‘Welcome to Chippendales’ Star Kumail Nanjiani Talks First Dramatic Lead Role: “He’s the King of a World That He Doesn’t Belong In”

The rise and fall of the infamous all-male erotic revue is the backdrop to Hulu’s limited series Welcome to Chippendales, which follows the strip club’s founder Somen “Steve” Banerjee from up-and-coming businessman in the 1980s to a vilified accessory to murder in the early ’90s. Kumail Nanjiani delivers an unexpected dramatic turn as Banerjee, an Indian immigrant and hopeful entrepreneur who launches the Chippendales franchise and who soon is at odds with his business partner and choreographer, Nick De Noia (played in the series by Emmy winner Murray Bartlett).

For the comedian, who earned a 2018 Oscar nomination for writing The Big Sick with wife Emily V. Gordon, Welcome to Chippendales was an exciting opportunity to step out of his comfort zone and take on a more devious character. But beyond the glamour and debauchery of ’80s excess, the show is an examination of the American Dream and the lengths to which one might go to achieve it. Nanjiani spoke with THR about how he found his way into the character and the ways in which he related to Banerjee.

What about the show piqued your interest?

I’ve never gotten the opportunity to play a character like this, who has such a big arc and a descent into darkness. I’ve always [wanted to play] the bad guy — I don’t mean just guys who were kind of shitty; I mean a bad bad guy. The story itself was so exciting and unexpected. There are, like, 20 unbelievable things that happen in the course of our show, and that all happened in real life. And it had interesting stuff to say about the American Dream and how accessible it is to different kinds of people, and to see that through the lens of an immigrant. I’m an immigrant, and I had a certain idea of the American Dream before coming here. And now, obviously, that’s evolved. To be able to explore that through the eyes of someone who, in some ways, had a similar experience to me is rare.

Most audiences are used to seeing you in comic roles. Was this project a challenge?

It was a very different process. I created this performance in opposition to everything around me. I saw a picture of Steve Banerjee with his Chippendales dancers, and it was this pudgy Indian nerd in a suit surrounded by these shirtless white Adonises. I was, like, “He’s the king of a world that he doesn’t belong in.” That was a very compelling image. He’s surrounded by all these men who are very in touch with their bodies, who are very comfortable in their own skin. Murray’s performance as Nick De Noia is the same way; he’s very fluid and comfortable with himself. I thought Steve should be the opposite of all that. He should be completely disconnected from everything under his neck. He should be very, very uncomfortable in his own skin. And the rigidity comes from that disconnect. You see the cracks pop up every now and then, and obviously they get wider. I wanted it to feel like every molecule of his body is working to keep that contained. He’s always working really hard to not explode.

He’s definitely obsessed with power, not just as a businessman. He even wants power over others, like Nick — he wants to be seen as the guy in charge of it all.

I’ve certainly met people like that in Hollywood — [there are people who] will treat me now as a more valid perSon because I have more success. I brought that [into Steve’s worldview]: All that exists is “success” and “not success.” That’s his entire psychological makeup. He sort of sees himself as following the rules. He’s inflexible, rigid-thinking — everything is a duality. I was looking at characters who end up being evil in movies, and I feel like there’s something childish about them. They’re narcissistic. They don’t quite understand the consequences of their actions. In the first couple of episodes, if I’m doing my job right, you see that innocence that’s in him. His desire to succeed is almost childlike. I think we’ve seen in real life some evil figures that loom large and are ultimately very childish in the way that they [present] themselves in the world. For him, personal relationships are always about who’s the boss, who’s the servant.

Irene [the Chippendales accountant and, later, Steve’s wife, played by Annaleigh Ashford] is the only person he doesn’t approach in that way. He really sees her as a true equal, and he likes himself when he sees himself through her eyes. Ultimately, the stakes of that relationship become really high, because that’s the only piece of humanity he has left — what he has with her.

How much of his character is shaped by being an outsider, an immigrant? Does that heighten the stakes for him?

Ultimately, the reason he craves success is that internal wound that’s actually never going to be filled by anything externally. I don’t think that wound is cultural; the impetus for him needing success is very, very personal. What I do think is cultural is the way he takes on the signifiers of what’s important to him. In the first episode, you see he’s cut out magazines and he’s got [pictures of] dudes with watches, whiskey and tuxedos — it’s not so important that he’s successful as much as it is important that everybody else thinks he is. I think that comes from him as a kid seeing the West and seeing very glamorous people. Success is wearing a tuxedo and a nice watch and hanging out with Hugh Hefner. As someone who grew up in Pakistan, those signifiers of wealth do play a role in our society. Growing up, I was very aware of what the good brands are. America goes through these waves of wanting to hide that you’re wealthy or show off that you’re wealthy. If you look at the ’90s and the grunge era, it was all about dressing down. The ’80s were about excess. Right now we’re at a place where we’re trying to hide that rich people are rich, or they’re trying to flaunt it, right?

Annaleigh Ashford and Kumail Nanjiani in Hulu’s limited series Welcome to Chippendales.

Courtesy of Erin Simkin/Hulu

Speaking of the excess of the ’80s, the show introduces cocaine — and addiction — into the mix, which drives a wedge between Steve and almost everyone else he knows and works with. He’s suddenly the grounded one, while everyone begins to go on a different journey.

Yeah, and I think part of him is upset that he can’t do that because of the way he’s constructed himself. And that becomes really interesting, because it [feeds into the dilemma] of how he is going to show his wealth, how Irene is going to show her wealth, and how that is going to intersect. The idea that material wealth equals moral goodness is very much ingrained in our culture. Look at all the really rich celebrities who people look up to who are obviously bad people. I don’t want to name names, but part of it is this idea of, “If they’re this wealthy, there must be something valuable about them.” When in reality, there’s really no connection.

In the same sense, there’s a tendency to identify those who have achieved wealth as good leaders — if we attach ourselves to them, that wealth will trickle down to us.

What it ignores is the inherent privilege that people are born with. Steve is a brown immigrant. He changed his first name to try to fit in, because a westernized name was important to him. But what he doesn’t understand — or he comes to understand over the course of the season — is that it’s not equal for everybody. If you don’t look a certain way and if you’re not from a certain background, you don’t have those same opportunities. In that way, the American Dream is a lie. That idea that anybody can do this? No, it’s much harder for a lot of people. I’m very aware of the ways in which I’ve been lucky. I’m also aware of things I had to face early in my career. I had a lot of conversations with [series creator] Rob [Siegel] because there was a certain point of view about all of this that I wanted Steve to express. Steve does a lot of bad things, and I would never do those things. But sometimes he gets at something in the show that I happen to agree with.

The show touches on the way male bodies can be objectified. After you got in shape for Eternals, you said that the public reaction to your body really impacted how you saw yourself. Did that play a part in why you were interested in this project?

I think it’s really cool that the show gets into the objectification of the male body. We saw that, actually, while we were shooting. We had background artists who were playing the women in the audience, and the way they would interact with the actors who were the dancers — it was interesting to see how those dynamics within the show would carry over to when we weren’t filming. Honestly, for me, what it says about the male form and how we objectify it, or give it power, really wasn’t something I thought about very much until I started shooting the show. I just knew that I couldn’t look like someone who could jump onstage with these people. I had to look different from them. People have asked me, “Is the suit padded?” No, nothing was padded. And I didn’t think about it very much until I was on set feeling very different from all the men around me — I’m not talking purely body, I’m talking the way I dress, my looks. Murray got to wear absolutely gorgeous clothing, he had fabulous hair. Meanwhile, I’m wearing uncool glasses and beige, earth-tone suits while everyone else is so colorful and flamboyant.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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