Kumail Nanjiani and Director Michael Showalter Prove to Be a Winning Team in ‘The Big Sick’

Dating in a big city is never easy, and this is especially true in the case of Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani), a rising stand-up comedian in Chicago originally from Pakistan and the protagonist of “The Big Sick,” who finds himself drifting back and forth between two worlds as he tries to make a life himself while also trying to maintain a good relationship with his traditional Muslim parents (Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff) who made great sacrifices to bring their family to the United States. While Kumail’s brother, Naveed (Adeel Akhtar) has accepted and ultimately found happiness in an arranged marriage, Kumail is content to avoid relationships all together, that is until he meets grad student Emily (Zoe Kazan) at one of his comedy shows and there is an immediate spark. Both busy with their respective pursuits, words like “future” and “commitment” aren’t thrown around between the pair, but that doesn’t stop Emily from having a strong reaction when she discovers a box in Kumail’s room that contains photos of perspective brides, all fellow Pakistani immigrants, who his parents have tried to set him up with. After Emily comes down with a mysterious illness that puts her in a coma, Kumail goes on a journey as he shifts his priorities and figures out what kind of man he wants to be. While he pushes his own parents away, he finds himself forming a sort of family unit with Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano).

If all this sounds deeper and more emotional than the typical romantic comedy, that is because it is a personal story for Nanjiani, as he and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, co-wrote the screenplay based on their own rocky courtship. In bringing his story to the silver screen, Nanijani wisely teamed up those he had worked with in the past and trusted, including producer Judd Apatow and director Michael Showalter. Showalter, who previously worked with Nanjiani on last year’s “Hello, My Name is Doris,” spoke with “Entertainment Voice” about collaborating once again with his longtime friend. “It was really Kumail who attracted me to [the project] initially,” he revealed. “He sent me the script to read it just for feedback, and when I read the script I fell in love with it and then begged him to let me interview to be the director.”

Onscreen, Nanjiani and his co-stars display great chemistry and ease, and this is due a great deal to the collaborative atmosphere Showalter created. “Maybe I approach the scenes in a kind of theatrical way, where it’s really not about me, it’s about the actors and the dialogue,” he said. “I’m just trying to document it with the camera. When I’m talking to the actors I’m just trying to help them, help us all understand what’s going on.”

Nanjiani, who is best known for comedic roles, gets to show off his serious side in “The Big Sick,” especially in pivotal scenes involving his parents and Emily’s hospital stay, plus one very memorable scene when he appears onstage in a vulnerable state. As the director, Showalter did an excellent job of helping the leading man get deep without losing the viewer, mostly by giving him space. “It wasn’t easy. None of it was easy,” said the director of these tougher scenes. “It wasn’t heavy. I didn’t want that. We had a few scenes that were pretty heavy. The scene where he is alone with her in her room at the very end of the movie… That scene in particular where he is with her afraid she is not going to make it, that was a heavy scene… When Kumail was preparing for that moment by himself, he was going through the preparations he need to do. I was just respecting that.”

Although her character is in a comatose state for much of the film, Kazan makes a lasting impression with her portrayal of Emily. A serious student who in on the path to being a therapist, Emily is an excellent foil to Kumail, who tells jokes for a living and lies to his parents about taking the LSATs. Showalter explained why Kazan was a perfect fit. “She’s just so real. She’s so committed. She has an intensity about her. There’s a real fire in her, and that’s what I liked about her for the role. The Emily character is someone who takes herself seriously, she’s funny and lively, but she takes herself seriously. She’s a young person who’s ready to grow up. She’s ready to be an adult, and Zoe has the quality of someone who takes herself seriously, and yet is also very charismatic and funny.”

Showalter also had nothing but praise for Nanjiani. “We get along really. We have a really good friendship. He’s really funny. I really like his work. I like his sensibility, his point of view, and he and I have a really good rapport,” said Showalter when asked what keeps bringing him and Nanijani back together. “We fight,” he admitted, “but we also really like each other. We text all the time. We’re friends.”

Although Nanjiani, Kazan, Hunter and Romano steal the show, and Kher, Shroff and Akhtar also bring a lot of heart to the film, supporting actors Aidy Bryant and Bo Burnham, who play Kumail’s good friends and fellow stand-ups, are also worth mentioning. While many films set in the comedy club world tend to be flat when it comes to scripted stand-up performances, Bryant and Burnhan, and, of course, Nanjiani, earn some genuine laughs. This is most likely because the comics used their own personal material. “We said, ‘Hey, come up and tell your jokes,’ and that’s what they did,” recalled Showalter.

Although the immediate future for Showalter involves working on the second season of “Search Party,” the series he co-created, another collaboration Nanjiani is most definitely on the horizon. “We haven’t what the next thing will be,” said the director. “But I’m sure there will be something.”

The Big Sick” opens June 23 in select theaters, July 14 nationwide.