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.
"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."
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."