How Kumail Nanjiani Got Huge

It all seemed simple enough: Book a Marvel movie, get ripped, feel incredible. But, as the Eternals star learned, growing into his new body required recalibrating his whole mindset.
How Kumail Nanjiani Got Huge
Vest, $2,325, by Hermès. Pants, $860, by Salvatore Ferragamo. Sneakers, $595, by Santoni. Watch, $8,400, by Zenith.

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 six-pack 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.”

Coat, $3,300, by Etro. Tank top, $195, by Dolce & Gabbana. Necklace, $4,600, by Bulgari.

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 cowriting 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 next 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 gray, 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.

Coat, $3,650, turtleneck (price upon request), pants, $1,430, and shoes, $1,170, by Prada.

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?”

Nanjiani makes a point to state that changing his body was entirely his decision—that, in fact, when Eternals director Chloé Zhao saw how big he'd gotten, she was taken aback. “Chloé got a little upset at me for getting in shape”—here he pauses, careful not to valorize his physique—“I shouldn't say ‘getting in shape.’ For changing my body to look a certain way.” Zhao tells me she was surprised only because she'd always felt that Nanjiani had the right mix of humility and charisma to play Kingo, regardless of how he looked. “I wanted to make sure he didn't feel like he had to do it for me,” she says.

Sweater, $995, by Versace. Turtleneck (price upon request) by Berluti. Pants (price upon request) by Dior Men.

But he didn't do it for her. He did it, in part, because he had made it a specific goal of his to play a Marvel superhero, and because he knows that Marvel superheroes don't usually look like him. So he wasn't about to blow his chance when it finally arrived. “If I'm playing the first South Asian superhero, I want to look like someone who can take on Thor or Captain America, or any of those people,” he says. But also because the character shrouds himself in the guise of a Bollywood star. Nanjiani grew up watching Bollywood movies—“From the '60s to the '90s I know basically every big [one],” says Nanjiani—so he knows those guys are jacked. “I was like, I want this to be believable. I want to feel that kind of powerful in this role.”

But his upbringing and career have primed Nanjiani to see the unexpected contours of things. So now he worries that, despite looking and feeling better than he ever has, he's nonetheless perpetuating the toxic image of masculinity that he grew up idolizing. The way he looks is tied to a certain way of being a man. “It is aggression,” he says. “It is anger. A lot of times we are taught to be useful by using physical strength or our brain in an aggressive, competitive way. Not in an empathetic way. Not in an open, collaborative way. It's the same thing when you have all these guys, like, asking people to debate them on Twitter. That's the same as arm wrestling. It's about defeating. And that's what the male ideal has been. Dominating. Defeating. Crushing. Killing. Destroying. That's what being jacked is.”

Coat, $4,600, and suit, $3,490, by Ermenegildo Zegna XXX. Turtleneck, $1,625, by Hermès. Shoes, $1,560, by John Lobb.

In fact, now that he's bigger, Nanjiani has noticed that guys are looking at him differently—like they want to fight him. There was the time, pre-pandemic, when, out with Emily at a restaurant, he bumped into a stranger, who shot him an unfamiliar glare. “I know the look of people who are racist,” says Nanjiani. “But this was a new one!” Emily had to translate: Walk away, because that guy wants to fight you, she told him. It happened more recently, when Nanjiani asked a brazenly unmasked gym-goer if he might kindly mask up. The gym-goer got so alarmingly angry that Nanjiani worried that the guy might be waiting for him in the parking lot. “It felt like I had printed out a picture of his grandmother and peed on it,” Nanjiani remembers. It was “exactly the same look” he'd gotten at that restaurant, and it shook him.

“I just see the little child inside them, like a little child pretending to be a big, strong man,” he says, kind of chuckling but kind of not. “It's laughable if it wasn't so fucking devastating—and causing so many problems in the world. I just want to be like, Dude, if you learn how to cry, you'd just be a lot happier.”


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There was another reason Nanjiani put out his body-baring Instagram post. “I wanted different types of opportunities,” he says. “I wanted the industry to see me differently.”

Because Hollywood has historically had a very narrow way of seeing people like him. “With brown people, there are very specific roles that we used to get,” he says. “Either we're terrified or we're causing terror. Those are the only two options we had. Either I'm fixing your computer, or I'm, like, planning something at the stock exchange.”

Kurta set, $395, by Vintage India NYC. Shoes, $1,965, by John Lobb. Ring (on left hand, throughout), his own. Ring (on right hand), $480, by A. Sauvage.

Nanjiani began his stand-up career at an inauspicious moment, a month before 9/11—“Perfect timing,” he says—but quickly carved out a niche for himself. (He called his Comedy Central special Beta Male.) From there he cemented himself as a reliably hilarious character actor, best known for playing the computer programmer Dinesh on HBO's Silicon Valley. But he still felt penned in by industry prejudice and expectation. So, in 2017, instead of waiting on the right role to find him, he created it. Along with wife Emily, he wrote The Big Sick, which tells the unbelievable true story of how a medically induced coma helped the two of them end up together. Drawing on the work ethic that would eventually help him reshape his body, Nanjiani took acting classes to prepare for his starring role—as himself.

The Big Sick earned an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay, and its success introduced Nanjiani as a leading man—but, again, it was a specific type of leading man. In 2019's Stuber, he is the meek, unsuspecting Uber driver who gets pulled into an action-packed ride-along with a beefy cop played by Dave Bautista. “Even the action stuff was like, Nerd gets stuck in an action thing,” he says. Nanjiani says Zhao and producer Nate Moore took a chance by casting him as Kingo when they did, in late 2018. They may have believed in him in a way that the rest of the industry didn't. So his Instagram post, just about a year later, was his attempt to shake all that up.

Jacket, $6,240, by Giorgio Armani. Pants, $3,490 for suit, by Ermenegildo Zegna XXX.

“I shared that specifically to be like, Hey, I needed to change how people saw me so I could have the type of opportunities I was excited about. And those did happen!” He doesn't know if it's a direct result of the photos, but he's now being offered different roles: Instead of being the nerdy best friend, he's the guy who has a nerdy best friend. “Now I get those opportunities. I don't just mean action stuff. I mean, like, now I get opportunities to play a normal guy. I was not seen as a normal guy before this.”

He's still interested in unpacking thorny questions around representation and ambition—what it means to be able to, or want to, play a “normal guy.” He feels pressure to portray characters that are good and noble. He initially passed on the idea of playing Somen “Steve” Banerjee, the Indian American founder of Chippendales who was later involved in a murder-for-hire plot. “Do I really want to tell a story of this guy from my part of the world who did all this bad stuff?” he says. “A year later it came back, and I was like, It's important to do this. First of all, it's a true story. But it's also important to show all different kinds of roles. It's just as condescending to only play noble and wise characters.” It's now in development at Hulu.

Sweater, price upon request, by Isaia. Pants, $750, by Ami Paris. Belt, price upon request, by J. Lindeberg. Sunglasses, $460, by Ahlem. Watch, $8,400, by Zenith.

This was all top of mind for Nanjiani when he was crafting the character of Kingo. “I decided I wanted the character to be the opposite of a lot of the stereotypical depictions we've seen of brown dudes in American pop culture,” he says. So he made Kingo physically powerful and full of joy. “I don't get to play characters who are cool,” he told me. “And this guy is a little bit cool.”

Zhao says she sees a lot of Nanjiani in Kingo. “Kingo is a classic golden-era movie star,” she says. “We look at Kumail, and it makes sense to us. Obviously, he transformed himself to make it even more emphasized. But let's just say it's a shame he's typecast, that that was put on him. It obviously was false because what draws us to him is a level of confidence through showmanship and yet this gentle heart and big heart underneath. And that's the character that we wrote as well. It just happened to be the same person.”

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What she's saying is that Nanjiani has always been this way. He just had to change the way he looks for us to view him differently—and maybe even to see himself differently. As we're winding down I ask what Chicken Shoulders would say if he knew that one day he'd grow up to play Kingo.

“You know, honestly, if I could talk to myself, I would be like, Hey”—he starts laughing, perhaps at the absurdity of this exercise, launching into a mock conversation with his younger self—“You're great. Try and feel better about yourself. And this will be over, I promise.” He still thinks about that, he says—how difficult school was and how it felt like it would go on forever. He grows earnest and leans into the made-up conversation. “This horrible time will be over,” he says again. “You're worth—” Pause. “You're worth, um—” Another pause, contemplating, trying to get it right. “You're enough,” he finally says decisively. “That's what I would say.”

Clay Skipper is a GQ staff writer.

A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2021 issue with the title "How Kumail Nanjiani Got Huge."

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PRODUCTION CREDITS:
Photographs by Aaron Sinclair
Styled by Mobolaji Dawodu
Grooming by Louise Moon using Dior Beauty
Tailoring by Yelena Travinka
Produced by Annee Elliot