Kumail Nanjiani from Welcome to Chippendales on the cover of emmy issue #12
Kumail Nanjiani in Welcome to Chippendales
If there's one message to be gleaned from reading this story, it's this: don't be afraid to change your mind. Especially when body oil and cufflinks are involved.
That brings us to Kumail Nanjiani circa the summer of 2017. After more than a decade of guest spots and supporting roles, the actor, writer and standup had broken out big time with The Big Sick, a crowd-pleasing feature film based on his courtship with Emily V. Gordon, now his wife. Besides starring in the comedy, Nanjiani wrote the original screenplay with Gordon, and the pair earned an Oscar nomination. Per Hollywood protocol, he started taking lunches and fielding offers.
Among them? A starring role in a movie written by Robert Siegel (The Wrestler, The Founder) that centered on Somen "Steve" Banerjee, an Indian immigrant and the controversial founder of Chippendales. "I thought the script was really good, but I said no," Nanjiani recalls.
Years passed. Nanjiani finished up his tenure on HBO's Silicon Valley and starred in flicks like Stuber and The Lovebirds. Siegel's movie changed to a limited series with a more fleshed-out portrait. The two stayed in contact. And the polite pass turned into a positive green light. "I loved the new screenplay and it just sounded so cool," he says. "I knew I had to do it."
Looking back, the Pakistani-American star rattles off a list of reasons why he initially balked. He preferred to keep his options open; his head was spinning from all the buzz; he was reluctant to play a fellow South Asian–born man who could be so villainous. All led to the same bottom line: he didn't want to veer so sharply from his comedy comfort zone.
"I was intimidated and scared," he says. "The character had such a dark side to him, and he only got darker as the story progressed."
A dark side? Chippendales? The cheesy male burlesque troupe?! It's true. Just one cursory Google search reveals a salacious saga of jealousy, betrayal, rage, lust, drugs and, yup, murder set against the greed-is-good backdrop of Los Angeles in the 1980s. "It's such a wild story," Nanjiani says. "The details are unbelievable."
They're all laid bare in Welcome to Chippendales, an eight-episode Hulu limited series premiering November 22. Nanjiani's Banerjee starts off as a bespectacled, mild-mannered man toiling in a thankless job at a gas-station convenience store. Using Walt Disney and Hugh Hefner as role models, he takes his savings and buys a fledgling downtown club that soon evolves into Chippendales. Thanks to its nightly revue of ultra-buff and super-shiny studs, the place becomes a haven for shrieking females.
Along the way, Banerjee meets a choreographer–director (Murray Bartlett) who ups the showmanship and an accountant (Annaleigh Ashford) who organizes the business and becomes his wife. An aspiring costumer (Juliette Lewis) creates the breakaway pants. The money rolls in, and the shows pop up all over the world.
Then the party stops.
"On the surface, there's a lot of fun and outrageousness and entertainment," says Siegel, the series' writer, executive producer and coshowrunner. "But I like that underneath there's a lot of substance."
Fear not — viewers will get more than their fair share of glamorous set pieces and razzle-dazzle dance numbers set to era-appropriate pop music. Yet this is ultimately a cautionary tale about the consequences of striving at all costs for the American Dream.
"Steve thought that he could come over here and have upward mobility and wealth and success if he worked hard enough," Siegel says. "Then he learned that this country comes with its own class structure built on color, no matter how much you try to assimilate. It's not as simple as saying the American Dream is a lie, but what happened to him is fascinating."
When it comes to the cultural force that is Chippendales, it's okay if the first and only image that springs to mind is the classic 1990 Saturday Night Live "Audition" sketch featuring Patrick Swayze and Chris Farley. In fact, though the murder scandal has been the subject of everything from a 2000 TV movie starring Naveen Andrews to a 2021 Dateline episode, nearly everyone interviewed for this article was fuzzy on the details going in.
"I grew up in L.A. — like, how did I miss this?" says executive producer and coshowrunner Jenni Konner (Girls). "I remember being completely shocked that the story even existed."
Siegel was also unfamiliar with the strange chain of events when he was originally tapped to write a feature-film screenplay for Bollywood icon Aamir Khan. "I'm drawn to sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll–type stuff like Goodfellas and Boogie Nights, so it checked a lot of boxes for me," he says. But that version of the project never came to fruition. Then Nanjiani passed ("He was a really hot new star, and I thought I could get it going again with him"), and the script loitered in a drawer. "It was a hard project to move on from because I loved it."
It took on a second life after Siegel created and wrote the 2021 Hulu hit Pam & Tommy (the limited series collected ten Emmy nominations, ultimately winning one award, for makeup). "In a never-ending search for content, a lot of TV people poke around and see what unproduced film scripts might work as a series," he says. Suddenly, what had seemed like a "rushed" 120-page screenplay had room to breathe.
"Sometimes in a series you can feel the scenes being stretched out, but hopefully viewers will see that this is a really expansive world," he says, noting that the narrative spans from Banerjee's first L.A. club to international revues. "We had no trouble filling the extra space."
A new genre and creative landscape inspired a new title. In its infancy, the series was billed as The Immigrant. "I thought of it as a character study with a single point of view of an immigrant's journey — then the writing outgrew the title," he explains. Welcome to Chippendales was catchier, he notes, adding, "I think the network was relieved for marketing purposes that Chippendales was in the title."
Once Nanjiani had signed on as both the star and an executive producer last year, the formerly dormant project sped into action with a top-shelf cast and crew. Konner divulges that Nanjiani's presence was a "large reason" for her participation: "When I saw he was involved, I thought, 'Oh, this is a show. I knew from The Big Sick what he was capable of as a dramatic actor.'"
The same goes for the Tony-winning Ashford (Impeachment: American Crime Story), who had followed the case — thanks to her true crime–obsessed mom — and was eager to jump in as the savvy yet enigmatic Irene Banerjee. "I always knew the saga would make for an incredible series," she says, "so when this team of magic-makers asked me to join the party, I couldn't have been more thrilled and honored."
Due to the dearth of information on Irene, she says, "I got to play her from scratch. I loved that she had a brilliant business mind and saw the good in this man. But she couldn't stay with him once he turned bad."
For Bartlett, the opportunity to portray strong-willed and charismatic collaborator-turned-antagonist Nick De Noia proved irresistible. Coming off his standout (and eventually Emmy-winning) turn as a put-upon resort manager in The White Lotus, he says, "I had choices for the first time in my life as an actor. But I was so excited to play Nick because he was this extraordinary character and a visionary in a lot of ways. There was going to be room to explore that."
As a bonus, the Aussie got to wear a shaggy wig, use an American accent and shave his mustache.
Just to add to the project's pixie-dust glitter, the producers snared Emmy-nominated Matt Shakman (WandaVision, Game of Thrones) late in the game to helm the first two episodes. (Nisha Ganatra, Gwyneth Horder-Payton and Richard Shepard also directed.) "I gravitate to things I haven't done before," Shakman says. "I didn't know the story, but I was very interested in blending something so theatrical and campy and funny with the human element."
Nanjiani still marvels at the assembled talent. "I come from a comedy background that can be competitive with the one-upping," he says. "But to go in with these directors — and actors like Murray, Juliette and Annaleigh — my job became so much easier because they carried me through."
To read the rest of the story, pick up a copy of emmy magazine HERE.
To read more about Hulu's slate of limited series, click HERE.
This article originally appeared in its entirety in emmy magazine, Issue No. 12, under the title, "Date with Destiny."