Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 13 July 2020

From 'Lovebird' to superhero: How Kumail Nanjiani's latest Netflix flick helped him prepare for Marvel debut

The Pakistani-American comic might be entering the MCU next year but for now, he's feeling unproductive at home like the rest of us

Issa Rae as Leilani and Kumail Nanjiani as Jibran in 'The Lovebirds'. Courtesy Netflix
Issa Rae as Leilani and Kumail Nanjiani as Jibran in 'The Lovebirds'. Courtesy Netflix

To fans, the forthcoming Marvel ensemble piece The Eternals represents a thrilling opportunity to take the much-loved superhero universe into the next chapter following the events of 2019’s box office-smashing Avengers: Endgame.

But to its modest star Kumail Nanjiani, who lines up alongside Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek in the forthcoming comic book yarn to play the Bollywood-loving, cosmic-powered alien Kingo, it’s simply “another movie that I finished a couple of months ago”.

Kumail Nanjiani, ready for his new role as a Marvel superhero.
Kumail Nanjiani, ready for his new role as a Marvel superhero

The unassuming American-Pakistani comic does admit, however, that his new Marvel persona required him to partake in more action scenes than we might expect from the star of comedies such as Silicon Valley and The Big Sick.

“I had to be good enough at fighting, to be someone who could actually do it,” he tells The National via video call from the Los Angeles home he shares with his wife, writer and producer Emily V Gordon.

With The Eternals currently in post-production ahead of its 2021 release, and the usual Disney veil of secrecy surrounding it, Nanjiani isn’t giving much more away. Instead, he’s focusing his attention on promoting his latest film, The Lovebirds, which launched on Netflix this weekend.

At first glance, the low-budget romcom-meets-murder-mystery couldn’t be further removed from the all-guns-blazing, mega-budget world of Marvel.

Lovebirds poster
'The Lovebirds' bridges the genres of romcom and murder mystery

Surprisingly, however, Nanjiani says the film, which finds geeky documentary maker Jibran caught up in a world of mysterious cults, while simultaneously trying to salvage his relationship with advertising executive girlfriend (played by Issa Rae), over the course of a very strange night in New Orleans, was the perfect preparation for moving into the comic book world.

“I realised that action acting is, in some ways, the exact opposite of scene work. I learnt a lot,” he says. “The whole point of acting, at least for me, is ‘I don't want to think about what I'm going to say, I'm listening to her and reacting, being in the moment.’ Whereas fight choreography is more like maths. You are thinking ‘I'm going to do this then he’s going to do that and it's my turn to do this.’ It's like the opposite of acting, and understanding that took me a little while.”

The Lovebirds may have offered Nanjiani a useful crash course in shooting action scenes, but the movie could be held up by future film historians as a textbook case study of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the industry.

First, the film had its scheduled premiere at March’s SXSW cancelled as the Texan festival became the first big-name movie event to fall victim to the virus. Next, its planned April cinema release was scuppered by the closure of theatres. Now, with distribution rights to the film having switched from Paramount to Netflix following the theatrical shutdown, the film launched direct to streaming into the living rooms of millions of locked-down viewers.

A film still from 'The Lovebirds'.
Nanjiani plays documentary maker Jibran in 'The Lovebirds'

Nanjiani seems happy enough with the film’s new home and, given soaring audience figures for the major streamers during the near-global lockdown, he could hardly have asked for a better time to redirect a cinema launch. Still, the comic admits he misses the human interaction that would normally go with releasing a new movie.

“[The promotion] has been all like this – me in this room, you in that room. It’s pretty strange,” the comic says. “It would have been really fun because we had a big promotional tour planned. We had the premiere at SXSW, then we were supposed to go all over the country showing the movie and doing Q&As. That would have been really, really fun. The promotion is very, very different now.”

Richard Madden and Kumail Nanjiani of Marvel Studios' 'The Eternals' at the San Diego Comic-Con International in 2019. Getty
Richard Madden and Kumail Nanjiani of Marvel Studios' 'The Eternals' at the San Diego Comic-Con International in 2019. Getty

We can only hope that by the time of The Eternals’ scheduled February 2021 release, cinemas are open and Nanjiani is back among audiences and fans promoting his debut in a cape. Until then, like the rest of us, he’s staying home and using his laptop as his primary means of communication with the outside world, and he’s facing the same frustrations as all of us.

So if you’ve been left feeling inadequate by social media evidence of your friends and peers mastering baking, learning a new language or writing a novel during lockdown, take solace from the fact that even Marvel superheroes can struggle to find motivation.

“I have definitely not learnt anything new. I don't even want to take on something new,” Nanjiani admits. “I'm just going to stay in my zone and do the stuff I know how to do. Once the quarantine is over, then I'll challenge myself. Right now is not the time to do that for me.”

The Lovebirds is streaming on Netflix now

Updated: May 24, 2020 01:57 PM

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