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May 24, 2020

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The many moods of an actor during quarantine

KUMAIL Nanjiani has a few names for quarantine life. He has divided time firmly between “pre-Hanks/Wilson” and “post-Hanks/Wilson,” referring to the early COVID-19 diagnosis for Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson. And he has settled on calling the strange, bewildering days of lockdown “The Weirds,” which applies to all the confusion and odd parts of life since the pandemic commenced, like when Nanjiani was on “Good Morning America” last week.

“I did that over Zoom from my garage,” Nanjiani said. “It’s 5am New York time, so the sun’s not out. I’m wearing pajama bottoms. It’s just a strange reminder of how different everything is right now.”

With his wife, screenwriter Emily V. Gordon, Nanjiani has been chronicling all the mood swings, anxieties and small comforts of quarantine life from their home in Los Angeles in their for-charity podcast “Staying In.” Right now, after more altruistic periods, Nanjiani considers himself in his “most selfish phase.” Like everyone else, he wants his life back.

But the quarantine has also given Nanjiani a chance to contemplate a whirlwind few years. Since his breakthrough in 2017’s Oscar-nominated “The Big Sick,” an autobiographical romantic comedy he wrote with Gordon about the dramatic beginning of their relationship, Nanjiani has morphed into a leading man.

He played a Uber driver with Dave Bautista in “Stuber,” and voiced a tiny CGI alien in “Men in Black International” and a mischievous ostrich in “Dolittle.” He’ll co-star in the upcoming Marvel movie “The Eternals.” And now, he’s starring alongside Issa Rae (“Insecure”) in “The Lovebirds,” a comedy in which a couple, just after splitting up, become embroiled in a deadly crime saga. The film debuted on Netflix after the company acquired it from Paramount Pictures due to the pandemic.

Not all his projects, however, have worked. But even with the disappointments, the 42-year-old Nanjiani has been a bright spot of unrelenting deadpan sarcasm, spiraling neurosis and authentic sweetness. He tends to make anything he’s in better.

As a Pakistani-American stand-up comedian-turned-actor, Nanjiani is unlike any star before him. He’s now finding his way in a Hollywood where South Asian actors, when they’re cast at all, have usually been typecast. So right now, when Nanjiani isn’t freaking out about the pandemic, he’s contemplating what kind of movies he wants to make.

“It’s honestly during this quarantine that I sat down and sort of thought, ‘What do I want the next five years of my life to look like?’” he said. “Sometimes you just do things because people are asking you to do it and it’s a big-budget thing. The last few years, I’ve gotten to do some stuff I really enjoyed, that I loved, and some stuff I didn’t enjoy that didn’t turn out well.”

Nothing captured Nanjiani’s transformation more than a photo he posted on Instagram last year displaying his new chiseled physique, a result of training for “The Eternals.” The photo — a good distance from the computer nerd of his “Silicon Valley” character — kicked off a storm of debate about body image and “the twilight of the schlubs.”

“To me it was important,” he said. “I was playing the first Pakistani superhero in a Hollywood movie, in a Marvel movie no less, and it was very important to me that this guy looked like he could hang with Thor or Captain America.”

Nanjiani considers “The Eternals,” slated for release next year, a new direction he’s eager to continue — not just because it’s a step outside of comedy but because of the experience working with director Chloe Zhao (“The Rider”).

“She’s really one of the great filmmakers of our time,” he said. “Working with her changed my perspective. I realized I want to be working with someone who makes me feel that safe.”

“The Lovebirds” is also a result of a trusted relationship — with director Michael Showalter, who directed “The Big Sick” and has collaborated with Nanjiani since the 2009 series “Michael and Michael Have Issues.”

For Showalter, the appeal of “The Lovebirds” was predicated largely on the combination of Nanjiani and Rae.

“I just love that they’re 21st-century movie stars,” he said. “They’re not what we’re used to seeing. The idea of these two actors playing romantic opposites in a fun action movie felt like a really invigorating, fresh piece of casting that makes the whole thing feel interesting.”

It’s clear Nanjiani is motivated partly by taking roles others might not expect him to want. He’s drawn to subverting stereotypes because he doesn’t fit them anyway.

“I don’t feel like I belong in any specific group,” he said. “I don’t say that as a way of being like, ‘You can’t put me in a box. I’m so weird.’ I would like to belong to a specific group, but I don’t feel Pakistani because I don’t live in Pakistan. I don’t feel American because a lot of Americans don’t think of me as American. I do comedy but I also do other things.”


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