'The Big Sick': Kumail Nanjiani and Ray Romano on Playing Future In-Laws and Bombing Live

The Big Sick
Ray Romano and Kumail Nanjiani co-star in 'The Big Sick.' Amazon Studios/Lionsgate

The Big Sick, the autobiographical rom-com from Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani, is about an unlikely relationship. And not just the true-story romance that develops between Nanjiani and his future wife, Emily (played by Zoe Kazan), who suffers a life-threatening medical crisis early in their relationship. The funnier and ultimately endearing bond blossoms between Nanjiani and his comatose girlfriend's blunt-speaking dad, Terry, played by Ray Romano, the co-creator and star of, among other things, Everybody Loves Raymond. (Holly Hunter plays Emily's mother.)

The two actors have a bit in common in real life, from their sitcom pedigrees to their deep experience in stand-up comedy. Their clear affection for each other is a little less awkward off camera. In late June, I met Nanjiani and Romano at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan. Romano, 59, was in a funny, boisterous mood, barging in on Nanjiani's prior interview to demand that he hurry up. This conversation has been lightly condensed.

Ray, tell me how you became involved in The Big Sick and what drew you to the role.
I didn't know Kumail. So I took the script home and I told my kids—my twins are 23 years old. I said, "I have a script from Kumail Nanjiani." They right away said, "Oh, you gotta do it, Dad!" I knew Judd [Apatow]. I was in one Judd thing, I was in Funny People—Eminem yells at me for one scene. Holly Hunter was already cast. So it was a no-brainer.

Casting must have been weird for you, Kumail, since the characters are based on people you know. Are Ray and Emily's dad alike?
No! Very different. Emily's dad is Southern, and obviously Ray is not Southern. It actually really helped us to see this more as a story, rather than our story.
Romano: There's another difference. Emily's mother, after seeing the film, told her, "You know, Holly Hunter is prettier than I am. But your father is much more handsome than Ray."
Nanjiani: [Bursts out laughing] You added the word much.
Romano: I punched it up a little… If people [ask] "How did you get into the character?" I say, "Well, I just tried to picture how Emily's father would do it, and then I did it as if he was ugly."

Related: The Big Sick review: A charming rom-com meets a harrowing hospital drama

Many of your scenes in the movie are about the terror of being a parent. Did you bring any real-life experiences to the performance?
Just the fact that I have a daughter. Thank God she hasn't been in any real life-threatening situations like that. But it's very easy to picture what that would feel like. And also, if she was dating somebody, he wouldn't be good enough [laughs].
Nanjiani: Has she dated a lot of not-good-enough people?
Romano: Yeah. My wife just instantly doesn't like somebody she's dating. They have to prove it to her.

Kumail, was the bonding between you and Emily's parents as awkward as it is in the film? There's this awkward male bonding that develops between the two of you in the film.
Sure. The bonding happens because you're the only people in the world that know what it's like to go through this very specific nightmare. I remember I would go to grocery stores, and people would be buying cookies, and I'd be, like, You're buying cookies at a time like this? It's a strange feeling, that everybody else is just living their normal lives while you're going through this very specific nightmare and there's only two people who understand it. And then the awkward male-bonding thing—one of the first scenes we shot together is our goodbye at the end of the movie. And Ray was doing this thing where it was this awkward "trying to say he likes me but not being able to fully say it sincerely because we're men and it's hard for men to be emotional with each other."
Romano: That came organically, too. It's hard to be emotional, period.

How has the world of sitcoms changed since the '90s?​
Nanjiani [to Ray]: Do you watch anything now?
Romano: I watch your show. I watch Crashing. I didn't start watching this year, but I watched Master of None last year. I don't watch any of the good ones that I should be watching—you know, Veep.

Do you take much interest in this phenomenon of prestige TV?
Of what TV?

Prestige TV. You know, the way critics talk about shows like Mad Men and—
[interrupting]: You know, like, fancy-pants shows.
Romano: Oh! I don't watch Mad Men.
Nanjiani: Or Breaking Bad?
Romano: I watched Breaking Bad. What else would be considered prestige?

People just take TV more seriously now.
Everything has that... there's a dark to it. There's darkness. And even a show like Fargo, which is quirky and funny, is still intense and dark. I do see that trend. Look, when Everybody Loves Raymond came on, everybody thought that kind of show had passed.
Nanjiani: Really!?
Romano: I think so. [But] if you do something good, people will watch, no matter what tone or genre it is.
Nanjiani: I was thinking about this. Because there's so much TV, it's gotten splintered. There aren't those great shows that everybody watches, like Raymond—your grandmother would watch, you would watch, everybody would watch. I feel like the last show like that might be Big Bang Theory.

You both started in stand-up. Are there rising comics you watch?
Romano: I like Nate Bargatze. [To Nanjiani] And did I tell you about the special I saw, Chris Gethard?
Nanjiani: Chris Gethard! You know Judd [Apatow] produced that.
Romano: I texted him and told him I really liked it. Tommy Johnagin—I like him too.

The movie has so much of the stand-up world in it. Have you both had experiences where you're doing stand-up and nobody cares and you're just bombing?
Oh, yeah. Many times.
Romano: If you're a stand-up, you've had that experience. Without a doubt. What I miss is being able to go up in a room full of strangers and win them over. But the flip side is going up in a room full of strangers and you win no one over.
Nanjiani: Oh my God, I remember there was a show in a tent in Chicago outside that was a really tough show because it was always people getting drunk and partying. And my friends were in town. I was like, "Guys, don't come, it's not gonna be good." They came. And it was one of the worst sets I've ever had in my goddamn life.
Romano: I'm 25 years in, and I did a show for my kid's school. It did not go well! Because it was in a place that had a bar here, a bar here—it was a rock club. [Raymond co-star] Brad Garrett went on first. Ripped the audience to shreds. And they were shocked; half of them liked him, half of them didn't. It went bad! And this was right in front of parents that I was gonna see for the next 10 years at my kid's school. It was devastating.
Nanjiani: A lot of comedians do cruise ships. I can't do that: bomb, then be on a boat with these people for a week!