripts don’t have stories, and they aren’t really saying anything.
I imagine after the success of The Big Sick you must have been offered everything.
I was sort of the new comedy guy in movies for a little bit, and everybody had comedies that had been sitting around for a decade. They were dusting them off and sending them to me. At one point, I got a script that, before me, Jason Sudeikis was going to do, before him, Will Ferrell, and before him, Jim Carrey. It was interesting to see all the different iterations of this thing where it almost got made. And comedy is tricky, in that it doesn’t always age the best. It can sometimes be a product of a moment and what other comedies were big at the time. After The Hangover, there were four years’ worth of comedy scripts trying to do The Hangover.
How did working with Mike Judge on Silicon Valley influence your writing?
The biggest thing I learned from him was tone. There are jokes that can break the reality of a show—like, undercut the stakes. It might be a really, really funny joke, but then people will stop trusting the piece. I also learned a lot of improv stuff. You have to figure out the purposes of the scene, and then you can improvise, but those improvs have to serve those purposes.
Was it fun taking on the character of Kingo in Eternals?
It was really fun, because I was getting to play a superhero, and I was getting challenged. There were parts of me that I’d never gotten to play on-screen. Chloé really wanted me to do that. She was supportive and encouraging. I liked my costume. I liked my powers. And I love Silicon Valley, but that’s sort of a narrow box I got to play in. With Kingo, I got to ask, What am I like in real life that I can use in the character to exaggerate those parts of me? With Kingo it was fun to expand that box. He’s funny, but there’s more than that. He’s a little messy and complicated. I hope people see that.
Were there any performances from past films that influenced how you approached the character?
I grew up watching Bollywood movies, and I knew all the people I was a big fan of [including Hrithik Roshan] and that I wanted to base him on. I watched a lot of their interviews, not necessarily their performances. For the action stuff, I watched Zorro, Errol Flynn, and old school swashbuckling movies. And I watched a bunch of iconic movie stars in their iconic roles: Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Denzel, etc., to try and see what it is about these guys that makes them movie stars.
Did you figure it out?
What I found was how often these movie stars have a big piece of themselves, or that persona, in every performance. With Daniel Day-Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix—unbelievable actors—they’re completely different each time, whereas with someone like Tom Cruise or Will Smith, there’s always a Cruise or Smith essence. To be able to watch Independence Day at 10 in the morning because it was research was pretty great.
Eternals has a massive ensemble cast, featuring a few big names. How was working with, say, Angelina Jolie?
Talk about movie stars. It was really interesting watching her, because the stuff that was important to her, and the stuff she thought about in her performance, wasn’t the stuff I focused on. I just saw the movie, and she’s absolutely amazing. I could see what she’d been working on in rehearsal and with the stunt people. I didn’t realize just how much thought and purpose had gone into her creating Thena. Obviously, I saw that, but then to see it fully realized on screen… Oh wow. People are going to connect with her.
What were some of those differences in approach?
She wanted to convey the character physically and spent a lot of time thinking about how this character moves, how she walks, how she bites. She decided this wasn’t a vocal character, and she needed to reveal the character’s personality through physicality. I’m a very verbal person, and my character is also very verbal. I had never seen somebody lean so fully into the physical aspect. I certainly had physical approaches to Kingo, as well, but nothing to the extent she had.
What about filming Obi-Wan Kenobi? How was that experience?
It was truly a lovefest. I’ve been a fan of Ewan [McGregor’s] for so long. To get to work with him and become friends with him and realize how he’s such a good person? He’s so genuine. I don’t think he knows he’s a movie star. He’s very normal and open. Sometimes you work with actors, and if they’re doing an [intense] scene, they’re obsessed with carrying that energy with them all day. Ewan was not like that. You could do an intense scene and then he’s back to normal, joking around and having fun. And then after that, he’s back in this super-intense scene. It made for a very unstressful shoot. And then Deb [Chow], the director, was absolutely amazing. She could give you a note and somehow have it glue inside your brain. I’ve never had that.
Thinking about you being Marvel’s first Pakistani superhero on-screen and now in a Star Wars spinoff makes me wonder what it was like, early in your career, being one of the few Pakistani-American actors in Hollywood going after roles.
I auditioned for a lot of parts, especially early on, that were a guy who works at 7-Eleven or Dunkin’ Donuts. Multiple cabdrivers. If you were Pakistani there was a certain way you were allowed to be funny on TV and in movies. I have found myself playing a lot of characters who are funny, but they’re funny because they’re scared or because they’re out of their depth; they’re not up for the challenge. I wanted Kingo to be funny in a very different kind of way, in a way that Pakistani actors don’t generally get to be in America. I hope people see that when they see it.
Hollywood is making a lot of strides in terms of representation, but it’s slow going. It’s still unique to be a Pakistani actor in two legacy franchises.
It’s a new thing, and I’m very, very hopeful there’ll be more.