How Kumail Nanjiani Got Huge
GQ India|November 2021
It all seemed simple enough: Book a Marvel movie, get ripped, feel incredible. But, as Kumail Nanjiani learned, growing into his new body required recalibrating his whole mindset
Clay Skipper

A while back Kumail Nanjiani struck up a conversation with a stranger at his gym. Bonded by the shared agony of heavy lifting, they wondered aloud to each other: Why do we do this? They decided it was mostly because they’d grown up on the action movies of the 1980s, inhaling the work of stars like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger who projected a tightly coiled idea of manhood. “We saw these guys who were like Adonises and gods and we were like, ‘Oh, that’s what strong men look like,’ ” Nanjiani tells me. “Not that they can access their feelings, or cry, or say when they’re sad, or say when they’re scared. They have a sixpack up to their necks.”

Nanjiani started working out as a scrawny teenager growing up in Pakistan. He had a huge head and tiny body and hated the way he looked. He remembers at least one classmate calling him Chicken Shoulders. “It would’ve been better if I was like, ‘Hey, I like how I look. Fuck ’em all,’ ” he says. “But I didn’t do that.”

And while Nanjiani kept up his workout routine after he moved to the States and became famous—first for his stand-up comedy, then for his role on Silicon Valley, and then for co-writing and starring in The Big Sick—no one was mistaking him for Stallone or Schwarzenegger. But then, in late 2018, he was cast in Marvel’s Eternals, out this month, as Kingo, a near-immortal superhero disguised in the everyday world as a Bollywood star. He transformed his body for the role, spending hours and hours in the gym working out with a trainer, sometimes to the point of puking. With the transformation complete—and at the urging of one of his trainers, David Higgins—Nanjiani posted a few pics of his new bod to Instagram. Maybe you saw—and even gasped, along with the rest of the internet. Even The Rock, patron saint of swole, commented: “Extremely hard work. Dense muscle is hard to achieve.” There was a Men’s Health cover (a copy of which his mother-in-law carries around in her bag to show off). He appeared, temporarily, as the thumbnail on Pornhub’s Muscular Men category, which resulted in a free 10-year subscription to Pornhub Premium. Making Eternals—even just getting ready to make it—changed his life in ways he’s still getting his head around.

When we meet for coffee in Los Angeles, not quite two years removed from his Instagram post, he looks as if he has maintained his Kingo physique, with a pair of shoulders that, even beneath his blue T-shirt, appear superheroic. Laced with grey, his dense black hair matches his dark, expressive eyes, thick eyebrows framing a very square jaw. Fresh off playing the kind of character he read about in comic books as a kid, Nanjiani is negotiating what it means to be a new kind of leading man—starting with what it’s like to live in his new superhero skin.

I ask if he’s tired of talking about his body yet. “Sure,” he says, in a way that means definitely yes. “I’ve found out over the last year and a half, since I did that picture, that I am very uncomfortable talking about my body—and it’s become less and less and less comfortable.”

Which is unfortunate, considering it is what most people seem to want to talk to him about. “It’s almost like being a young woman and having your breasts develop,” Emily V. Gordon, Nanjiani’s wife, tells me. “You become aware at some point that you are being viewed differently by everyone.” As if on cue, midway through our conversation, Nanjiani is spotted by a director he knows. “Have you been well?” she asks. “You got all, like, buffed out for Marvel, right?”

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