“There’s so many specific weird things with this show,” says “Welcome to Chippendales” star Kumail Nanjiani. “It’s just one of those stories that you can’t make up.”
The Hulu true-crime miniseries spans 15 years and is based on the real story of Chippendales founder Somen “Steve” Banerjee. Nanjiani leads the show as Banerjee, an entrepreneurial Indian immigrant who established the infamous male strip club in 1979. The actor was initially unfamiliar with the club’s origin story and the personalities who made it a success — or the murders surrounding it. There’s a lot of ground to cover in eight episodes; the club is up and running by the end of the first.
“What resonated with me most about [Banerjee] was that he’s the king of a world that would not have him unless he was the king,” Nanjiani says. “I saw a picture of him with the Chippendale dancers, and it’s like this pudgy, brown, bespectacled nerd with all these white Adonises. He feels like he doesn’t fit in this club.”
Nanjiani notes that although there’s a lot of “wild stuff” that happens in the series, he was most compelled by what the story had to say about the American dream from the perspective of an immigrant. The actor moved to the U.S. from Pakistan as a college student and studied computer science and philosophy in Iowa before pursuing comedy.
“When you are not in America, you have a specific vision of the American dream. And then you come here, and you realize the ways in which it’s true and the ways in which it’s not true,” Nanjiani says. “And to explore that idea through the eyes of someone who was also an immigrant, from the part of the world where I’m from, it seemed like an opportunity that I had to take.”
The project first came to Nanjiani several years ago as a movie script, and he initially turned it down. The “Silicon Valley” actor had just starred in indie darling “The Big Sick,” his first major leading role. The semi-autobiographical film, which he cowrote with wife Emily V. Gordon, also thrust him further into the spotlight; the pair picked up a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination.
“I was initially a little intimidated to do something like [‘Welcome to Chippendales’],” Nanjiani says. “Up until ‘The Big Sick’ everything I had done was me trying to be as funny as I could,” he adds. “I found reasons to say no at that time, but honestly I think looking back I was just kind of scared to take it on. At that point, I didn’t think I knew how to take on a character like this who was so complicated.”
Taking on Banerjee meant stepping out of his comedy wheelhouse and into drama, although Nanjiani was able to call on his experience as a comedian.
“I always thought comedy was about specificity, and I feel like this character is very, very specific,” Nanjiani says. “This character isn’t really funny. I’ve played people who are funny in some way, whether they know it or not, they’re funny. This guy isn’t that funny,” he continues. “Because I’ve done comedy for so long, it’s part of my performer instincts to have a certain timing and way to approach things you don’t necessarily think about.”
Nanjiani was aware that his portrayal would serve as many viewers’ first introduction to Banerjee; there were no pre-existing character expectations or tropes to hit. He approached the role as it was written in the script, and notes that it took a long time to figure out his way into the character. The actor credits many long walks with Gordon talking about the character in relation to people they knew, and his acting teacher, for helping him unlock his Banerjee.
“I had to approach it from what’s his morality, what’s his relationship with his body? How does he feel about himself? What does he think of money?” he says. “What’s his wound? Why does he do the things he does? How did he speak? It took a long time for all of these things to become one specific thing.”
Nanjiani served as an executive producer on the series (along with Gordon), which allowed him to have a hand in all aspects of production, from casting to picking the crew, directors and being a part of post-production.
“Editing is probably my favorite part of the entire process,” he says, adding that he’s seen hundreds of versions of each episode. “I always like that level of involvement. I don’t know if I’m right, but at least the mistakes I will make will be my mistakes and not someone else’s mistakes, you know?”
Nanjiani, who also made waves last year with his role in the Marvel film “Eternals,” has his next acting gig lined up for the spring — he’s excited about it, although he can’t discuss it — and has a few scripts he wrote with Gordon in development at various studios.
“Short answer, I know what my next job is, but I’m trying to keep nimble and not plan too far ahead,” he says. “Stuff I want to do keeps changing all the time, so I want to be able to have a little bit of flexibility to go with what I wanna do, rather than being locked into something that I wanted to do a year ago and now I’m not so sure about,” he adds.
“Making anything great, it’s challenging; that’s a very narrow target to hit. But I want to at least take on jobs that have a chance of being truly great. So that’s my barometer: I want to do stuff that I have a chance of really loving.”