Kumail Nanjiani's Struggle Becoming the First Marvel South Asian Superhero
In a new Men's Health interview, Kumail Nanjiani opens up about his Marvel transformation.
You might know Kumail Nanjiani from HBO's Silicon Valley and the 2017 hit indie romantic comedy The Big Sick. But, this November, he'll be joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe in The Eternals as Kingo. In Dec. 2019, Nanjiani practically broke the internet by posting a "thirsty shirtless" photo displaying his new Marvel-made body. Now, in a new interview for Men's Health, Nanjiani is opening up about the pressure of being the first Marvel South Asian superhero and the toll the transformation took on him.
While working out at the gym every day, Nanjiani said he had the same thought go through his mind: "I'm playing the first South Asian superhero in a Marvel movie. I don't want to be the schlubby brown guy—I want to look like someone who can hang with Thor and Captain America."
Safe to say, he achieved his goal.
Growing up in Pakistan, Nanjiani had devoured comic books and action films, but, he thought, it didn't seem like there was much opportunity in that space for people who looked like him. With a diverse ensemble cast, Marvel's The Eternals is changing that.
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I never thought I'd be one of those people who would post a thirsty shirtless, but I've worked way too hard for way too long so here we are. You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. I found out a year ago I was going to be in Marvel's Eternals and decided I wanted to transform how I looked. I would not have been able to do this if I didn't have a full year with the best trainers and nutritionists paid for by the biggest studio in the world. I'm glad I look like this, but I also understand why I never did before. It would have been impossible without these resources and time. So big thanks to @grantrobertsfit who started working with me at the beginning of the year and made me understand true physical pain for months and months. Then, once we started shooting, a massive thanks to @davidhigginslondon and his team (@ellispartridge, @thebeardypt, @tomcheesemanfitness) for training me almost every day and making me strong, limber and injury free. I can almost touch my toes now. (And thank you for forcing me to do cheat meals David.) Matthews Street Catering for their delicious and healthy meals. And finally, the biggest thanks goes to @emilyvgordon for putting up with me complaining and talking about only working out and dieting for the last year. I promise I'll be interesting again some day. #thirstyshirtless (Photo by @markupson.) (edit: I left off one very important person: @lancecallahan who trained me for 6 years and helped me build the foundation I could use to do this. Thank you!)
"We all look so different," Nanjiani recently told Entertainment Weekly. "It's me and a huge buff guy from Korea [Ma Dong-seok] and Salma Hayek and Angelina Jolie and Gemma Chan and Lauren Ridloff. You don't ever get to see people like this together in the same room, let alone in awesome superhero costumes."
But at first, being a buff superhero also didn't seem like a particularly achievable goal for Nanjiani, someone who had been pegged as a somewhat "doughy" nerd with a great sense of humor.
"Kumail would show us pictures of [Pakistani model Abbas Jafri] while we were on set, and he'd look kind of envious," Thomas Middleditch, his Silicon Valley co-star, told Men's Health. "Neither of us has a hesitation about going, 'I wish I had his jawline or arms or whatever.' I think a lot of sensitive weirdo comedians secretly aspire to be the tough guy. And when they finally get a reason to totally change their body—like becoming a superhero—they're more incentivized."
Inspired by people like Chris Pratt, who managed to successfully shed his schlubby funny-guy persona from Parks and Recreation to become a ripped superhero in the 2014 Marvel movie Guardians of the Galaxy, Nanjiani decided that even though it was "a pipe dream," he could do it, too.
"I was very strategic about it," he said. "I was like, 'I don't want to be just part of a Marvel movie; I want to be a Marvel superhero.'"
Nanjiani stuck to a strict meal schedule made by a studio chef five days a week, and cut out sugar and gluten on weekends.
But he struggled to emotionally disassociate with the physical pain of his grueling new workout regime. "At first, whenever he came home from a workout, he wasn't able to focus on anything," Nanjiani's wife and his Big Sick co-writer, Emily V. Gordon, told Men's Health. "He was still a functioning person, but for an hour, you couldn't really count on him to have a conversation. His body was adjusting."
I got to be on the cover of @MensHealthMag and recreate scenes from some of my favorite action movies. Pics by @EmilyShur, story by @BrianRaftery here: https://t.co/u0q29AlXEw pic.twitter.com/W8bnZagC2f
— Kumail Nanjiani (@kumailn) March 10, 2020
It was only when he embraced the pain, instead of trying to avoid it, that the muscles came, as did the pleasure of working out.
"I had to change my relationship to pain," Nanjiani said. "You're so designed to avoid it, but in that situation, you really have to be OK with it. You have to want it. It's almost trying to rewire your brain."
"Today, I drove to that gym, and five minutes into my workout, my mood brightened," he added. "I love it."