Best known for his work on HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” Kumail Nanjiani currently stars in the hit romantic comedy “The Big Sick” which he co-wrote with his wife Emily V. Gordon. The film is based on their real-life, interfaith relationship — Kumail hails from a Muslim family in Pakistan, and Emily is from North Carolina. And ‘the big sick’ part of their story comes when Emily became seriously ill early in their relationship, and was put into a medically induced coma. Kumail portrays a version of himself in the film with actress Zoe Kazan portraying the Emily character. Comedy maestro Judd Apatow produces.
GROSS: How did that change your life as a Pakistani immigrant?
NANJIANI: It wasn’t like Muslims weren’t demonized before, you know? I mean going back to before the Ayatollah Khomeini in the ’80s was, like, sort of the big bad guy in the West. So I knew since I was a kid [that] Muslims were pretty demonized in America. So 9/11, I had racist stuff happen to me after that certainly, and some of that’s in the movie. Some of the stuff that happens in the movie to me is pretty much taken from real life almost exactly. But it didn’t really change the way I saw America because I felt like there was such an effort right after 9/11 – there was such an effort by the government to go out of their way and say Muslims are not the bad guys; they are part of America just as much as we are part of America. So that really was very helpful. And that I felt was very noble, that even though this awful attack had happened, the reaction was in a way very compassionate.
GROSS: How has President Trump’s anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric been affecting you and your family?
NANJIANI: Certain things that were considered racist comments have now somehow become part of valid political discourse. And I feel like people feel OK saying stuff that they would not have felt OK saying two years ago.
GROSS: Emily, was it an issue in your family that you were marrying a Pakistani man, you know, an immigrant who was Muslim? I don’t know what religion you are, if any at all. But was that an issue?
GORDON: Oh, no, not at all.
NANJIANI: Well, that makes my parents sound bad. (LAUGHTER)
Gross: On finding comedy in their real-life story
Emily V. Gordon: [Producer] Judd [Apatow] was really great about encouraging us to … write the movie out, put everything out there. And [then] he was like, “Don’t worry about the comedy, the comedy will come,” which I think was really good advice.