How Kumail Nanjiani Reinvented Himself For Welcome To Chippendales [Exclusive Interview]

In "Welcome to Chippendales," Kumail Nanjiani plays a type he has never played before: dull and dangerous. 

Steve Banerjee, the founder of the famed Chippendales club — which brought male stripping into the mainstream via live performances, wall calendars, and so much more — is a man defined by how little respect he inspires, and how much he blends into the background. His rise and fall is chronicled in the new eight-episode Hulu miniseries, which begins with an immigrant with a dream before spiraling into a brutal and bloody crime saga. Nanjiani anchors it all, playing a man whose quiet demeanor and ill-fitting suits mask a man whose simmering rage makes him a danger to anyone in his life, especially those who cross him. No one expects anything from Steve Banerjee — low-key, boring, unimaginative Steve Banerjee — until it's too late. 

Nanjiani is an inherently funny performer, a comedian who cut his teeth on stage before stealing the show on "Silicon Valley" and breaking hearts with "The Big Sick," which he received an Oscar nomination for writing alongside his wife, Emily V. Gordon (who is also an executive producer on "Welcome to Chippendales"). And while key roles in Marvel's "Eternals" and Lucasfilm's "Obi-Wan Kenobi" showcased a new side of him as an actor, Steve Banerjee is Nanjiani's trickiest performance yet: a monster in a beige suit who couldn't summon a drop of charisma if his life depended on it. It's safe to say that you've never seen him like this before. 

I recently sat down with Nanjiani over Zoom to talk about "Welcome to Chippendales," how he prepared for a part that doesn't rely on his usual strengths, how Banerjee compares to other modern "Peak TV" antiheroes, and much more. 

'I think a lot of villains in movies have childish qualities about them'

I listened to a true crime podcast about this whole Chippendale story a little while back, and one of the things that struck me was how Steve Banerjee is a guy who was kind of defined by his lack of charisma. He walks in a room, and nobody notices him. How do you approach a character like that, a character who, by definition, does not control the room?

I think that was one of the challenges for me going in. The last major character I played was Kingo [in Marvel's "The Eternals"], and he's a movie star and Eternal, and he really likes to be the center of attention. So it was like, how do I play a guy who's the exact opposite of everything that I would want to be?

As a comedian, your job is to get on stage and control the room, and this is a guy who doesn't have that, so I don't know how to play someone without charisma or anything. I just took my own awkwardness and decided to just sort of amp it up and make a guy who isn't good at communicating what's inside of him, who isn't good with connecting to people. He's not really good at reading people, so it's sort of a process of taking things away rather than adding anything in.

What I appreciate about the show is that even though Steve does unquestionably horrible things, we're put in his corner. We understand where he is coming from. How did you manage to find the soul of the character, so that even though he's making these increasingly terrible choices, we understand why he's doing it?

That was sort of the challenge. How do I have a person who sees the world in a kind of way that allows him to do all those things? And how do you have that same guy in episode 1, where if he did those things in episode 1, you'd be surprised, and when he does those things six episodes later, it makes sense, and he's the same guy throughout. He's consistent throughout. So it was a matter of, for me, finding his morality and his relationship with people and then keeping that consistent throughout.

The challenge for me was that the reason that you are kind of in his corner in the beginning, that you perhaps find him endearing in the beginning, which is his drive, his need to succeed, is the exact same thing that you loathe him for at the end, which is his desire, his desire to succeed, and his drive.

So, it was that. He changes a lot in eight episodes, but it's really the ways in which he doesn't change that's more interesting. The ways that he doesn't change are why he does the things he does, I think.

I always thought of him as a child, emotionally immature, and I think, in real life, we've seen figures with power who are inherently sort of childlike and how dangerous that can be. And I think a lot of villains in movies have childish qualities about them, self-absorbed, lack of empathy, only wanting what they want, not being able to see the world through other people's eyes and that kind of stuff. In the beginning, I wanted him to be childlike and perhaps enthusiastic in a way that might be infectious, and at the end, that same childlike quality is now leading to more dark actions.

Maybe it's because I have "Better Call Saul" on the brain months later after the finale, but I couldn't help but wonder ... is Steve Banerjee a Walter White type, who has a dark soul and he's found an opportunity to unleash it? Or is he a Jimmy McGill, a good person who finds himself dragged down into the muck?

I'm actually watching "Better Call Saul" for the first time now. I'm almost done with season 2. What a great show. Bob Odenkirk is so great.

I think he's more Walter White. I think the things about him that caused him to do the bad stuff are in him from the beginning. He just doesn't have the power to do anything about it, but he has that impotence. You see that from the first episode when he gets angry at Paul Sneider.

He has that impotent anger inside him and later that same impotent anger comes out in more dangerous ways, so I think he's always got that in him. I think he has this fire inside of him that he's trying to contain from the very beginning. I think that's why he's so stiff and tight. I always thought of every molecule in his body as trying to keep the fire inside his belly from getting out, and it doesn't always work.

I wanted to, from the beginning, see those fissures and see that fire come out in a dangerous way, and it comes out for a moment in episode 1 with Paul Sneider. It comes out for a longer moment in episode 3. So, it's not really a guy who becomes corrupted, even though that's sort of an easier way to look at it. It's a guy who's always had the corruption and just never learns to deal with it. And the increased power is what allows him to do the bad things that he wouldn't have done in the beginning.

'I think he has sort of weird love affair with a version of America that he has in his head that never existed'

There are these little touches in the show that stand out to me as somebody who is white, and was raised in America. The way Steve is always drinking Coca-Cola. How he brings Velveeta home to his family in India. The American Dream manifests in these very specific details. Are these the kinds of little notes that define the character in a deeper way?

I think so. I think he has this sort of idolization of America and the West. That's really part of his personality, and I think it's been a part of his personality since before we watch him on the show. I think that's why he looks up to Hugh Hefner. To him, I think Hugh Hefner represents America as he sees America: glamorous and money and suits, fancy suits, beautiful women and nice cars and expensive watches. I think that's the America he sees. I think he has sort of weird love affair with a version of America that he has in his head that never existed, and I think trying to reconcile his fantasy with the reality sort of leads to his ruin.

I sort of did a thing where I went back and watched the number one movie of the year from every year since [Steve] was in America until the show starts, because I imagined that he would think these things were glamorous and ended up watching a lot of great movies. I watched "The Towering Inferno," which I've never seen before. It's fantastic. I can't believe back then you would just have movie stars like Paul Newman actually surrounded by real fire. That movie is amazing because you can see he's like sweating because there's a fire right there, and you can see he is a little scared of it.

But I had a list of 10 items that I imagine are in his room, and I think one of them was the ticket stub to "The Towering Inferno." To him, that represents America — this big, glorious spectacle. And I actually watched the premiere of that movie. Stars driving up and all that, and I think to him, that really represents the America he wants to be a part of.

About five years ago, I spoke to you and Emily [Gordon, Nanjiani's wife and frequent collaborator] at SXSW about "The Big Sick." That was the big turning point, "Oh my goodness, Kumail Nanjiani is more than a comedian. What an incredible movie." Now that you've done Marvel and Star Wars, do you have the next "Big Sick" in your head, the movie you want to make that's really personal?

Yeah, we have actually the next movie I would love to make with Emily. The next movie I'm doing, I'm acting in it, so it's not a movie that I wrote. I'm just an actor in it, and I'm very excited for it. It's going to be absolutely fantastic.

But there's a movie that Emily and I wrote that we just sent the last rewrite in. I would love to be able to make that movie. The tricky thing is you make something like a "Big Sick," which is very, very cheap, was $5 million. We had a producer named Judd Apatow sort of protecting us, so we really got to make that movie the way we wanted to make it. And then after that, we were like, "Let's make movies that are also the types of movies that we like."

We like sort of bigger movies. The challenge then is, even though we had so much success with it and we were nominated for an Oscar, more money means that there's going to be more eyes on it. There are more hoops to jump through, so this next movie that we wrote is not as nakedly autobiographical as "The Big Sick," but it's just as personal in many ways. It's actually a sci-fi movie, and I would love to be able to make it. That's my dream project. In a way, we're at the mercy of the studio now to see if they ... they bought the script. Now do they want to make the movie?

"Welcome to Chippendales" premieres on Hulu on November 22, 2022.