Kumail Nanjiani is best known for playing sardonic computer programmer Dinesh in HBO's "Silicon Valley" and starring in 2017's Oscar-nominated, semi-autobiographical romantic comedy "The Big Sick," which he co-wrote with wife Emily V. Gordon.
Now, the husband-and-wife duo are executive producers of Apple TV+'s "Little America," (now streaming). The eight-episode half-hour anthology series, which they co-created with Alan Yang (Netflix's "Master of None"), tells dramatized true stories of immigrants in the United States. Among them: an economics student in Oklahoma who grew up watching Westerns in his native Nigeria, and a young Indian boy who runs his family's Utah motel after his parents are deported.
Nanjiani, 41, who just finished shooting Marvel's "The Eternals" in London, talked to USA TODAY about "Little America," Kelly Clarkson and the biggest culture shock when he moved to the U.S. from Pakistan at 18.
Question: Something that surprised me most as a viewer was just how heartwarming and joyous and hopeful most of these stories were. Why was it important to you to show these sides of the immigrant experience?
Kumail Nanjiani: Comedy and heartbreak really go hand in hand. Emily and I never want to make anything that's really depressing – our first box we want to check is entertaining. We don't want this to feel like a medicine show that people have to watch to learn lessons. So we wanted to make sure these episodes were funny and quirky.
Q: In a way, telling immigrant stories feels almost like a political act under this administration, and yet there is no mention of the president by name. Was that a conscious decision?
Nanjiani: Yeah. Right from the beginning, we said we didn't want to make any overt political statements. Obviously, telling immigrant stories or just saying immigrants are human beings is weirdly considered a radical act instead of just a self-evident fact. But we always felt if we're going to suddenly get into a political issue, that's taking the focus away from these people and putting it back on America and our messy immigration system.
Q: Is there one episode that hit especially close to home for you where you saw aspects of your own experience reflected in a character or storyline?
Nanjiani: All of them connected in different ways, because all these stories are just snapshots of people's lives. So I think every single person in this show is going through something that I have gone through at some point, whether you feel like you don't speak the same language or you're trying to figure out what your identity is. And certainly with the first episode ("The Manager"), having negotiated the American immigration system, I related to that, too.
Q: Many of these episodes show immigrant characters latching onto things that are quintessentially “American”: the chocolate chip cookie in “The Baker” episode, or the cowboy hat and boots in “The Cowboy.” Was there anything like that for you when you first moved to the States for college?
Nanjiani: I really loved American movies and TV shows growing up. So I was similar to Igwe (in “The Cowboy” episode), in that I was excited more than anything to see where these movies are from. The one thing (I remember) when I got to America was everyone was so obsessed with peanut butter. And I would eat it and be like, “Really, guys? This is disgusting; there's no other thing like it. This texture, I don't know why you like it.” It’s been over 20 years and really just in the last year, I'm finally like, “Alright, I see the appeal of peanut butter now.”
Q: One of the most beautiful moments in the show is in the season finale, "The Son," as a gay Syrian man (Haaz Sleiman) has an emotional reaction watching a drag queen lip-syncing to Kelly Clarkson's "Breakaway." Did you personally have to get approval from Kelly to use her music?
Nanjiani: We're all just all such fans of hers – her music is so uplifting. And I felt like that episode was one where the character was going through something that could be overwhelmingly difficult, and her music would be a nice counterpoint to that. Getting approval for these songs has always been tricky because sometimes they cost so much money. So you kind of have to try and find a direct line to the artists somehow, and hope they connect with the show and approve it for you. That’s what happened with her, and I’m very grateful she gave us permission.
Q: You’ve already shared a lot about your own experience as a Pakistani American in “The Big Sick.” Would you ever consider writing an episode of "Little America" inspired by your childhood or coming to the U.S.?
A: We are just starting conversations about what stories we have, so I wouldn't say we would do it for Season 2 because we already have a really great group. I would like to direct an episode, for sure. I’ve never directed (before), but this is a show we know so well, and I feel like it's a safe environment because I can work with the other producers who are more experienced at this than I am.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Little America': Kumail Nanjiani on immigrant saga, and peanut butter