Kumail Nanjiani stars in the “The Big Sick” as an Pakastani-born aspiring standup comic who falls for Emily, the woman who heckles him at the Chicago comedy club where he performs. The poignant and hilarious movie is based on the true-life romance between him and now-wife Emily V. Gordon. The film beautifully navigates issues like sex, race, family and religion and makes the story universal.
Nanjiani plays a version of himself, and he brings his sweet and funny persona into every scene. (Zoe Kazan plays opposite him as Emily and brings a quirky authenticity to her role.) In the film Nanjiani hooks up with Emily after his performance and their romance takes a serious turn neither expected. Emily is busy studying to become a couples therapist, and Nanjiani is an up-and-upcoming comic with traditional Muslim parents. (His parents are played by the terrific Zenobia Shrof and legendary Indian actor Anupam Kher, who with “The Big Sick” is making his 500th film.)
But despite their reluctance to become serious, Kumail and Emily fall in love. Kumail hides his relationship with Emily from his parents and under the stress they eventually break up. Meanwhile, his clueless mother has been relentlessly trying to fix son up with a suitable Muslim wife, which makes for an amusing and fascinating round of attractive, funny and interesting women who seem to be auditioning. The perspective and story of these appealing women would make a fascinating movie alone.
The movie takes a scary turn when Emily gets very sick. Doctors put her a medically induced coma to find the cause of her mystery illness. Meanwhile Kumail realizes he’s totally invested in Emily’s welfare. Soon he’s in sterile hospital waiting rooms sitting opposite Emily’s frosty and bereft parents, Betty and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), who eye Kumail suspiciously since their daughter has told them all about Kumail and their break up.
It’s not a spoiler to say Emily came out of the coma. And a lot of good things happened in the following decade: Kumail landed a starring role in HBO’s hit comedy “Silicon Valley,” while Emily became a successful screenwriter and author. Together they created a weekly comedy TV show and a podcast. Even better news ahead; hitmakers Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel (Trainwreck) love their story and want to turn it into a feature film. Director Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name is Doris), has a sure comic touch and the movie hums along navigating a sure path between pathos and humor.
At the press conference in Manhattan Monday afternoon to promote the film, Nanjiani, Gordon, Hunter, Romano, Kazan, Kher and producer Mendel, spoke with passion about “The Big Sick,” which has received early rave reviews.
Asked about the biggest challenge in playing himself, Nanjiani replied that once they got their story down, Apatow and Mendel told them, “You have to separate yourself from the story and trust that the emotional core will stay but change and just make it a good story, so that was kind of most of the work we did. And for me I would say the most difficult stuff acting wise was most of the stuff with Emily’s illness, which was pretty tough because there’s a scene where I have a breakdown on stage and that wasn’t scripted. It was always planned that I would just kind of try to be in that place I was and just talk and that was super tough because it was very long and you’re forced to think about it and say stuff that your whole body is wired to not think about.”
As for how closely the movie mirrors their real-life story, Gordon said that the director and Apatow told them to focus on telling a good story. “They were just so great at drilling into us from the start that you’re going to change some things. This just can’t be your story. You can’t be precious about it. And The more people we brought on, the more actors we brought on, the more of a collaboration it became.”
Kumail said both Apatow and Showalter reminded them “to separate yourself, separate yourself. I think Emily understood that before I did.”
They are also both producers of the film as well as co-writers and of course Kumail stars as a version of himself. Sometimes Nanjiani would take on too much said Gordon. “Kumail was struggling with both being an actor and writer, so we developed a code word because he would start worrying about production stuff. I would tell him, ‘Go do what actors do, go hang out in your trailer. Don’t worry about it, we’ll take care of it.’”
“We didn’t have trailers,”Kumail reminded his wife.
“We didn’t have trailers, that’s right,” she laughed. “Well you could hang out in your hospital room.”
“The Big Sick” opens Friday, June 23.