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Welcome To Chippendales' Kumail Nanjiani on leaving his comfort zone and crying on camera for the first time

Najiani talks tackling a character who is "allergic to being vulnerable" and why he'd love to play The Eternals' Kingo again

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Center: Kumail Nanjiani (Photo: Brian Bowen Smith); left and right: Nanjiani in Welcome To Chippendales (Photos: Erin Simkin/Hulu)
Center: Kumail Nanjiani (Photo: Brian Bowen Smith); left and right: Nanjiani in Welcome To Chippendales (Photos: Erin Simkin/Hulu)
Graphic: Karl Gustafson

[Editor’s note: This interview discusses events from the first six episodes of Welcome To Chippendales.]

Kumail Nanjiani is ready to explore new ground. The actor has carved a unique space in Hollywood, thanks to his stand-up act, roles on shows like Silicon Valley and Portlandia, and his Oscar-nominated 2017 film, The Big Sick. While all these projects proved his comedic chops, Nanjiani’s most daunting performance to date comes in Welcome To Chippendales, the limited series currently airing on Hulu.

Created by Robert Siegel, the true-crime drama charts the bizarre case of Somen “Steve” Banarjee, an Indian entrepreneur who rose to fame after founding Chippendales—and was later charged with planning the murder of the the male strip club’s show producer, Nick de Noia (Murray Bartlett). Much like the real story, Welcome To Chippendales is full of shocking twists that stem from Banerjee’s quest for power, not to mention plenty of ’80s campiness. Still, the show has a surprisingly emotional underbelly.

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The A.V. Club spoke to Nanjiani about how he wanted to depict Banerjee’s fall from grace, overcoming the anxiety of crying on camera, and being ready to tackle projects outside of comedy.


The A.V. Club: You’ve said before that when Robert Siegel got in touch with you for this role, you didn’t know much about Steve Banerjee’s story. There isn’t much information about his personal background, but besides the script, what kind of research did you do to prepare for this role?

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Kumail Nanjiani: Yeah, there really isn’t any information. Most times, when I’ve acted, my process is to just go by the script. However, this time, I did have extra things I wanted to look at because Steve is an enigma. He does so many things that don’t make sense to me. So I looked at some stuff here and there. Like, there are podcasts, but I didn’t listen to them entirely because I wanted to give this written character a fresh approach. What I mainly found helpful was that all the people who’ve talked about Steve have said such different things. He was different things to different people. It helped me reconcile with this guy who is loving toward his wife but quite ruthless in other ways. It allowed me to have contradictory parts of him.

AVC: One of those parts is that he is socially awkward and doesn’t know how to make friends. Welcome To Chippendales firmly establishes his loneliness. How did you want your performance to evoke that isolation?

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KN: By the way, that’s very insightful. I spoke about how he had difficulty making friends with the writers initially while trying to figure out his character. It’s a very important part of him. It comes from the fact that he’s afraid to show who he is, which limits how much he opens up to people and how that affects my performance. There were certain things, like he’s not funny or charming, so it’s harder to befriend someone. But really, what keeps him lonely is he doesn’t reveal himself to anyone. The only few times in the whole series he doesn’t feel that way is when he’s with his wife, Irene (Annaleigh Ashford). Even with her, when push comes to shove, he hides. When he needs her support the most, he chooses not to take it. After returning from his father’s funeral, she asks him about it, and he could show his grief and sadness, but he doesn’t want to. He’s allergic to being vulnerable.

AVC: Welcome To Chippendales explores Steve wrestling with his cultural identity. Why did you all think it’s essential to explore that and take him to India in episode three for his father’s funeral?

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KN: At least in the way I interpreted it, his relationship with his culture and race is very fraught. He changes his name from Somen to Steve. He’s racist against non-white people, as seen when he discriminates against his club’s popular Black dancer. To him, success is very white, making him want to push away certain parts of himself. In some ways, at least in how I played him, if Steve could be white, he would be. He would make that change. It was interesting to see him return to India because he’s still the only one wearing a tan American suit while everyone else is in white funeral attire. We wanted to show his outsider status isn’t because he’s an Indian man living in America, he’s an outsider at home too. His flaws transcend his cultural identity. He can’t open himself up to his own mother, and he doesn’t fit in anywhere.

Kumail Nanjiani and Annaleigh Ashford in Welcome To Chippendales
Kumail Nanjiani and Annaleigh Ashford in Welcome To Chippendales
Photo: Erin Simkin/Hulu
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AVC: Did you have any input on what those scenes in India would look like? Or what the dialogue would be because Steve and his mother mostly converse in Hindi?

KN: I definitely wanted the conversation between them to be in Hindi except for a couple of sentences when I saw it as him trying to push her away, become more formal with her, or declare himself [as] different than she sees him. It’s just when he’s trying to assert autonomy, like when he talks about how he has more money now than everyone else in the family put together. But for the rest of it, I wanted it to be in Hindi because I talk to my own parents in Urdu, and it feels unnatural to do it another way. Language is a big part of your relationship with your loved ones. I wanted them to have that intimacy. I also personally wanted more Hindi on the show, it adds a deeper texture and makes shooting those scenes more intimate too. It’s kind of fun to know she and I are the only ones who understand what we’re saying to each other.

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AVC: I love the detail that despite everything, Steve mostly eats at Indian restaurants. It’s also where he takes Irene on their first date.

KN: I mean, it’s some of the best food, you know? Even if you’re a self-loathing person, you have to admit that [laughs].

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AVC: Welcome To Chippendales is a dark true story, but the male stripping and the ’80s setting also make it campy. What was it like to figure out how to balance both of those things?

KN: It’s a dark story, but we always knew the stripping would add an air of fun to it even when you don’t expect it to. When Steve and Irene meet for the first time, they have an awkward chat about caffeine-free Coke and how to best use ice. Behind them, a bachelorette party gets lap dances from the male strippers. We thought that contrast was powerful, and we could use it when the show needed energy or levity. It’s a great tool to have.

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Filming the actual dances was tough for the dancers. It was physically demanding, and they rehearsed so much. I never saw them make any mistakes during the takes I saw. Just as it lightens up the show’s energy, it also did that on the set. Suddenly we’re seeing the dance performance lift everyone up, including the female background actors as the audience. Every single time we yelled cut, they would freak out and applaud. It was as if they had never seen it before. I understood why Chippendales was huge watching their reactions.

AVC: I wanted to discuss developing Steve and Nick’s volatile partnership, which comes to a head in episode five, in which they both engage in a snow fight. It starts out fun and then immediately crumbles. It’s a sly and succinct depiction of their friendship. Was that the idea behind it?  

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KN: Again, that’s very insightful. That scene is extremely, extremely important. To me, it’s the last time Steve tries to make amends with Nick. He goes to the New York City show and loves it. In his own way he tries to congratulate and apologize to Nick; it’s the best that Steve can do. I always thought, in some ways, he’s this little kid who is emotionally immature. The snow fight starts off exciting because he feels like a kid, and it’s sad because it’s the last time they’re trying to be friendly. But we quickly realized there would never be any way for these two to be close. Their personalities aren’t meant for that. It was heartbreaking to film and even watch Steve walking out of there. It’s the point of no return for them. We now know things will never be okay again.

Welcome to Chippendales | Official Trailer | Hulu

AVC: You’ve laughed and made us laugh with your work, but what’s it like to cry onscreen? Steve breaks down in some of the later episodes. There’s a crushing phone call with his mother in episode six and a crucial scene with Murray in the finale.

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KN: Good question. I’ve never cried on camera before because it’s always intimidated me. As I wanted to do more serious acting, I’ve spoken to some actors I admire who have done dramatic work about how they approach those scenes. The advice I got most commonly was that the goal is to be emotionally real and present, and if you cry, that’s fine. If not, that’s also fine as long as it feels truthful. I didn’t give myself an obligation to cry in those scenes.

I usually go into filming overprepared. I know where my beat changes are and all of that stuff. I go in with a clear sense of how I want to do that scene. And then, as soon as they yell “action,” my job is to forget all that, do what the scene demands, and go off of the other actors. Usually, it ends up being the opposite of what I prepared. However, I found myself getting emotional whenever I read Steve’s phone-call scene with his mom in episode six. I had trouble memorizing the lines. I didn’t want to spend that emotion. I decided I wouldn’t prepare; I would just show up and see what happens. It’s risky because the prep is my safety net. It was just a matter of being present. Thankfully, I spoke to my co-actors, who were very supportive.

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During the takes of that phone call, the episode’s director, Nisha Ganatra, was so kind. She was holding me through it. But you do feel vulnerable because you’re showing a part of yourself you wouldn’t be comfortable showing otherwise. I certainly haven’t done it this much so far. It broke through a mental barrier I’ve had about my performance. Whenever I’ve had emotional scenes in the past, I would prepare and get somewhere with them. This was spontaneous but exhausting. You have one tough conversation with your mom in real-life, and it stays with you for weeks. To do it 10 times on camera is physically draining.

AVC: Who are some of the people whose advice you took?

KN: So I talked to my friend Zach Woods, who I worked with on Silicon Valley, when I was filming The Big Sick. He said to naturally do what I feel like, not work too hard to cry. I also spoke with Peacemaker’s Chukwude Iwuji; he’s such an amazing actor; he’s going to be such a breakout next year. I ran into him at a mutual friend’s wedding, and I thought my goal is to ask him about his process. And I did. He said the same thing Zach said, to take away the obligation and open yourself up. That felt very exciting to hear because it’s the direction I was going in, not to be so rigid, and hopefully, viewers connect with that.

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AVC: Despite the subject matter, you bring your deadpan delivery to the show. Was that intentional or did it happen organically?

KN: I would say it happened on its own. I wasn’t sure how to play a guy who is not funny because this isn’t an all-out comedy. It’s a discreet way to measure success for me, I know when something’s funny, and if it is, that’s successful. Whereas here, I don’t have a developed gauge of whether I was good in a dramatic scene. Now I’m learning to trust myself with that. It was still fun to see how much comedy we could get away with on a show like this. What makes sense in this tone that the writers have created? It can’t be that he’s cracking a joke with Irene; it has to be from him not realizing what he’s saying.

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Kumail Nanjiani in Welcome To Chippendales
Kumail Nanjiani in Welcome To Chippendales
Photo: Erin Simkin/Hulu

AVC: True crime is difficult to adapt when there’s a struggle over what message it might send. Since you didn’t know much about this case, what was your takeaway from Welcome To Chippendales and Steve once you wrapped?

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KN: My big takeaway was two-pronged. You have to find a way to like yourself; no external validation will make up for it, and that was Steve’s problem. He did not like himself or wasn’t in touch with his own emotions, so it came out as destructive anger. I also think he’s not comfortable in his own skin. He thinks a certain amount of success will make him happy, but that’s never going to happen because he looked for it outside. But the call should be coming from inside the house, you know?

The other idea for us was to examine how we define success in America. People talk about grind or hustle culture. We’ve prioritized being more successful today than yesterday, which is unsustainable. At some point, you have to say, “Enough is enough.” But that’s not the way we are set up here. Steve was tremendously successful, and if he were satisfied and happy, it would be okay. But he kept wanting more, and we wanted to depict how that impacted him.

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AVC: Do you know if we’re still getting the sequel to Eternals or if we’ll see Kingo anytime soon, especially since he gets a couple of references in the Guardians Of The Galaxy holiday special?

KN: It was great to see that. I’m friends with James Gunn, so he did it as a fun little nod to me. He also added Easter eggs for his other friends who aren’t in the Marvel Cinematic Universe [including DC stars John Cena and Margot Robbie]. But I honestly don’t know about Eternals 2 or what Kingo is up to. I genuinely haven’t heard anything, but I’d love to play him again. I wish I had more. I love being part of this and also Obi-Wan Kenobi. I must forget I’m in this huge franchise when I’m working on it, or else I’d be paralyzed with fear. But it was great, and it was also fun to see an action figure of myself.

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AVC: What kind of projects or genres are you hoping to do more of now that you’re expanding outside of comedy?

KN: After this experience on Chippendales, I definitely want to do more of it. I have my next couple of things lined up, and the next project is a bit lighter. I can’t mention what it is yet, but I’m excited. It’s closer to the realm of the Star Wars and MCU genre. And the thing after that is closer to Chippendales and looks like I might have to cry on camera again for it. But I’m ready now.