Welcome to Kumail Nanjiani's Villain Era

Hulu's Chippendale's series gives the Marvel alum a chance to show off in a whole new way.

<p>Kanya Iwana</p> Shirt by Bode, jeans by Levis, shoes by Marc Nolan.

Kanya Iwana

Shirt by Bode, jeans by Levis, shoes by Marc Nolan.

Kumail Nanjiani has been plagued by the same recurring nightmare for a very long time. "I'm about to do stand-up, and I get on stage and I don't have any material and it's a full crowd and I'm up there and I don't know what to do. The set-up is always different so I never know what dream I'm walking into, you know?" Nanjani tells me on Zoom from his mid-century modern office in L.A. "I'll be hanging out with friends at a bar or something and then suddenly I'm at an open mic and they call my name and I'm like, 'Oh shit, it's that fucking dream again!'"

The comedian, actor, producer, and screenwriter knows it doesn't take a psychiatrist or dream interpreter to crack this one: "It always happens whenever I'm feeling intimidated or inadequate. Last week, I had the dream three nights in a row. I was like, I get it."

Right now, he's about to show the world a new side of himself as an actor in his most challenging project to date — his forthcoming Hulu miniseries, Welcome to Chippendales (streaming Nov. 22), which he also executive produced. Nanjiani stars as Somen "Steve" Banjeree, an Indian immigrant who became the unlikely founder of the famous male-stripping empire. No, unfortunately we don't get to see Nanjiani himself as a buff male dancer in a Speedo, even if he does have the Marvel muscles for it, but wardrobe, hair, and makeup do help him take on a whole new look befitting a wannabe Hugh Hefner in seedy 1980s Los Angeles. ("Every other person got to dress fabulously, Murray [Bartlett], Annaleigh [Ashford], Juliette [Lewis]. But I got these, you know, frumpy suits," he jokes of his co-stars, including Dan Stevens and Nicola Peltz Beckham.) So, naturally, we took the opportunity of this shoot to put him in a pair of women's jeans and patterned disco-era top befitting a stylish man of the era.

Along with the pressure that came with portraying a real person and story — the true crime saga is inspired by the events chronicled in the book Deadly Dance: The Chippendales Murders Nanjiani also plays an objectively bad guy in a role that places him squarely outside his usual comedic repertoire. Nanjiani, 44, became famous for stand-up comedy based on his real-life experiences, including growing up in Pakistan, moving to Iowa for college at 18, and dealing with racist hecklers as a Muslim post-9/11.

"Welcome to Chippendales is the role I've been most nervous to take on, because I never played anybody like [Somen] ... I've mostly played people who were, in some ways, different versions of myself. Generally they were funny or had some element of likability to them," Nanjiani tells InStyle.

See: his breakout acting gig playing sarcastic, nerdy software engineer Dinesh in the HBO ensemble comedy Silicon Valley or his first role as a leading man in The Big Sick. Judd Apatow produced the rom-com, which Nanjiani wrote with his wife, Emily V. Gordon. The whole thing was based on their incredible real-life love story. (Spoiler: Eight months into on-and-off dating, Gordon got sick with a mysterious illness and was placed in a medically induced coma. They got married three months later.)

<p>Kanya Iwana</p> Shirt by Corridor.

Kanya Iwana

Shirt by Corridor.

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Sure, playing Kingo, the buff immortal hero moonlighting as a Bollywood star in 2021’s Eternals — the first South Asian superhero in a Marvel movie, by the way — required a (now-viral) physical transformation. But playing Banjeree required a mental one that proved even more arduous. "This guy has done a lot of bad stuff" — orchestrating murder and arson, for starters — "and I was scared to do that, because I know I couldn't use any of my go-to moves. I couldn't be funny. I couldn't even smile that much." Cue the nightmares.

Despite not having his usual strengths to lean on and feeling "nervous and intimidated" by the role — in fact, he initially turned it down, telling GQ that he was unsure if he wanted to play "a bad guy from my part of the world" — Najiani ultimately decided "the story was too good and the character was too exciting." So, he didn’t back down from the challenge and shared that "real representation is playing complicated, complex characters,” but was quick to add an eyebrow-raising caveat: “the tyranny of positive representation is very reductive.”

He learned how to break out of unpleasant emotions and turn things on and off between takes in order "to have a normal life and be a good husband and be present at home, and not bring it home with me," he says, especially considering his wife was also a producer on the show. ("I want to have a good life, a happy life!" he says of actors who go full-on method). Luckily, the workout regimen he used to get famously ripped for Marvel also helped him release tension after shooting dark scenes — and become an even better performer.

"I really still enjoy working out. I get a lot out of it. It's for me, mentally, been really good. It grounds me in my body, it's good for stress, I sleep better, and it makes me better at my job, you know, because so much of acting is about sort of feeling your body and being in your body,” Nanjiani says. “For years, I felt really disconnected from my body, so working out is something that just connects me with myself.”

<p>Kanya Iwana</p> Shirt by Bode, jeans by Levi&amp;#39;s, shoes by Marc Nolan.

Kanya Iwana

Shirt by Bode, jeans by Levi's, shoes by Marc Nolan.

While he wishes the fact that his appearance wouldn't pull focus from the actual work ("I have to change the way I look for my job," he states plainly), he has a Zen "it is what it is" attitude about it — and any feelings of body dysmorphia he expressed in past interviews when he first received an onslaught of attention for his abs seem to be in the rear-view. As he recently told People for its Sexiest Man Alive issue, his “self-care secret” is “not looking in the mirror that much.”

Nanjiani does perk up a bit to compliments paid to his newfound red carpet style — Banjeree may have "terrible fashion sense" but Nanjiani has been undergoing a fashion evolution over the last five or six years, thanks to celebrity stylists Jeanne Yang and Chloe Takayanagi, who have helped push him to "take some swings" sartorially, experimenting with colors and patterns. "I didn't think there was a lot I could pull off and in the beginning, there were a couple of things where Chloe would be like, 'Just trust me, OK?' And then you end up in some like, GQ best dressed thing and she's like, 'See, I told you!' And I'm like, 'Yeah wow, OK, you're right. Thank you.'" (The sherwani he wore to the Eternals L.A. premiere, by Pakistani designer Umar Sayeed Couture, was all his idea, though, and something that felt important to him.)

<p>Kanya Iwana</p> Shirt by Corridor, pants by Bode, shoes by Marc Nolan.

Kanya Iwana

Shirt by Corridor, pants by Bode, shoes by Marc Nolan.

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Getting dressed up again for a red carpet is all the more fun now after staying home for so long, even after the rest of the world began to emerge from COVID bubbles. As was documented in The Big Sick, his wife, Emily, is immunocompromised — which has meant sitting out reunions, weddings, or award season events that didn't require testing and generally remaining more careful than anyone they know. But the time secluded together also helped the couple strengthen their relationship and get to know each other in a deeper way, Nanjiani says, despite being married since 2007. (It also gave them time to launch a podcast, Staying In with Emily and Kumail.)

"Quarantine was a very, very stressful time. It was stressful for her, too, but I think we can both admit it was much more stressful for me. I just felt so out of control and we realized that both of our reactions to her initial illness were such a big part of the patterns of our relationship ... it became very obvious that this was something that was still affecting us, so really, spending that year-and-a-half with just us — we really didn't leave the house, some people were shooting, but I didn't — really, really brought us closer together," he said. "When we look back, however many years from now at that year-and-a-half together, it's always going to be a milestone. I think we appreciate each other more now. I think we communicate a lot better now." He ends with this wise takeaway: "Relationships are always evolving, because you're always evolving, and the other person is always evolving."

Sadly, he says the couple has no plans to make another movie based on their experience, explaining that having such an intimate story live on forever can be a strange thing. "It sort of opens the door; it's a stressful thing to suddenly have people asking you very personal things about yourself," he says of The Big Sick, which other intercultural couples and those dealing with illness have both connected to in different ways. And well, Nanjiani was also perhaps a bit too humble about the whole thing. Despite winning an Independent Spirit Award and being nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for The Big Sick, "I never actually considered that people would watch it," he says.

While pivoting from comedian to actor to bona fide Marvel movie star has already been quite the ride, Nanjiani isn't done evolving — and he finally has the luxury of choice, a far cry from the types of one-dimensional cab driver or 7-11 clerk type-opportunities he felt he couldn't say no to when he was first starting out. If a Marvel role wasn’t a clear sign of making it, he also earned a Star Wars credit on his résumé when he appeared as illusionist and con-man Haja Estree in this year’s Obi-Wan Kenobi alongside Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor. "As the opportunities you get get more exciting, your goals shift, too. You know, when I first started doing comedy, my goal was to be able to host the Des Moines Funny Bone. I remember that was my first specific goal. And I was like, 'If I do that, that's all I want.' But it keeps changing," he says.

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As for what his next big challenge will be, Nanjiani is keeping that close to the vest, but he's trying not to overthink it too much (with help from his therapist). "I do have a specific list. It's not written down anywhere. I haven't even told Emily what it is, but I have in my head very specific things that I want,” he says. “Hopefully, I get to do them. But if not, there'll be other great things and I'm just trying to sort of trust myself.”

Read on as Nanjiani discusses his first kiss, his favorite Hollywood Chris, and his cat, Bagel.

Who is your celebrity crush? 

Hugh Grant. It's so great, because he's really stretching himself and doing so many different kinds of things, like getting to play bad guys and stuff. There's joy in all his performances. Especially now, that's really fun to watch.

What is the last thing you do before you fall asleep?

Read ... is that boring? When I decided to end the night with reading rather than scrolling, the difference in sleep is so obvious. It's wild how much of a difference it makes. Like if I'm scrolling and go to sleep, I wake up a bunch of times every night. If I'm reading and I go to sleep, I'll stay asleep all night. It's night and day.

First album you ever owned?

It was a Pakistani band called Vital Signs.

Who is your favorite villain? 

Hannibal Lecter. Because he's obviously a bad guy, does awful bad things, but he's still kind of really loved, because he's so charming, you know?

Favorite cheesy pickup line?

I do it in the The Big Sick. I'm like, 'I can write your name in Urdu.' I think that's actually a pretty good one. In real life, Emily was thoroughly charmed. In the movie, she's like, 'Pff, is this a thing you do?' You know, we wrote aspirational versions of ourselves.

If you were required to spend $1,000 today, what would you buy and why?

Oh, my god. $1,000 a day, what would I buy? I would probably go buy a really great vintage poster for a movie I love, because I love vintage posters, but they're so expensive.

If you ran for office, what would your slogan be?

I would want to lose. I don't want that responsibility. So, mine would be like, “Vote for the other one! I lost a bet.”

<p>Kanya Iwana</p> Shirt by Bode, jeans by Levi&amp;#39;s, shoes by Marc Nolan.

Kanya Iwana

Shirt by Bode, jeans by Levi's, shoes by Marc Nolan.

Describe your first kiss.

It was a peck on the cheek — and it felt like a home run. But the first one that you would probably be considered a real grown-up kiss … it was my first one. It was not her first one. And it became very obvious to her that it was my first one. She was like, worried afterwards (laughs). It was really, really embarrassing. I didn't know it was coming and it just sort of happened.

How old were you, if you don't mind me asking? 

Let's not. (laughs). OK, OK, sure. I was 21 or something. I was a real grown-up. We could drive and vote and everything. Maybe I was 20. The first number [in my age] was a two when I had my first kiss. Yeah, I did not expect it. I really liked her. I was thrilled that it happened. But not thrilled at my own performance.

Favorite bagel order?

I like an asiago or like a jalapeño bagel. Or a sesame bagel with plain or veggie cream cheese is really hard to beat. I don't like an everything bagel. Don't put everything on there. It's too many things. Everything? No. I want a something bagel. And I don't like sweet. If I wanted something bagel-shaped and sweet, I'll eat a donut.

My cat’s name is Bagel. I guess she’s my everything, so she’s sort of an everything bagel?

Who's your favorite Hollywood Chris? 

Oh, this is a trap ... Christopher Lloyd for sure.

Oh, OK, I feel like the question was asking more about the Chrisses that usually get confused. You know, like Chris Pine, Pratt –

You think Chris Pratt and Chris Lloyd don't get confused for each other? People confuse him with Chris Pine all the time.

Well, good segue — what's your favorite joke?

It's probably something from like, Zach Galifianakis stand up or like Jerry Seinfeld stand up, maybe something from Conan, you know, like the people that made me fall in love with stand up and want to be a comedian.

When was the last time you cried?

Yesterday. I watched a movie. I can't tell you which movie.

… Because it's embarrassing or because it hasn’t been released?

I'm never embarrassed to cry at any movie, but it was — yeah, it was like an animated movie that's not out yet. I wasn't expecting it and it just really hit me, like immediately. I've gotten very teary. I cry at movies all the time now.

Photographer

Kanya Iwana

Assisted By

Jeremy Eric Sinclair

Grooming

KC Fee Butterfield

Styling

Chloe Takayanagi

Creative Director

Jenna Brillhart

Senior Editorial Director

Laura Norkin

Senior Visuals Editor

Kelly Chiello

Associate Photo Editor

Amanda Lauro

Video Director

Justine Manocherian

Director of Photography

Brandon Scott Smith

Producer

Sahara Pagan

Executive Producer

Bree Green

Booking

Christopher Luu

Special thanks to

The Prospect Hotel

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