Approaching The Big Sick—a dramatic comedy based on the life experiences of writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon—Oscar winner Holly Hunter was happy to return to the comedy realm, and found herself compelled by an “openness” about the entire endeavor.
In the film, Hunter plays Gordon’s real-life mother, who is confronted by the sudden, life-threatening illness of her daughter (Zoe Kazan), and subsequently, by her daughter’s very persistent ex-boyfriend (Nanjiani), who insists on sticking around the hospital until she’s well.
Gordon and Nanjiani had written Gordon’s mother and father loosely, liberating Hunter and Ray Romano from the need to do an impression, and allowing them to operate from the imagination. In Hunter’s mind, The Big Sick is a perfect movie for our times, an invitation to discuss race and the continuing necessity of to.
In her words, the comedy “carries a big stick, but doesn’t know it.”
What was your initial impression, reading the script for The Big Sick? What aspects of this project were attractive?
It was an interesting script because the script felt like it was open to lots of possibilities. There was an openness to the script, and I also think there was an openness to how the offer was structured. Barry Mendel, one of the producers who is a frequent collaborator with Judd Apatow, they presented it as an opportunity for a really intense collaboration, and they meant it.
It was a truly collaborative process. They walked the walk. Whatever it was that they promised, they came through on, and I think that also is a testament to the confidence of both Kumail and Emily Gordon, as writers, that they allowed us to come in and really work through scenes, and rehearse. The rehearsal period was a long one for this, and a really detailed one. That luxury is something that I don’t often feel, and sometimes, directors don’t have the comfort level to have that kind of rehearsal process. Some directors don’t know what to do with rehearsal, and [Michael] Showalter really did.
Can you explain your basic approach to portraying Emily’s real-life mother?
I thought it was fun to start with the character, really, as a fictional one. I think in the movie, the two parents of Emily were the most fictionally structured of any other characters in the story, so I think [Ray] Romano and I looked at that with a great amount of liberation. It’s actually something that I feel more familiar with, creating somebody who was made up, so I was right at home with that idea, and I think that Ray and I both made the choice to not contact Emily’s real parents, but rather, use the movie as a jumping-off, fictional point.
What did you do to arrive at the rapport with Nanjiani and Romano that we see on screen? Obviously, your character comes into the story not really knowing Kumail—and with no desire to do so.
[laughs] Right, right. Well, there were so many things that I loved about that, and I think the thing that I loved about that the most, that piece of information, was that my daughter…I say, “She tells us everything,” and I thought that spoke volumes about a relationship that parents have, that these parents had with their daughter, which was that daughter obviously likes her parents, as an adult. So, these parents raised this child through childhood, through adolescence, into adulthood, and they still had a flourishing, thriving relationship. That was a beautiful thing, and I wanted to have that grow throughout the course of the movie, so that we found out more about these two women’s adult relationship with each other, a mother and daughter who liked each other, as well as loved each other.
But I think in answer to your question, Kumail is a really easy guy to love, and there’s something childlike about Kumail that totally translates to the screen. He’s guilish, and he’s also really quick-witted. Audiences love Kumail, and so did I. It was an easy thing.
What was it like sharing scenes with two professional comedians? I imagine that brings a somewhat unique dynamic to the set.
It does and it doesn’t. I think everybody really approached this movie as actors, really. It wasn’t like sketch comedy, or an excuse for them to try out new stand-up material. It really wasn’t, because the possible fatality of one of your lead characters was always in the air. A lot of it takes place in a hospital—what was at stake was always felt in each scene. We were not making light of the fact that that girl was in a coma. Because the stakes were so high, I think all of the characters had to be really invested, and I think that both Kumail and Ray took this on as actors who happened to be exceedingly, naturally funny people. In that way, it didn’t feel as intimidating as I thought that it might.
Did their backgrounds foster moments of improvisation or ad libbing on set, or was the film fairly tightly scripted?
I think that was one of the benefits of having such a really intensive rehearsal process, that it allowed us to really lean heavily on the script. Because we all really believed in the script. By the time that we were shooting, we had spent hours rehearsing, so I think it was an interesting combination of some improv—like, some of the stuff in the club with the heckler was improvised—and some of it was scripted. Ray and Kumail sometimes would do improvisatory beats, but we could really kick back and lean heavily on the script.
You’re able to convey so much in this film with a glance. Can you discuss the importance you attribute to physicality and mining moments on screen?
I think it’s really fun for any character to have a physical life. It was fun to discover that moment where I was leaving the room after Emily had woken up, and I just kind of caressed Kumail’s face as I went by him. That also spoke to a really incredible feeling for Kumail that I had, but I also think that it’s a great opportunity for that particular character to express joy, to experience her own joy. We’ve felt that jeopardy, we’ve felt the imperiled nature of her daughter, so then to have this busted-out, wide-open joy at the end was such a relief. But yeah, to express something physically in a character is always something I’m looking for.
More than her father, Emily’s mother becomes the direct antagonist to Kumail. What was it like to play those early, intense scenes in which you clash?
It was fun, and that was a balancing act, that maternal protection of her daughter—that it be really comedic, but that was a specific tone that I think I was looking for. That was a balancing act that Michael Showalter and I were exploring while we were shooting, to not be too hard-hitting, but at the same time, it was a firm no. [laughs]
What was it like to play the scene in the comedy club, where your character goes after a racist heckler mocking Kumail? It’s a real turning point in their relationship.
I think that it was a fun gestalt of the entire waiting period that the movie encompasses of being in waiting rooms, being in hospital rooms, living the pent-up frustration and helplessness, and feeling out of control. I think people often experience that in hospitals, when it’s beyond their control, the health and well-being or the possible life or death of someone that they love. That comedy club scene was a manifestation and a release of a lot of that tension, but that came late in the development of the script.
They wanted a big comedy club set piece scene at that point in the movie—they felt like the movie needed that kind of thing, where you marry Kumail’s stand-up comedy world with his girlfriend’s parents’ world—a lot of worlds collided in that scene, and I thought, Well, maybe I can heckle the heckler. Then, they wrote that scene and we improvised that scene, and it was a mishmash of a bunch of different elements coming together.
You’ve worked on several classic comedies—Raising Arizona and Broadcast News come to mind. Was it nice to return to that realm?
It was really fun to enter comedy again, although I did a television series called Saving Grace for four years. There was a lot of comedy in Saving Grace, so I didn’t feel that I’d experienced a drought of comedy because of that, but in feature films, it had been a while since I’d done one. It was just fun to express that part of myself.
Have you had an awareness or been a fan of Judd Apatow prior to taking on this project?
I’ve got to tell you, This Is 40 is an incredible piece of directorial panache and authenticity, coupled with real comedy that’s organic, comedy that comes out of character and real circumstances. It’s not made; in that movie, the comedy is born naturally. I was really kind of stunned by that movie. I just thought it was so real, and then of course I found out later that it was his actual family. I didn’t realize that was his wife, and those were his kids. They were used beyond brilliantly. It felt like nothing I’d seen before. Judd Apatow is iconic in the world of comedy.
What do you think it means to have a film like this come out in today’s world, with its warm, personal and thoughtful depiction of an interracial couple?
I’m grateful that the movie is coming out now because it’s like this movie carries a big stick, but it doesn’t really know it. It’s a movie that’s not leading with that, it’s leading with the love between these two people that’s an effortless kind of connection between two people. In the midst of that, it’s kind of a conversation about race, and about tolerance. I think that the movie, in a beautiful, gentle way, asks people to broaden their idea about what it means to be human, and to embrace what you don’t know—the experiences of others that you don’t know, that actually are more like yours than you might think.
People are prejudiced and afraid of “other,” an experience that is not their own, and they can have a real wall put up against that other person, and that other experience. I think this movie is asking people to remain alive and open to what you don’t know. Instead of being ruled by your fear, being ruled by more of an openness.