Some stories only need to be told once. Others, so salacious and hardly credible, are stuck on repeat. The sweaty, bloody story of the male-stripped empire Chippendales appears to be the latter. There have been podcasts, documentaries, and now a shiny Disney+ and Hulu TV show, Welcome to Chippendalesstarring Kumail Nanjiani as the murderous mastermind behind it all, Steve Banerjee.
“I’ve never gotten to play a bow like this,” Nanjiani says over Zoom from Los Angeles. “By far the most layered, complex, complicated person I’ve ever played.” “Layered” is the right word for it: After moving from Mumbai to Los Angeles, Banerjee bought a defunct nightclub and launched Chippendales in the 1980s. Although the club was popular, Banerjee was endlessly paranoid about rivals and even his own colleagues. His relationship with choreographer Nick De Noia (played in the show by The white lotusMurray Bartlett) was particularly fragile, with ultimately fatal consequences.
It took a few months to figure out Banerjee; Nanjiani says conversations with his wife, writer-comedian Emily V. Gordon, and an acting coach were crucial. As it was to study films that evoked a bygone, seedier era: Boogie nights, Goodfellasand the 1970s Harrison Ford thriller The conversation. Finally, Nanjiani performed some armchair psychology. “I think ultimately his tragic flaw is that he’s very, very uncomfortable in his own skin,” says the 44-year-old actor. In the eight-part show, Banerjee constantly wants others to like him, his show or his money. “That is why the relationship with Irene [Banerjee’s wife, played by Annaleigh Ashford] is important because the only time he likes himself is when he sees himself through her eyes.”
Nanjiani clearly enjoyed flexing his muscles for the part. Some are well worn; a comic scene where he first meets his wife-to-be, Irene, is a highlight that makes use of both actors’ deeply accessible comic timing. There’s also more dramatic territory, such as a tense, 15-page scene opposite hitman Ray (an enjoyably chaotic Robin de Jesús), set in a single hotel room, which was one of Nanjiani’s film highlights. But none of these modes – comedic, romantic, dramatic – are entirely surprising if you’ve followed his career so far.
After moving from Karachi to Iowa to study at university, Nanjiani moved to Chicago where he began performing stand-up comedy. Bit parts in political satire Veep followed, although he became a more familiar face as lead on Silicon Valley, HBO’s sitcom about the technology industry. The 2017s The big sick – a rom-com written by Nanjiani and Gordon about their own coma-centric meet-cute – put Nanjiani on the map. EternalChloé Zhao’s 2021 Marvel entry, with Nanjaini playing the clever Kingo, brought him into familiar territory.
This move into the Marvel Cinematic Universe was accompanied by a superhero glow-up. In the lead up to Eternal, transformed Nanjiani from an average Joe (though still Hollywood average) into a Marvel hunk. An Instagram post of a jacked-up Nanjiani went viral (and sparked many conversations about male body image). It almost seems cruel Welcome to Chippendales is full of half-naked beefcakes – 1980s Marvel pin-ups – and Nanjiani plays a pudgy club owner. “I just ate whatever I wanted because I wanted to look different,” he says of the transformation process. But although it started well, it quickly spiraled. Soon he was the heaviest he had ever weighed and he developed sleep apnea. “I didn’t do it in a healthy way.”
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His dedication to the role certainly contributes to the look of the show, which is as seedy as it is flashy: You can smell the spilled drinks, the pheromones in the air. But beneath the flamboyant appeal is plenty of darkness. In the first episode, Playboy bunny Dorothy Stratten (played by Nicola Peltz) is killed in a murder-suicide by her estranged husband Paul Snider (Dan Stevens). Unsettled feelings about the endlessly popular true crime genre linger. At what point does entertainment and education end and exploitation begin? “What you want to do is not victimize someone who was already a victim,” Nanjiani says of the Stratten scenes. “You would try to portray them as they were as best you can.”
Here’s another side of the true crime coin: if Welcome to Chippendales were not based on a true story, Nanjiani believes the central role would have gone to a white actor. “I think Hollywood now — even though they’re trying to be more diverse — is still weird,” says the actor. The problem, Nanjiani says, is that good intentions can sometimes lead to misguided solutions: if the bad guy is a brown guy, what message does that send? “And it’s as limiting as anything else,” he says. “I want to play more villains.” Nanjiani wants to have a career as varied as his Marvel stablemate Sebastian Stan, who can switch from superhero to serial killer (Nanjiani then Fresh, in which Stan plays a charming, organ-harvesting cannibal). “He’s doing these big Marvel movies and then he’s going to play a psychopath. I was told it’s going to be difficult because people don’t want to label non-white people as bad guys.”
A few days before Nanjiani and I speak in November, Quentin Tarantino became the latest director (following in the footsteps of Martin Scorsese) to deny Marvel’s dominance of the film industry. On a podcast, Tarantino lamented how Marvel movies are “the only things that seem to get made” and how superhero characters are now the star attraction rather than the actors who play them. The comments were met with the hysteria that Marvel discourse always attracts. Nanjiani is a voice of comparable calm: “Of course I love the movies Tarantino makes or Scorsese makes, and I may disagree with Scorsese’s opinion on superhero movies, but I mean, who else has earned the right to have an opinion? If Scorsese doesn’t has earned the right to have an opinion about movies, then none of us should have an opinion about movies.” Mostly, he seems a little confused. “It’s so weird that people get mad about it.”
What Nanjiani misses is “those grown-up films that have a decent budget, decent movie stars in the theatres”. Whose The big sick had been released in 2020 and not 2017, he believes it would not have been released in cinemas. “I think our year was the last year where these indie films were commercially successful.” Ladybug, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut from the same year would probably suffer the same fate. “‘There’s a sense that unless it’s action or horror, people don’t want to go to the cinema to see it.’ TV is therefore a good place for Nanjiani. Second season of Little Americaan anthology series about immigration he co-created with Gordon and Lee Eisenberg came out in December.
Nanjiani is a thoughtful and self-aware presence, as analytical about the industry as he is about his own career. After The great sick he was given many more options, although they were all in the same realm of a “nerdy, weak guy, defined by his lack of agency or power”. After Eternal, people saw Nanjiani as a more confident, powerful being. He was offered action films after that. His turn as Banerjee will again show a new side to the audience. Maybe Nanjiani’s villain era is within touching distance.
‘Welcome to Chippendales’ is out on Disney+ from January 11