How Kumail Nanjiani went from coronavirus warnings to Netflix and chill
Kumail Nanjiani is tired of romantic comedies ending with the boy and girl riding off into the sunset together. That’s why his latest rom-com, “The Lovebirds,” centers around a couple on the brink of a breakup.
“There are all these movies that end when the couple gets together but there aren’t as many movies about the couple living together and continuing to stay together,” he said by phone while quarantined in L.A. “It’s just not something I’ve seen explored in comedy. You know how couples fight about the same things they’ve been fighting about since they first met? I feel like couples have like five fights and just have them over and over. I thought that was interesting to explore in the context of a wacky comedy setup.”
The film is something of a pioneer in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, completely eschewing a theatrical release and instead heading straight to streaming. It was set to debut March 16 at Austin’s South by Southwest festival before opening in theaters April 3, but Paramount canceled its theatrical release entirely and sold it to Netflix, where it will become available for streaming on Friday.
For Nanjiani, who along with costar Issa Rae also executive produced the film, the decision ultimately turned out for the best. “I think this movie is actually a fantastic fit for Netflix,” he said. “It’s the type of movie that I’ve seen do well on Netflix. Hopefully it’s a movie that people will connect with right now because it’s a comedy and it’s escapism.”
Directed by Michael Showalter (who also directed Nanjiani in the semi-autobiographical love story “The Big Sick,” which Nanjiani co-wrote), the film’s titular lovebirds were originally written as white. But together with Rae, Nanjiani reworked the script to better reflect the experience of an interracial relationship between two people of color.
“We were like, ‘If it’s a white couple that’s been framed for murder, that situation is very different from a nonwhite couple, a multiracial couple, that is framed for murder,’” he said. “Our relationship with the police is different. When a white person sees a cop and when I see a cop, the feelings are very, very different. So we really wanted to make sure that was a part of it.”
“It was very obvious that the circumstances would play out a bit differently and the conversations would be a bit different with people of color involved,” said Rae. “So in rewriting it we wanted to make it feel relatable. Because of that, we were having a lot of intimate conversations about ourselves in relationships and what we wanted to see about a couple that was on the fringes of separating. In that way it was very hands-on.”
“This wasn’t going to be a movie about what it’s like being a person of color going through the world but we also didn’t want to ignore it,” said Nanjiani. “So Issa and I had a lot of conversations about it and we were like, ‘We want this to be something that’s present in the movie but not something that necessarily overwhelms it.’ That was a big deal.”
The Times caught up with Nanjiani to discuss how he’s been faring during quarantine, being hyper-vigilant about the COVID-19 crisis from the very beginning and his other project affected by the global shutdown — the Marvel action epic “The Eternals.”
How have you been spending your time in quarantine?
I’ve been working from 9 to 5 and watching movies at night. Trying to keep to a regimented schedule, for me, has been really great. But reading scripts, it all feels a little bit weird because you don’t know when any of this is going to be real, when the world’s going to return. But it’s been good to have something to feel productive.
In the beginning I took solace in the schedule. And while I’m still taking solace in it now, I’m feeling a little bit like, “Why does every day literally have to be the same?” Time moves weirdly. Some weeks fly by and yet I can’t believe right now it’s only Tuesday. I’m like, “Maybe it’s time to switch up the schedule. Maybe Wednesday and Thursday are the new weekend.”
Have you been learning any new skills?
No, I’m not looking to suck at something new. I’m just trying to stay in my wheelhouse, stick to my strengths and do what I need to do to keep my confidence up.
You were one of the first celebrities to be vocal about how seriously this pandemic should be taken. What made you realize other people maybe weren’t taking things seriously enough?
I feel like I’m such a scold, like I’m such a nerd. It wasn’t some crazy insight I had or anything. I don’t have the luxury of being cavalier about this. I’ve been following this disease for a long time because my wife is immunocompromised. I saw that my wife is in two different high-risk groups and I was like, “OK, that’s concerning.” It felt like nobody in America was concerned about it. I was reading warnings from epidemiologists and experts who were all saying, “The world needs to prepare for this, this thing is going to travel all over the world.” And everyone here was just so lax about it. Honestly it was really frustrating and really, really scary.
And so I started tweeting about it at the beginning. People really hated when I was doing that. People had such a negative reaction to it, which I think is somewhat understandable because the thought of having a pandemic show up to America this way, people don’t expect it. America hasn’t really had to deal with any sort of conflict within its boundaries in many, many years. Different countries that have handled it better have had a little bit more strife within their borders. So I think people just didn’t expect that this could happen to a place like America.
Are you quarantining in L.A.?
What are your thoughts on how the local government is handling the shutdown and now reopening the county?
I think they’ve done a good job. They should have shut down a little bit earlier but they still did a lot better than many other places around America. They caught on quickly. Some other places in America, I feel like they’re ignoring warnings and hoping against hope that this thing is somehow just magically going to disappear. Right now the mandate in L.A. is, if you leave your house, have a mask on. My wife and I have started going on walks at night because when we would go on a walk in the afternoon, we were the only ones wearing masks. In the beginning [of the mandate], everybody was wearing a mask. Now it’s a surprise when you see someone wearing a mask. Even here in L.A., people are getting a little bit cavalier about it.
Why do you think people have been so cavalier about adhering to social distancing guidelines?
I think it’s hard to quarantine for this long. It’s an invisible thing, right? You don’t see the threat. Usually there’s a problem, you do the thing [you’re told], the problem goes away, life returns to normal. This is not like that. You don’t really see the effects of social distancing, the effects of quarantining. The entire point is that you don’t see any real change. Things stay the same and the curve flattens. That’s kind of hard, I think, for people to wrap their heads around.
I think people are feeling like, “I did the thing, I was at home for nine weeks” — which is a very long period of time — “this should’ve solved the problem.” That’s not how it works. I understand I’m speaking from a place of privilege: I have a home, I have a job and a lot of people don’t have that. A lot of people need to go back to work to make money to feed themselves, feed their families. So I understand that frustration. It’s the people who don’t have those concerns and are still being cavalier about it that I find a little frustrating.
How do you feel about “The Lovebirds” skipping theaters and being released on Netflix?
There are a lot of movies in theaters that are still looking for new dates or haven’t found a home. Netflix is exactly the result that both Issa and I wanted. It was a few weeks before the shutdown where I was sort of the one who was freaking out about this and I was speaking to Issa and saying, “There’s a chance that theaters might be closed. I think we should talk to the producers and just open the door and have conversations with Netflix.” So we were lucky in that we started those conversations before the shutdown, before theaters closed. We were already a little bit ahead of the curve on that.
Watching a movie in a theater, to me, is a wonderful experience. I love watching comedies in the theater, it’s such a communal thing. Obviously that’s not going to happen right now and there are much bigger problems in the world than the fact that our movie is not going into theaters.
What was it like working opposite Issa?
I’ve been a fan of Issa’s for many years. I met her very briefly but did not know her until we started working on this movie. I was thrilled because I know she’s very smart, she’s very funny. But more than that, watching “Insecure,” she’s very good at relationships, both romantic and platonic. And character work. I knew that getting her brain on a movie like this would really elevate it. The reason I wanted to do this movie was because of the central relationship of this couple so I thought, “Issa’s the best at this so that’ll be great.”
And working with her, she’s really fun to improvise with. I’ve never met anyone who’s so good at so many different things. Usually people have specialties and with Issa, she just is so good at doing so many different things. It’s really inspiring.
What was it like filming in New Orleans, especially now thinking back to a time when you were not homebound?
Oh yeah, I mean, it’s a different world now, right? Being in a crowd like that, it just feels like that’s a parallel universe. I fell in love with New Orleans, I’d never spent that much time there. There’s no other place in America where you can feel the history that way. The mix of cultures and the food and people, there’s truly no place like it in the entire world.
We shot over Mardi Gras and in my head, I was like, “Well, that’s a day or it’s a week.” It’s really the month leading up to Mardi Gras, every single day. It’s like the party starts and then every day it scales up until it turns into, over the course of the month, the biggest party you’ve ever seen in your life. So it was really, really fun. It was a bit challenging because everybody else is having fun and you’re having to learn lines. And our movie is set at night so the whole shoot was a night shoot. It’s hard watching people have the best time while you’re having to work.
We now have to wait longer for “The Eternals,” which was delayed to February and will kind of kick off the fourth phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Are you anxious about that movie coming out and how it will be received?
I’m anxious about everything I do coming out and how it will be received. It would have been nice if it was coming out this year but there are bigger problems; we’ll wait a little bit longer. But yeah, I’m very curious how that movie will be received. Chloé Zhao is a true filmmaker, an absolute genius and I completely, completely trust her. I’d love to work with filmmakers like her over and over for the rest of my career if I could, that would be the dream. The movie is so ... the scale of it is so big and it’s just hard to wrap your head around it as you’re shooting it when you’re shooting these little pieces. It’s by far the biggest movie I’ve ever been a part of. I’m just excited to see it myself.
Do you think this collective pause will lead to any kind of meaningful change in the ways we do things and the systems we have in place that maybe no longer serve us?
I would hope so. I hope there’s introspection. I think individually, people have been forced to really sit with themselves and see what about their lives is working and what’s not. It certainly has exposed how different populations are affected. Obviously there are certain groups who are hit by COVID in a much harder way. It took something like this for people to realize how different populations are treated in America.
Will there be a change? I really hope so. I see frustration building and the disparity of wealth is so stark, especially in a place like L.A. We’re seeing anger bubble. I think we’re realizing that a lot of people are completely out of touch. This pandemic has spoken to every single societal issue we talk about: wealth disparity, healthcare, the environment. Every single issue that we talk about is wrapped up in this thing and it sort of heightens all those differences. So I hope some good comes out of it, but I can’t predict it.
Well, did you hear that Jeff Bezos stands to become a “trillionaire” by 2026 because of the crisis?
Yeah, finally something that we can all celebrate together.
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