Kumail Nanjiani and Annaleigh Ashford Find Levity in the Darkness of ‘Welcome to Chippendales’

This story about “Welcome to Chippendales” stars Kumail Nanjiani and Annaleigh Ashford first appeared in the Down to the Wire: Drama and Limited Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. All actor interviews in that issue were conducted before the SAG-AFTRA strike began.

All four main cast members of a limited series about the rise and fall of a male strip club mogul were nominated for Emmys, making “Welcome to Chippendales” one of the big shocks of this year’s noms. Kumail Nanjiani and Annaleigh Ashford tell us how they did it.

Kumail Nanjiani

"Welcome to Chippendales" (Hulu)
Kumail Nanjiani in “Welcome to Chippendales” (Hulu)

Kumail Nanjiani’s lead actor Emmy nomination for Hulu’s “Welcome to Chippendales” took him completely by surprise, much as his first nomination did in 2019 when he was recognized for an episode of Jordan Peele’s “The Twilight Zone” reboot. “That was the first time I played a character who was dark in any kind of way,” Nanjiani said. “And it was so thrilling that I was like, ‘Oh, I want to play more of these characters that have darkness in them and weird, different layers.’ Doing ‘Twilight Zone’ directly led to me wanting to do something like ‘Welcome to Chippendales,’ which was the second time that I felt that same sort of charge, of going really dark. In my head, those two jobs have always been connected, so it’s cool to get nominated for them.”

In the Hulu limited series based on real events, Nanjiani stars as Somen “Steve” Banerjee, the Indian immigrant who founded the first male strip club, pled guilty to having his ex-business partner Nick De Noia (Murray Bartlett) murdered and committed suicide in prison while awaiting sentencing. Nanjiani, who is best known for his more comedic work (including HBO’s “Silicon Valley” and the 2017 film “The Big Sick,” for which he was nominated for a best original screenplay Oscar) was drawn to the role because it explored a more sinister side of the American Dream “as it’s sold to Americans, but also as it’s sold to people outside of America. It was going to be a challenging role, a lot messier and deeper and more complicated than any of the other work I’ve gotten a chance to do. It took me a lot of long walks and conversations with [my wife] Emily [V. Gordon] to figure him out.”

A key piece of the Banerjee puzzle was physical: Nanjiani plays the man as ramrod stiff, as if his every last muscle were in a perpetual state of clenching. It’s particularly jarring when he shares scenes with costars Bartlett, Annaleigh Ashford and Juliette Lewis, who play confident characters who move through the world easily. (All three actors were nominated, as was costume designer Peggy Schnitzer.)

“They’re so fluid and so graceful. I wanted him to be the opposite of that — someone who doesn’t fit in with these people at all,” Nanjiani said. “And I always felt he had a lot of emotions inside him — a lot of sadness and fear and anger — and that every molecule in his body is working to keep that contained in his belly.”

Annaleigh Ashford and Kumail Nanjiani in “Welcome to Chippendales” (Elizabeth Morris/Hulu)
Annaleigh Ashford and Kumail Nanjiani in “Welcome to Chippendales” (Elizabeth Morris/Hulu)

Playing someone so hermetically bottled up had its drawbacks. Nanjiani got backaches and had trouble shedding the Banerjee gloom at the end of the shooting day. But the thrills of the job far outweighed the challenges. “Murray and Annaleigh are two of the best actors I’ve ever worked with,” he said. “So for me, it was just about seeing how they do it and learning from them.”

The breakup scene between Steve and his wife Irene (played by Ashford), was one creative high point. In another, Bartlett’s character gets Steve to sign away the company’s touring rights on a napkin. “I really liked that scene because everybody’s saying the opposite of what they feel,” Nanjiani said. “We’re both smiling, but underneath it, we really, really hate each other.”

Nanjiani recently wrapped the “Ghostbusters” sequel and will soon start production on the next “Insidious” movie. He’s also eyeing some other projects that continue his exploration of the heavier aspects of human life, which feels right to him at the moment. “Comedy still comes a little bit easier to me—not that it’s easy, I just feel a lot more comfortable,” he said. “It’s partly because I can feel when something’s funny. With drama, they yell ‘Cut!’ and people aren’t, like, crying, so you have to develop that internal gauge for yourself. Right now, I find drama a little bit more gratifying. I still have so much more to explore and learn.”

Annaleigh Ashford

Annaleigh Ashford in “Welcome to Chippendales” (Hulu)

Except the power outage that drove “You Can’t Take It With You” Tony winner and “Welcome to Chippendales” star Annaleigh Ashford to a NYC sidewalk to conduct her interview with TheWrap, she is having a year that would prompt anyone to say — as she does nightly in her current role as the lascivious Mrs. Lovett opposite Josh Groban in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” on Broadway — “God, that’s good!”

Ashford followed a Tony nomination for that role with an Emmy nomination for her performance as shrewd bookkeeper and audience surrogate Irene Banerjee in Hulu’s miniseries about the rise and grisly fall of Chippendales founder Steve Banerjee (Nanjiani). And, in an achievement few predictors saw coming, every principal cast member was nominated.

“It felt like such a communal event while we were making it,” said a beatific Ashford, whose big news dropped on a Wednesday, which for Broadway folk typically means matinee and evening performances. “I was finishing my warm-up for my two-show day, doing scales and stretching and putting my backpack on to walk out the door when I got the call. I immediately wanted to know who else from the show had been nominated, and when I heard the news that all four of us had been recognized, and our costume designer Peggy Schnitzer, I was just totally thrilled. It’s such a sweet, lovely surprise.”

Annaleigh Ashford in “Welcome to Chippendales” (Elizabeth Morris/Hulu)
Annaleigh Ashford in “Welcome to Chippendales” (Elizabeth Morris/Hulu)

Ashford has become something of a go-to for ripped-from-the-headlines period
miniseries: She also recently played sexual-harassment whistleblower Paula Jones in “American Crime Story: Impeachment” and had a small role in the previous “Crime” installment about Gianni Versace. She relishes all those period clothes, with a fondness for the ’70s boots she wears early in “Chippendales.”

Even though she’s “very bad at math,” Ashford embraced her role as an accountant (her second such part in recent years, after Betty in “Masters of Sex”) and found that the entire ensemble knew how to find just the right tone in the material.

“For all four of us, I feel like there was such a delicate nod to the levity of the piece,” she said. “It’s a drama, but we all have a background that is broader than that. And life is more interesting with levity because that’s what happens in life. You know how Chekhov would remind us at the beginning of his plays that they were comedies? From the first moment I opened up the script, I felt like [creator Robert Siegel] was creating a world where the tone was open to that. And I think we all really enjoyed that.”

Ashford has reunited with many of her “Chippendales” cast and crew that have come to see her on Broadway, including Andrew Rannells, director Nisha Ganatra and costar Bartlett. (Ashford’s eyes flutter in delight at the mention of his name.) She has no plans to stop mixing in theater with her busy TV career.

“It’s been an honor to have these beautiful theater pieces come to me, especially the Sondheim projects,” she said. “They’re such a part of our creative fabric, our creative spirit, and to get to work on them is one of the dreams of a lifetime.”

Read more from the Down to the Wire: Drama and Limited Series issue here.

Illustration by Becki Gill for TheWrap

The post Kumail Nanjiani and Annaleigh Ashford Find Levity in the Darkness of ‘Welcome to Chippendales’ appeared first on TheWrap.