Kumail Nanjiani's Feelings
New York magazine|October 11 - 24, 2021
The actor always wanted his own superhero transformation. Now he’s buff, a Marvel star, and struggling with how much of his new body is his own.
E. Alex Jung

KUMAIL NANJIANI would like to remind everyone about his brain, but I’ve brought him to the gym to talk about his muscles. He gets that this is all people—especially men—have wanted to talk about since the photos. You’ve seen them. He strikes a superhero pose, his shirtless torso slicked with baby oil, displaying branching veins that crisscross his arms like a complex irrigation system. Brows arched, he gazes at something in the middle distance— more muscles? He posted them from the set of Eternals in December 2019, the culmination of a 14-month process that began almost immediately after the director Chloé Zhao cast him in the movie as a (roughly) 7,000-year-old Earth defender named Kingo. There was no mandate from Zhao or the studio to remake his body in the mold of the Hollywood Chrises. This was all him. If he was going to be the first South Asian superhero in a Marvel production, then he wanted to look like a guy who could stand in a lineup alongside Captain America and Thor and the rest of them. Plus Kingo lives in the modern-day world as a Bollywood superstar. I mean, have you seen Hrithik Roshan? Have you seen those melons?

These were the rationalizations he gave to Zhao and the studio as he embarked on a serious quest filled with trainers and nutritionists and a cardiologist. Really, he just wanted it in a primal, adolescent way and has wanted it since he was a kid so painfully shy he worried shopkeepers thought he was ugly. This was his chance, and if he didn’t take it at the age of 40, he never would. He would enter the Marvel laboratory as a fan and emerge as a superhero. A comic-book dream.

For about a year, he basked in the honeymoon glow of his body. He went on a publicity blitz. He appeared on Jimmy Kimmel, where a chandelier of the heretofore verboten sugary confections dangled around his head; he discussed his banging bod on Dax Shepard’s podcast, Armchair Expert, with Rob McElhenney, who had similarly transformed his body as a bit for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia; topping it all off was a photo shoot with Men’s Health where he re-created cinematic moments of male virility from American Psycho, X-Men, and Die Hard. He felt—dare he say it?—confident. In a perverse indictment of the industry, his body got him better job offers. Not even action-hero stuff—just regular-guy roles as husbands and dads. It was as though his getting built like a Mack truck had finally allowed Hollywood to think, Now that’s a regular Joe.

Then the whey protein curdled. About a year and an ongoing global pandemic later, a paparazzo snapped a photo of Nanjiani in his gym’s parking lot. He looked, well, huge. The internet, bored and mean, latched on as it does. He became a punching bag; people had already been debating if Nanjiani had taken steroids on Reddit forums with names like “Natty or Juice?,” and now the speculation had an acrid smell. Something shifted in the public perception. Nanjiani had popped an edible and was in the middle of rewatching The Crow when he first saw the tweets. They were merciless and sometimes funny. He felt like an insecure teenager again. “The way I look has been way too important to me,” says Nanjiani, now 43. “And so to hear a bunch of people reaffirming my own darkest thoughts about myself was very difficult.” Then Bean Dad, a man who was teaching his daughter about self-reliance or something, became Twitter’s main character, and the internet briefly moved on to the next carcass. “I was like, Thank God for Bean Dad.

The virality of the first tabloid photo encouraged the paparazzi to tail him more. When he caught one of them snapping his picture around his house, the man simply thanked him for the photo. Nanjiani was irate, but he didn’t respond. He started wearing baggy sweats and hoodies to the gym; he tried a trick that he had heard George Clooney employed— wearing the same clothes every time he went out so the pictures became unsellable.

For the first time in his life, Nanjiani started seeing a therapist regularly. He began to realize that even the praise was dangerous, because the issue was not actually his body but how he thought about it. He was pure lines and angles, but he still felt a wash of body dysmorphia seep in whenever he looked in the mirror. Nothing was ever good enough. His ideal shape was Arnold Schwarzenegger from his Pumping Iron days. And even if he achieved that, who knows? He might still fixate on the problem areas. His shoulders, for one, have always been a real bugbear for him. He could spend hours scrolling through photos of bodybuilders with massive delts, the kind that look like two buttery brioches cooling atop your arms. When he was younger, kids would make fun of him and call him chicken shoulders. You might say, But chickens don’t have shoulders. And he’d say yes, exactly.

2014: Nanjiani as Dinesh Chugtai on Silicon Valley.

So that’s why he’s showing me how to do shoulder presses. I’m seated at a weight bench, and he instructs me to press the dumbbells, squeeze upward, and really focus on that mind-muscle connection. We do some lateral raises (for the shoulder caps). His heart isn’t really in it, though, in part because he doesn’t want to be the workout guy anymore. The past year left him vulnerable and pensive, questioning his role in his own pillorying. He realizes he’s experiencing a hot-celebrity version of what women, fat people, and disabled people experience on a daily basis. Even though his physical transformation was driven by personal angst, his public image had become a larger-than-life projection, a giant before-and-after billboard. His body was either a symbol of toxic Hollywood standards or #goals #fitfam #fitspo. He was something to criticize or defend, aspire to or take down.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why Nanjiani’s physical superhero transformation riled people when comparable ones undergone by funnymen like Chris Pratt and Paul Rudd were met with an unslakeable thirst. It’s possible we’re approaching the uncanny valley of muscularity. (Even a recent photo of Chris Hemsworth inspired some backlash.) The fashion bloggers Tom and Lorenzo suggested a racial double standard may be at play, writing, “Unhealthy body images can’t be considered a problem only when a brown man exhibits one.” Another theory, lobbed by Nanjiani’s wife, Emily V. Gordon, is that some might feel a sense of betrayal. That Kumail was “one of us”—an extremely online relatable nerd who built a fan base by doing things like launching a video-game podcast, The Indoor Kids, with his wife, co-hosting a wildly popular comedy show in the back of a comic-book store, and starring as the loveless and anxious computer programmer Dinesh on HBO’s Silicon Valley. Audiences liked the niche he occupied, and maybe they wanted to keep him there. Maybe there was a feeling that Kumail Nanjiani should know his place.

Hollywood is not that different from high school; there are roles and rules, and Nanjiani is someone who knows how to make the system work for him. He had done the bit parts and scaredy-cat roles. Doing Marvel felt like what his entire life had been leading up to. Who better to play a comic-book superhero than someone who has loved that shit since childhood? There was never any question: When he got the part, he was going to look the part. He would do it, and he would do it all again.

OUR WAITER, JASON, is enamored with Nanjiani.

After the desultory workout at the gym, we get lunch down the street. Nanjiani orders a Diet Coke and an egg-white omelet with onions, basil, chicken, and a side salad. Feeling inspired, I get the “power green” salad with grilled shrimp.

“You’re looking really ripped these days,” says Jason, a mid-size bear, thick and bearded with a chest tattoo and kind eyes peering over his face mask. “I think your biceps are better than Chris Hemsworth’s, in my opinion.”

“Oh my God,” Nanjiani says, laughing. He’s dressed casually—a blue T-shirt and chino shorts—old clothes that fit differently on a new body. “Thank you. That feels great. Did you get that?” he asks me.

“Yeah, I’ve been man-crushing on you for a while,” Jason continues. I ask if he felt that way before the abs and brick jaw. “Yeah,” he replies. “I have a thing for furry Middle Eastern guys. So, how often do you go to the gym?”

“Every day.”

“No rest day?”

Nanjiani inhales. “No, unless I really feel like I need it mentally or physically. But instead of not going, I’ll just do an easier workout. I like going. I get something out of it.”

“Maybe one day I can be huscular like you.”

“What is huscular?” Nanjiani and I both ask.

“It’s husky and muscular at the same time.”

“Aren’t you already huscular?” I ask.

2017: Nanjiani on the set of The Big Sick with his wife and co-writer, Emily V. Gordon. Zoe Kazan played Emily in the film.

“No. I wouldn’t say so,” says Jason. “I’m still being pigeon-holed into this ‘bear’ category that I’m kind of embracing. I just weighed myself, and I’m at 240. I want to achieve some sort of peakness. I want to be like a Jersey-juicehead gorilla dude.”

“I’ll tell you, man, it’s very easy to get obsessed with that number on the scale,” says Nanjiani. “It’s a tough thing. It’s deceiving. You become obsessed with it. I certainly have, and for me, it’s not great to weigh myself every day. I could tell you what I weigh today.”

“What did you weigh today?” I ask.

“163.4,” says Nanjiani. “I know exactly what I weigh every day, and if I could change something, I would love to not have to think about that.”

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