Kumail Nanjiani Can Be Your Hero, Baby

Brian Raftery
Men's Health

From Men's Health

Photo credit: Emily Shur
Photo credit: Emily Shur

EVERY DAY IN THE GYM, as he was torturing himself to get into superhero shape, Kumail Nanjiani would hear that phrase in his head—part mission statement, part plea. The words first came to him early last year. That’s when the 41-year-old actor and writer began the workout regimen that would prepare him for this fall’s Marvel adventure The Eternals, in which he plays an ego-swollen, muscle-packed alien among men. Nanjiani devoured comic books and action films while growing up in Karachi, Pakistan, and has spent the past few years quietly positioning himself for Marvel supersizing. When it finally happened, he thought: I’m playing the first South Asian superhero in a Marvel movie. I don’t want to be the schlubby brown guy—I want to look like someone who can hang with Thor and Captain America.

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

And so, for months, Nanjiani would leave his home in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz and head to a discreetly located mega gym in Beverly Hills. During the hour-long trip, he would be filled with dread. He’d been hitting the gym since he was 16 years old but had never trained as intensely as he would for The Eternals; at one point, electric shocks were involved. The early workouts were so brutal he’d come close to vomiting. All Nanjiani could do was try to dissociate from the pain. Leave your body, he’d keep repeating. Please—do the movements, and leave your body.

It didn’t work. For a while, the only joy in this daily routine came from the relief Nanjiani felt when he drove away, aching and exhausted and more than a little shell-shocked. “At first, whenever he came home from a workout, he wasn’t able to focus on anything,” notes his wife, writer-producer Emily V. Gordon. “He was still a functioning person, but for an hour, you couldn’t really count on him to have a conversation. His body was adjusting.”

Soon Nanjiani realized that if he was going to complete his transformation, his mind would have to adjust as well. That’s the way it’s been throughout his life: In his 20s, he quit a full-time job to pursue a high-risk stand-up career. In his 30s, he decided to suddenly jump into acting and then somehow made that his second career. He’s always looked at whatever opportunity was in front of him and thought, Get good at this. Also: “He’s obsessive,” says Gordon. “When Kumail gets into things, he gets really into things.”

After several merciless months, Nanjiani adopted a new workout philosophy. It was the exact opposite of his leave your body directive. And for someone who’s played his fair share of easily relatable nice guys, and who once recorded a stand-up special called Beta Male, it was surprisingly intense. But over time, it worked:

Chase the pain.

Chase the pain.

Chase the pain.

ALMOST A YEAR LATER, ON A BRIGHT late-January afternoon, Nanjiani is sitting outdoors at a café near his home, eating an egg-white omelet and happily chatting about his Eternals agony. There are a few strands of gray in his hair, and he’s dressed in a tight, mustard-colored T-shirt, black Puma track pants, and blue-and-white Tiger sneakers. Over the next two hours, Nanjiani occasionally breaks into a sincere, and sincerely charming, tight-lipped smile, and not without good reason: Last night, he attended a party for Little America, the critically adored Apple TV+ series he co-created with Gordon, and he allowed himself his first brownie in a year.

Photo credit: Emily Shur
Photo credit: Emily Shur

But this morning, he was back at that mega gym in Beverly Hills, getting in some shoulder and chest workouts just for fun. Not so long ago, the mere thought of that hour-long drive “really fucked with me,” Nanjiani says. “Today, I drove to that gym, and five minutes into my workout, my mood brightened. I love it.”

Nanjiani’s good cheer is mostly due to the fact that he’s finally home after the busiest 12 months of his life. He began last year by shooting this month’s romantic comedy The Lovebirds, in which he and Issa Rae star as an on-the-brink-of-a-breakup couple who get pulled into a murder caper. Then he had his sixth and final season playing Dinesh, the quietly fuming brainiac on HBO’s tech-world takedown Silicon Valley.

At the same time, he was getting in shape for The Eternals, which he finished shooting less than a week ago. For a while, Nanjiani had to keep the movie hush-hush—he couldn’t explain why he was spending so many hours in the gym. One of the few to be clued in was Thomas Middleditch, his Silicon costar. Through the years, the two men have shared their fitness aspirations: Middleditch recalls a time when Nanjiani became fixated on the super-ripped Pakistani model Abbas Jafri. “Kumail would show us pictures of him while we were on set, and he’d look kind of envious,” says Middleditch. “Neither of us has a hesitation about going, ‘I wish I had his jawline or arms or whatever.’ I think a lot of sensitive weirdo comedians secretly aspire to be the tough guy. And when they finally get a reason to totally change their body—like becoming a superhero—they’re more incentivized.”

Middleditch, who’s known Nanjiani for more than a decade, wasn’t surprised by his friend’s commitment to his Eternals routine: “When Kumail’s given a shot at something, he’s going to take it.” Nanjiani’s showbiz trajectory bears that out. His path has been genuinely wild, the result of ceaseless curiosity and hardcore hustle.

Nanjiani arrived in the U. S. as a teenager to attend Grinnell College in Iowa, a school he knew little about, in a country he’d never before visited. (Some of his Western pop-culture knowledge came from old Mad magazines he’d found in a Karachi bazaar.) “I was scared, and I didn’t want to do it,” he says. “But I had no other options, no plan. My first two weeks there were among the worst in my life.”

Soon, though, he began making friends—some of whom would be in the audience several years later, watching Nanjiani onstage at a local coffee shop for his first-ever stand-up gig. He’d spent his college years becoming enthralled by comedy, recording and rewatching stand-up specials before writing his first jokes. And although he has no recollection of what he talked about for nearly half an hour that day, it remains “one of the best sets in my life,” Nanjiani says. “It was magical.”

He then relocated to Chicago, where he worked full-time at charter schools, helping kids with their computers, while pursuing stand-up at night. Those early gigs weren’t always great, and for the first five years, he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to make a living out of comedy. But he never thought about giving up. Even after a bad gig, he says, “I wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’ll quit.’ I was like, ‘Now I know what that feels like.’ ”

Photo credit: Emily Shur
Photo credit: Emily Shur

By 2007, he felt secure enough in his stand-up to quit everything and head to New York to focus on comedy. Nanjiani’s material mixed stories from his personal life with riffs on Star Trek and movies like The Thing. “He had all these little observations about popular culture, and what he found funny about them wasn’t the most obvious thing,” notes Michael Showalter, who first spotted Nanjiani around that time and went on to direct him in The Lovebirds and 2017’s The Big Sick, the Oscar-nominated rom-com-dram Nanjiani and Gordon wrote about their relationship. “While a lot of comedians can be very aggressive, Kumail’s comedy was silly and whimsical.”

Showalter hired Nanjiani as a writer for his 2009 series, Michael & Michael Have Issues, and even offered him a role as a fictitious version of himself. Nanjiani was in his early
30s, and although he’d had cameos on The Colbert Report and Saturday Night Live, he’d never seriously considered acting before. “I’d always thought the writers do the real work and the actors are just saying the words,” he says. “I was very confident in my stand-up, but I didn’t feel confident acting. I was like, ‘This is very difficult, and I want to learn more.’ ”

Photo credit: Lionsgate
Photo credit: Lionsgate

Michael & Michael was canceled after just seven episodes, devastating Nanjiani, who’d been convinced he was going to spend the next several years on the show. In order to “get away from the scene of the crime,” he jokes, he decided to move to Los Angeles. Once there, Nanjiani treated his semi-accidental acting career with his usual seriousness—Get good at this—and began taking acting classes. “It was like therapy,” he says. “I’d trained myself to not feel emotions, to push them away, because emotions are scary. And as soon as I started taking acting classes, I started crying at movies and commercials more. All these emotions I’d learned to suppress, I was now learning to get in touch with. It made my life better, made my anxiety better.”

Photo credit: HBO/Kobal/Shutterstock
Photo credit: HBO/Kobal/Shutterstock

The classes also made him a more at-ease performer, and Nanjiani slowly accrued a series of breakout TV roles. He was the virtual unknown who was sorta everywhere: There he was as a grating cell-phone salesman on Portlandia, or a too-eager numbers nerd on Veep, or a legally savvy agoraphobe on 31 (!) episodes of Franklin & Bash. By the time Silicon Valley debuted in 2014, he’d made a name playing gently nerdy (and not-so-gently needling) young men. Nanjiani was Hollywood’s go-to cerebral smart ass, at a time when that type was in high demand. “A few years ago,” Nanjiani says, “I was working with a great guy—I won’t say who, but he’s a very handsome, really in-shape guy—who was making fun of me for being doughy. And I was like, ‘I could weigh another 50 pounds and I’ll still work. But if you gain ten pounds, you’ll never work another day in your life.’ ”

HALFWAY THROUGH our lunch, an old writer friend of Nanjiani’s strolls by, flashes a knowing smile, and says, “It’s been a while. Do anything . . . noteworthy lately?” Nanjiani’s Eternals stint may have begun in secrecy, but by last spring, word had gotten out that he’d gone Marvel. He first met with producers about the role in late 2018, though that wasn’t his first attempt at breaking into the superhero world: Years before Silicon Valley, he’d auditioned for a role on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and was crushed when he didn’t get it.

But later, when he saw comedy performers like Chris Pratt and Paul Rudd being converted into superheroes, he started entertaining the idea, however far-off, that he could become part of the Marvel universe as well. “It was a pipe dream,” says Nanjiani. “But I was very strategic about it.” He turned down supporting parts in other comic-book projects, worried they’d take him out of the running for his own big role. And he made it clear that he didn’t want to play some tech-loving sidekick. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to be just part of a Marvel movie; I want to be a Marvel superhero.’ ”

Photo credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez
Photo credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez

Finally, in the same year he got an Oscar nod for his Big Sick script, he joined The Eternals. The movie, which also stars Angelina Jolie and Kit Harington, follows a group of centuries-old immortals who secretly live on Earth, with Nanjiani as Kingo, an arrogant, cosmic-powered being who lives in the present day as a buff Bollywood star. It’s not a character he knew too well; as a young comic fan, he relied on whatever random titles and one-off issues he could get his hands on, and The Eternals was hardly a mainstream must-read.

But he knew exactly how he wanted to play Kingo: the same way Bruce Willis played the wry, weary, machine-gun-toting hero of 1988’s Die Hard, one of Nanjiani’s favorite films. “That movie’s life-or-death, and Eternals is life-or-death, too,” he says. “I was like, ‘How can a character crack wise but still have tension, and not make it feel like you’re making fun of the whole thing?’ ”

Willis’s Die Hard turn has a historical connection as well. As Middleditch notes, it’s not unusual for a comedy star to get ripped nowadays. “It happens here and there, where they become a hot-bod boy: the Kevin Harts, the Joe Rogans, and, I guess, the Carrot Tops.” But Willis was among the first to make that transition seem credible, having turned from a smirky prime-time rom-com actor on Moonlighting into a shirtless action-movie dynamo without losing his light touch. (He kept the smirk intact.) There’s a throughline that runs from Willis’s yippee-ki-yay makeover to Ben Stiller in Tropic Thunder to Nanjiani in The Eternals.

Photo credit: Emily Shur
Photo credit: Emily Shur

Nanjiani had his own ideas for just how buff Kingo should look. “I wanted Kumail to have the freedom to interpret his character, especially his physicality,” says The Eternals director Chloé Zhao. So he looked to Bollywood stars he admired, like Indian box-office eternal Hrithik Roshan, who’s played the superhero Krrish in a series of smash films. “I went to my trainer and said, ‘I want to look like this guy,’ ” says Nanjiani.

To achieve it, he’d have to lean heavily on Marvel for help. When The Eternals began filming, he met with a studio chef, who grilled him on his food preferences; soon Nanjiani was being delivered five meals a day, including on weekends, all of it carefully planned out. “They were like, ‘If you’re going to have a can of Coke today, let us know in the morning so we can adjust and account for it,’ ” he says. Nanjiani usually had the same breakfast—steak and eggs, or eggs and chicken—but for six months, he never repeated the other meals. And while he was encouraged to eat what he wanted on weekends, he had so successfully cut out such hazards as added sugar and gluten that when he went crazy one night with some sticky toffee pudding, he felt it the next day. “Just 12 hours of physical pain,” he says.

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

That was nothing compared with the anguish of his workouts. He’d exercise during lunch breaks on Silicon Valley; on weekends in a London gym; and on the Eternals set, with its 24-hour-a-day on-call trainers. But it was in those early months last year, in that Beverly Hills compound, that Nanjiani did the most training, physically and emotionally. He’d gone from being a dutiful gym rat to having electric shocks administered to his biceps in order to build more muscle. “I realized, if this is what working out is, I’ve never really worked out a moment in my life,” he says.

It was around that time that Nanjiani decided the only way he’d make it through the training—the only way he could get good at this—would be if he embraced just how awful the workouts were making him feel. If he opted to simply leave his body, he wouldn’t get anywhere. “I had to change my relationship to pain,” he says. “You’re so designed to avoid it, but in that situation you really have to be okay with it. You have to want it. It’s almost trying to rewire your brain.”

View this post on Instagram

I never thought I’d be one of those people who would post a thirsty shirtless, but I’ve worked way too hard for way too long so here we are. You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. I found out a year ago I was going to be in Marvel’s Eternals and decided I wanted to transform how I looked. I would not have been able to do this if I didn’t have a full year with the best trainers and nutritionists paid for by the biggest studio in the world. I’m glad I look like this, but I also understand why I never did before. It would have been impossible without these resources and time. So big thanks to @grantrobertsfit who started working with me at the beginning of the year and made me understand true physical pain for months and months. Then, once we started shooting, a massive thanks to @davidhigginslondon and his team (@ellispartridge, @thebeardypt, @tomcheesemanfitness) for training me almost every day and making me strong, limber and injury free. I can almost touch my toes now. (And thank you for forcing me to do cheat meals David.) Matthews Street Catering for their delicious and healthy meals. And finally, the biggest thanks goes to @emilyvgordon for putting up with me complaining and talking about only working out and dieting for the last year. I promise I’ll be interesting again some day. #thirstyshirtless (Photo by @markupson.) (edit: I left off one very important person: @lancecallahan who trained me for 6 years and helped me build the foundation I could use to do this. Thank you!)

A post shared by @ kumailn on Dec 16, 2019 at 8:10am PST

For a while, he wasn’t sure how he wanted to announce the results of all that rewiring and reshaping to the world. But last December, figuring he was in the best shape he’d ever be in, he posted a pair of photos of himself, bare-torsoed and sharp-abbed, to Instagram. The “thirsty shirtless,” as he called them, promptly ate up Facebook and Twitter, and later anchored a segment on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Nanjiani’s newly ripped torso even wound up on Pornhub, as the thumbnail image for the site’s “Muscular Men” category.

“Half the messages I got that day were from people being like, ‘Hey, I want to have sex with your husband,’ ” says Gordon, “and the other half were from people making sure I was okay with my husband’s naked body being everywhere.” She compares the experience to that of The Big Sick: “It took a very private thing from our lives and made it incredibly public. And all I could be was really proud, because he looks amazing.”

Nanjiani didn’t quite feel the same way—at least not before he shared his new physique with the masses. “I don’t want to discount people who genuinely have debilitating body issues,” he says. “I don’t have that. But I did start getting some body dysmorphia. I’d look in the mirror and I’d see my abs—and when I looked again, they would fade. I would just see the flaws.” The Instagram photos helped. “When I saw that reaction was when I was like, ‘Okay, I clearly don’t see what’s actually there.’ It’s something that I’m trying to be aware of and be better at, because that’s not a good way to be. You want to be easy on yourself.”

That’s where Nanjiani is at the moment: trying to be a little easier on himself while figuring out his non-superhero identity in the immediate future. “This is a key time to establish how it’s going to be going forward,” he says of his post-Eternals lifestyle. “Because it could very easily go back to how things were. And I can’t do that.”

But while he enjoys his workouts in earnest now, Nanjiani would still rather spend his time rewatching old Harrison Ford movies, or playing video games, or just going for a walk around the neighborhood with Gordon. “The goal is to get energy from the gym so I can go do other stuff,” he says. “People ask me, ‘Do you think you’re more intimidating now?’ And I’m like, ‘Not at all.’ These muscles are useless. They’re decorative.”

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