When Kumail Nanjiani was cast as a Marvel superhero, he decided to transform his body. Gone was the guy who played a schlubby coder on Silicon Valley — Kumail got ripped. To many of his fans, and to anyone who heard him wax poetic about his favorite foods on The Sporkful four years ago, this change was shocking. But has Kumail himself changed? This week he returns, now with his wife, creative partner, and podcast co-host Emily V. Gordon. They discuss the surprising ways their relationship to food has evolved since Kumail got ripped — and since the pandemic hit. Plus, they break down their quarantine take-out game, defend their decision to eat cauliflower rice biryani, and unpack some of their body image issues.
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Dan Pashman: There's several things about our original conversation, Kumail, that I think about often, and now I'm excited that Emily, you're with us, too, because one of the things that I think about all the time that you and I bonded over, Kumail, is that we're both have this thing where, like, if we get the slightest stain on our shirt...
Emily V. Gordon: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: I think Emily knows where this is going.
Emily V. Gordon: You're both totally cool with it and don't freak out.
Dan Pashman: How did you know?
Emily V. Gordon: Yeah, exactly.
Kumail Nanjiani: Well, I would say one of the very, very few upsides of quarantine is if you get something on your shirt, you can like change your shirt right now. You don't— you're not, like, stuck in a restaurant.
Dan Pashman: Right. 100 percent. Well, and it's funny, Emily, because when we had that original conversation, one of the things that Kumail and I also bonded over was the fact that when we get a stain on our shirt in public, we both immediately go to the bathroom, flood it with water and then come out of the bathroom looking much, much worse than we did before.
Emily V. Gordon: Oh, that's a that's a regular occurrence. Yes.
Kumail Nanjiani: Emily says, like, you're just bringing attention to it.
Dan Pashman: Right. Right.
Emily V. Gordon: Yeah. He'll go to the bathroom and come back out like like he had fought a sea monster, like and lost. I've always been like, honey...
Kumail Nanjiani: Oh, you should have seen the other guy.
Emily V. Gordon: That is what I picture, is you going into the bathroom, getting into a monumental fistfight and then coming out like like James Bond, just like straightening your tuxedo like … uh, but no. Just a stain. Just a stain.
Kumail Nanjiani: Yeah. Finishing my drink and being like we have to leave right now.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies it’s for eaters, I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. Kumail Nanjiani is an actor, comedian, and writer. Emily V. Gordon is a writer and producer, and they’ve been married for more than a decade. The early days of their relationship are depicted in the 2017 film The Big Sick, which they co-wrote, and which Kumail stars in. He’s also well known for playing Dinesh in the TV show Silicon Valley.
Dan Pashman: As you heard, I had Kumail on this show solo four years ago, and it was clear he really loved food, put a lot of thought into it. So I was as shocked as everyone else when, a year ago, he posted a photo of himself without a shirt on and basically broke the internet. He revealed that he had radically changed his diet, been working out a ton, and had transformed his body from a guy known for playing a programmer to a guy who looks like he could break a programmer in half.
Dan Pashman: Now when you hear that someone like Tom Brady hasn’t had ice cream in 20 years, you’re not surprised. That guy doesn’t care about anything but football. But Kumail? I was eager to talk with him again to hear why he made this change. What effect it’s had on his relationship with food, and his body, and to find out what Emily thinks of it.
Dan Pashman: But first I wanted to hear how they’re doing in quarantine. The Big Sick tells the true story of their discovery that Emily has Stills Disease, a rare inflammatory condition. She’s also been diagnosed with Common Variable Immune Deficiency.
Emily V. Gordon: My immune system is not so hot and so I was already like—I could get any kind of illness very easily. And so it's been more heightened, I would say, in the past 10 months.
Dan Pashman: So in one sense, you've been preparing for this for years.
Emily V. Gordon: Yeah, I'm actually quite good. Both of us are quite good. I'm quite good at having to quarantine myself. That's not a new concept to me. Yeah.
Kumail Nanjiani: Right. The other thing is, I think for people who are generally healthy, they sort of are doing this math during this time of what is an acceptable risk. Who can I see? What can I do?
Emily V. Gordon: Yeah.
Kumail Nanjiani: Whereas for us, that's completely off the table. We don't see anyone. We only go for walks at night when nobody's out. We pick up food once a week. And that's really the only time we’re ever around other people. So we take zero risk.
Emily V. Gordon: We're also lucky enough to be able to work from home.
Kumail Nanjiani: Yes.
Dan Pashman: Generally speaking, Emily, how do your autoimmune issues affect your eating, your approach to food?
Emily V. Gordon: What I deal with is not just like a basic kind of inflammation issue. So I've had people be like, oh, you should cut out this or you should add this. It'll change your life. And I'd been like, ehh, absolutely not. But that was kind of because my house was on fire and people were like, you should change the rugs, it'll help.
Dan Pashman: In recent years Emily has started getting monthly infusions to boost her immune system, which she says have made a real difference, and put her in a position to make other changes. So she did a bunch of research, consulted a nutritionist, and eliminated some foods from her diet.
Emily V. Gordon: and I'm not like strict 100 percent about it, like, there's at least one meal a week that I do eat whatever I want. But that's helped once I...once I put the fire out, it's actually helped to change the rugs a little bit for sure.
Dan Pashman: Right, right. And so now in the time of quarantine, I know you said so you order out from a restaurant once a week—why...you're chuckling. Kumail, why?
Kumail Nanjiani: We just have...
Emily V. Gordon: Our lives are very different.
Kumail Nanjiani: We've really, really—because, you know, there's really no schedule except what we sort of put on ourselves. So so our lives have become very, very, very structured. We go to bed at the same time. We wake up at the same time. We eat kind of the same things every day. And part of that is once a week, the Friday night, date night take out, which is the most exciting time of the week.
Emily V. Gordon: We… it's... we will literally just get in bed and look at each other and be like two more days. It's two more days until Friday.
Kumail Nanjiani: It's tomorrow. We're recording this on Thursday. Oh, my God. Literally, we wake up and we're like, it's Thursday. Tomorrow is Friday.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Emily V. Gordon: And it's just nice to build in a thing to look forward to. And, you know, before quarantine, we ate out most meals or we ordered in most meals. But you I found at least, like I kind of wasn't ever remembering any one meal. But I will tell you this. I remember almost every damn meal we've had on Friday in quarantine because now they've become special.
Dan Pashman: I want to hear from each of you one Friday meal since quarantine started that especially sticks out at a highlight.
Emily V. Gordon: This is going to be hard. I mean, it's going to be—because I think there might be similar ones, but go first.
Kumail Nanjiani: For me, you know, it's about dessert, right? So we'll get a meal and we'll get a decent amount of dessert. And for me, Tres Leches cake has been sort of life changing. I hadn't really had it very much before but now that's the one thing that I would if that I would eat every day if I could.
Emily V. Gordon: And I think for me, there was one restaurant we got takeout from that was kind of—it's like a nice fancy restaurant. And they were doing their best to kind of—how do I put this—to kind of make the meals so that when you kind of were opening each individual piece of it, it felt like you were at a restaurant. So it was kind of presented really fancy, but within a box, each like little dish that you got.
Kumail Nanjiani: Yeah.
Emily V. Gordon: So we would like open the box, take out this like, oh, this is what we're eating next. And that felt really magical to me because it felt like we were at a restaurant.
Kumail Nanjiani: Yeah, we did courses...
Emily V. Gordon: It came with like, burn this while you're eating this.
Kumail Nanjiani: Yeah. It just really, you know, just really was the one time we really felt most like we were at an actual restaurant.
Emily V. Gordon: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Yeah, that sounds fun. I mean, I've gotten a little bit, at certain times, gone overboard with ordering special meals to be delivered. I fell down a little bit of a Gold Belly wormhole.
Emily V. Gordon: Mm-hmm. That can happen.
Dan Pashman: I got I got muffuletta sandwiches sent to me from New Orleans. I got ribs sent from Kansas City, you know, because I'm just so damn sick of my own cooking.
Emily V. Gordon: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: And, you know, I'm also the kind of person who, like, you know, I love having a meal to look forward to.
Emily V. Gordon: Yup.
Kumail Nanjiani: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Which kind of provides a good segue because—So, Kumail, as we turn to some of the changes in your eating, I want to play a clip for you. This is you on the Sporkful four years ago talking about your relationship with food and eating.
CLIP (KUMAIL NANJIANI): I just love food so much. Like, I don't—I think about food so much every day. Like, I truly wake up in the morning and I kind of plan out my day. I genuinely get excited about every single meal. Like, for instance, I go to the gym three times a week and I'm a creature of habit too. So I'll go to the gym three times a week and right next to my gym there's a burger place. So most times I go to the gym, I get a burger to go. I get the exact same burger with the exact same things on it, and I get excited to eat it every single time.
Emily V. Gordon: What what a lovely, naive, little beautiful fool you were back then. There was no COVID, there was no nothing. We didn't know how bad it was going to get.
Kumail Nanjiani: I don't know. I feel like what's interesting is how much and how little has changed. I still think about food. I'm still a creature of habit. I kind of eat the same thing almost every day. I don't go to a gym. I work out at home.
Emily V. Gordon: You go to the garage and then you come back.
Kumail Nanjiani: Yeah, I work out in our garage. And so it is interesting to hear that because I still get very, very excited about every meal. It's just there's a lot less variation now. And I'm I'm sort of cooking for myself almost every day. No, every day. Every meal, every day we cook.
Dan Pashman: So, Kumail, you got the role of Kingo in the Marvel film Eternals, which comes out this fall. First off, just like for folks who don't know comic books, who's Kingo?
Emily V. Gordon: Ooh.
Kumail Nanjiani: So Kingo, as he is in the movies, these Eternals are sort of these Marvel characters who are thousands of years old. And my particular character is—his secret identity is that he's a Bollywood movie star. When he's not a superhero. he's doing like big Bollywood dance sequences and stuff. It's just a really, really fun character to play.
Dan Pashman: And were you told when you took the role that were there any expectations for any transformation of your body? Was that discussed?
Kumail Nanjiani: Uh no. In fact, they actually said, we don't want you to change anything, do whatever you want to do. There was absolutely no pressure from them. But for me, you know, I grew up watching Bollywood movies and I know what those Bollywood action stars look like. So it wasn't just that he's a superhero. It's that believably for this character to be a Bollywood action movie star, he had to look a certain way. And for me, it was also important because it's the first South Asian superhero in a mainstream Hollywood movie and a Marvel movie.
Kumail Nanjiani: And I wanted him to look like someone who could, you know, go up against—who could hang with Thor or Captain America or any of them. So it really was a personal decision. And I sort of—and a personal goal. So that's what—yeah, no pressure from them.
Emily V. Gordon: But a lot of internal pressure,
Kumail Nanjiani: A lot of internal pressure. That's right.
Emily V. Gordon: A lot of internal pressure. I also like that you said you were like, I want to I didn't want it to be funny that I was an action hero. I wanted it to be like, I'm funny, but I'm also going to kick ass when I'm an action hero.
Dan Pashman: So once Kumail decided he wanted to make this change, the studio set him up with a personal trainer, and a meal service that would deliver him five meals a day. Every gram of protein, every carb was calibrated exactly to his body and his workout goals. In an interview with Men’s Health he said he was told, If you’re gonna have a can of Coke, you need to let us know so we can factor that in. For breakfast he had steak and eggs or chicken and eggs pretty much everyday. But otherwise, he never repeated good. Outside of one or two cheat meals a week, he was on this regimen for six months
Kumail Nanjiani: First of all, the food was very—was delicious. And it was kind of freeing to sort of take that out of it, you know?
Emily V. Gordon: Choice, you mean?
Kumail Nanjiani: Yeah, take the choice out of it.
Emily V. Gordon: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: So, Emily, did you understand at the beginning what kind of a transformation to his body Kumail had in mind?
Emily V. Gordon: I did and I didn’t. I think I didn't...it was ambitious. But then what he has done to his body has been even more kind of mind blowing than I imagined would be possible.
Kumail Nanjiani: Emily will attest to this. I do have sort of an obsessive nature.
Emily V. Gordon: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Kumail Nanjiani: I don't have—I don't want to say I have like OCD or anything. I really don't.
Emily V. Gordon: No, absolutely not.
Kumail Nanjiani: But I sort of get obsessed with certain things. And I definitely, definitely, definitely got obsessed with this. And in some ways, it's good and in some ways it's not good. You know, there's two sides to it.
Emily V. Gordon: I, generally, don't love this term, but I will use it here because it's appropriate. He became a gym nerd. Like an absolute—like was really obsessed with like the science of it and like kind of cool little tricks and he kind of got and continues to be super into it. But I think it's also complicated when you're with someone who goes through a rapid—a massive body change because you kind of want to—you want to be like, oh, my God, you look amazing. But you also don't want to be like, man, you looked awful before. So you have to be like, I loved you before, I love you now. I like how it looks in all forms, which is true. But like, it's a delicate little...it's a delicate little dance you got to do.
Kumail Nanjiani: Yeah. And you've been at it for two years now.
Emily V. Gordon: I have.
Dan Pashman: Kumail, I know you told Jimmy Kimmel that nowadays when you feel like treating yourself with a late night snack, you eat a bag of sugar snap peas?
Emily V. Gordon: He still does.
Kumail Nanjiani: They're still there.
Emily V. Gordon: We got really into carrots. Both of us got really into straight up raw raw dog Bugs Bunny ass carrots.
Kumail Nanjiani: Yeah, like full on Bugs Bunny carrots
Emily V. Gordon: It’s so great.
Dan Pashman: And Emily, how did Kumail’s big change in diet affect you?
Emily V. Gordon: We wouldn't be able to, like, get random meals here and there. Yeah, it was...
Kumail Nanjiani: I became more boring.
Emily V. Gordon: That's right. For a little while, you were more boring, like for a little while it would be like, how was your day, honey? And he would be like, oh, macros. And I'd be like, OK. Cool.
Kumail Nanjiani: Because I really got into reading like scientific papers on this stuff.
Emily V. Gordon: Yeah.
Kumail Nanjiani: I would like tell Emily...actually, she was not...
Emily V. Gordon: Oh, love it. Loving it.
Kumail Nanjiani: It is objectively boring.
Dan Pashman: Back in December 2019, Kumail revealed his new body to the world, sharing a photo on social media. He wrote, “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.” He goes on to thank his trainers and nutritionists, who the studio paid for, and acknowledges that this is not an option for most people. He says, “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.” He then says, “The biggest thanks goes to Emily 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.”
Dan Pashman: So Kumail, so you explain why you wanted to do this at the start. It was driven by the role and the way that you wanted to play this character. But now shooting is wrapped and you have continued to work to maintain the same—roughly the same diet and same body. Why?
Kumail Nanjiani: Well...
Emily V. Gordon: That's a great question.
Kumail Nanjiani: Because I know how hard it was to sort of get to this point. And I don't think I could do it again because maintaining it is a lot easier than getting it. And if I had known back then just what it would take to get to this point, I think it would have been too intimidating to think of. It’s every single day. So that's why I keep doing it. It's one, I don't think I could get it back, and two, I feel better.
Emily V. Gordon: I'll just add three. I think you're training to beat the shit out of coronavirus personally with your fist. That's what, especially, at the beginning of quarantine when everything was super kind of stressful and terrifying. You would just kind of go back there and just exercise some demons, I think.
Kumail Nanjiani: That’s right.
Emily V. Gordon: Which is part of what working out is.
Kumail Nanjiani: Yeah, I've said it before, but I think the working out is the only thing that's been tethering me to sanity.
Emily V. Gordon: And and our very strict schedule.
Kumail Nanjiani: That and our strict schedule. It really is true. It's, you know—listen, there are like—I was talking to Emily about this. There are all these things that you have within yourself that you kind of need to deal with. Right? Demons or issues or whatever it is. And I decided—I don't know if this is right or not, but in quarantine, I would forgive some of those parts of myself and just sort of be OK with it. So the thing that is now obsessed with working out and dieting, I was like, OK, what that gets me—there are certain things I lose, right? But what it gets me is worth it. And it helped me right now. And these are issues I'll deal with after I get the vaccine.
Dan Pashman: Well, you talked about sort of there's pros and cons to this and that you have kind of an obsessive personality. Emily, you said that Kumail became, to use your phrase, a gym nerd. Were there ever points that either of you felt like this was going too far?
Kumail Nanjiani: Emily?
Emily V. Gordon: Uhhh, how to answer? The...there was a point, and I think it's kind of calmed down now, but there was a point in early quarantine where you got, like—your muscles, got way too big. And I don't think I realized it until we did a Zoom with friends and they were like, "Buddy, what's going on with you?". Like and you—and I think that's kind of calmed down. I think when you first started working out on your own in our garage, which doesn't have all the stuff that gyms do, I think maybe you were kind of like, you know, just working some stuff out inside your heart. Yeah.
Kumail Nanjiani: I really was, and certainly for the first two and a half, three months, I definitely, definitely over-exercised on my own. I really, really worked out probably three or four hours every single day. Every single day, I got really, really obsessed with it. And I sort of became this thing of—it was sort of this release and control, obviously, that have been taken away from us because of COVID and all that. And I felt like—it's going to sound weird, but the physical pain was getting me something.
Emily V. Gordon: I also think a little bit it's been interesting to see this idea of like kind of discovering like, oh, body image and oh no, I don't, oh, I hate myself and oh, I've got to start thinking about this stuff. And I'm just like, welcome. Welcome gentlemen, come on over to where we've all been, where us ladies have been our entire lives. And I think...I think for you kind of juggling how you decide if you are OK in your physical form is OK, I think, it's been an interesting journey that I've had to go through also...that a lot of—anybody has to go through it of like, is it the number on the scale? Is it how you feel when you look at yourself? Is it how you look in clothes? Is it when other people admire you? Like figuring out where your body image literally comes from is something that you’ve dealt with.
Kumail Nanjiani: And how...and how important or unimportant it is to you.
Emily V. Gordon: Yeah.
Kumail Nanjiani: You know? As someone who, again, this is a podcast about food. It's getting a little heavy. But as someone who had a really pretty unhealthy body image for...for a long, long time, this did start pretty early for me. I think I was fourteen, fifteen and for a long time was too important to me. And then to have to sort of do the mental and psychological work of making it less important to me and to do all that and to succeed to some degree and then to have to like do this transformation that I again decided to do myself? And then having the way you look becomes important to you again? It's sort of a weird...it's sort of weird regressive thing. Hey man.
Emily V. Gordon: Hey man.
Kumail Nanjiani: Trying to figure it out.
Dan Pashman: When Kumail first posted that photo of his new body, much of the pop culture world quickly assigned him sex symbol status. But there was another response, too. Many of his biggest fans worried that this meant he had changed. When we come back, we’ll discuss both of those reactions. Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Do you drink a Guinness on St. Patrick's Day, even though you're not Irish? Eat chips and salsa on Cinco de Mayo, even though you're not Mexican? I do. But, when one culture's holiday becomes everyone's excuse to party, what's gained and what's lost? And how does it feel when it's your holiday? In last week’s show, taped before COVID, I find out, when I go to a a Passover seder where I’m the only Jewish person, and a Chinese New Year party with no Chinese people
CLIP (JENNY YANG): Knowing that people will have at least minimal exposure to my culture is great. I think just someone is exposed to Chinese culture doesn't guarantee that they'll treat you with respect or dignity.
Dan Pashman: At the end of the episode, I check back in with the hosts of that “Gentile Passover” for a surprising update. That one’s up now where you got this one, it’s called "Celebrating Other People’s Holidays". Check it out.
Dan Pashman: Now back to Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani. We discussed how Kumail’s decision to transform his body affected each of them. I wanted to shift the conversation to talk about how the rest of the world reacted, especially after that shirtless photo went viral.
Emily V. Gordon: Once that photo came out, like just people I kind of know being like, hey, look at that husband's body, huh? Would you think about that? It's like you don't get to talk about that. Oh, no, wait. You totally do, because, absolutely. That is kind of part of what this is. And then it became a strange thing where I had to, like, prepare answers to give to people about like like, yeah, I love it. I love when he takes his shirt off like, I don't know.
Dan Pashman: But I mean, that photo ended up on PornHub.
Emily V. Gordon: That's correct.
Dan Pashman: Which I know has been discussed quite a lot, you know, in the category of muscular men.
Emily V. Gordon: Big fan, yeah.
Dan Pashman: Among the other amusing things that happened, Kumail, your dad got some socks made with the photo of your shirtless body on the bottoms of the socks?
Kumail Nanjiani: Yeah, I think somebody gave him those socks. My cousin gave him those socks that said—that had my picture and it said I'm his dad by way of explanation.
Emily V. Gordon: Because, otherwise, it's is a little weird.
Kumai: Otherwise, it's so weird that he just has a random shirtless torso on his socks. But I'm his dad. OK, no further questions.
Emily V. Gordon: Everything’s totally fine. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: One of the other things that has always stuck with me since our last conversation, Kumail, is your love of Biryani to the point that now every time I eat Biryani, I think of you. I was at a mall on Long Island and I saw a license plate that just read Biriyani. I was like, did Kumail move to New York? I want to play another clip for you from your last appearance on the Sporkful.
CLIP (KUMAIL NANJIANI): I could literally eat my grandmother’s biryani for every single meal of the rest of my life and be thrilled every single time. But if I like Biryani, I want it to be a specific way. I don't want any nuts in it. I don't want any friggin cashews. I don't want any damn raisins in it.
Dan Pashman: And yet a little while back on Instagram, Kumail.
Kumail Nanjiani: Yes. Listen, we grow. We change. You're talking about the...
Emily V. Gordon: We grow. We change. We make cauliflower biryani.
Kumail Nanjiani: Yeah. Cauliflower rice biryani.
Dan Pashman: I just read the caption and then I want to hear your thoughts. You wrote, "Today in "Who Have I Become?", I made cauliflower rice biryani. I know Desi people Desi is a term for South Asians, I know Desi People will consider this an abomination. I agree with you. I am rolling my eyes at me too, but it tasted pretty dang good." What are your thoughts?
Kumail Nanjiani: Yeah.
Emily V. Gordon: All true.
Kumail Nanjiani: All true. One, people got actually really angry at me and are still, like, legitimately angry at me and I feel like that's what's….This is what's wrong with the Internet.
Emily V. Gordon: You get a hobby, guys.
Kumail Nanjiani: Yeah. Get a hobby. Don't be upset about this. You know, I wanted to eat Biryani and I wanted to feel—I wanted it to be healthy. And so it turned out pretty good.
Emily V. Gordon: That said, we've also gotten real legit biriyani from this place in L.A. that's that's really good.
Emily V. Gordon: Also that said, we have not made it a second time.
Kumail Nanjiani: We made it twice, totally.
Emily V. Gordon: Did we make it twice?
Kumail Nanjiani: Yeah.
Emily V. Gordon: Yeah, that's right.
Kumail Nanjiani: It just is a lot of work for something that’s not quite biryani.
Emily V. Gordon: And your house doesn't exactly smell correct, you know, after you make it? It smells like cauliflower rice.
Kumail Nanjiani: It smells like cauliflower rice. I think cauliflower rice, you know, I just want it to be a little bit better.
Emily V. Gordon: They’re doing their best.
Kumail Nanjiani: But they're doing their best. Cauliflower’s, really working really hard out there.
Dan Pashman: That feels like a bit of a backhanded compliment, but I'll take your word for it.
Kumail Nanjiani: It certainly is. it's — listen, it certainly is. We just need a good alternative to rice.
Dan Pashman: But what I think is interesting, though, is and I'm sure that some people are giving you a hard time about cauliflower, rice biryani are just, like you say, people on the Internet, you know, with an ax to grind. But I do also wonder, it seems like one of the big reactions that you've gotten is that people are afraid that this means that you have changed.
Kumail Nanjiani: Yes, that's right. I'll tell you. I...I...I don't...I have not changed.
Emily V. Gordon: You have and you haven’t. Also, it’s kind of none of anyone's business.
Kumail Nanjiani: Right.
Emily V. Gordon: This idea that you kind of can't change whatsoever, we're always changing. Whether or not we're growing in another thing entirely, but nothing's ever static. All of us are always changing. I make every fan of Kumail Nanjiani this promise. I will not let him become a monster. It won't happen. I'm on it, guys. Don't worry. I got it.
Kumail Nanjiani: Don't worry, she is on it.
Emily V. Gordon: I got it.
Dan Pashman: I do think, though, the fact that people were so worried that you might have changed to some extent, I think, first of all, you could take as a compliment because it means that people read a certain authenticity into who they think you are. Now, I understand that being in the public eye, like who really knows you? You know, people make a lot of assumptions. But, you know, I think that, you know, I think that people saw you as a certain kind of person, who felt accessible. And I'm not saying that you have changed, I'll take your word for it that you haven't. I just think that perhaps that was some of the dynamic there. You know, like so much of your early work, Kumail, you were like a pretty unabashed nerd, whether it's playing a data programmer in Silicon Valley or like in The Big Sick, your your character's ringtone is the X Files. And so, like, you just, I think, that for so much of your career, you've had a lot of nerd cred.
Kumail Nanjiani: Well, here's what people don't understand. Getting in shape is extremely nerdy. I really was reading scientific papers like it's all math, it's all science, it's all like that kind of stuff. So it's it's extremely, extremely nerdy.
Emily V. Gordon: But I think it's an interesting thing that we—it's like nerd-dom went from being like, "Oh, we're nerds. We're persecuted.", to being like, nerds are kind of the king of everything. Marvel movies are the most popular movies and those are comic book movies. To being like now, it's still kind of uncomfortable for there to be like other like nerds, who aren't the stereotypical Dinesh. Like aren't that stereotypical character, but they exist guys. Well, a lot of us are nerds.
Dan Pashman: But like what's interesting is, like now you've landed a role in a Marvel movie and gotten really jacked, like one way to look at it. And I think that the fear among some of your fans is that that, in that sense, that you're turning your back on the nerds....
Kumail Nanjiani: By being in a superhero Marvel movie? I mean that's....
Dan Pashman: That's right. That's the other way to look at it, I think, is that you're living out every nerd's dream.
Emily V. Gordon: I think you're hitting on what is actually uncomfortable. Is like I think to be a nerd, which I am, as well, is to kind of accept like, "Oh, the world is not for us, the world's for other people.", and the idea that you can kind of make any...make any moves from that, I think is somewhat uncomfortable.
Kumail Nanjiani: I mean, I really am living my dream. It really is...since I was a little kid, the idea of being a superhero in a Marvel movie, I mean, that would be the most exciting thing possible. It was it was utterly unattainable. So the fact that I get to do it now was—I feel pretty great about it.
Emily V. Gordon: You either die a nerd or you live long enough to become a superhero.
Kumail Nanjiani: And then everyone thinks you've changed.
Emily V. Gordon: And then everyone thinks you're the villain.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Emily V. Gordon: But I actually don't see that. And people who are fans of you on it—and that might be a small portion of things, but I think people also just don't like change. Change is uncomfortable.
Kumail Nanjiani: And I don't want to be—you know, I think sometimes people think I've become this guy who's like the some telling people to get in shape or whatever. I am definitely not. Whatever you need to do to feel like good about yourself or how you look or whatever it is, or make it important to you, or make it not important to you, whatever it is, I completely support that. You know, I...I...I relate. I understand.
Dan Pashman: And I know you said earlier, Kumail, that when you were younger, you struggled with your own body image issues. You got to a place where you were feeling a lot better about your body. And then now you've gotten sort of this third... third place. Is that also—do you think, part of living your dream of looking the way that maybe you had dreamed of looking when you were much younger?
Kumail Nanjiani: Yes. And it turns out it doesn't solve any of your problems.
Kumail Nanjiani: I'll say this, you know, the journey was the way I looked, First of all, I didn't like how I looked and it was way too important to me. And so then the journey, I think, was about making that less important. Now having to go back to being in some ways, or at least at some point to get obsessed with the way I looked, it did feel like a couple steps back. And like when I was 10-years-old, if someone showed him that picture and was like, hey, someday it's going to be like you're going to look like this, for a small, small percentage of your life, I'd be thrilled. And I'd be like, oh, my God, great. He's got it all figured out. Well, he doesn't. He just...
Emily V. Gordon: But he's just got the body.
Kumail Nanjiani: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Before wrapping up with Emily and Kumail, I wanted to talk about their latest TV project, Little America on Apple Plus, which they produced. Little America paints portraits of new immigrants trying to find their way in the U.S. There’s the 12-year-boy Kabir, who takes over his family’s motel when his parents have to return to India because of visa issues. There’s Beatrice, the Ugandan woman who struggles to support herself in Louisville, until she hits on the idea of selling her chocolate chip cookies.
Dan Pashman: As I told Emily and Kumail, part of what I love about the show is that they use very specific cultural details in a way that, even when it isn’t my culture, still resonate deeply.
Dan Pashman: I mean, I think about one of the episodes where you're featuring a woman who’s an Asian immigrant and you see her making dumplings, filling the dumplings by hand, teaching her kids how to do it. And it's only maybe 5 or 10 seconds on the screen. But I immediately grasped that it was the kind of thing that becomes a very cherished memory for a lot of people. And I'm curious to hear more about the thought process of how you incorporate those different details into the show.
Emily V. Gordon: That's a great one that you mentioned. Specifically, because that episode I was written and directed by Tze Chun, who—he's the kid in the story. And that's a story about his mom that he wanted to kind of tell. And so as much as possible with the show, we tried to incorporate people who either lived that experience, were from that country, had had some authentic experience so that they could infuse those details. And food, I think, comes up often in the episodes of that show because food is—it's really important to us. It's a way of showing love. It's a way of kind of honoring where you come from and how we kind of adapt where we come from. I think it's fascinating. So it's something that all of us were very cognizant of as we were making those episodes.
Kumail Nanjiani: Yeah, there's an episode with the Nigerian cowboy and the, you know, in Nigeria, there's a dish called fufu and people who—Nigerians move to America used Bisquick in it sometimes. And so we put that in because we thought that that was a really interesting detail. And we only got it because, you know, we—as Emily said, we tried to get people to work on those episodes who were actually connected to those cultures. So, yeah, that authenticity was very, very important to us. And it was really heartening, you know, to hear people from those countries really, really connect with that aspect of it.
Dan Pashman: Right. Well, one of the things that I think that you two are both so good at in Little America and also in The Big Sick is...is the idea of sort of depicting things that are specific to a culture, but in a way that that taps into universal themes? I'm curious like...like what—This is a kind of a big, difficult, creative question. But I'm curious as creators, like what...what's the key to that? What's the key to telling specific stories in a way that feels universal?
Emily V. Gordon: I think, I try to think back to I was a therapist before I was a writer. And I think part of what you learn, what I learned in school and when I kind of learned working with clients was like, you don't know the person's experience opposite to you. You have no idea what their experience is. You can't possibly, even if you were raised the same, you don't know what their specific experience was or is. But what you can kind of tap into is the emotions that they feel as a result of those experiences. So, like, I couldn't know what they had gone through but I know what sadness, loss, grief, pain, betrayal, embarrassment, all those kind of emotions...
Kumail Nanjiani: Some good ones, too.
Emily V. Gordon: I mean, why are they—why are they in my office if they have the good ones? I did not work with those kinds of clients. And so I always kind of remembered, like, that's the...that's the like ground water underneath kind of this well of experiences. That's a big important part, is like keeping the story specific, but making sure that those emotions that are underneath those experiences are emotions that we all could recognize and kind of relate to.
Kumail Nanjiani: That's the key. It's not just that she’s making dumplings. It's that you can see how much she cares about the dumplings she's making. That's what people connect to.
Dan Pashman: That’s Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. Their series Little America is streaming now on Apple Plus, and Kumail’s Marvel film, Eternals, is set to be released November 5th. Next week’s show will be the first ever Sporkful dating game. Oh, yes. We're sending people out on Zoom dates and taping it. That show will also include a huge announcement! So get psyched for that. While you wait for that one, check out last week's show about what's gained and what's lost when we celebrate other people's holidays. As always, please make sure you connect with our show in your podcasting app. In Spotify, click follow. In Apple podcasts, subscribe. In Stitcher, favorite. Thanks.