Ah, for the halcyon days of 2019, when the most distracting thing that could happen on an otherwise slow news day was something nice and simple, like the entire internet losing its mind over Kumail Nanjiani revealing on Instagram that he was suddenly, incredibly swole. And reveal he did, in December of that in-hindsight tranquil year, unleashing an Instagram photo of his new physique that was clearly prepped and ready for his appearance as a superhero in Marvel’s upcoming Eternals.
There has been much discussion, then and since, about Nanjiani choosing to radically transform himself in such a manner, especially in light of a public persona that ran more heavily to X-Files fandom, video games, and Silicon Valley.
The stand-up/actor gave an interview to GQ this week—literally titled “How Kumail Nanjiani Got Huge”—that dives pretty openly into some of the psychology of that choice. Despite the name, the piece as a whole is much less about his exercise regimen, and much more about why this happened, and how it’s changed its life. (Dudes try to fight him now, for one thing, which is apparently new.)
“I know the look of people who are racist,” Nanjiani notes at one point during the interview, describing an “unfamiliar glare” he got from a stranger he physically bumped into at a restaurant shortly after getting big. “But this was a new one!”
Nanjiani says he was motivated to make the change—which he makes clear, repeatedly, nobody at Marvel asked him to make—for factors both relating to his career, and his own self image, recalling a childhood watching guys like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone on film. “We saw these guys who were like Adonises and gods and we were like, ‘Oh, that’s what strong men look like,’” Nanjiani relates, connecting Sylvester Stallone and Adonis in a way that few classics scholars ever have. “Not that they can access their feelings, or cry, or say when they’re sad, or say when they’re scared. They have a six-pack up to their necks.”
Those latter, more self-deprecating asides run throughout the entire piece, and are the clearest sign we get that this is still the guy who wrote Beta Male and The Big Sick, now wrestling with the realities of his suddenly Wrestlemania-ready form.
At the same time, Nanjiani makes it clear he genuinely wanted to break out of the nerdy friend roles he felt trapped in prior to this—hopping the Stuber divide, as it were—noting that he now feels like he’s getting sent offers as “normal” guys instead. “I was not seen as a normal guy before this,” he notes, pointing out that actors with his skin tone are typically stuck playing either nerds or terrorists.
The most interesting parts of the piece, though, come from Eternals director Chloé Zhao, who cast Nanjiani as his character Kingo (an immortal hero living “undercover” as a Bollywood star) well before he made any big physical moves. Zhao denies Nanjiani’s assertion that she was “a little upset” with him for making such a radical change, but does make it clear that she always wanted him for the part:
Kingo is a classic golden-era movie star. We look at Kumail, and it makes sense to us. Obviously, he transformed himself to make it even more emphasized. But let’s just say it’s a shame he’s typecast, that that was put on him. It obviously was false because what draws us to him is a level of confidence through showmanship and yet this gentle heart and big heart underneath. And that’s the character that we wrote as well. It just happened to be the same person.