There are some true life stories that are destined to be told as movies or TV shows. Certain elements that feed into our shared obsessions with sex, glamour, broken dreams, and what they can do to people when desperation sets in and moral barriers crumble. Hulu’s Welcome To Chippendales is that kind of story, exploring the rise and fall of Somen “Steve” Banerjee, the founder of the Chippendales male strip clubs. But what turns a good story into a great film, or in this case, a great limited series (that just launched on Hulu)? In this case, patience and the space to really explore Banerjee’s slide, finding the devil in all the details and microtraumas that led to a broken life.
Uproxx spoke with executive producer and star Kumail Nanjiani on getting the opportunity to go deeper, the evolution of a project that first found him 5 years ago, drawing inspiration from people who equate success with goodness, and finding ways to make this character feel authentic and inevitable. A clear showcase for Nanjiani that should generate awards buzz, we also talked about the sometimes final shift comic actors make to drama, absorbing other great crime sagas before filming, and getting Steve’s look exactly right to offer a contrast between him and the near perfect “Adonis” like dancers that populated his world.
What was your did you know about the Chippendales going into this?
Nothing. I had no idea about any of this. This project first came to me five years ago as a movie with the same writer. It was a movie script and I read it and that was when I first realized all this stuff, and then I didn’t do the movie at that point. And then when this came my way, the mini-series version, there was just so much more detail and there were many more things that are in the show that I had no idea happened, so I had no idea about any of this.
What were the things that sort of excited you and also the things that kind of scared you going into it?
I was excited to do a story that felt so epic and personal at the same time. It becomes an ensemble piece, but at the center of it is this guy’s sort of journey into success, his rise and fall at a very specific time in America. So I was excited about doing something that spans from the 70s to the 90s, and watching this guy build an empire and all the ways that he has to sacrifice himself and the people around him to get that success and to hold onto that success. That’s what was really exciting to me.
And then the stuff I was intimidated about was just I’d never gotten the opportunity to play a character like this. Over the course of eight episodes, this guy really changes in big ways and doesn’t change in other big ways. So for me, the challenge was how do I create a human being that does a lot of bad stuff in a way that feels justified? So that someone watching him can think, “Oh, okay. I buy that he would think this was the right thing to do.” How do you justify the unjustifiable?”
Do you have to find a way internally to justify some of the choices that he makes in the process of creating the character and achieving that?
I have to make sure that every decision he makes internally feels inevitable, and it feels like the right thing to do. I don’t know. I don’t think bad people maybe know that they’re bad. This guy certainly doesn’t. And so it was about how do I create a worldview that’s consistent through all 8 episodes, but have him start off in a place that feels very innocent and childlike, end in a place that feels very dark and criminal, and have that worldview stay consistent the entire time?
Obviously, I’m going to assume you don’t know anybody who’s murderous. But do you know anybody in your real life that kind of gives you a hint of someone like Steve at the start who is obviously very driven, someone who’s a huge dreamer? Or is it all just research about Steve and his life?
No, it’s taking from a lot of different types of people and different people that I know for sure, especially when I was talking about people who have a certain worldview. I know people who sort of think of morality in a very specific kind of way. I know people who are nicer to me now that I’m a bit more successful, and I’m somehow a more valid person because I have a longer IMDB list. There are people, I think, in our industry who equate success with a moral good, who think being rich and being a good person are the same thing. And so it was sort of borrowing worldviews from things like that. It’s sort of an approach that I see a lot in our business. And then, other kinds of people that I’ve met. It’s just borrowing little traits from all kinds of people. I love playing characters who are kings of a tiny fiefdom. I’ve done that comedically.
I did a series called Portlandia for many years, and it was always a guy who was king of a very tiny castle and really loved the power that he had. So bringing that aspect of it to Chippendale‘s was part of it. This guy’s certainly king of a very tiny castle and it’s very important to him that everyone recognizes he’s king. So it was just taking pieces of real people I knew, or real types of people I knew, and then combining it with other parts I played, insecurities I have and things I worry about, and putting it all together and making one person that makes sense with a bunch of disparate parts.
Physically, obviously, you got a lot of attention last time you went through a big physical transformation for a role. For this, it seems like you kind of went through another physical transformation. Is that the case, or was it more just makeup?
No, there’s no makeup. There’s no padding. People asked, they’re like, “Oh, that suit’s padded.” I’m like, “No, it’s not padded.” I just wanted to look different. I saw a picture of Steve and it was this nerdy, Brown guy surrounded by these sort of gorgeous, White Adonises, and it felt like he really didn’t belong. He owned a world that doesn’t really have room for him. And so it was important to me that I look like someone who doesn’t belong in that world. Everybody else is a certain kind of person who looks a certain kind of way by design. As you watch the show more, you’ll see that he curated the kind of guys that could be Chippendales dancers, and he would not have hired someone who looked like himself to do that, which I think is also kind of tragic. So yeah, I just wanted to make sure that I looked like someone who didn’t fit in that world. That was another part of the process.
Do you gravitate toward these kinds of Great American Crime Stories as a viewer?
Yeah. And always before I start shooting something, I just watch a bunch of movies that I think might help me prepare. And I’m not watching them academically. I just want the right stuff to soak in. Goodfellas, Casino, Boogie Nights. I watched The Conversation a bunch of times because that Gene Hackman performance is so good and he’s the guy who’s very closed off, very internal. You can feel there’s a lot going on inside him, but he is not very demonstrative. He doesn’t express his emotion, and I felt like Steve is like that. There’s a lot going on, but he’s buttoned up really tight. So The Conversation, for me, was definitely a very important reference point for this show and performance. Those movies, I’ve watched them many times before. The Conversation is one of my favorite movies. But then to re-watch it again with an eye to specific things, that’s the most fun part of the preparation, saying “I’m working right now. I’m doing research,” and I just get to watch a bunch of awesome movies.
A lot of comedic actors seem to gravitate towards drama at a certain point in their careers. Some of them stay there. Do you feel like for comedic actors, or for yourself, there’s a little bit of a chip on the shoulder of just, “I really want to show people that I can do dramatic work, that I’m not just a comedic actor?” Has that been something that has propelled you at points in your career?
Honestly, not really. I would see a lot of comedic actors go to drama and I’d be like, “Why? You’re so funny. What are you doing?” And then sometimes when they stay there, I’m like, “Come back! Give us one more comedy!” There are many people I could name that are tremendous comedic actors who are also tremendous drama actors now, and I’m like, “Well, go back to the thing that we fell in love with you for.” For me, it was never about, “Oh, I want to be serious now. Now I’m entering this serious phase of my career.” That’s not true. My next thing is going to be a comedy. I just really liked this project and I wanted to challenge myself and see how far I could push myself doing something like this. It’s great. I would love to do more drama. I found this very exciting. I’d love to do more drama, but I also think I’m always going to be doing comedies as long as I have the opportunity to do them because I still love those movies and I want to be a part of them.
The first 2 episodes of ‘Welcome To Chippedales’ are available to stream on Hulu