Kumail Nanjiani embraces a superhero who loves being one

November 4, 2021
Kumail Nanjiani loved superhero movies growing up and now gets to star in one with Marvel's "Eternals."
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Kumail Nanjiani‘s favorite movie as a kid was 1978’s “Superman” and he also lived for the Batman movies, though sometimes took them a little too seriously.

“I remember when they cast Robin being so, so jealous that it wasn’t me. I was not an actor, I was a child and I was still very upset at Chris O’Donnell,” says Nanjiani, 43.

So actually being a superhero in director Chloé Zhao’s “Eternals” was something Nanjiani threw himself into completely, from hitting the gym to pack on muscle to watching lots of Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington and even Errol Flynn in order to capture the vibe of a cinematic icon. Nanjiani’s Kingo, who emits cosmic energy from his hands, is the fun one among a group of cosmic immortals who protected humanity for several thousand years until they broke up. In the present day, when an existential threat brings the Eternals back together after centuries apart, Kingo has made himself into the biggest movie star in Bollywood – and has been for a good century. 

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“We’ve seen a lot of superheroes where their superpowers are a source of stress. Spider-Man, in some ways, his superpowers have ruined his life. He just wants to be a normal kid,” Nanjiani says. But the essence of Kingo for him was always about joy: “He loves his powers. He loves fighting. I wanted to see a superhero who really is like, ‘Man, this is pretty great.’ ”

The Pakistani American actor, known for his roles in “The Big Sick” and HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” next co-stars with Ewan McGregor in the upcoming Disney+ “Star Wars” series “Obi-Wan Kenobi” and in January, he starts filming the Hulu limited series “Immigrant” in which he plays the founder of the Chippendales dance troupe. (“He’s not necessarily a guy that you would see wearing just a bow tie and no shirt,” Nanjiani deadpans.)

Nanjiani talks with USA TODAY about his Marvel Cinematic Universe debut in “Eternals,” his Bollywood routines and blasting off to the “Star Wars” galaxy:

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Question: What aspect of Kingo’s character did you immediately connect with? 

Kumail Nanjiani: The first time you really genuinely meet him, he’s doing that Bollywood dance sequence. When he sees his (Eternals) family, his reaction is the least complicated out of anybody’s: “Oh my God, my family’s here!” He’s excited that there’s a mission. He misses his missions.

Q: Was it a joy or a chore to learn all the Bollywood moves?

Nanjiani: It starts off as a chore but it ends with joy because I grew up watching Bollywood movies, up until the late 1990s when I moved to the U.S. I’ve seen almost every Bollywood movie. I know these dance sequences. And I was like, “Wow, these people are really good at dancing. I’m not as good at dancing. I have to learn.” I feel like American audiences think of these Bollywood dance sequences in an ironic way; they think of them as kitschy. To me, it was never that. 

Q: You’ve talked about your intense physical transformation for the role. Knowing what you know now, would you approach it any differently?

Nanjiani: No, I would not have done anything differently. I love playing this character. He was always a collection of opposites: He’s sincere and sarcastic, he’s selfless and very self-involved, he’s arrogant but completely open-hearted. So it’s like a mix of these weird different things, but because none of us are any one thing, we feel like different people at different points in our lives and at different points in the day. I really wanted to capture that. 

Q: Are you keeping up with the weights in case they greenlight a sequel soon?

Nanjiani: I don’t know if Kingo’s going to be in the sequel or not yet. Listen, the workout stuff’s just become part of my routine and I get a lot out of it. My anxiety is lower, so I’ve been continuing it for that reason.

Q: Kingo, who has been around for thousands of years, mentions he knew Thor when the thunder god was a youngster. What MCU character would Kingo be best friends with?

Nanjiani: I think it would be Iron Man. They’re both arrogant, they’re both rich, they both love luxury, expensive clothes, nice cars. And certainly, Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Iron Man was a big point of comparison for me when I was working with Chloe. Iron Man occupied a very specific space in the MCU. He’s gone. Maybe Kingo can be his own version of that kind of character.

Q: What MCU character would you be best friends with?

Nanjiani: That’s a very good question. (Laughs) I was going to say Thor but I don’t think Thor would be best friends with me. Who’s the most grounded? Hawkeye seems to have a good head on his shoulders. Bruce Banner! That’s it. I think we would genuinely get along great.

Q: What was your “Obi-Wan” experience like?

Nanjiani: It was absolutely amazing. When you’re on set, you have to put out of your head that you’re in “Star Wars,” which is very hard to do because it really looks like you’re in “Star Wars.” I’m dressed like I’m in “Star Wars.” The guy who I’m talking to looks a lot like Obi-Wan Kenobi. It was my first job outside of quarantine: I got vaccinated, went right to set and honestly had the best three months.

Q: Getting out of the house and going to work again, and it’s for “Star Wars,” seems pretty cool.

Nanjiani: I know! And then I finally went to Disney World where I saw the “Star Wars” land and I was like, “You know, it feels like I’m at work right now.”



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