With a Keen Eye and a Razor Wit, Kumail Nanjiani Is Becoming an Inescapable Creative Force

Silicon Valley star shares his creative process, The Big Sick and his take on advertising

Kumail Nanjiani is Adweek's Creative 100 cover star. Photographed by: Marc Royce Prop Styling: Nathan Carden/Jorge Perez Reps Grooming: Sydney Sollod/The Wall Group
Headshot of Katie Richards

Picture your classic Hollywood triple threat. Now, throw it out the window, in the garbage, wherever, and say hello to Kumail Nanjiani—the stand-up comedian who’s redefining what it means to be a modern-day triple threat. Everything about the Silicon Valley star—from his upbringing in Karachi, Pakistan, to his unorthodox love story with now-wife Emily Gordon, which inspired his upcoming film The Big Sick—is intriguing.

In the film, co-written by the couple based heavily on their whirlwind love story, Nanjiani plays a nearly identical version of himself—a Pakistani-American stand-up comedian slash Uber driver who falls for a white woman (played by Zoe Kazan), something his parents are wholly against. Nanjiani keeps the budding romance a secret until a twist of fate comes his way just as the relationship waters get choppy and Emily is placed in a medically induced coma (and yes, that did in fact happen in real life).

See? Not your typical rom-com from a not-so-typical comedian.

When he’s not performing his latest stand-up routine, Nanjiani plays Dinesh on HBO’s tech comedy Silicon Valley and has dipped his toes in the world of podcasting. Now, he can add starring in and writing his first major film, for which Amazon Studios ponied up a whopping $12 million after it screened at Sundance, to his list of accomplishments.

Adweek caught up with Nanjiani, Adweek’s Creative 100 cover star for 2017, at the tail end of the first leg of his current comedy tour with Big Sick co-stars Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler and Ray Romano. He told us about his creative process, starring alongside Snoop Dogg and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in an Old Navy campaign, and what he hopes to accomplish next.

Adweek: Your first major film comes out at the end of the month. Are you excited?
Kumail Nanjiani: I feel a lot of different ways. Most importantly, I guess, I feel happy with the movie itself. Beyond that, you can’t really control people’s reactions or how it does at the box office. So, it’s a little nerve-wracking trying to guess if people are going to go see it or not. The most important thing, though, is that I feel happy with the thing that we did.

What was the best part about making this movie?
I genuinely loved the whole thing so much, especially once we had financing for the movie, did the casting, and knew we were going to make the movie. Me, Emily, Mike [Showalter], Barry [Mendel] and Judd [Apatow] would just hang out all day and talk about making the movie. All day every day, Emily and I were writing and rewriting the movie. Just to see it get better and better with each draft was really exciting. Then shooting the actual movie, I loved working with Ray Romano and Holly Hunter. They’re both legends, and I’ve been a fan of them for so long. To get to work with people of that caliber was just such a thrill. It was so fun! We would take weekends off, and on Sundays I would start losing it. I would be like, “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s shoot some more!” I loved just being in Williamsburg, rehearsing on the weekends and shooting during the week. I loved the feeling of everybody working toward one common goal. It really felt like the entire crew, just everybody, was really invested in making a good movie.

I laughed a lot and shed a few tears when I saw it.
Yeah, definitely. The good thing was that all of us, everyone involved, we really were trying to make the best movie. Everybody got the tone, so it wasn’t like there were big disagreements about the kind of movie we wanted to make. That would have been way tougher. The fact that we all knew the kind of movie we wanted to make made all the discussions much more constructive. There would be times when Emily would say, “I don’t think there should be a joke here,” and sometimes I would disagree with her, but we just sort of had to talk about each little thing. Even if we did disagree, the conversation always made for a better movie.

You work on so many different projects simultaneously. How do they all tie together?
I see them all fitting together because they are all things that I like doing. I did a podcast about The X-Files, and that to me was just like, “Oh, I really love The X-Files.” … And then with the other stuff, that just truly comes from stuff I like doing. Acting on Silicon Valley, acting on Portlandia or doing stand-up—to me, that’s all comedy, and I love writing and performing comedy. Those all fit together in a little more obvious way. This movie was a little different because it’s a comedy but it’s the first time I’ve ever had to do any sort of dramatic performance at all. That was the first thing in a while that felt like I was going out of my comfort zone.

How did you prepare for that leap?
Well, I took acting classes for the first time. I think it was after Season 2 of Silicon Valley, I started taking acting classes knowing there was a chance we may get to make this movie. I wanted to be ready for it. Making a movie is so hard, and there are just so many things that can go wrong, that this was just a part of it that I didn’t want to feel nervous about.

Nanjiani’s first major film comes out this month.
Photographed by: Marc Royce Prop Styling: Nathan Carden/Jorge Perez Reps Grooming: Sydney Sollod/The Wall Group

This story first appeared in the June 12, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@ktjrichards katie.richards@adweek.com Katie Richards is a staff writer for Adweek.