ART IMITATES LIFE
‘The Big Sick’: How Zoe Kazan and Emily V. Gordon Created a Rom-Com Heroine for the Ages
‘The Big Sick’ co-writer Emily V. Gordon, and Zoe Kazan, who plays her in the film, talk about bringing real life to the screen.
The meet-cute happens early in The Big Sick. Kumail, just starting out as a stand-up comedian, is on stage telling jokes at a small club in Chicago. “Is Pakistan in the house?” he asks, facetiously. “Woo!” replies Emily, a twentysomething blond girl in the audience. I don’t think so, he replies, “I would have noticed you.”
Emily V. Gordon and Zoe Kazan had their own meet-cute more than a decade later in Los Angeles. Gordon, who co-wrote the script for The Big Sick with her husband, comedian and Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani, decided not to attend the auditions for the actresses who would be playing her in the film. She didn’t want to intimidate them and thought it “might be a little weird” to watch a series of women pretend to be her. But once Nanjiani and producers Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel had more or less settled on hiring Kazan, she decided it was time to meet the actress who would be telling her story on screen.
When I meet up with Gordon and Kazan at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills about a week before the film is set to open in theaters on June 23, they have the familiarity of childhood friends, or maybe even sisters. Wearing similarly styled lace dresses—not planned, they swear—they can barely stop talking to each other about, among other things, the benefits of “organic sanitary products” long enough for me to get in a question about the first time they met.
“I heckled her at a club,” Kazan jokes.
“And I was like, I would have noticed you, another white girl,” Gordon adds, laughing.
But seriously, Kazan says, they met at the Sunset Tower Hotel, a place that “is neither of our scenes,” adding, “We both assumed that the other person was going to be really comfy there, but we both got there and were like, this is not my scene.”
Nanjiani was there as well, but they can’t decide whether Kazan was the married couple’s “third wheel” or he was theirs. “Whether or not you knew it, we were like, we really hope she does this movie,” Gordon says to Kazan. The whole situation was “such a weird kind of thing to be thrown into,” so they wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page.
“Emily was wearing a shirt that I own,” Kazan says, something she thought was “probably a good sign” right off the bat. “I felt immediately that she was someone that I already knew and loved. The only disappointing part of it is that before I met you I was like I’m going to meet her and study how she is and I’m going to transform myself! And then I met you and we were so much alike that I was like, I guess my job’s a lot easier than I thought it was going to be.”
It helped, in Gordon’s words, that there were “only a handful of humans” who would know if Kazan’s take on her was accurate. “You had a lot of creative license,” she tells the actress.
While Nanjiani has become a familiar face thanks to his role on Silicon Valley and appearances in studio films like Central Intelligence and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, Gordon has always avoided the spotlight.
As they hint at in the film, she was a practicing therapist for years before moving to Los Angeles with Nanjiani to pursue a writing career. She authored the self-help book Super You: Release Your Inner Superhero in 2015 before working in the writers’ rooms for The Carmichael Show, Another Period, and Crashing. L.A. comedy nerds also know her as the producer of the now-defunct weekly Meltdown stand-up show, which Nanjiani hosted with fellow comedian Jonah Ray in the back of a comic-book store for years, briefly turning it into a Comedy Central series.
Kazan, meanwhile, has been stealing scenes for the better part of a decade in a string of indie films, including 2012’s Ruby Sparks, which she wrote and co-starred in with her longtime boyfriend Paul Dano. Beyond just playing a version of Gordon, Kazan used her own writing background to bring some of herself to the role as well. Early on in the process, the cast would improvise scenes and some of the lines from those exploratory sessions ended up in the film.
For instance, when Kumail decides to show Emily one of his favorite horror films, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, on their second date, she deadpans, “I love it when men test me on my taste.” I was sure it was a line written by Gordon, but she generously gave Kazan credit for coming up with it on the spot. “That whole run gets applause breaks depending on who’s in the audience,” Gordon says, proudly, of one her character’s most explicitly feminist lines.
Often, they were two of the only women on set, which meant they “had each other’s backs” at all times, Kazan says. In the scene that occurs just after Kumail and Emily have sex, the actress had some concerns about potentially appearing nude on screen. “I think when people have their bra on post-sex in a movie, it looks stupid,” she says. “But I didn’t want to be totally topless, because that’s very exposing and crazy. So I was like, I don’t feel comfortable with either of those situations.” She proposed keeping her tank top on and Gordon backed her up “all the way.”
On the days they shot those scenes, however, Gordon would deliberately stay away from the set. “Not for me; for Kumail,” she stresses. “Kumail requested that, as an actor, when he had make-out scenes, that I not be on set, just because it would make him uncomfortable. I respected that request,” Gordon says, adding that both she and Kazan didn’t care one way or the other.
The one time she did end up being on set for a scene in which Nanjiani and Kazan were kissing, she says everyone on the crew stared at her, trying to gauge how she was feeling about it. “What’s the reaction that I’m supposed to have?” she asks. “That was such an odd feeling of everyone staring at me, looking to see how I would react.” After the scene had finished, she went straight to Kazan’s dressing room so they could talk about it.
Kazan says it was the “best situation in the world” to “have another woman there for you emotionally” in what can otherwise be a very awkward scenario. She has been dating Dano for the past 10 years and knows what it’s like to have her boyfriend making out with someone else for his work. “It’s a very weird part of the job,” she says. “To be able to have that conversation was great.”
Nanjiani and Gordon did not set out to make a political movie, but when The Big Sick had its world premiere at Sundance on Donald Trump’s Inauguration Day, the reality of seeing a Pakistani-American man from a Muslim family as the protagonist of a film took on new relevance. A scene in which Holly Hunter’s character vigorously defends Kumail after a heckler yells, “Go back to ISIS!” at him during a stand-up set was suddenly garnering enthusiastic applause.
“We were very conscious of just presenting the reality,” Gordon says. “And if the reality itself is political then, hell, that’s how things are.” In her own life, she adds, “I didn’t meet a Muslim until college and now half my family is Muslim. I wanted to show Muslims the way I experience them, which is hanging out, eating, having fun, riding roller coasters.” She pauses to point out that Nanjiani’s family “loves” roller coasters. “That’s a version of Muslims that I had not seen in popular culture until I experienced it as a person. All I want to do is show that. Not for any political reason, but because it’s something I hadn’t seen before.”
The “Go back to ISIS!” moment—delivered by a man who may as well be wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat—is the most overt instance of Islamophobia in the film, but there are other, more subtle moments throughout. When Kumail and his brother are arguing in a restaurant, they have to assure the concerned onlookers, “It’s OK, we hate terrorists.” When Kumail meets Emily’s father for the first time, the first thing he wants to ask him about is 9/11. These scenes are Nanjiani and Gordon’s way of addressing what it has been like to be a Muslim in America, long before the president threatened to stop letting them in.
“I think the marginalization of brown people in popular culture did not begin with Inauguration Day,” Kazan says. “It can be completely apolitical and still be radical.” She says part of what Nanjiani and Gordon were trying to do was just tell their story as they lived it. “And the fact that your story happens to be partially the story of a Pakistani family makes the film more radical than its heart is. Its heart is very universal.
“Just because this administration and the political events of the last 18 months have put a spotlight on intolerance and hatred in this country does not mean there’s more intolerance and hatred than there used to be,” Kazan continues, saying she was eager to put a “universal and open-hearted depiction of Muslims on screen.”
The cultural differences between Kumail and Emily, however, are just one aspect of The Big Sick that makes it anything but a standard romantic comedy. The other major conflict at the heart of the movie is less universal and more specific to the origin story of their real-life relationship. About a third of the way through the film, just after the couple has their first big fight and decides to break up, Emily develops a severe infection and is placed in a medically induced coma.
Kazan recently watched the film with her own parents for the first time, an experience that she says really “brought home the scary part of the story” for her. “I really felt like, God, this is a lot for you to re-go through,” she tells Gordon. “This is a lot for your family to re-go through.”
Since the movie first premiered five months ago, Gordon has sat through it so many times that she admits it has started to lose some of that visceral punch for her. “Sometimes I watch it and I’m just laughing the whole time,” she says. “Sometimes I’m tearing up at the weirdest parts.”
But there is one moment that always gets her emotional. It’s when Kumail is sitting in his car listening to a series of saved voicemails from Emily that he has on his phone. In real life, she says, Nanjiani repeatedly called her phone while she was in the hospital so that he could hear her outgoing message. When she came out of the coma after eight days, she says, “I had a billion voicemails from Kumail. He was just calling to listen to my voice.”
The most unexpectedly devastating scene in the film, however, is the one in which Emily finally wakes up. Despite the fact that they had broken up, Kumail has been by her side the entire time, forging a relationship with her parents, played by the exceptional, award-worthy Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. But while we’ve watched him grow over the course of the movie, Emily still sees him as the man who was too scared to tell his traditional Pakistani parents that she even existed.
When they were shooting the hospital scene, Gordon was there to help Kazan find the right tone, describing the feeling that she had when she came out of her coma. “Everyone’s so happy, why is everyone so happy? I’m so sick and this is so scary,” she remembers feeling. “I was catching up.
“It really highlights how far he’s gone without her,” Gordon adds of that scene and one that happens later when Kumail shows up at her welcome-home party armed with physical tokens of his dedication to her, including dozens of visitor passes from the hospital. Those are his memories, we realize through Emily’s eyes, not hers.
“She’s coming out of her coma, he’s got this rush of feeling,” Kazan says, “and he’s coming back to her and being like, here’s how serious I am about wanting to start over. And she’s like, this is how serious I am about how you’re skipping a thousand steps.”
In cinematic terms, Kazan says, Emily “doesn’t have a second act. She doesn’t get to go on that journey. Just because one partner changes, it doesn’t mean that the other partner is automatically ready.” Comparing it to her own relationship, Kazan jokes, “I’ve been waiting at the top of the hill for Paul for 10 years and he’s basically there.”
“So is Kumail,” Gordon adds, laughing.