The rise and fall of the infamous men’s erotic magazine is the backdrop for the Hulu limited series. Welcome to Chippendaleswhich follows strip club founder Somen “Steve” Banerjee from an up-and-coming businessman in the 1980s to a reviled accessory to murder in the early 1990s. Kumail Nanjiani delivers an unexpected dramatic turn as Banerjee , a hopeful Indian immigrant and entrepreneur who launches the Chippendales franchise and is soon up against his business partner and choreographer, Nick De Noia (played on the series by Emmy Award winner Murray Bartlett).
For the comedian, who earned a 2018 Oscar nomination for writing the big sick with his wife Emily V. Gordon, Welcome to Chippendales it was an exciting opportunity to step out of his comfort zone and take on a more devious character. But beyond the glamor and debauchery of ’80s excess, the show is an examination of the American Dream and the lengths to which one can go to achieve it. Nanjiani spoke with THR about how he found his way into the character and the ways he related to Banerjee.
What happened to the show that piqued your interest?
I’ve never had the opportunity to play a character like this, who has such a great arc and descent into darkness. I’ve always [wanted to play] the bad boy, I don’t just mean the guys who were kind of shitty; I mean a bad bad boy. The story itself was very exciting and unexpected. There are like 20 amazing things that happen over the course of our show, and all of that happened in real life. And he had interesting things to say about the American Dream and how accessible it is to different kinds of people, and looking at it through the lens of an immigrant. I am an immigrant and had some idea of the American Dream before coming here. And now, obviously, that has evolved. To be able to explore that through the eyes of someone who, in some ways, had a similar experience to me is rare.
Most audiences are used to seeing you in comedic roles. Was this project a challenge?
It was a very different process. I created this performance in opposition to everything around me. I saw a photo of Steve Banerjee with the Chippendales dancers of him, and he was this chubby Indian nerd in a suit surrounded by these shirtless white Adonises. I was like, “He’s the king of a world where he doesn’t belong.” That was a very compelling image. He is surrounded by all these men who are very in touch with his body, who are very comfortable in his own skin. Murray’s performance as Nick De Noia is in the same way; he is very fluid and comfortable with himself. I thought Steve should be the opposite of all that. He must be completely disconnected from everything below his neck. He should be very, very uncomfortable in his own skin. And the rigidity comes from that disconnection. You see the cracks appear from time to time, and they obviously widen. He wanted it to feel like every molecule in his body was working to keep him contained. He is always working very hard not to explode.
He’s definitely obsessed with power, not just as a businessman. He even wants to have power over others, like Nick: he wants to be seen as the man in charge.
I’ve certainly met people like that in Hollywood. [there are people who] he will now treat me as a more valid person because I am more successful. I brought that [into Steve’s worldview]: All that exists is “success” and “no success”. That is his entire psychological makeup. He sees himself following the rules. He is inflexible, rigid in thought: everything is a duality. I was looking at characters that end up being evil in movies, and I feel like there’s something childish about them. They are narcissistic. They don’t quite understand the consequences of their actions. In the first two episodes, if I’m doing my job right, you see that innocence in him. His desire to succeed is almost childish. I think we’ve seen in real life some evil figures loom large and ultimately very childish in the way that [present] themselves in the world. For him, personal relationships always have to do with who is the boss and who is the servant.
irene [the Chippendales accountant and, later, Steve’s wife, played by Annaleigh Ashford] he’s the only person he doesn’t approach like that. He really sees her as a true equal, and she likes himself when she sees himself through her eyes. Ultimately, the stakes in that relationship get really high, because that’s the only piece of humanity she has left: what he has with her.
How much of your character is formed by being an outsider, an immigrant? Does that raise the stakes for him?
Ultimately, the reason you crave success is that internal wound that is never really going to fill with anything external. I don’t think that this wound is cultural; the impetus for him that he needs to succeed is very, very personal. What I do believe is cultural is the way in which he assumes the signifiers of what is important to him. In the first episode, you see that he has clipped up magazines and has [pictures of] guys with watches, whiskey and tuxedos: it’s not as important that you succeed as it is that everyone else thinks you are. I think that comes from him as a kid watching the West and seeing very glamorous people. Success is wearing a tuxedo and a nice watch and dating Hugh Hefner. As someone who grew up in Pakistan, those signifiers of wealth play a role in our society. Growing up, he was very aware of what good brands are. The United States goes through these waves of wanting to hide that you are rich or show off that you are rich. If you look back to the ’90s and the grunge era, it was all about dressing down. The ’80s were about excess. Right now we’re in a place where we’re trying to hide that rich people are rich, or they’re trying to show it off, right?
Speaking of ’80s excess, the show throws cocaine and addiction into the mix, driving a wedge between Steve and just about everyone else he knows and works with. Suddenly, he is the one punished, while everyone begins to go on a different journey.
Yeah, and I think a part of him is upset that he can’t do that because of the way he’s built himself up. And that gets really interesting, because [feeds into the dilemma] of how he is going to show his wealth, how Irene is going to show her wealth and how that will intersect. The idea that material wealth equals moral goodness is deeply rooted in our culture. Look at all the really rich celebrities that people look up to who are obviously bad people. I don’t want to name names, but part of it is this idea of ”if they’re that rich, there must be something valuable in them.” When in reality, there really is no connection.
In the same vein, there is a tendency to identify those who have achieved wealth as good leaders: if we join them, that wealth will trickle down to us.
What it ignores is the inherent privilege that people are born with. Steve is a brown immigrant. He changed his first name to try to fit in, because a westernized name was important to him. But what he doesn’t understand, or he comes to understand over the course of the season, is that he’s not the same for everyone. If he doesn’t look a certain way and if he doesn’t have a certain background, he doesn’t have the same opportunities. In that way, the American Dream is a lie. This idea that anyone can do this? No, it is much more difficult for many people. I am well aware of the ways in which I have been lucky. I am also aware of the things that I had to deal with early in my career. I had many conversations with [series creator] Steal [Siegel] because there was a certain point of view about all of this that I wanted Steve to express. Steve does a lot of bad things and I would never do those things. But sometimes it comes to something in the show that I agree with.
The show touches on the way in which male bodies can be objectified. After getting in shape for eternal, you said that the public’s reaction to your body really impacted how you saw yourself. Did that play a role in why you were interested in this project?
I think it’s really cool that the show gets into objectifying the male body. We saw that, actually, while we were shooting. We had background performers playing the women in the audience and the way they interacted with the actors who were the dancers; it was interesting to see how those dynamics within the show would carry over when we weren’t filming. Honestly, for me, what it says about the male form and how we objectify it or empower it, really wasn’t something I thought about much until I started filming the show. I just knew that I couldn’t look like someone who could get on stage with these people. I had to look different from them. People have asked me, “Is the suit padded?” No, nothing was padded. And I didn’t think much of it until I was on set feeling very different from all the men around me. I’m not just talking about the body, I’m talking about the way I dress, my appearance. Murray dressed in absolutely gorgeous clothes, he had fabulous hair. Meanwhile, he’s wearing funky glasses and earth-toned beige suits, while everyone else is so colorful and quirky.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a December standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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