Kumail Nanjiani Discusses Welcome to Chippendales & Joining Marvel
Dec 24, 2022
[Editor’s note: The following contains some spoilers for Welcome to Chippendales.]Welcome to Chippendales, a Hulu original series, is one of those stories where the truth truly is stranger and wilder than fiction, as it lays out the story of how Indian immigrant Somen “Steve” Banerjee (Kumail Nanjiani) became the founder of the famous male-stripping empire, only to then go down a very dark path. So focused on success that he refused to allow anything to stand in his way, Steve finds himself embroiled in a true-crime saga of his own making that would inevitably be his downfall.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, Nanjiani (who’s also an executive producer on the series) talked about doing his own version of Walter White in Breaking Bad with this project, his hesitation in taking on a role where he could use not of his usual comedy strengths to fall back on, what he thinks led Banerjee down such a dark path, what a joy it was to shoot the Chippendales club scenes, and pulling off that challenging one-shot. He also talked about joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and what it’s been like to be involved with franchise projects.
Collider: Because there are so many things working on so many different levels with all of this, what was it that most struck you about this story and this guy?
KUMAIL NANJIANI: One of my favorite shows of all time is Breaking Bad, and you see Walter White go from this really innocent sweet guy to what he becomes. If you haven’t seen it, spoiler alert. So, I was like, “Oh, I get to do my version of that, compressed to eight episodes.” I liked the idea of playing someone who, in the first episode, you wouldn’t dream of him doing the things that he does, six episodes later, but if you watch the show, it really makes sense. To me, that was really exciting. How do I make a character that changes so much? But more importantly, it’s the ways that he doesn’t change that led him down the path of destruction for himself and the people around him. To me, that was really exciting. How do I create a character who sees the world in such a way that allows him to do all this stuff and think that there’s nothing wrong with it? I want people watching to also think that the stuff he does is the right thing to do when it obviously isn’t.
Image via Hulu
You’re someone who’s become known over the years for doing comedy, which is something that you’re very good at. How does it feel to you, as an actor, to do something as serious, as dark, and as dramatic as this? Were you hesitant, at all, about taking on all of that, or is that the fun of it?
NANJIANI: I was hesitant to take it on because I said, “Oh, I can use none of my strengths in this. Everything that I know, everything that I feel comfortable doing on camera, is gone from this. Everything.” This guy is very different from me. He’s not funny, in the way that I like being funny. This character doesn’t smile. There’s no lightness to him, really. He’s heavy. It’s all the ways that I try to not be. So, I was a little hesitant, in the beginning, to take this on, but ultimately, the story was too good, and the challenge was too exciting to not do it. I had no choice. I truly was like, “Oh, fuck, I guess I have to do this.” Rob Siegel, the creator, talked me into it. I wasn’t ready. I was scared. The last conversation we had about this, he told me the entire story. He gave me an episode by episode breakdown of the whole thing, and I was still scared, but I was like, “I can’t turn this down. It’s just too good.” So, yeah, I was intimidated to do it.
But for me, there are people that are the reason that you got into this business, and for me, one of those people is Robin Williams. I’ve loved Robin Williams my entire life, since I was a little kid. I used to watch Popeye, over and over. Imagine a little Pakistani kid watching Good Morning, Vietnam, over and over. I was obsessed with Robin Williams. And then, when he started doing dramatic work, it was so good, and he was so unafraid of going really, really dark with it that I was like, “If I am someone who became a comedian because of Robin Williams, then I owe it to myself to try to do some of the things that he was doing, later in his career.” When I think of comedians and stand-ups, who then did dramatic work at a very high level, it’s very hard to top Robin Williams. Really, it was thinking about him that made me want to do this.
I’ve never seen Chippendales live and in person, but I’ve seen them perform on TV, so I was familiar, going into watching this. But I had no idea that an Indian immigrant founded them, and that it ultimately became this true-crime story with arson and racketeering and murder-for-hire. What do you think it was that led this guy, not just on this path, but to think that he was doing the right thing?
NANJIANI: I think it was the way he looked at the world. For me, he saw success as a moral good. There are a lot of people in the world who think that, who equate rich people with good people. There’s this sense sometimes with American personalities that, “Oh, if they’re rich, there is goodness to them.” When in reality, it’s the opposite. Sometimes to be really rich, you have to be a bad person. And so, to him, the only morality that exists is success or not success, and that allowed him to do it.
Karma was a big part of it for him. If he felt someone had wronged him, he could respond, not equally, but at a much higher, scarier level because, to him, it was okay since they’re the ones who wronged him, so what he’s doing to them is justified. He thought of relationship as math, and the way he looked at success as being a moral good and the ends justifying the means, is what allowed him to do what he did and feel no remorse for it.
Image via Hulu
I’m so glad that we get the origin story of the Chippendale’s collar and cuffs, and the breakaway pants. What was it like to include all of those little details, and to be on the Chippendale set in the club, with all of these guys dancing? What were those moments like?
NANJIANI: They were really fun. That was the exciting thing about the show. I got to work with absolutely wonderful actors, who were also absolutely wonderful human beings. We were telling this story that had a lot of darkness to it, but also, every other day, you got to see an awesome dance routine by awesome Broadway professional dancers. Every time we got to shoot in the club was always a very, very fun day. It would never get that stressful. Even though, when you’re shooting there, you have a hundred background and these complicated dance routines, with so much going on, usually shooting in a space that is challenging leads to long days. But every single thing we shot, there was joy.
I don’t know if I’m giving too much away, but the last scene of the show was also the last scene that we shot, which is the one-shot that follows me walking around the club and going upstairs. That scene had a ton of camera moves. It started on a crane, someone took the camera off, the crane followed me around, it went back on the crane, followed me up the stairs, went off the crane, followed me around, went on the crane again, pulled out, and that was the end of the show. There were like four different, crazy camera moves, and it all needed to be really smooth. Doing something like that is usually a pain in the butt because if one tiny thing goes wrong, the entire take is gone. There’s no editing a one-shot. But we had such a good time shooting that scene. It was so fun. What you see, I think, is take 14, which was the last take we did. Takes 13 and 14 were the first usable takes. It took that long to get it right, but it was such a joy. Everyone was always in a good mood, shooting in that space. I really miss it, actually, thinking about it now. It felt like home, weirdly, for six months.
There is such an interesting dynamic going on between your character and Irene, and Nick and Denise. The four of you have quite the vibe going on, when you’re firing on all cylinders, before everything just completely falls apart. What was it like on those days, when all of you were together?
NANJIANI: It was really fun. Shooting scenes when your characters are doing well are more fun to shoot. Shooting that last scene was so fun because that was a great night at the club and everybody was getting along. I loved shooting those scenes, when we all got to be together and things were going well. I got to work with these tremendous actors, specifically on those scenes that you’re talking about, with Annaleigh [Ashford], Murray [Bartlett], and Juliette [Lewis]. What was most exciting about it was seeing how different their processes are. They approach acting from such different places, but they all end up in the same place, and they’re all fantastic.
For me, as someone who didn’t go to acting school – I come from comedy – and seeing all these completely different acting approaches, all ending up on the same piece of carpet was very exciting. It showed me that there’s no one real way to do it. My process with acting can be fluid, and it can change scene to scene, job to job. I learned a lot from watching all these other actors approach their work. All of that was very, very educational for me. I was pinching myself to get to work with these people. I wasn’t as familiar with Annaleigh’s work. We just saw her audition and were like, “Okay, that’s her. She’s the one.” She brought so much life to this. She auditioned with the scene where she’s telling me to put less ice in the drinks. We were like, “Okay, it’s her.” To work with her and discover how good she is at this, the takes we chose were great, but the takes we didn’t choose are also wonderful, in completely different and unexpected ways.
Image via Hulu
You joined the MCU with Eternals, and it feels more like a when than an if, we’ll ever see those characters again. When you sign on for something like that and there is the possibility that you could show up in any number of films or TV shows, do you have to stay ready for that phone call, or are you completely in the dark while you wait to hear what’s going on?
NANJIANI: I’m completely in the dark. I have no idea what’s going on. Truly no idea what’s going on. I genuinely don’t know when or if Kingo is coming back to the MCU. I really have no idea. I’m just really excited about the direction they’re going. The new people they’ve cast are really good. I saw the new Black Panther movie, and I’ve never seen a blockbuster like that, that’s so complicated and tragic, in so many different ways, but also really fun and funny and thrilling. So, I think they’re really stretching and doing some great stuff right now. I’d love to come back and do stuff, but I genuinely have no idea.
How crazy is it, as an actor, to not only be in the MCU, but to also be part of the Star Wars universe, with Obi Wan Kenobi? In the early days of your career, were those big franchises the things you hoped and dreamed of being a part of, or did they never seem like a reality?
NANJIANI: No, they did not seem like a reality. I think I’d have to be a psychopath to go to my first open mic and go, “Someday I’ll be a superhero in the MCU, and also in the Star Wars universe.” I think people would’ve thought I had actual problems. My first goal in standup was, I went to see a comedian at the Des Moines Funny Bone and there was an MC who hosted the night, and I was like, “All I want out my career is to someday be the MC of the Des Moines Funny Bone.” That’s true. I’ve never had some big plan in my head.
Your goals evolve as you get more opportunities. So, there was a point that I just wanted to do standup on TV. And then, when I got to do that, I wanted to do standup on TV again. And then, I wanted to act on TV. Then, I wanted to act in movies. As the world expands for you a little bit, your expectations for yourself expand, too. But no, five years ago, I wouldn’t have thought that I would be able to do that stuff. I’m just very grateful that I get to do it. There is no grand plan or big target in sight. I’m just like, “What’s coming my way? What do I like doing? Oh, Star Wars? Yes, give me that!”
Welcome to Chippendales is available to stream at Hulu.
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