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The Untold Truth Of Kumail Nanjiani

Until 2017, the people who could point out Kumail Nanjiani in a crowd were probably fans of Silicon Valley or Portlandia, or veterans of the Chicago and New York comedy scenes. They might also have been familiar with his voice, thanks to Cartoon Network's cult hit Adventure Time. But that year marked a shift in Nanjiani's career, when he went from little-known comedian holding down small or unnamed parts to leading man of the mainstream hit The Big Sick. Written by Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon and based on their own love story, the movie not only transcended the oft-maligned rom-com genre, it earned Nanjiani and Gordon a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination.

Since then, Nanjiani has become famous for being that most beloved of actor archetypes, the down-to-earth nice guy (see also: Paul Rudd) and for being a proud nerd. Which was why the internet was brought to a standstill when he posted a shirtless photo of himself to Instagram showing more muscles than the collective cast of Avengers: Endgame. Nanjiani is no longer just the guy you felt you could have a laugh with at a late-night comedy club — he's a bona fide Hollywood hunk (see also: Paul Rudd, again). With his star on the rise, here's the untold truth of Kumail Nanjiani, the super nerd turned superhero.

His first big hit was Silicon Valley

After a series of small roles in big projects — like "Indian Reporter" in a 2008 episode of Saturday Night Live or "Statistician" in one episode of Veep  in 2014 Nanjiani landed the role that would propel him from anonymous bit player to a main character in a successful sitcom. He played blunt, arrogant programmer Dinesh Chugtai in HBO's Silicon Valley, which ended in 2019 after six seasons.

The world of tech isn't too much of a stretch for Nanjiani: he double-majored in computer science and philosophy at Iowa's Grinnell College, and held down a job as an IT specialist while trying to get his performing career off the ground. However, there was a different skill set he had to work on when it was time to shoot. Silicon Valley was partly improvised, and Nanjiani said that this element helped him hone his comedic acting skills. Instead of just trying to come up with something funny, he had to make sure it contributed to the plot or a relationship between characters, he told AXS in 2018. Working on the series also inspired him to take acting classes for the first time — which proved to be good preparation for what was to come.

The love story between Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon made them famous

Nanjiani's debut leading movie role should arguably have been easy: he played a version of himself in the rom-com-meets-medical drama The Big Sick. He and his wife Emily V. Gordon wrote the screenplay together, based on their own experience. Like his character, Nanjiani's parents are Pakistani Shiite Muslims, and they were trying to set him up with someone from the same religion while he was secretly seeing Gordon — a divorced, tattooed, non-Muslim white American. After eight months of covert dating, Gordon was suddenly hospitalized with unexplained symptoms and put in a medical coma — a situation that not only forced a frantically worried Nanjiani to spend two weeks with her parents, whom he'd never met, but to confront his family about his relationship.

Produced by Judd Apatow, The Big Sick grossed nearly 11 times its $5 million budget worldwide, scored an Oscar nomination for Nanjiani and Gordon, and proved Nanjiani could do more than just deadpan bro jokes — he had real emotional clout.

It shouldn't be entirely surprising that the genre that pushed Nanjiani into the world's view was the oft-dismissed rom-com. Four Weddings and a Funeral is one of his all-time favorite films, to the point that he screened the movie after his and Gordon's courthouse wedding, adopted Hugh Grant's character's floppy hair for a period in the '90s, and credited the movie's best man speech with inspiring his stand-up career.

He's proud to be a nerd

Nanjiani was a self-described uncool kid. He preferred playing video games on his Sega Genesis to sports, to the point that he wrote stand-up sets and fan fiction about video games, and used them as a way to bond with people when his family moved from Pakistan to Iowa when he was 18. In fact, it was a mutual love for video games that first drew he and Gordon together — they even hosted a video game-centric podcast called The Indoor Kids together, interviewing game creators. Even though his rising profile has him spending more time at the gym, Gordon wants it known that Nanjiani is still getting in plenty of video game time, which he uses as a way to reward himself for working.

Video games weren't Nanjiani's only misunderstood childhood passion or entryway to American culture. He also loves sci-fi, fantasy, and horror films and TV shows like Lord of the Rings, Ghostbusters, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Twilight Zone, Game of Thrones, and The X-Files. He can hold down a conversation about individual episodes of the latter, knows exactly who he would be in Game of Thrones, and has a solid response to the matter of the giant eagles in Lord of the Rings. Basically, he's a nerd in a superhero's body.

He's been able to appear in some of his favorite shows

One of the benefits of being an authentic super nerd with a Hollywood profile is that sometimes you get to appear in the shows that you grew up loving. Long before he was getting invited to the Oscars, Nanjiani was proving his true love for his favorite franchise, The X-Files, in the same way anyone who has just moved to LA does: he started a podcast called The X-Files Files.

Nanjiani later explained to Dax Shepard (on the latter's podcast, naturally) that some of the writers listened to his show, notably Darin Morgan, who called Nanjiani after the reboot was announced and said he'd write him a part. "I mean, there's no point in my life when that would not have been a thrill," he told Entertainment Weekly.

Nanjiani also got to complete the circle of fandom on another show. In 2019, he played the lead role in the debut episode of Jordan Peele's Twilight Zone reboot, a job he admitted he was almost too scared to take. However, Nanjiani missed the chance to appear in another sacred franchise. He told Shepard that his friend J.J. Abrams offered him the chance to have a cameo in Star Wars, but Nanjiani couldn't make the shoot. Of course, he won't take just any job. "I don't wanna be the guy who just walks across the screen. I want to do something," he told Shepard.

He started out in comedy clubs

Nanjiani has said that after his inauspicious nerdy beginnings in high school, he first learned that he was funny when he was in college in Iowa. One of his friends started an open mic night that he wanted to participate in, so he studied his craft for six months by watching HBO comedy specials recorded at his uncle's house in Florida. His first set was an unheard-of 25 minutes long, but Nanjiani remains proud of it to this day, and it was enough to motivate him to pursue comedy as a career in Chicago.

After toiling away at a double life of daytime office job and nighttime stand-up sets for six years, in 2007 Nanjiani's show Unpronounceable gave his career enough of a boost that he was able to get an agent, and he and Gordon moved to New York. He appeared on an episode of Saturday Night Live in 2008, and on a couple of episodes of The Colbert Report in 2009. The following year, having moved to LA, Nanjiani and fellow comedian Jonah Ray started a live stand-up showcase in the back of Meltdown Comics on Sunset Boulevard called The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail. A TV version was picked up by Comedy Central, with Gordon executive producing, and ran for three seasons.

Nanjiani got ripped for a big Marvel movie

In December of 2019, Nanjiani brought the internet to a halt when he posted a shirtless photo of himself on Instagram, looking less like your stereotypical comic book nerd and more like the muscle-wielding heroes on the page. But it wasn't just for fun: in April 2019, Nanjiani was announced as part of the cast of the upcoming Marvel feature Eternals, which is about a race of aliens who look like humans but have superpowers like flight, super strength, and near-immortality. Nanjiani's character Kingo has spent his extended life training in the arts of the samurai, with a sword that can cut through anything, so he required a warrior-level physique.

Instead of adopting an "I woke up like this" attitude, Nanjiani was upfront about the sheer amount of work it took him to get into this next-level shape. In a caption under the post, he acknowledged that while he enjoyed his new look, it took a village of trainers and nutritionists a year to get him there — not to mention Gordon's support through all of his dieting and workouts, and all of his complaining about said dieting and workouts. He even garnered compliments from two former colleagues known for their muscles: the Rock, with whom Nanjiani appeared in 2016's Central Intelligence, and fellow Marvel star Dave Bautista, who co-starred with Nanjiani in 2019's Stuber and replied to the post, "I'd say mission accomplished."

He has a complicated relationship with the country where he grew up

Having moved to America at age 19, Nanjiani avoided talking about his Pakistani heritage in his stand-up because he didn't want his work to be labeled as "immigrant comedy." However, as he developed his act, he realized that his experiences made him stand out in America, and that he had plenty of funny stories to tell that would resonate with audiences wherever they were born.

Now, he says that his relationship with Pakistan is complicated, because while there's so much that he still loves about the place that he grew up in, at the same time he sees that the country has some serious problems. He told Dax Shepard that corruption, violence, and general social unrest were facts of life when he was a child, and that when he was 17 and hanging out with friends after school, he saw someone get shot in the head. The image haunted him for years.

It was partly this level of insecurity that pushed Nanjiani's parents to move the family to Iowa — a process that took a long time and a lot of effort. His father became a prominent psychiatrist in Karachi, and after moving to Iowa he had to retrain and repeat his residency. Now, Nanjiani's brother Zain is a banker, while his parents live in New Jersey. And yes, they are supportive of his marriage and proud of his work, especially The Big Sick.

Kumail Nanjiani's Apple TV+ show was a success before it even premiered

Having proved that it's possible to be married and work together to create a very successful movie about the beginning of your relationship, Nanjiani and Gordon are teaming up again. Not only are they writing another movie together, but in February 2018, Deadline reported that Apple had picked up their anthology series Little America for the company's new streaming service, Apple TV+. Each of the eight 30-minute episodes follows the story of an immigrant family living in the US, based on accounts published in Epic Magazine. Most of the writers and directors are either immigrants themselves, or are the children of immigrants.

Speaking at an Apple event in March 2019, Nanjiani said, "it's not about telling 'immigrant stories.' These are human stories that feature immigrants." He also emphasized the breadth of the show, continuing, "Some episodes are funny, some are romantic, some are thrilling. They feature immigrants from Iran, Syria, Nigeria, Mexico, and more, and are set all over America." Apple appears to have high hopes for the show — even before its public debut on January 17th, 2020, it was renewed for a second season.

He worries that his moment will pass

If you're thinking that an Oscar nomination, roles in massive franchises, and newfound sex symbol status have Kumail Nanjiani celebrating the fruits of his hard work, rest assured that he's far from complacent.

He worries about the scrutiny that comes with being what he calls "an established Hollywood person." He told Dax Shepard that this is the first time in his career that he's compared himself to other people, and that he's highly aware that he has to capitalize on this wave of popularity. "I am very, very aware of the fact that I have a little window right now where I have these opportunities, and I'm very aware of the fact that it can close very quickly," he said. "It closes for most people. Most people have like a year or a year and a half where they're in a position and then it generally goes away... And that is a lot of pressure on trying to decide what to do, what to pick, and all that stuff." Given that he's now joined that exclusive category of celebrities who can break the internet with a single Instagram post, he might not have to worry too much.