Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V Gordon on Little America

Chatting with husband-and-wife writing duo Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V Gordon, it’s impossible to not address the elephant in the room: the recent photos revealing Nanjiani’s chiseled new physique for his upcoming role in Marvel’s superhero tentpole The Eternals, and his overnight transformation into an unlikely internet heartthrob. As dyed-in-the-wool comedy nerds, the pair have both got quips ready and waiting.

Gordon is first out of the blocks. “What’re you talking about? I haven’t noticed any difference. No, I’m kidding, the difference is that it’s hard for him to type on the individual keys of his computer now because of his massive, muscular hands.” Then Nanjiani chimes in, right on cue. “I will say, what has changed is that I’m the subject of mockery much more now than I was before, all of it coming from people who claim to be my loved ones.”

It’s the kind of playful rapport to be expected from spouses who got their start making each other laugh. He’s an actor and standup comedian, who made his name as a sardonic programmer on HBO’s Silicon Valley; she’s the former producer of his long-running live show The Meltdown, and even more formerly a practising therapist. They’re both writers and podcasters, but the true vocation threading all of their work together is storytelling. That may be a word Hollywood types throw around a lot, but Gordon and Nanjiani’s output shows an adeptness for moulding the details of real life into something entertaining and truthful.

Nanjiani with Zoe Kazan in The Big Sick.

Nanjiani with Zoe Kazan in The Big Sick. Photograph: Nicole Rivelli/StudioCanal

That impulse formed the basis for their joint breakout The Big Sick, a lightly fictionalised account of their unusual courtship that both wrote and Nanjiani starred in. A classic story of boy-meets-girl, racial-tensions-complicate-attraction-between-boy-and-girl, girl-slips-into-coma and boy-bonds-with-parents-of-girl, the film expanded the possibilities of the romcom and brought the couple an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. Audiences responded to the organic ease with which Nanjiani and Gordon translated the most intense chapter of their romance into a script that goes down easy.

They continue their mission to highlight the poetry of routine with the critically acclaimed Little America, a new Apple TV+ series founded on the evolving definition of “everyday people” in the United States. Each of the eight episodes adapts a real-life tale (from human-interest publication Epic Magazine) about immigrants carving out their piece of the land of opportunity. In one, an undocumented Mexican teen finds discipline and purpose in an urban squash league; in another, an Indian schoolkid busies himself while waiting for his deported parents’ return by working his way to the national spelling bee.

“We weren’t trying to spin tales of a noble immigrant struggle,” Gordon says by phone from the home she and Nanjiani share in LA. “We wanted viewers to come away feeling a lightness and loveliness, even if many of the episodes are dealing with serious things. We wanted to focus less on struggle, more on triumph.”

“The show is about people who are generally optimistic about America,” Nanjiani adds. “The image that America projects has always had two sides: the one side that puts out a negative influence into the world, and the other side, which provides you with chances. That’s the America I grew up in, because American pop culture is the most widespread in the world, and they were selling that second side of America, and we wanted to buy it. You can do what you want to do, be what you want to be. Not everyone in the series believes that, but that’s a key idea.”

With this as their guiding ethos, they went to work gathering a multinational roster of writers and directors with an innate sense of the culture they’d be helping to realise onscreen. The Manager, the pilot episode about the whiz-kid spelling champ, comes from Indian-Canadian great Deepa Mehta, and a handful of the credited writers claim their first TV credit. Nanjiani drew on his background as a Pakistani-American for The Rock, which chronicles the quixotic efforts of the irrepressible Faraz (Shaun Toub) to remove a gargantuan boulder from land he’s purchased. He and Gordon co-wrote the episode with their producer Lee Eisenberg, attracted to the potent simplicity of his goal. “He wanted to own land because that’s owning a little piece of America, and that can feel like a huge deal,” Nanjiani explains. “We liked Faraz for being unique and universal – man versus rock. It’s a small experience, but it’s so perfectly symbolic. The idea of trying to break a rock that refuses to be moved? Metaphors don’t get much better.”

“The truth is that the actual gentleman was a hang-glider,” Gordon jumps in to add, seamlessly picking up Nanjiani’s thread. “He’d hang-glide over his own property and look at the rock, because from so high up he said it felt like it wasn’t that big. Some stuff feels so written, it’s so good, you can’t even put it in.”

Although they try to convey the real-life tales of Little America as truthfully as possible, Gordon and Nanjiani both concede that they do exercise some measure of licence over the stories they tell. An intentionality colours how these fragments of reality are arranged and presented, but the Gordon-Nanjiani team resisted seeing the project as any sort of overarching thesis. At a time when merely existing as an immigrant in the US has grown into a matter of controversy – as a president facilitates internment, deportation, and other mass crackdowns at the hands of jackbooted immigration agents – the pair wish to keep their focus on a warmer human element.

Shaun Toub and Shila Vosough Ommi in Little America.

National Portrait… Shaun Toub and Shila Vosough Ommi in Little America. Photograph: AppleTV+

“We did not want it to be a political show,” Nanjiani firmly states. “By the very nature of the premise, it’s going to be seen as a political act, but we’re just telling stories of immigrants. There’s no agenda to the show, we’re just telling interesting stories from new perspectives. You don’t realise how similar our pop culture in America has been for decades until you see something that makes you realise: ‘Oh! Old white dudes have defined pop culture this whole time!’”

“And even if you’re not part of that perspective,” Gordon says, “it can still resonate with you.” She points to Nanjiani’s speech in a montage at the 2018 Oscars in which he noted that, instead of just watching films with white male leads, “straight white dudes can [now] watch movies starring me and relate to that. It’s not that hard.”

“I think that’s what we’re doing here,” Gordon continues. “We all need representation, that definitely matters, but we can always see parts of ourselves onscreen in people who aren’t like us.”

They’ll forge ahead in their crusade of compassion over the coming year, as Apple has already greenlit a second season of Little America. They’re now in the process of selecting the next round of stories veering between the ordinary and extraordinary. And, true to form, they’re always on the lookout for inspiration. They’re canvassing friends, fielding messages from strangers with something to share, going into the Epic Magazine archives. But with Gordon and Nanjiani, their next idea might be hiding right there between them. The conversation eventually drifts back to Gordon’s husband’s new addition of brawn to brain and, just like that, she’s framing up the world around her as a script in her head. “This could be our story for next season! ‘Immigrant gets ripped, does a Marvel movie.’”

“People would love that,” Nanjiani deadpans. “Deeply relatable.”

Little America is on Apple TV+ now


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