Kumail Nanjiani Didn’t Know He Was Playing the Bad Guy
Kumail Nanjiani had read the scripts. He had shot the scenes. But when he saw the rough cuts of the final episodes of “Welcome to Chippendales,” the true-crime limited series that premieres on Hulu on Nov. 22, he had a revelation.
“For the first time, I was like, Oh, he’s a bad guy,” Nanjiani said during a recent video call. “He’s wrong.”
Nanjiani was speaking of his character, Steve Banerjee, born Somen Banerjee. Banerjee founded Chippendales, a club that featured an all-male striptease revue, in Los Angeles in 1979, and went on to make millions from the club and related merchandise. In 1987, following a business dispute, he hired a man to kill Nick De Noia (played by Murray Bartlett), the revue’s choreographer. He also attempted to arrange for the murder of other colleagues, though those hits were unsuccessful. Having pleaded guilty to murder-for-hire, racketeering and attempted arson, Banerjee hanged himself in his cell the day before his sentencing, in 1994.
Created by Robert Siegel (“Pam & Tommy,” “The Wrestler”), “Welcome to Chippendales” represents a departure for Nanjiani. A longtime standup, he spent the first decade of his career playing small roles that often verged on stereotype.
“In the beginning, when I was auditioning, it genuinely was taxi drivers, people working at 7-Eleven, Dunkin’ Donuts, Subway,” he said. Most parts, he felt, fit comfortably into two categories. “Either we’re nerds, or we’re planning to blow something up,” he said. (His role on “Silicon Valley” was bigger but arguably just as stereotyped.)
“The Big Sick,” a 2017 autobiographical film that he wrote with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, diversified his portfolio, as did “The Eternals” (2021), in which he muscled up to play Kingo, an immortal superhero disguised as a Bollywood star. But no role has required as much of him — emotionally, artistically — as this one. Intimidated by the role but eager to show what he could do, he invested in his character’s thoughts and actions.
“While I was shooting, I was like, Yeah, these people had it coming to them,” he said of Banerjee’s targets. “That’s a little scary.”
With the shoot over and his moral compass reoriented, Nanjiani — in half-rimmed glasses and a hopeful T-shirt that read “Certified Fresh” — discussed heroes, villains and just how fully he committed to the role.
“I put out hits for one year,” he joked. “Really helped.”
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
When you were first offered “Welcome to Chippendales,” you passed. Why?
This was right after “The Big Sick” came out. Rob Siegel came up, and he said, ‘I have a script I want you to do.’ It was such a new thing to have people wanting me to do stuff that wasn’t just a tiny part. I did like six big comedies where I deliver food, say something funny and walk out of the movie. I read the script, and honestly I was a little intimidated by it. I just didn’t feel ready. I didn’t know a way into playing a character like that. So I said no.
Who is this character you didn’t feel ready for? Who is this version of Steve Banerjee?
He’s an immigrant from India who came to America. He opened Chippendales and it was a sensation. The way the character is written, he’s looking for validation outside of himself. Having done 10 years of standup comedy in terrible bars, that’s a thing that I really can relate to. He really does not like himself. He’s very uncomfortable in his own skin. The only way he can feel he has value is by being successful. But I think he also felt a little bit of shame about the way he was making money.
Why do you think he pursues extralegal solutions to business challenges?
I think he has a very specific view of relationships and morality. For him, there’s an implied social contract. And once someone breaks that implied social contract, whatever repercussions come is their fault. The way he justifies doing all this stuff is by saying that, he didn’t start it, they started it. But I’m not method or anything; I want to be very clear about that.
You didn’t order anyone’s murder, just to see how it would feel?
Well, didn’t Daniel Day-Lewis make shoes for a year? I put out hits for one year. Really helped. Cleared out a lot of my enemies list.
But yeah, I just found ways to justify it. And I never questioned it. Once I had figured out how he looks at the world, it wasn’t tough to justify doing these things.
To his credit, hiring people to kill your business rivals, it’s expedient.
It’s just efficient. He’s a good businessman
And probably cheaper in the end.
Oh, it’s definitely cheaper. When I found out that it was like $20,000, I was like, Wow, even with inflation, that seems very low. What a bargain. I mean, at that point, you can’t afford to not get your enemies killed
Did you take any of him home with you? That anger and repression that he has?
I really tried not to. He’s rigid and some of that is in opposition to everyone around him. You have these gorgeous men, very in touch with their bodies, very fluid. He’s completely divorced from everything below his neck. Then in his belly, there’s a dangerous fire. Every molecule in his body is working to keep that contained. Because of that, I did start having pain under my shoulder blades. I’ve never gotten to do this much emotionally challenging work. The scene where Steve was being interrogated by the cops — at the end of every take I was shaking and soaked in sweat. And I’m just sitting there talking!
Did you have any anxiety about pulling off a dramatic role?
At its best, acting is constantly surprising yourself. That’s something I learned working with Murray and Annaleigh [Ashford] Robin [de Jesús] and Andrew [Rannells] and Juliette [Lewis]. Every take needs to be a discovery. When I eventually did say yes to this, I didn’t feel any more sure of it than I had felt five years ago, I just knew that I’d never feel ready to do it. It’s like what people say about having kids, which is you’re never ready, you just have to do it. That’s how it felt. I was like, I can trust myself enough to learn as I go and figure this out.
Are there ways that a character like Steve reinforces certain stereotypes about Southeast Asian immigrants? Or complicates them?
When I first said no, I was like, I don’t want to play a bad guy who’s brown in this climate. But the tyranny of the positive portrayal is just as reductive as the stereotype. I hear from people saying that I need to put up a pure, noble front. That’s not interesting to me. Once I finished this, I was like, I want to play more villains. I saw Sebastian Stan in “Fresh,” and he plays such a bad guy. I was like, what an interesting career: He does Marvel, things where he’s a superhero, and then he’ll do things where he’s a really scary sociopath. I was like, I want to do that. Just because I’m not white shouldn’t mean that I can’t do those things.
I feel like sometimes in Hollywood, they’re like, “Oh, the bad guy can’t be brown because what’s that saying?” Sometimes with trying to be open minded, you’re actually limiting the parts that people of color can play.
Earlier in your career, did you ever wish that you looked more like the actors who were getting the roles you wanted?
I really didn’t ever wish I was white or anything. I was very proud of how I looked. I was aware that if I were more conventionally handsome, I would be working more. But I never really got down on myself for not looking a certain way. It just meant that I had to be more interesting.
And yet, when you were cast as a brown superhero, you did change your looks.
They didn’t tell me to do it. But I did want to look like someone who could take on those other superheroes. That was important to me as the first South Asian superhero [in a Marvel movie]. I also figured this would finally break me out of the nerd box that I had been put into.
Did you change your body to play Banerjee?
I wanted to look different from the people who are jumping up onstage. People are like, “Oh, the suits have padding.” There’s no padding. It’s me. That took a long time. But it was important to this character that he not fit how he thinks men should look.
If he were comfortable with his body and liked himself, maybe he wouldn’t have ordered so many murders.
Oh, yeah, that’s completely true. He’s terrified of the inside of himself. And that makes him do all these awful things. If he had just sat down and tried to see how he was feeling … a lot of guys, myself included, a lot of times don’t know what we’re feeling.