Kumail Nanjiani offers his apologies — sort of.
Usually he’s livelier, as the sardonic coder Dinesh on HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” and as the geeky host of Comedy Central’s “The Meltdown With Jonah and Kumail.” But today, weeks into hotel room junkets for his new film, “The Big Sick,” after screenings and Q&As plus an early-morning drive down from New York, he can’t seem to stifle his yawns.
So he’s nursing a coffee. Luckily, Emily V. Gordon, his wife and frequent collaborator, is the bubbly human equivalent of a shaken-up can of La Croix.
“You’re getting the most tired version of us,” he jokes as he and Gordon settle onto a stiff sofa at a hotel in the District’s West End. “So we won’t know well enough to not say controversial stuff.”
There’s not much that’s controversial in “The Big Sick,” which he and Gordon wrote together and is based on their real-life romance. But the movie, like other rom-coms that happen to have mega-producer Judd Apatow attached to them, isn’t exactly a straightforward love story, either. “The Big Sick” is complicated — a sweet, bitter, then sweet again reminder of how vulnerable love can be to the vagaries of life.
The film follows a Muslim Pakistani American stand-up comedian whose parents expect to arrange his marriage, and the blond American paramour whom he neglects to tell about the whole marriage thing. It’s an only slightly Hollywood-ized version of Nanjiani’s real life. (Nanjiani, 39, plays himself.)
Then there is the story line that gives the film its name: “The Big Sick’s” heroine is in a coma.
Which actually happened to Gordon.
“We always say there’s a lot of movies in this movie,” offers Gordon, who has blunt Betty Page bangs and eyeliner that flicks up at the corners in a delicate cat’s-eye. In person, the 38-year-old is sharper and wittier than the on-screen Emily, who is rendered more wide-eyed and naive by the pixieish actress Zoe Kazan.
“The Big Sick,” which also stars Holly Hunter (“The Piano,” “Top of the Lake”) and Ray Romano (TV’s “Everybody Loves Raymond”), emerged from Sundance this January as one of the festival’s most-buzzed-about films. Before the dust had settled, Amazon had picked it up for $12 million, reportedly outbidding several other studios. (Amazon.com chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Which brings Nanjiani and Gordon here, to shill for their love story in hopes that it will stand out when it arrives in theaters this week, in the middle of a “Wonder Woman” kind of summer.
Nanjiani was onstage at Chicago’s famed Lincoln Lodge comedy showcase when he first encountered Gordon, who was in the audience, gently heckling him. At her communal table, she recalls, was a woman “who heckled him more than I did. I thought, ‘Oh, God, he’s going to think we’re part of this duo.’ ”
After the set, “I looked for you to apologize,” Gordon says to Nanjiani.
“You didn’t look hard enough,” he replies, shooting her a coy smile.
She didn’t have to. A few days later, they ran into each other again, and soon enough they were dating.
In person, Nanjiani is a lot like his on-screen self, if slightly quicker with a punchline. He speaks with the faint accent of his native Karachi. (He moved to the United States for college, in Iowa of all places.) He’s a comedian, but he was never an Uber driver, as he is in “The Big Sick.” He was an IT guy. (“Which is worse?” he asks jokingly.)
They’d been together for only about eight months when Gordon began feeling strangely ill, stricken with what she thought was a flu she couldn’t shake. Finally, her breathing and heart rate became so abnormal that doctors sent her to the hospital.
Gordon and Nanjiani tell this whole tale in a cozy sort of unison, one nodding, or occasionally piping up with a funny detail, while the other is talking,
They didn’t always share such synchronicity.
Until her hospitalization forced him to reckon with his feelings for her, Gordon says, “I was in a serious relationship, and Kumail was in a very casual relationship.”
Nanjiani was expected to follow through on a South Asian cultural tradition and let his parents arrange a marriage for him to a Pakistani Muslim woman. Unlike her on-screen counterpart, Gordon knew this.
“I wasn’t exactly thinking of an expiration date” on the relationship, Nanjiani says. But they were both aware that there was one.
Then Gordon was put into a medically induced coma as doctors raced to find the root of her illness. She was eventually diagnosed with adult-onset Still’s disease, a rare inflammatory disorder that racks sufferers with fever, rash and swollen joints. It can also affect the heart and lungs.
In real life, as in “The Big Sick,” it took a medical emergency to make Nanjiani hash out exactly what kind of relationship he was in with Gordon, as well as what kind of son he was. And what kind of Muslim.
Three months after Gordon woke from the coma, the pair married, first in a courthouse ceremony, then in a Pakistani Muslim one. They moved to New York and didn’t tell anyone they were hitched.
“I felt so exposed,” Gordon says. “My health was all anyone was talking to me about. It felt good to have some privacy.”
Though Gordon began writing essays for various publications, and Nanjiani was regularly onstage, the two stayed mum about their ordeal, too.
“I wanted a little emotional distance. You can’t really tell a good story when you’re wrapped up in it, going through it,” Gordon says, speaking in the language of the therapist she was before she quit to work side-by-side with her husband.
“We’re still kind of going through it,” Nanjiani chimes in.
“Absolutely,” Gordon says.
Then Nanjiani ran into Apatow at the South by Southwest conference in Austin in 2012. His stand-up comedy career was taking off, he was touring the country and “Silicon Valley” would soon debut to critical acclaim.
“Well,” he told Apatow, “there’s this crazy thing that kind of happened. . . .”
Men of color don’t often land leading roles in romantic films — and if you’re in search of leading men who are Muslim, then all you’ve got, for now, is Nanjiani. And he had to write the screenplay to land the part.
It’s not lost on him that he’s telling the story of a Pakistani family to mainstream audiences at a moment of deep Islamophobia.
“My family in this picture is definitely the underdog,” he says. “They’re the people from another culture. We have different names. We look different. It’s very easy to have them be the funny foreigners.”
Instead, “The Big Sick,” directed by Michael Showalter (“Wet Hot American Summer”) portrays the family with dimension, including parents who were at first deeply disapproving of Nanjiani’s romantic choice. Anupam Kher, a Bollywood legend, stars as Nanjiani's father, who is grappling to understand, and forgive, his son in rich scenes that illuminate how a Muslim family navigates American life.
Nanjiani’s acceptance into his girlfriend’s family is equally fraught, even if no one disowns anyone. There are scenes, with Nanjiani, Hunter and Romano silently tolerating one another in hospital waiting rooms, that feel like a metaphor for America, where we all ought to try harder to understand one another.
When Romano, interviewed by phone, gropes for a way to describe why these scenes have such power, he defers to Bono.
Yes, the U2 singer.
After catching a screening of the film, Romano recalls, Bono told the cast that “The Big Sick” was “a serious film disguised as a rom-com.”
“I don’t think they set out to do that,” Romano says of Nanjiani and Gordon. “At its core, it’s a rom-com. But it is showing this without preaching: Love transcends any culture.”
And in the parade of beautiful, smart young Pakistani women who arrive on Nanjiani’s doorstep, there’s something else, too: a no-judgments look at those who willingly choose culture over love.
Still, there’s already criticism of the fact that Nanjiani ends up with Gordon (who is named Emily Gardiner in the film).
“I’ve seen a lot of Desis are upset at me,” Nanjiani says with some exasperation, using a common term for people of South Asian origin. “Like, ‘Oh, another white girl.’ ”
“Keeping your identity sacred while also being able to do what you want, as an individual, I get it,” Gordon adds. “It’s complicated.”
That’s what the whole film is about, Nanjiani says.
“This is our story,” he says. “We didn’t fabricate it. And I think two different cultures coming together is beautiful.”
For that, no apologies.