Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon talk The Big Sick, How Great They Both Are, and Amazing Stories [INTERVIEW] [SXSW ’17]

Before I’d seen any material from either of them, it’s safe to say that my first introduction to either Kumail Nanjiani or Emily Gordon was hearing Pete Holmes do an impression of Nanjiani, where Holmes referenced how often Nanjiani talks about how much he loves his wife Emily. Coincidentally, I was then inundated with Nanjiani as he popped up in things like Portlandia, Five-Year Engagement, and Veep. When I checked out one of his podcasts, The Indoor Kids, and heard the banter he shares with his wife, another host, followed by looking up photos of the two, I totally understood why he talks about her so much; these two are adorable.

In addition to hosting The Indoor Kids together, the two also created a weekly comedy show, along with Jonah Ray, at Meltdown Comics which was turned into the Comedy Central show The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail. The duo’s latest project, The Big Sick, is the semi-autobiographical story of how the two met, fell in love, fell out of love, how Emily fell into a coma, and how Kumail had a falling out with his Muslim family for not adhering to their traditions. Co-written by the two and directed by Michael Showalter, The Big Sick is painfully charming and finds the right balance of romance and comedy to remind you both how effective romantic comedies can be and also how many mainstream rom-coms miss the mark. I got to catch up with Kumail and Emily at SXSW to talk about their film, their work dynamic, and upcoming projects.

WolfMan: Kumail, the first thing I want to ask you, and I’m sure you get this all the time, but what’s it like being married to such a talented author and producer?

Kumail Nanjiani: [laughs]

Emily Gordon: Why are you laughing? [laughs]

WM: What are the struggles you face?

KN: I just got happy because I remembered. It’s amazing. Everybody likes her more than they like me, and they’re right. They’re totally right. For me, even when I was just doing stand up, it was a great secret weapon to have. If she thought it was funny, then I knew it was actually funny. Obviously, I’ve read a lot of her writing, and it’s amazing. To be able to collaborate with her is very exciting.

WM: Emily, what’s it like to be married to a guy who has a podcast or something?

EG: He has, like, two podcasts. It’s his “thing.” He loves podcasts. It’s lovely. We’ve been together for so long that he was just an open mic comedian when we started dating. Well, you were a little better than an open mic comedian, but you know what I’m saying. It really, really impressed me, as we were writing this, it never occurred to me, I was never thinking, “Oh, he’s going to be acting in this,” and I knew he was a great actor who was really funny, but he knocked the shit out of the park, so hardcore.

KN: Thank you

EG: I didn’t say anything during your answer so you gotta stay quiet. He knocked it out of the park, so hardcore, and it was very, very impressive to watch. He had been working so hard on prepping for this movie and it really, really paid off. It was lovely to behold.

WM: Well, I think that’s all the time we have. Just wanted you guys to be able to compliment each other.

EG: We checked in, now we’re good with each other.

WM: Obviously you’ve worked with each other on various projects in various capacities, but what was it like to collaborate together on a singular script? Being on the same page?

EG: Literally and figuratively.

KN: I think we both, tone wise, wanted to make the same movie from the beginning. Even though we had disagreements about the specifics, we knew from the beginning, we wanted to make the same movie.

EG: We had a really good working relationship because of Meltdown and because of Indoor Kids. All the fights that people have when people work with their spouses, we already had those years ago and worked out a really good system of how we worked together and how we understand each other. Learning how to write together was a new challenge but it wasn’t as difficult as if it was the first thing we’d ever worked on together. I think working together so many times already prepped us for this.

KN: We really had a process down. We would divvy up scenes, set a deadline, send each other first drafts, rewrite each other’s stuff, rewrite each other’s stuff again, then send it to somebody else to look over.

EG: Everything was touched by both of us.

KN: By the time anybody saw it, the producers or Mike (Showalter), the director, it was already the third draft, because she’d do the first draft, I’d do the second, she’d do the third, and we’d both sign off on it. Having these deadlines, and having someone else to be accountable to, really helped keep the work flowing.

WM: In a more personal and therapeutic sense, what was it like to look back at moments in your relationship you’ve mostly only thought about anecdotally? For the film, you had to look at things from one another’s perspective and really dig into each other’s motivations behind memories, both good and bad. Also, for how personal the subject matter was, it must have been harder to leave the “work” at the office.

EG: It was quite therapeutic, I think.

KN: Certainly. It forced us to think of all this unthinkable stuff.

EG: And from each other’s perspectives. You really knew how it was for you, but you don’t necessarily know how it was for the other person. Realizing they were going through something quite different or something quite similar.

KN: Something very intense, but different.

EG: I think it was really helpful for us. We have rules around our house of when we can talk about work stuff and when we can’t, and we kept that for this, too, because you don’t want to be rehashing old shit over and over again. We’re talking about so much of our history, and we want to be more focused on our present and our future than rehashing old stuff.

KN: But sometimes rehashing that old stuff was important to move forward. It honestly helped me deal with some of that stuff. It used to be that I couldn’t even think about it, I’d break out in sweats. But now…

EG: You feel a little more comfortable with it.

KN: It’s a process.

WM: It’s important when you deal with conflict that you try to utilize the “reality show” model of interpreting things objectively, without a talking head segment to explain why you felt that way. Sorry, I’m just trying to tie this into what I read in Emily’s book–

EG: [laughs]

WM: I couldn’t remember exactly how you worded it…

EG: I appreciate that! It’s what the camera would see versus what you’re experiencing.

WM: I use that example quite often to explain things.

EG: You honor me. Thank you. I still use that all the time.

WM: I was super excited to find out you guys were going to be involved in Amazing Stories. I’m a big genre nerd. Obviously, all three of us are. How did that project come about?

EG: It literally came about when we met Bryan Fuller at Comic-Con and just became friendly with him and then we were having dinner with him, because we had been trying to have dinner for a long time, and as we were having dinner, he was telling us about how he was part of rebooting Amazing Stories. He said, “You guys should write one.” We’re like, “Yeah, we should.” Then his assistant was emailing us, “We need to set up a time to meet, let’s talk through it.” It very much was a thing that was drunk brunch plans, we were super excited, but weren’t sure if it was real or not. He is great at–

KN: He’s a genius.

EG: He’s an absolute genius and if he wants something to happen, he will do what he can to make it happen. We were very grateful that he wanted this to happen.

KN: That’s the next thing we’re doing together, we’re writing an Amazing Stories.

EG: It’s a cool episode, too.

WM: So you guys are both writing the same one?

EG: We’re writing it together, yeah.

KN: We’re writing it together and, if we do a good job…it’s a great premise, and there’s a lot of interesting stuff in it. If we can pull it off…

EG: It’s about loops. But we’re not gonna say any more about that.

WM: Of the fruit variety?

EG: I don’t know. Wait and see.

WM: I’m very excited. Of course, you guys also love sci-fi and horror stuff, so when I found out you guys were writing stuff, I was excited to see you guys flex a different type of writing muscle.

KN: Well, some of that stuff is in this movie. X-Files is in there. The Vincent Price movie is in there.

EG: That’s the first movie we watched together. That’s why it’s the first movie they watch together.

[EDITOR’S NOTE/SPOILER WARNING: One scene in The Big Sick, Kumail puts in a movie he loves for Emily to watch for the first time and he spends more time gauging her reaction to the movie than the movie itself.]

WM: I can’t tell you how much I loved that scene. Regardless of the fact that it was Abominable Dr. Phibes, which I love, but just the spirit of putting a movie in that one of you clearly loves and monitor reactions to the movie, really rang true to me. Double-checking that she wasn’t too tired to appreciate the film is a situation I’m familiar with. My girlfriend and I are going through Twin Peaks right now and I always make sure she’ll be awake enough to last through an episode.

EG: That’s what I introduced him to! Shows were a little different back then, they were a little bit slower.

The Big Sick hits select theaters on June 23 and nationwide July 14.

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