Emily V. Gordon was still just dating Kumail Nanjiani when she came down with a bug so bad that the doctors had to put her into a coma just to keep her alive. This is the big sick of The Big Sick, the charming autobiographical comedy the two wrote together. Opening in select theaters today (June 23) after a warm reception at Sundance, The Big Sick casts Nanjiani, one of the stars of HBO’s Silicon Valley, as a lightly fictionalized version of the budding stand-up comedian he was 10 years ago. Gordon, author of the sardonic self-help book Super You, is meanwhile played by Zoe Kazan. The film covers a lot of ground, from cross-cultural romance to the relationship between parents and their children to the cutthroat comedy scene. But its center is the scary medical emergency that brought its married screenwriting duo closer together. (Three months after Gordon awoke from her medically induced coma, the couple moved to New York and got married.)
Back in March, we hopped on the phone with Gordon and Nanjiani to talk about their lovely new crowdpleaser, the state of their family lives, and the future of The Indoor Kids, the podcast they cohosted until both got too busy to talk about video games on a weekly basis. We also scored a couple of now completely outdated scoops on the fourth season of Silicon Valley (which ends this Sunday), including such then-intriguing revelations that Dinesh will start seeing a real love interest and that he’ll also receive a new haircut. (“Please don’t print that,” Nanjiani implores me after Gordon lets that last bit slip, none of us considering that the interview will run in late June.)
The A.V. Club: The Big Sick is based on a pretty intense experience you both went through. Did you end up embellishing the story at all for the screen?
Emily V. Gordon: There’s a bit of embellishment, just in the sense that we started with the kernels of our actual story and then added in elements that would make it more cinematic, elements that would up the tension and heighten the stakes. So the very kernels of it are true. But certain characters have traits that they wouldn’t have.
Kumail Nanjiani: Yeah, I would say that the characterizations, outside of me and Emily, are fairly different. Her parents in the movie are very different from her parents in real life. My parents are not as different. My dad and mom are pretty similar to those people. Obviously, the details are different. We wanted, as Emily said, to make it a story everyone could relate to, and make it a movie that stands on its own, outside the factual events. But we wanted to make sure that emotionally it felt real. And that we captured how it felt, emotionally, to really go through those things. So we always had that barometer, we could always go, “Okay, if we move this scene from here to there, does that still feel like how it felt to live through?”
The A.V. Club: Why set the film now as opposed to when you actually met, besides the opportunity for Uber jokes?
KN: It’s so distracting to me when something is set in another era.
EVG: People are trying to shoehorn in references. [Laughs.]
KN: People have, like, old cellphones, and it just feels like you’re adding another layer. “Did you hear the new Sixpence None The Richer album?” What a terrible example.
EVG: “Good thing Barack Obama is president.” It would have felt a little strange.
KN: You’d spend so much energy establishing the time. We just wanted to set it in the present, so it wasn’t something people would be concerned with. Unless there’s a reason to set it in a specific era, I think everything should be set in the present.
The A.V. Club: Seeing your own life dramatized on screen has to be strange enough. Emily, is there an extra cognitive dissonance to seeing your actual spouse playing himself, but against someone else playing you?
EVG: Good use of cognitive dissonance, first off. The only time that was weird for me was when I was watching the audition tapes for Emily, because I didn’t go to those auditions, as I thought it might throw the actresses off. And I was like, “Oh, this might be a weird thing.” So I knew I had to get used to that or get out of the way, because I want to be a professional, this is my movie, I wrote it. So I got comfortable with it pretty quickly, and it helped that Zoe Kazan is just a wonderful human being. For the most part, I felt like I was watching a version of our story, and I was able to separate it from our lives. But I will say there’s a fight scene between Emily and Kumail in the movie that as we were filming it, and even when we watch it, I get really angry with Kumail, because Kumail is fighting the way that Kumail and I fight! And I’m like, “C’mon Emily, say this. That’s how you get him.” [Kumail laughs.] But it’s a movie, so you can’t do that. But he did a really great job of bringing the things that would irritate Emily into that fight. That’s the only scene I have a reaction to. Other than that, I’m watching a story.
KN: Is that true? When you watch it, does it feel to you like you’re watching a story? Because when I watch it—and part of it is that I’m up there—to me it feels like, “I’m watching our story.” But to you it feels more like a movie?
EVG: It feels more like a story I’m watching, because it’s not me.
The A.V. Club: Kumail, how do you approach playing a fictionalized version of yourself? Is it as simple as, “I’m going to be myself up there?” Or as with any other role, do you have to crack the character?
KN: It’s different. Usually, when I’m acting, I crack the character first and then figure out the emotions of each scene. Here, I didn’t need to crack the character, because I was the character, and I understood what was important to him and what wasn’t, all that stuff. All the legwork is kind of done already. You already have the foundation, so you basically go through scene by scene and figure out what the steps of growth are, and what the motivations are in each scene.
EVG: I will say this for Kumail. He does stand-up several times in the movie. And the only time he does stand-up as himself is in the final scene of the movie. Kumail is very confident on stage and as a person, but the character of “Kumail,” especially in the beginning, needed to be more tentative and not as good on stage. So Kumail would literally have to go up and be a less good stand-up.
KN: I hated it.
EVG: He really hated every moment of that. [Laughs.] It was necessary, though, because you couldn’t have a character who was that tentative and unsure about his life be that good on stage. So that had to evolve, and I thought that was really fun, because literally between scenes, he was telling extras who were playing audience members, “I’m normally better than this.”
KN: It’s not like I’m bad in the movie. Hopefully, I’m just a less experienced stand-up.
EVG: Less confident, yeah.
AVC: But when you’re a stand-up comedian, you’re playing a version of yourself on stage, too, right?
KN: Totally, exactly. I play a more confident version of myself on stage.
AVC: At the world premiere at Sundance, you mentioned that you left a pretty big detail out of the movie: Three months after the events depicted, the two of you got married. Both emotionally and in terms of your families, how did you get from where you are at the end of this movie to a wedding ceremony?
KN: It’s strange when you think back on it. We changed so much about our lives within three months. You don’t think of it as, like, “Oh, she almost died, so mortality is real, so we must change our lives.” You don’t think of it like that. But within three months, we had both quit our jobs, we had married, and we had moved to New York.
KN: We cut and ran.
EVG: Yeah! We really burned the forest down. But one thing that is embellished is that we didn’t break up in real life at all. We were in a good relationship when I got sick. So it wasn’t like I was dealing with a fresh boyfriend who I had just got back together with. It’s just more interesting to have her be with an ex-boyfriend in the hospital, and having to deal with Emily’s parents as an ex-boyfriend. But in real life, we were happy together, we were good together.
KN: But my parents didn’t know.
EVG: Your parents did not know.
KN: There was an expiration date on the relationship that was implied.
EVG: It was looming over us. And we didn’t think about it consciously that we were just going to change our lives. But going through this experience, we both realized that we kind of loved each other. So we got married. [Laughs.]
AVC: Are things good now with your parents, Kumail?
KN: Yeah, they’re great. And us getting married that quickly was sort of a thing for my parents, too, like, “Hey, she’s my wife, so let’s all just start the acceptance process.” But yeah, they love Emily and Emily loves them. We’re all super close.
EVG: We even got matching tattoos on our wedding day just to let people know we were not messing around. [Laughs.]
AVC: Unless movies have lied to us all, every stand-up comedian has a big emotional meltdown on stage at some point in their career. Kumail, have you had the kind of meltdown on stage that “Kumail” has in The Big Sick?
KN: I didn’t have that kind of meltdown, but I certainly had… I was actually weirdly doing a lot of stand-up during that whole time, just because I needed to get out and do something and I was—
EVG: You were bombing! [Laughs.]
KN: I was bombing. I’d be like, “Hey, my girlfriend’s in a coma. Here’s some jokes.” And they’d be like, “What the fuck are you doing? You shouldn’t be on stage. You’re making us feel unsafe. Clearly, you’re in a horrible place.” But it was different. On stage in the movie, I’m quite emotional. But it was the scary absence of emotion on stage that was really off-putting when I was actually performing. I‘d be, like, “Hey, how is everyone doing?” And people are all, “He’s unhinged. Something really horrible is going to happen.” So it was a different flavor of meltdown.
AVC: Is it challenging having a creative relationship with your spouse? If you’re fighting in your personal life, how do you stop that from carrying over to the work? Or vice versa?
EVG: We have pretty strict rules. I’m a big believer in boundaries. With our working relationship, we have very strict rules about when we’re allowed to talk about work, when we’re not allowed. We have working hours. And then after working hours, if you want to talk about work, you have to ask permission from the other person, and they’re allowed to say no. Don’t talk about work in bed. That’s a big one. And then sometimes realizing if you guys are irritated with each other, or in a snit or whatever, maybe that’s not the best moment to be working. So take a break and calm down, because the work can end up suffering. But I think we both have a really strong work ethic, where we want the work to be good no matter what. But we also don’t want it to come at the expense of our relationship. We do a pretty good job, I think, of keeping our boundaries. As much as we possibly could. Now, when we were filming the movie, all we did was talk about the movie, 24 hours a day, because that’s all we were doing. But we gave ourselves permission to do that. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’re both very busy people. Can we ever expect you to revive your podcast, The Indoor Kids, or Kumail, for you to—
EVG and KN: [Together, excited.] Yes!
AVC: Oh! Yes.
KN: It’s coming back very soon. It’s coming back much, much sooner than… You know, it’s weird, we’ve been playing all these games, excited about it, and we’ve been like, “I wish we could talk about it somewhere. If only we had some kind of podcast.”
EVG: If only.
KN: But I think now that we’ve done this, we have a little bit more time now, for a little bit. So you might see The Indoor Kids sooner rather than later.
EVG: Yeah. You might!
AVC: How is your cat Bagel doing?
EVG: She’s great! We miss her. We’re excited to go home to her.
KN: We’re getting pictures of her from our cat-sitter every day.