When I dropped Hollywood actor Kumail Nanjiani’s name during a diary meeting at the office not too long ago, there were many blank stares, barring one or two colleagues familiar with his work.
Now 41, the Pakistani-born actor has been in the US since he was 18. His résumé is that of an allrounder: stand-up comedian, podcast host, writer and, of course, actor – he landed his big break in HBO’s Emmy nominated series, "Silicon Valley".
His repertoire has extended beyond the TV show, which will be ending next year. He was nominated for a screenwriting Oscar in 2018 for The Big Sick.
These days, Nanjiani’s in the spotlight for voicing Pawny in "Men in Black: International". In fact, some critics have praised the CGI-generated alien for being the best thing about the film. That’s high praise considering Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson and Liam Neeson play the leads.
What blew me away during our telephonic chat was the fact that he gave the nod to the part without reading the script.
“They just contacted me and said: ‘Do you want to be in Men in Black?’.
I looked at the picture of the character and thought he was awesome, so I said, ‘Yes’.”
Speculating on the appeal of the tiny alien character, Nanjiani: “Audiences will like his enthusiasm. He’s been sort of stuck on a chess board his whole life and then suddenly he’s going on these really intense huge adventures.
In a way, he’s sort of the audience surrogate in that he has never seen any of this stuff. Even when he’s scared, he’s sort of excited. Hopefully, his reactions are also those of the audience.
Reflecting on lending his voice to characters, especially those of the CGI ilk, Nanjiani said: “When you are doing motion capture, every take is being captured, so there’s a lot of experimentation. A lot of trying stuff to see how it would feel. That’s what I loved about playing Pawny: freedom.”
In case you’re curious – he’s a fan of the Men in Black franchise and was immensely chuffed to be a part of it.
At the time of the interview, he hadn’t seen the movie in its entirety, and was somewhat nervous about watching it with everyone at the New York premiere.
Those nerves have since subsided.
After all, Pawny is a bonafide hit and the star of the movie. It doesn’t compare to his anxiety levels in 2017 when he took a huge leap of faith with The Big Sick, a movie he co-wrote with his wife Emily V Gordon. It paid off. To this day, he is a bit speechless when talking about semi-autobiographical romantic drama’s reception.
“(I’m) very happy with the reaction from critics and audiences. They were overwhelmingly positive.
But it’s a bit of an adjustment to go from people not knowing you to knowing intimate details of your life… We knew if we didn’t tell the story, it wouldn’t get told.”
Having appeared in films like "The Five-Year Engagement", "Central Intelligence" and "Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates"; he has also done a fair amount of TV work with "Franklin & Bash", "Veep", "Inside Amy Schumer" and "Silicone Valley".
A few years back, he had two podcast shows on the go: The Indoor Kids and The X-Files Files.
“Now I do other people’s podcasts. They key is to ensure that, whatever you are doing, you are enthusiastic about it. You can really speak to a niche audience if you are speaking to them in a sincere way. And it has to be something you are really passionate about.
“There are a lot of interview podcasts, and it is appealing to people to hear people they are fans of having a really long conversation. On latenight talk shows, you have a five or six-minute segment to tell your story. In a podcast, you are really being yourself and getting personal.
“And that is what appeals to people. You get to see a side of actors you have never had access to before.”
Putting him on the spot, I asked him about being named as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time last year.
He laughed and said: “Um, I don’t know how to respond to that. I’m happy to be in that company. Beyond that, I don’t really know how to think about it. It’s a lot of pressure but luckily there are another 100 now that have to carry it.”
The conversation steered towards streaming services, which is attracting big names by the masses and which he wouldn’t mind being a part of it. In fact, he spends his downtime streaming shows on several online platforms.
His kitty is pretty full, too. “I have a movie called Stuber coming out in July. There, you will see my face. It has Dave Bautista and is an action comedy.
“And we (he and his wife Emily Gordan) are doing a show called, Little America, for Apple. It is an anthology series based on the true-life stories of
immigrants coming to the US,” he confirmed.
On Silicon Valley ending, he admitted: “So I sort of knew it was going to be the last season. But when they announced it, I still got pretty emotional.
“The people I work with on the show, we are all so close. And it really just changed my life.”
Men in Black: International is currently showing at cinemas.IOL