With his first leading role in a studio movie, Kumail Nanjiani is taking a new step forward in his career. Except he had to think hard about whether it felt too much like where he had been before.
In “Stuber,” Nanjiani plays a man named Stu who works in a sporting goods store and moonlights as an Uber driver. (Hence the nickname “Stuber,” which his jerk of a boss calls him.) When he picks up Vic (Dave Bautista) a police detective who just had corrective eye surgery, Stu suddenly finds himself drawn into far more than a typical fare. Soon the two are tracking murderers and drug dealers together, involved in shootouts and car chases, all in a sensible electric car.
The last time Nanjiani starred in a major summer release, he also played an Uber driver. “The Big Sick,” the 2017 film in which he starred and which was based on the origins of his real-life relationship with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, became a crossover success when Amazon expanded it from a limited to a wide theatrical release. It also landed Gordon and Nanjiani an original screenplay Oscar nomination.
The unusual scenario of double dipping into rideshare driver roles is not lost on Nanjiani.
“I am only going to do movies where I'm an Uber driver,” Nanjiani joked during a recent interview. “And someone else is in some medical peril or has had a medical procedure done. I'm going to do a trilogy, then I'm going to do a prequel to the trilogy. I'm going to do a sequel trilogy. There's going to be spinoffs.”
Nanjiani noted that during the real-life events that formed the basis for “The Big Sick” he had an office job, but turning his cinematic alter ego into an Uber driver covered some logistical and character concerns more efficiently. (It also allowed Nanjiani to pay tribute to the movie “Collateral.”)
Regarding “Stuber,” Nanjiani said, “You know, I really wanted to do this movie, and that was something I thought a lot about. In ‘Big Sick,’ he's an Uber driver, but it's not really integral to the story. Whereas in ‘Stuber,’ that is pretty tied in to the story.”
The odd couple pairing between wrestler-turned-actor Bautista and Nanjiani makes for a simple visual gag when they are seen next to each other, but their deepening on-screen relationship takes on an emotional resonance. The two have struck up a seemingly genuine friendship off-screen as well, with Nanjiani attending Bautista’s recent return to the wrestling ring during WrestleMania 35.
“We met for the first time for our chemistry test for ‘Stuber,’ and we clicked right off the bat,” said Bautista in a separate interview. “We spent hours and hours and hours in a Nissan Leaf, like every day. So it's what we had to do — get to know each other. The person I got to know, it's a person I love, where he comes from and what he's done and the way he looks at life. He's just got such a good soul, man. I love that dude.”
Starring in his first studio film after being nominated for an Academy Award as a writer was perhaps less of a jarring transition than one might assume. Nanjiani was particularly complimentary toward “Stuber” screenwriter Tripper Clancy and director Michael Dowse as he described how he separated those two sides of his expressive self.
“Honestly, being an actor makes me a better writer and being a writer makes me a better actor,” said Nanjiani. “I think they all sort of feed into each other.”
As Dowse added regarding Nanjiani: “I loved having a guy who is also a writer because you're just adding so much more. He came in with fresh ideas and sort of fleshing out some themes that were in the script but not quite bubbling up yet. The more guys you have like that on your team, the better.”
Part of what made “The Big Sick” unique had to do with seeing a Pakistani immigrant like Nanjiani playing the lead in a romantic comedy. With “Stuber,” the film features Nanjiani and Bautista, who is part Filipino American, as the leads and also includes Indonesian action star Iko Uwais as its villain. And so suddenly, and rather quietly, here is a major studio summer comedy starring three men of South Asian descent.
“It's so exciting,” said Nanjiani. “It's sort of the balance, right? This is not a movie that's like about diversity or anything in any way, but I think that's the victory, having movies that just happen to have diverse people and that's not what the movie's about. It's just a great movie that just happens to have South Asian people in the movie.”
Following the release of “Stuber,” Nanjiani will remain busy. He will voice characters in this summer's “Men In Black: International” and the upcoming “The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle” and is reportedly in talks to join Chloé Zhao’s Marvel movie “The Eternals” alongside Angelina Jolie. Nanjiani and Gordon are also executive producers on the anthology series “Little America” for the upcoming Apple streaming service.
It seems there’s little need to worry about Nanjiani being typecast.
Jokes aside, Nanjiani has a new goal: “I think I shouldn't play an Uber driver for at least a couple years now.”