Every day in the gym, as he was torturing himself to get into superhero shape, Kumail Nanjiani would hear that phrase in his head – part mission statement, part plea. The words first came to him early last year. That’s when the 41-year-old actor and writer began the workout regimen that would prepare him for this November’s Marvel adventure The Eternals, in which he plays an ego-swollen, muscle-packed alien among men. Nanjiani devoured comic books and action films while growing up in Karachi, Pakistan, and has spent the past few years quietly positioning himself for Marvel supersizing. When it finally happened, he thought: I’m playing the first South Asian superhero in a Marvel movie. I don’t want to be the schlubby brown guy – I want to look like someone who can hang with Thor and Captain America.
And so, for months, Nanjiani would leave his home in the Los Angeles neighbourhood of Los Feliz and head to a discreetly located mega gym in Beverly Hills. During the hourlong trip, he would be filled with dread. He’d been hitting the gym since he was 16 years old but had never trained as intensely as he would for The Eternals; at one point, electric shocks were involved. The early workouts were so brutal he’d come close to vomiting. All Nanjiani could do was try to dissociate from the pain. Leave your body, he’d keep repeating. Please – do the movements, and leave your body.
It didn’t work. For a while, the only joy in this daily routine came from the relief Nanjiani felt when he drove away, aching and exhausted and more than a little shellshocked. “At first, whenever he came home from a workout, he wasn’t able to focus on anything,” notes his wife, writer-producer Emily V. Gordon. “He was still a functioning person, but for an hour, you couldn’t really count on him to have a conversation. His body was adjusting.”
Soon Nanjiani realised that if he was going to complete his transformation, his mind would have to adjust as well. That’s the way it’s been throughout his life: in his 20s, he quit a full-time job to pursue a high-risk stand-up career. In his 30s, he decided to jump into acting and then somehow made that his second career. He’s always looked at whatever opportunity was in front of him and thought, Get good at this! Also: “He’s obsessive,” says Gordon. “When Kumail gets into things, he gets really into things.”
After several merciless months, Nanjiani adopted a new workout philosophy. It was the exact opposite of his leave your body directive. And for someone who’s played his fair share of easily relatable nice guys, and who once recorded a stand-up special called Beta Male, it was surprisingly intense. But over time, it worked:
Chase the pain.
Chase the pain.
Chase the pain.
JUST FOR LAUGHS
Almost a year later, on a bright late-January afternoon, Nanjiani is sitting outdoors at a café near his home, eating an egg-white omelette and happily chatting about his Eternals agony. There are a few strands of grey in his hair, and he’s dressed in a tight, mustard-coloured T-shirt, black Puma track pants and blue-and-white Tiger sneakers. Over the next two hours, Nanjiani occasionally breaks into a sincere, and sincerely charming, tight-lipped smile, and not without good reason: last night, he attended a party for Little America, the critically adored Apple TV+ series he cocreated with Gordon, and he allowed himself his first brownie in a year.
But this morning, he was back at that mega gym in Beverly Hills, getting in some shoulder-and-chest workouts just for fun. Not so long ago, the mere thought of that hour-long drive “really fucked with me”, Nanjiani says. “Today, I drove to that gym and five minutes into my workout, my mood brightened. I love it.”
Nanjiani’s good cheer is mostly due to the fact that he’s finally home after the busiest 12 months of his life. He began last year by shooting the romantic comedy The Lovebirds, in which he and Issa Rae star as an on-the-brink-of-a-break-up couple who get pulled into a murder caper. Then he had his sixth and final season playing Dinesh, the quietly fuming brainiac on HBO’s tech-world takedown Silicon Valley.
At the same time, he was getting in shape for The Eternals, which he finished shooting less than a week ago. For a while, Nanjiani had to keep the movie hush-hush – he couldn’t explain why he was spending so many hours in the gym. One of the few to be clued in was Thomas Middleditch, his Silicon costar. Through the years, the two men have shared their fitness aspirations: Middleditch recalls a time when Nanjiani became fixated on the super-ripped Pakistani model Abbas Jafri. “Kumail would show us pictures of him while we were on set and he’d look kind of envious,” says Middleditch. “Neither of us has a hesitation about going, ‘I wish I had his jawline or arms or whatever’. I think a lot of sensitive weirdo comedians secretly aspire to be the tough guy. And when they finally get a reason to totally change their body – like becoming a superhero – they’re more incentivised.”
Middleditch, who’s known Nanjiani for more than a decade, wasn’t surprised by his friend’s commitment to his Eternals routine: “When Kumail’s given a shot at something, he’s going to take it.” Nanjiani’s showbiz trajectory bears that out. His path has been genuinely wild, the result of ceaseless curiosity and hardcore hustle.
Nanjiani arrived in the US as a teenager to attend Grinnell College in Iowa, a school he knew little about, in a country he’d never before visited. (Some of his Western pop culture knowledge came from old Mad magazines he’d found in a Karachi bazaar.) “I was scared, and I didn’t want to do it,” he says. “But I had no other options, no plan. My first two weeks there were among the worst in my life.”
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